Will The Real Will Shakespeare Please Stand Up?

A detail of the newly discovered portrait of William Shakespeare, presented by the Shakespeare Birthplace trust, is seen in central London, Monday March 9, 2009. The portrait, believed to be almost the only authentic image of the writer made from life, has belonged to one family for centuries but was not recognized as a portrait of Shakespeare until recently. There are very few likenesses of Shakespeare, who died in 1616.

Photo: An alleged portrait of William Shakespeare (AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

October 28, 2011

One of life’s great joys is impressing other people with your knowledge of literary feuds.

So as you head off this weekend to watch the new Shakespeare film Anonymous — or maybe not if you read A.O. Scott’s review in today’s New York Times, which describes the film “a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination” — FRONTLINE is here to give you the dirt on who this Edward de Vere guy is, and why he’s at the center of a scholarly debate about the true identity of one of history’s greatest writers, courtesy of our 1989 film The Shakespeare Mystery.

There are three major theories about Shakespeare’s identity: Was he an actor from Stratford; Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford; or playwright Christopher Marlowe? Anonymous says it was de Vere, arguing that because being a playwright was frowned upon in noble circles (and because his plays were politically scandalous), de Vere was forced to write under a nom de plume.

“Oxfordians,” as those in the de Vere camp are known, maintain that his life as a poet, highly educated courtier, adventurer and England’s highest-ranking earl really does fit with the extraordinary range of knowledge reflected in the work of Shakespeare.

But not everyone agrees.

To explore both sides of the debate, read “The Case for Oxford” and “The Case for Shakespeare,” both published in The Atlantic.

But if you really want to impress your friends, dig into this scholarly throwdown: Start with Charlton Ogburn’s 1974 Harvard Magazine piece that pushes the de Vere theory; two Harvard professors responded in opposition, after which Ogburn issued a letter, in part reading:

Let us have a trial between Stratford and Oxford, each side to have a chance to present a full brief for its case, one not confined to the compass of a magazine article, and full opportunity for rebuttal.

The good news (or the bad news for Oxfordians) is that there actually were several mock trials. One, enacted by the Boston Bar Association in 1993, found for Stratford’s Shakespeare 6 to 4. Another in 1987 at American University, presided over by current and former Supreme Court justices William Brennan, Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, was unanimously decided in favor of Stratford.

But the American courts didn’t convince the die-hard de Verians. Here’s an Oxford Society “timeline of doubt” that predictably favors the Earl as author.

So as you sit in a dark theater, remember this: It’s OK to shout out things you learned reading this blog post. That’s what we’re here for, and the people around you will appreciate it.

Bonus: If you’re in the “Hey, Christopher Marlowe was really Shakespeare!” camp, don’t worry: We have a website on that, too, complete with more info on the authorship debate, insights into what the debate itself means, and a quiz to test your Shakespeare knowledge.

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