Anonymous Is Terrible, But We’re to Blame, says Shakespearean Scholar James Marino

Penn Press author James J. Marino jumps into the Anonymous fray by taking mainstream scholars to task for misrepresenting the Bard in their efforts to debunk the Oxfordians.

Roland Emmerich's new movie, Anonymous, promotes the claim that Shakespeare's plays were secretly written by the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Of course, there's no reason to believe that except for a deep-seated need to believe that Shakespeare was an aristocrat: some glamorous nobleman whom you might cast Rhys Ifans to play in a costume drama. And maintaining that fantasy of a secret aristocratic Shakespeare means you must ignore dozens of inconvenient and straightforward pieces of evidence, early documents in which a wide range of witnesses identify Shakespeare as the poet. Many of my fellow Shakespeareans have spent the last week debunking the film's groundless and irrational claims.

But when I followed a link to one of those debunkings, I saw a strange thing: at least one defense of the documented Shakespeare was using the so-called Cobbe portrait: a Jacobean painting of a slender man in aristocratic clothing that some scholars have recently, on fairly dubious evidence, "identified" as Shakespeare. The Cobbe portrait doesn't look much like either of the images identified as Shakespeare by people who knew him. The figure in the portrait has a fuller head of hair, a slimmer face, and much more expensive clothes than the engraved portrait in the First Folio or the downright-jowly memorial bust in Shakespeare's Stratford church. The portrait looks like, well, like someone you might cast Rhys Ifans to play in a costume drama. So I found mainstream Shakespeareans refuting a bogus "Shakespeare" with a portrait that is likely bogus itself. They weren't interested in promoting the tubby, balding provincial in the Stratford monument, the Shakespeare we can prove existed. Like the Oxfordians, they'd prefer someone more glamorous; Shakespeare can never be too rich or too thin.

Conspiracy theorists like the Oxfordians are mainstream Shakespeare scholars' evil twins, our bad conscience. They brazenly and irrationally do the very things that we are ashamed of doing ourselves, and try our best to rationalize. They openly seek to replace William Shakespeare with another figure, more congenial to their fantasy lives, and are willing to disregard the documentary evidence to do so. We have also replaced Shakespeare with a figure of our own making, even if we use his original. And while we are never bold enough to throw the documentary evidence entirely aside, we are happy to favor indirect and speculative evidence that we like over hard facts that we find less entertaining.

None of this means that the Oxfordians are right, or justifies their conspiracy theories. If mainstream scholars don’t respect the documented facts enough, that’s no reason to give up on those facts completely. (A mathematician would be slipshod to claim that pi is exactly 3.14, but that sloppiness wouldn't be an excuse for claiming that pi is really 2, or 4, or 11.) Still, defending the truth against conspiracy theorists should make us more scrupulous about that truth. When we condone myths about Shakespeare, or actually promote them, we create the fertile ground where conspiracy theories grow.

It would be easier to explain to the public that Shakespeare had a typical education for a playwright of his day if the public had heard of the rest of the talented playwrights of his day. But we’re too often happy to write about Shakespeare as if he had no peers. We’re quick to cite contemporaries who praised his works, but reluctant to quote those who slighted them. The general public knows Jonson’s line about Shakespeare as the “soul of the age,” but not Jonson’s complaint that “Shakespeare wanted art,” let alone Jonson’s plays. And it would be much harder to promote a conspiracy theory involving a nobleman crafting dramatic masterpieces alone in his study and then sending them off to the playhouse if Shakespeareans had not so often presented Shakespeare as doing much the same thing. Shakespeare’s acting partners are seldom imagined as partners in the creation of the plays. Instead, they are typically treated as grateful recipients of his genius or unappreciative meddlers with it. For many years, Shakespeareans have told stories about ignorant or cynical actors pandering to thoughtless groundlings, stories that have never been deterred by the lack of strong evidence for them. Roland Emmerich’s new movie tells that same old-fashioned story, the one about the brilliant poet and the crass performers, but in his version the hack actor is named “William Shakespeare.” It’s appalling. But we shouldn’t be surprised.

James J. Marino is Associate Professor of English at Cleveland State University and the author of Owning William Shakespeare: The King's Men and Their Intellectual Property.

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