Not Unanimous on Anonymous

Posted By on November 12, 2011

A guest post by  Richard Waugaman, M.D.

The Man of Many Voices: Ferdinand Pessoa wrote under more than 70 "heteronyms."

Roland Emmerich’s new film, Anonymous, is inspired by the same theory that gripped Freud during the last dozen years of his life—that “William Shakespeare” was the pseudonym and front man of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550-1604). The film has generated much debate, some of it acrimonious.

Why should this be?

A film is just a film, after all. But this one challenges widely accepted “truths.” And those ostensible truths are intertwined with an idealizing transference to the bard. Freud observed that we know so little about the traditional author that we can imagine he was every bit as great as his works are.

The acting in the film has won praise from many critics. Vanessa Redgrave portrays the older Queen Elizabeth most convincingly, while her daughter Joely Richardson is the younger Elizabeth. Rhys Ifans departs from his past film roles to become the older Edward de Vere. He brings to life de Vere’s passion for writing, his awareness that “All art is political,” his reckless impulsivity, and resigned awareness that he would not receive credit for his politically polemical works.

Anonymous chooses one among many possible narratives as to the how and why of de Vere’s choice of Shakespeare of Stratford to serve as his front man.  It depicts the theory that the offspring of de Vere’s affair with Queen Elizabeth was the Earl of Southampton.

This was the earl to whom Shakespeare’s two long poems of 1593 and 1594 were dedicated. Further, many of us believe that Sonnets 1-126, the so-called “Fair Youth” sonnets, address Southampton. But this is where any consensus disintegrates. Some of us believe the bisexual de Vere had an affair with Southampton.

Others—possibly because of their discomfort with de Vere having been bisexual—instead claim that Southampton was de Vere’s son by Queen Elizabeth. They can then explain the unusual warmth of these sonnets as reflecting paternal love.

Incest is another  theme in the film. The allusions to incest in the plays might reflect de Vere’s quasi-incestuous relationship with his first wife—they grew up as virtual step-siblings.


I’m not surprised. Don’t you have to be a snob and a conspiracy theorist to doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?

Actually, Elizabethan authorship was a bit more complicated than it is today. Most plays were published without the author’s name. Literary anonymity and pseudonymity were common before the 20th century.

We often study paradigm changes retrospectively. But we are in the midst of such a paradigm change now when it comes to Shakespeare’s identity.

A recent poll found that only 70% of people still accept the traditional Shakespeare as author of the canon. We now have a chance to study the individual and group psychology of asking people to reconsider their assumptions about the identity of the greatest author in English literature.

Ben Jonson plays an intriguing if invented role in the film. He was ostensibly de Vere’s first choice to serve as his front man, but he declined. His admiration for de Vere’s literary genius stirs deep envy in him. Here, the screenwriter John Orloff was making his homage to Amadeus, which was a major inspiration for him.

In fact, the soundtrack includes a brief snippet of Mozart’s Requiem during de Vere’s wedding to Anne Cecil. This wedding follows on the heels of the adolescent de Vere murdering a servant who was spying on him, in the home of his guardian William Cecil (yes, Anne’s father).

De Vere did kill a servant with his fencing rapier when he was 17 and, as in the film, Cecil assisted in de Vere’s legal defense. However, I doubt that his marriage to Cecil’s daughter four years later was any sort of quid pro quo. This is one of many moments in the film where poetic license trumps a strict (if less dramatic) hewing to the documented historical record.

When his wife Anne pleads with de Vere to stop writing plays, he replies, “The voices! I can’t stop them. They come to me. I would go mad if I didn’t write down what the voices say.” This is an intriguing surmise about de Vere’s creative process, as though his Muse speaks to him aloud.

In fact, I suspect that some form of unusual awareness and tolerance of multiple self states plays a crucial role for some literary geniuses such as de Vere. Part of Shakespeare’s magic is that he evokes specific self states in us. Great authors tap into several of their own respective self states when they write. Writing under pseudonyms may loosen the grip of the author’s central self state, and activate a wider range of ego states.

Psychoanalysts are in a unique position to elucidate the psychology of literary anonymity and pseudonymity. The evidence suggests that keeping one’s authorship secret helps promote what Keats called Shakespeare’s “negative capability”—keeping his own identity in the background as he created hundreds of utterly convincing characters.

