iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
John Orloff

GET UPDATES FROM John Orloff
 

The Shakespeare Authorship Question

Posted: 10/27/11 11:12 AM ET

As the screenwriter of the upcoming Elizabethan drama Anonymous, I read Columbia Professor James Shapiro's opinion piece regarding our film in the NY Times last week with great interest. In it, Mr. Shapiro seemed to take great personal offense at the premise of our film; namely, that the works attributed to the actor William Shakespeare were in fact written by another man, Edward de Vere.

Not only did the NY Times decline to allow me to fully respond, but Mr. Shapiro refuses to be on the same stage with me at Q & A's following screenings of the film -- though he is happy to take questions from audiences as long as I am not present to defend myself or my film.

As the Shakespeare Authorship Question is a rather complex issue, I won't attempt to prove my case that Shakespeare is not the man responsible for the works attributed to him in this forum.

I would, however, like to respond to two of his main issues in his opinion piece. Firstly, Mr. Shapiro was rather upset at Director Roland Emmerich's statement that "it's not good to tell kids lies in school" when they are taught about the work of William Shakespeare.

I hate to use the word "lies," but children are, indeed, being taught at best a number of half-truths about William Shakespeare. For example, we all know Shakespeare famously only attended grammar school. But there is no record whatsoever of Shakespeare ever having attended any school. It is merely assumed he did-- he must have, since he wrote the plays, right? This might not be a lie, but it is not a fact. It is a guess. But one told as though it weren't.

Another example from Mr. Shapiro himself: "Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing de Vere's supporters is that he died in 1604, before 10 or so of Shakespeare's plays were written." Sadly, he didn't list the ten "or so" plays he means. But many scholars date The Tempest to 1610. How do they date it? Do they have an original manuscript? No, because no such document has ever been found. Instead, they simply make a guess. But other scholars make other guesses. Joseph Hunter (1783-1861), who lived much closer to Shakespeare's time than Mr. Shapiro, dated The Tempest fifteen years earlier, in 1596.

The Winter's Tale is also cited as having been written in 1611, but other scholars place it as early as 1594. King Lear is dated 1606, two years after de Vere's death. But theater manager Philip Henslowe mentions in his diary a performance of a play called King Leir in 1594 (note: spelling in Elizabethan England was an inexact science -- Shakespeare's name was variously spelled Shaksper, Shaxper, Shake-speare and Shakespeare).

If indeed the dating of the plays past de Vere's life is de Vere's "biggest obstacle" as Mr. Shapiro writes, than that obstacle is made only by Mr. Shapiro's opinion, not by fact. It is however taught as fact.

Interestingly, dates can work against Shakespeare as the true author. Hamlet is most often dated to 1601. But what to do with mentions of a play called Hamlet in 1596, 1594, and 1589? Well, according to Mr. Shapiro, they are all referring to a different play.

And what is the evidence for such a conclusion? There is none. There is merely the conviction that it is inconceivable that Shakespeare wrote the greatest, most mature piece of dramatic writing in the English language at the age of 25.

And I couldn't agree more. Edward de Vere was 39 years old in 1589.

Mr. Shapiro's other great issue with our film is the fact that Shakespeare's plays are presented as having political agendas in the context of the times in which they were written. On this complaint, Mr. Shapiro seems to be out of step with his colleagues.

Most Shakespeare scholars I have read agree that Shakespeare's plays are quite political. For example, the character of Polonius (from Hamlet) is -- according to almost all scholars -- a caricature of the most powerful man in England; namely Elizabeth's chief advisor, William Cecil. As all admirers of Hamle know, Polonius is murdered in the play. Is that not a political act?

Or take Shakespeare's villainous Richard III, who is portrayed as a hunchback. Historically, however, Richard III did not have a hunchback. But Robert Cecil, William Cecil's son (and political heir), did. Isn't that creative license a political act?

And then of course, there is Richard II, a play that the Earl of Essex famously had performed in order to incite a mob to aid him in his rebellion against the Queen. Can a play be more political?

Mr. Shapiro need not defend William Shakespeare the man, but professional Shakespearean scholarship itself. Because once one begins to ask the tough questions, Shakespearean scholarship is revealed to be the very thing Shapiro claims to despise most: guesswork, assumption and conjecture.

As the physicist Max Planck once said: "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

Unlike Mr. Shapiro, I am not afraid of the next generation exploring the Shakespeare Authorship Question and coming to their own conclusion -- whatever that may be.