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Did Shakespeare Actually Write His Plays?

November 1, 2011 1:10 p.m.

For centuries, people have been debating whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays credited to him. The new film "Anonymous" (opened October 28 throughout San Diego) suggests that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, an Elizabethan courtier and patron of the arts wrote the plays. Here to debate this and to provide their reactions to the films are a pair of members from the San Diego Shakespeare Society.

Related Story: Did Shakespeare Actually Write His Plays?


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is and KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. For most people, the new movie Anonymous is nothing more than a pleasant, costumed drama with lots of English accents. For members of the San Diego shake spire society, the movie is a scandal. It's propositioned that Shakespeare did not write the plays he's famous for, is an old controversy. But this time, it's been dressed up and fictionalized in what some find a very disturbing manner. My guest, Kim Keeline has a PhD. In English literature, with a specialty in plays of Shakespeare, and his contemporaries. She is publicity director for the San Diego Shakespeare society. Welcome to the program.

KEELINE: Thank you for having us here.

CAVANAUGH: And Vanessa dinning has acted professionally in many Shakespeare plays, and is a former artistic director of the San Diego Shakespeare society. She leads workshops on Shakespeare in connection with the globe theatre in London. Thank you for coming in

DINNING: Thanks Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Our listeners, if they've seen the movie and would like to comment on whether Shakespeare's players were really shake peer's, you can give us a call. 1-888-895-5727. And let's start right out with a clip from the movie anonymous in which William Shakespeare is depicted as a rather dim witted actor. In this scene, Shakespeare is shown the play Romeo and Juliet, and actor Shakespeare fancies himself as Romeo.

(Audio Recording Played)

CAVANAUGH: That is a clip from the new movie, Analysis. And let me start with you, Kim. First of all, who does Anonymous argue actually wrote Shakespeare's plays?

KEELINE: The film is about Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford who is one of the people popular among those that don't believe William Shakespeare of strike that Ford wrote the plays

CAVANAUGH: And why does de Vere have to remain anonymous?

KEELINE: Because they argue he was an educated nobleman who could not put his name to the plays, both because it would have been unseemly, and because they argue William Cecil, who was sort of raising him at one point, disapproved. Then some political intrigue that they argue as well.

CAVANAUGH: Why does this question, Kim, of authorship keep coming up for William Shakespeare's plays?

KEELINE: Actually, it didn't come up until about 1850. There was no question during Shakespeare's time about who wrote the plays, nor any of the time after he died. But around 1850 or so, his reputation increased. We started talking about him not just as a really good playwright of his time, which was certainly seen. But started talking about him as the greatest poet, the greatest voice, the best we've ever had. And as his reputation increased, people started to want to have his life be as exciting and romantic as his plays. And since quite honestly during his time period, we don't know a lot about a lot of the people of the time. We know actually more about him than many of his contemporaries. It became unsatisfactory to some people.

CAVANAUGH: It became unsatisfactory, Vanessa, because Shakespeare had a limited formal education, never really travelled outside England. So it's hard for some people to believe that he wrote these timeless plays.

DINNING: That's exactly right. In the film at the very beginning, the actor, derrick Jacoby, who is sort of a chorus to this film, states that Shakespeare only had a grammar school education. And we know that Shakespeare went to Edward the sixth school in strike that Ford. But a grammar school education in those days was far more than a regular education we would get nowadays. Boys would be versed in all sorts of things, very familiar with the great classics, and Ovid, and Plutarch. They would have had to know and we would have had to learn and memorize. He'd have known these great stories that he did base some of the plays on. And also the idea that he didn't travel and therefore couldn't have known about Italy or something like that, obviously some of the plays take place in Italy, doesn't really factor into it that much. Setting the play in Italy was just a good excuse to set it somewhere, which wasn't England. So that you couldn't sort of definitely say that he was making a particular statement about something buzz because, no, no! It's in Italy.

CAVANAUGH: They act differently there.

DINNING: Exactly. But it's a romantic play, and it had this reputation. But also he didn't really know Italy at all, because in two gentlemen of Verona, for instance, heap has two gentlemen traveling by boat between two land-locked cities. If he had gone there, he might have known that.

CAVANAUGH: Kim, you take issue with the film's historical accuracy, or perhaps inaccuracy. What are some of the most glaring points?

KEELINE: Well, I wouldn't have a problem with it, if they didn't take themselves so seriously. I loved Shakespeare in love. I had no problem with the fact that it was inaccurate because it was just a fun fiction which I adored. But this movie, because it sets itself up to be PART of a larger argument, it just really troubles me. When, for instance, Christopher marlow, a great playwright of his time, was dead five years before this film begins but he's throughout the film, he's then killed in a different way than normal, apparently by William Shakespeare, the movie argues. For instance, Edward de Vere, our main character, his wife, Anne, was dead in 1588, most of the action in this film takes place between 1597 and 1601, and she's still alive in the film

CAVANAUGH: And the plays are all out of sequence; is that right?

DINNING: Oh, yeah

KEELINE: Yeah, admittedly, Shakespeare's plays are hard to date. We have had to do a lot of goes work. But some of them we know very well. And even those are taken out. Or for instance, the movie really focuses in on something called the Essex rebellion, where the earl of Essex worried about the fact that queen.

