Hollywood Jumps Into British History: Did William Shakespeare Write His Own Plays?

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Did William Shakespeare write his own plays?

Did Abraham Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address?

There is a new movie out, Anonymous, that suggests that the Bard was nothing more than a seventeenth-century lout and that a nobleman of the era, Earl of Oxford Edward De Vere, actually wrote Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear and all of the other beloved works of the playwright from Stratford-on-Avon, whose stories told us so much about British history.  In the very confusing plot of the film, De Vere at first gave several plays to Ben Jonson, who put his name on them.  Shakespeare, presented in the movie as a moron, then stole Jonson’s work and put his name on it, and then did the same for all the rest of the thirty-seven plays.  The plays are beloved by all, especially Queen Elizabeth I, who is portrayed as a blithering idiot. De Vere’s work, with Shakespeare’s name, then stuns the world.  Oh, it is also strongly suggested that William Shakespeare murdered playwright Christopher Marlowe, one of this rivals.

Is this a literary dagger I see before me?

The idea that someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays, or that a group of writers wrote them, has floated on the ocean of conjecture for over one hundred years.  Was it Christopher Marlowe?  It was this one, that one, these three. I mean, really, one man wrote the love story Romeo & Juliet, Henry V, King Lear, Cymbeline, the series of history plays and still had time for dozens more, including the titanic Hamlet?  Hundreds of people have shot their arrows of outrageous fortune at Shakespeare and, again and again, did not make a dent in his reputation.

The irony of the film’s release is that this year we are seeing an avalanche of Shakespeare plays throughout the United States. The Bard is more popular than ever, despite the best efforts of filmmaker Roland Emmerich and his gaggle of literary assassins.

All right. Let’s examine the attacks, over one hundred years, on Shakespeare as author.

It could not have been Shakespeare because while any one man could have written one or two great plays, nobody could have written thirty-eight.

If Shakespeare was not a nobleman, how could he know so much about the doings of the royal families within their dark and dreary castles?

If the playwright had very little education, how could he be so smart?

If he was basically an actor, how could he become a good playwright?

The attacks all make sense, don’t they?

Not really. How could he write thirty-eight plays? Well, Tennessee Williams wrote 43 plays and ten screenplays. No one accused the Earl of Oxford of writing his plays. Actors can’t write? The actor Sam Shepard is also a distinguished playwright. Shakespeare had little education? Abraham Lincoln went to school for a total of nine months. How could an outsider write about palace intrigue among the royals? How did Aaron Sorkin write ‘The West Wing’ television series about a President and his staff?

The real answer, though, is simple: William Shakespeare was a genius.

Thomas Jefferson was a genius; that’s why he wrote such a magnificent Declaration of Independence. The question about Shakespeare should not be if he wrote his plays, but why he did not write a lot more of them?

I have read his plays and seen productions of them for forty-seven years now and each time I go to the theater to see a Shakespearean tragedy or comedy I get a thrill.  I got a similar thrill watching Wayne Gretzy play hockey.  Genius is genius.  Think of Mozart and Beethoven, Einstein, Picasso.  Shakespeare is in their company.  He was also a superb historian, providing his audiences, then and now, with superb glimpses of British history and its lore (he wasn’t a bad crime writer, either).

Oh, the critics say, he stole his ideas from others.  He read stories, or books, and changed the plots of characters a bit and then, having lifted the material, wrote his plays.  Many writers do that.  Leonard Bernstein practically hijacked all of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to write West Side Story.  Bernstein wasn’t great because he built his own work around that of another?  F. Scott Fitzgerald borrowed many personalities, and people he knew, to write The Great Gatsby. Does that mean Fitzgerald wasn’t a great writer?  Norman Rockwell used neighbors as his subjects in his beloved paintings.  Rockwell was not a good painter?  John F. Kennedy borrowed from British writer Edmund Burke for his historic Inaugural Address. Kennedy did not give a stirring speech?

Judge for yourself.  There is a tidal wave of Shakespeare plays, all connected to British history in one way or another, in theaters or about to take the stage all over America.  Here in the New York area, the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, in one huge calendar gulp, just staged Midsummer Night’s Dream, Timon of Athens and Othello.  In New York itself, the Public Theater, in just a month, will stage King Lear, Love’s Labor’s Lost and Titus Andronicus.  Helen Mirren starred in a film version of The Tempest, just released last year.  That version will soon be joined by not one, but two other stagings of The Tempest at the the same time in January. One is a play at the Paper Mill Playhouse, in New Jersey, and the other is a new opera at the Metropolitan Opera House.  Downtown in New York, a new version of Cymbeline is at the Barrow Street Theater and, uptown, Richard II will take the stage at an uptown theater.  Next summer, the Public Theater will produce two more Shakespeare plays outdoors in Central Park.  Next summer, across the country, there will be hundreds more plays written (absolutely written) by the Bard.  There are dozens of summer “Shakespeare Theaters” across the United States that produce his works, all good looks at sixteenth- and seventeenth-century British history and the people in it.

Shakespeare wrote all of those plays.

What filmmaker Emmerich really needed to do was let Oliver Stone (JFK) direct Anonymous.  Then we would find out that the real writer of the plays was Lee Harvey Oswald, transported back through time, quill stuck in one of his pocket and an inkwell in another and ideas for melodramas popping out of his head.

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