For another example, the Portugese poet Fernando Pessoa wrote to a friend that the 70 “heteronyms” who did his writing were real characters to him. In a sense, Edward de Vere’s most magical character of all was his pseudonym and front man, “William Shakespeare.” With some likely assistance from the man from Stratford, this character lives on for most people more vividly than does de Vere himself.

Why did de Vere have to conceal his authorship?

For many reasons. Nobility did not write for the common theater. They rarely published poems under their own name during their lifetime. And the plays of Shakespeare spoof many powerful court figures, and comment on various court intrigues.

The film has de Vere tell Ben Jonson, “All art is political.” Attributing the plays’ authorship to a commoner helped conceal some of their provocative critiques. Even so, the Elizabethan theater audience as depicted in the film recognized the character Richard III as a spoof of de Vere’s hunch-backed brother-in-law, Robert Cecil.

And they also recognized Polonius in Hamlet as a disguised portrayal of de Vere’s father-in-law. Some Shakespeare scholars still admit the latter is correct, though others have backed off from this identification, since it strengthens the case for de Vere’s authorship.

Anonymous is introduced by Derek Jacobi, who also provides the epilogue. This was an inspired choice, since Jacobi is a highly respected Shakespearean actor who happens to believe de Vere wrote the canon. He is thus an apt intermediary to introduce the film’s audience to its controversial and theatrical subject. Other great Shakespearean actors who have rejected the traditional author include Mark Rylance, Michael York, and Sir John Gielgud.

In 2007, Jacobi and Rylance announced their support for the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt,” that acknowledges room for honest disagreement about Shakespeare’s identity. Stanley Wells, Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, reacted venomously.

Wells  said “the time for tolerance is over.” He cited the fact that one 19th century authorship skeptic died in a mental hospital, then added, “So beware, Mark [Rylance] and Sir Derek [Jacobi]!”

Rylance replied, “I think [Wells] is blinded by an attachment to the Stratford actor… more worrying to me is his tendency to simply ignore evidence if it contradicts his argument… When we meet as friends, I wouldn’t dare bring this subject up for fear of his anger… We shouldn’t let ourselves be bullied out of a natural curiousity” about the authorship question.

You have no doubt read some of the vitriolic attacks on Anonymous by Columbia University’s James Shapiro and others.

This fierce backlash intrigues me. The academic Shakespeare establishment usually treats the authorship question as taboo. In other words, many Shakespeare organizations and publications will not even discuss it.

One English professor told me it would be “academic suicide”  to research de Vere’s possible authorship. One Shakespearean publication invited me to write a book review, then changed their mind once they read it, explaining that they had “blundered,” and would never publish anything by an Oxfordian.

So it’s my hunch that if these bright scholars are going to enforce their taboo, they have to convince themselves that it is justified—that all challenges to the traditional author are, as they claim, based on ignorance or mental aberrations, ranging from snobbism all the way to psychosis. This makes it unlikely they can evaluate contradictory evidence objectively.

Both Emmerich and Orloff admit their film takes poetic license in order to provoke and entertain. But the Stratfordians are not amused. Their over-reaction to the film is Inquisitional in its tone. We instinctively sympathize with the underdog, all things being equal. The Shakespeare establishment may have made things worse for itself by forgetting this is just a film.

Although Anonymous is bringing fresh attention to the issue, the authorship debate is longstanding. In my view, Oxfordians try repeatedly to introduce new evidence into the discussion. Traditional Shakespeareans don’t even admit their theory is a hypothesis—they claim absolute certainty. So, instead of arguing ad rem, about the issue itself, they keep reverting to arguing ad hominem, with personal attacks on us authorship “heretics.”

We’re accused of being like Holocaust deniers; being anti-semitic; being like the birthers who deny that Obama is a U.S. citizen; being like people who claim we never landed on the moon, or who claim the U.S. organized the 9/11 attacks. Seriously. Do you detect a whiff of desperation in such despicable accusations?

If we want a strictly accurate film about de Vere, Emmerich has failed us. But if the goal is to introduce the general public to the Shakespeare authorship theory that so seized Freud’s imagination, then Emmerich has succeeded admirably. After all, even Shakespeare’s own history plays sometimes play loose with the historical facts.

Many of the reviews of Anonymous have panned the film because its premise is so controversial. A common theme in these critical reviews is the assumption that the Shakespeare scholars must be correct, and there is “no evidence whatsoever” that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare. Certain premises are repeatedly asserted to be incontrovertible refutations that de Vere could be the author.

You’ve  heard that many plays of Shakespeare are known with certainty to have been written after 1604, the year that de Vere died.