RIH2: Liz Beth the first did not have an hay because she was, in fact, the virgin queen and had no children. We'll talk about that problem in the film in a minute. But he was worried, and he wanted to get something set up differently. And so he led a rebellion. It was -- they used one of shake peer's plays. They hired his company to put on Richard the second as a way of trying to start support, because Richard the second is a play about a king who is rather weak, who then has to give up his crown to someone else. And they were trying to encourage her to in fact, do that. The the movie has them do Richard the third. Totally different play. Very strangely, in fact, because one of the characters, and in real life, he was in fact a hunchback, a man named Robert Cecil who was a courtier, was in fact a hunchback. They decide they'll use Richard the third as the start of the Essex rebellion because Richard the third is also a hunch back. But in the film, everyone goes did you know that Shakespeare has made Richard the third a hunchback? And I just -- I'm watching the film, and my jaw drops.

CAVANAUGH: That must hurt. That must hurt for someone as well verse indeed these plays as you are

KEELINE: But Shakespeare's Richard the third is a hunchback, because Richard the third had been portrayed as a hunchback since 1513. So the idea that anyone in his time would be shocked means he knows nothing about his own history for the past how many years?

CAVANAUGH: And Vanessa, too, you take issue with the director changing history like that. And as Kim was alluding to, the virgin queen is no longer a virgin queen without progeny in this adaptation.

DINNING: Right, yeah. I'm kind of of the same mind as Kim on this. If it makes a joke or if deals with the situation lightly or makes fun of itself, it's interesting, and it's cool to think of other things. But when it is so serious about it, for those -- I mean, I don't think I'm the most educated person in the world, but I have a pretty good idea. But for those who know nothing at all, you could go to knowing nothing at all about Shakespeare and about Edward de Vere or English history or the history of the mob, monarchy, and still find it quite ludicrous and unbelievable. And they have Elizabeth the first, you see her when she's young and when she's older too. You have her having several legitimate children, and to hide the fact that she is pregnant, they talk about her going off on these royal progresses, and hide her off in the country side. There's nedocumentation of that, for a start. But also to go on a royal progress meant taking the entire court with you. You just couldn't hide something like that. So that's just sort of funny. But not Oldsmobile do they have her having illegitimate children, but they have her first illegitimate child being Edward de Vere himself. She then has an affair with him when he's a 17-year-old boy, and they have another child who's the Earl of south Hampton. So you've got her sleeping with her son and having another child? You're just going what!

CAVANAUGH: Sounds like a strange movie. Kim, did the film get anything right?

KEELINE: Well, queen Elizabeth did exist, the Earl of Oxford did exist. The plays are wonderful, and the the movie does show that. I think Vanessa and we both thought that was something we loved.

DINNING: Definitely. The actual Shakespeare's plays themselves and the poetry too, when it is presented in the movie is done beautifully, it's well acted. And that really does -- they've got mark rilands doing -- he used to be artistic director of the globe in London. And he's doing the chorus prologue from Henry the 5th at one point and it's great! And that was one of the most exciting parts of the film because I actually felt myself connecting to it for those moments. So the power of the words and poetry really does shine, and that's great. And if that means people get excited by that and therefore want to go and read a play or see I play, that's great. I'm very happy that they come out so well

CAVANAUGH: Is there something dangerous about a movie like that that gets so many things wrong?

KEELINE: If take people it as historical fact, yes. And I think the reason we're concerned about it is because they put together educational programs, and teaching manuals, basically, to put into schools saying, hey, is Shakespeare a fraud, and here's the facts, but the facts they present are very heavily influenced by the Oxfordian theory that says that William Shakespeare of strike that Ford is in fact just a front-man and not the real playwright. And there's already two college programs out there, one in the U.S. and one in England that does authorship studies as a legitimate field, which -- well, legitimate field. I think the concern that many of us have is that people who don't know a lot about the history will at least be -- so taken in by the beauty of Tbecause it has beautiful costume, and it has beautiful scenery, and there are major names in the film, will think, hey! There's something here. I've heard that William Shakespeare wasn't him, it was some noble man, and without doing a lot more might start going into this without realizing that, in fact, there's huge evidence to the contrary.

CAVANAUGH: And of course, conspiracy theories are always so attractive to people anyway

KEELINE: Extremely attractive. And the problem is, once someone believes it, no matter how many facts you give then, they tend not to want to go against it

CAVANAUGH: What difference does it make who wrote these plays?

DINNING: Well, you could argue that it doesn't. The main thing really is that we do have the plays, and we're lucky to have the ones that we have. Upon he may have written many more, but the 1s thatty woo have are phenomenal. And so we have the poetry, we have the sonnets. So that's great. And we do -- they're beautiful, they're incredible, they're still active today, and still mean something today. I do think it's important, though, to look at this, and I don't -- everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Of course they are. But do the research. However, the fact that Shakespeare in his time was never contested, he was known to be an actor, known to be an author. In his own time by his contemporaries. Ben Johnson who appears in the play is a major character, doesn't have to testify that he ever knows Shakespeare because there was nothing to testify then. It was not under dispute. But 10050 years ago from now, when it started to come into dispute, it's sort of like Shakespeare work is being taken from him. And I think an author deserves to be given credit for their work.

CAVANAUGH: And we are out of time. We've been speaking about the film anonymous, and the author of the shakespearean plays. I want to had the everyone know that the San Diego Shakespeare society hosts the annual student Shakespeare festival and is currently gearing up if you ever their November 9th musical, Shakespeare and all that jazz. I'd like to thank my guests, Kim hiline, and Vanessa dinning. Thanks so much, both of you.

DINNING: Thanks Maureen

KEELINE: Thank you.