Unfortunately, the facts are a bit more complicated. As some Shakespeare scholars admit, we simply do not know with certainty when any of the plays were written. The conventional dating of the plays is based on Shakespeare of Stratford having died in 1616. So it was assumed he wrote roughly two plays per year, and these assumptions played a crucial role in the conjectured dating of when the plays were written.

What about the possibility that de Vere left some unfinished manuscripts at his death, and playwrights such as Fletcher finished them? Since the late plays do show evidence of collaboration, I find this narrative more plausible than the orthodox speculation that Shakespeare “apprenticed himself” to other playwrights when he began writing Romances such as The Tempest.

I have noticed an intriguing pattern in orthodox attacks on de Vere and his supporters. Again and again, they launch attacks about issues where they are actually themselves most vulnerable. They thus seem desperate to distract us from the weakness of their own case.

I would suggest that William Shak[e]spe[a]re of Stratford was born 14 years too late to have been the author, since many plays of “Shakespeare” rewrote earlier plays that were written when Stratford was only a boy. Because of circular reasoning, many scholars assume these anonymous earlier plays had to be written by playwrights other than Shakespeare. They accuse Oxfordians of being too wedded to their theory. We all need to be cautious to avoid cherry-picking evidence that confirms our preconceptions.

When I am told that Oxfordians are simply unable to admit they’re wrong, I point out that every Oxfordian I know started as a Stratfordian, until they looked into the matter more deeply. So it doesn’t look as though we’re the ones incapable of admitting we’re wrong. Oxfordians are told we do not know how to evaluate the historical evidence. In reality, all the recent evidence about the ubiquity of anonymity and pseudonymity in Elizabethan authorship is mostly getting ignored by the Shakespeare specialists.

Finally, please indulge me for a moment. We Oxfordians know how empty and dishonest is the accusation that we haven’t produced “a shred of evidence” the de Vere wrote the canon.

Roger Stritmatter’s discovery of the evidentiary value of de Vere’s Bible is the gift that keeps on giving. In October 2011, the most read online article in Notes & Queries  of the past 150 years was a 2009 article that showed the psalms de Vere marked with pointing hands in his copy of the musical Whole Book of Psalms are a huge but  previously unknown literary source for Shakespeare’s works.

About the author

Richard M. Waugaman, M.D., is clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and Training & Supervising Analyst Emeritus, Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. His more than 100 scholarly publications (40 of them on Shakespeare and on the psychology of pseudonymity) began with an article stemming from his senior thesis on Nietzsche and Freud, supervised by Walter Kaufmann. He is married to Elisabeth Pearson Waugaman, the author-illustrator of the children’s book, *Follow Your Dreams: The Life of Alberto Santos Dumont* and the subsequent book, "Women, Their Names, and the Stories They Tell."


7 Responses to “Not Unanimous on Anonymous”

  1. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Response from a shy reader, via Richard:

    One colleague’s reaction to my “Anonymous” review, with a good comparison–

    “I read your review of Anonymous and I must say, without any scholarship on my side, I feel quite convinced by you. It makes sense. I am reminded of how scholars, famously including Dumas Malone, felt it was totally impossible that Jefferson could have fathered children with Sally Hemmings when Dawn Brodie published her book in the mid 70’s. I was on faculty at U.Va. at the time when people spoke of Mr. Jefferson as if he might just walk around the corner at any moment. How we revere our idealized icons and how loathe we are to consider evidence they were not what we need to think they were.”

    Anyone care to discuss?

  2. Tom Goff says:

    Interesting take on negative capability. A thought–Even Keats never intended “negative capability,” the power to lose onesself in one’s subject, or in the welter of surrounding sense impressions, to be the whole secret of genius. We sense that when positing the idea, Keats was really describing his own tendencies: towards extremely active focus on the one hand, and a kind of passive receptivity on the other. He was the rolling stone that gathered all the moss in the vicinity. But, like Shakespeare, Keats had a powerful sense of what aims his poetry should accomplish in the world, and his characters express these aims. Poetry was to be a healing force, and it could also prepare one for political action (I’m going by things Andrew Motion has written). Like Shakespeare, Keats had strong political opinions; neither writer disappeared entirely amidst his characters.

    What we forget, as H.C. Goddard demonstrates, is how good Shakespeare is at “showing versus telling,” not moralizing about his unreliable characters’ actions (other equally unreliable characters may), but rather providing the evidence: does Henry the Fifth, after proclaiming all soldiers a band of brothers, really treat then like brothers in the closing acts? If Shakespeare has negative capability, it’s largely for good dramatic reason: step back from the temptation to moralize, and let the characters’ behavior guide the audience. This is the quality Lord Oxford praises in Castiglione: not that the morals are right, but that they’re so richly illustrated with examples, as if acted on a stage.

  3. wp says:

    This wonderful review is as well written as any conspiracy theory can be.

    • Roger Stritmatter says:

      Perhaps you would care to elaborate on why you characterize Professor Waugaman’s review as an instance of “conspiracy theory.” In my experience such labels are a convenient way to ignore the difficult labor of actually thinking. Perhaps you’ll explain why that’s not so.

      Best wishes,

      Dr. Conspiracy Theorist

  4. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Tom Goff writes: “What we forget, as H.C. Goddard demonstrates, is how good Shakespeare is at “showing versus telling,” not moralizing about his unreliable characters’ actions (other equally unreliable characters may), but rather providing the evidence: does Henry the Fifth, after proclaiming all soldiers a band of brothers, really treat then like brothers in the closing acts? If Shakespeare has negative capability, it’s largely for good dramatic reason: step back from the temptation to moralize, and let the characters’ behavior guide the audience. This is the quality Lord Oxford praises in Castiglione: not that the morals are right, but that they’re so richly illustrated with examples, as if acted on a stage.”

    Tom, brilliant insight. It’s just a pity that so few of our readers (but, they are coming), understand the significance of your insight or are familiar with the allusion you make to Oxford’s preface to Castiglione. Thanks for posting.

  5. Lurking Ox says:

    Yes wp, I am curious to hear your response.

    -The Conspiracy Theorist’s Apprentice

  6. Tom yes this is brilliant, right on the nail. For instance, without going the whole hog with Shapiro, (who is inconsistent in his appeal to author’s intentions anyway), on Ulysses’s speeches on Degree to the Greek leaders, and on Time to Achilles, it is clear that Ulysses is shown up by the author in a highly ambivalent, negative capability, way, as the arch Machiavellian statesman, even whilst he is also being used as vehicle for some of Shakespeare’s profoundest and most imaginatively engaged insights (and I think it is also possible to show fairly convincingly that he appeals to Herkleitos both about the nature of justice and the nature of time, in these passages). I would suggest, in FR Leavis’s language, that he here ENACTS his utter ambivalence about politics and statecraft, which is what we would expect ourselves from the man who we believe to be this author!

    In general your line coincides with what I wrote in my Doctoral Commentary, following Leavis:
    [ pp. 36-38]
    ‘Leavis’s starting point in his exposition of enactment is Shakespearean drama, in opposition to Dr Johnson:
    Johnson cannot understand that works of art enact their moral valuations. It is not
    enough that Shakespeare, on the evidence of his works, ‘thinks’ (and feels) morally; for Johnson a moral judgement that isn’t stated isn’t there. Further he demands that the whole play shall be conceived and composed as statement. The dramatist must start with a conscious and abstractly formulated moral and proceed to manipulate his puppets so as to demonstrate and enforce it. (Leavis, 1952/1962, p. 110/11)
    But, as I developed in relation to Eliot in my book (pp. 184ff.), Leavis’s whole stance on this goes back to his use of Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’, which Eliot introduces as follows:
    The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets. It is something which had happened to the mind of England between the time of Donne or Lord Herbert of Cherbury and the time of Tennyson and Browning; it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.
    We may express the difference by the following theory: The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth [my italic], possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. They are simple, artificial, difficult, or fantastic, as their predecessors were; no less nor more
    than Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, Guinicelli, or Cino. In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden. Each of these men performed certain poetic functions so magnificently well that the magnitude of the effect concealed the absence of others. The language went on and in some respects improved; the best verse of Collins, Gray, Johnson, and even Goldsmith satisfies some of our fastidious demands better than that of Donne or Marvell or King. But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The feeling, the sensibility, expressed in the Country Churchyard (to say nothing of Tennyson and Browning) is cruder than that in the Coy Mistress. (Eliot, 1921/1932)
    The key passage here points back to Shakespeare and the drama:
    The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. [my italic]
    ‘The successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth’: what Eliot is saying, implicitly putting aside his earlier denigration of ‘the ordinary man’, is that experience, in an integrated sensibility, is dramatic, has the inner diversity of the dramatic, and, therefore, that the psychological inner world is a differentiated drama.’

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