Skip to content
Culture & Religion

The Great Shakespeare Conspiracy

The Earl of Oxford rears his ugly head again in a major new Hollywood film that claims Shakespeare never wrote a single word. 

Early this year a top NASA scientist dubbed Roland Emmerick’s disaster epic 2012 “the most scientifically flawed film of all time.” No matter, the German director is taking a temporary departure from science fiction and entering the genre of conspiracy theory films.  

The storyline of Emmerick’s new film Anonymous centers on the idea that the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere wrote all of Shakespeare’s works.

Famous Shakespeare conspiracy theorists have included the likes of Sigmund Freud and Mark Twain, as well as Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens. 

All of these so-called ‘Oxfordians’ were gently, yet convincingly, debunked by James Shapiro in his book Contested Will.

Shapiro spoke to Big Think guest editor Kenji Yoshino on his inspiration for writing Contested Will, and his concern about the implications of the film Anonymous.

Kenji Yoshino:  I saw something, an interview with you where you said that one of the fourth graders challenged you on the authorship question. 

Jim Shapiro:  You know fourth graders don’t know what to ask.  He told me that his brother had told him that Shakespeare didn’t write Romeo and Juliet and that I have a particular view on that and I realized then that we were in trouble, that when the notion that Shakespeare had written Shakespeare had trickled down to the 11 year-old grouping and I didn’t really have an answer for him and I went back and wrote a book called Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare, in part to answer that kid.  I don’t know if he has read the book or will ever read it, but even in your line of work Justices Scalia and Stevens don’t believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare and it forced me to think hard about what is imagination, what does it mean to deny Shakespeare the authorship of the plays? What is psychological imperative or imperative behind that?

I’m confident that he wrote them, but I’m really interested in why smart people, Helen Keller, the Supreme Court justices, Mark Twain, just did not want to accept Shakespeare’s authorship, but that’s really separate from the love of Shakespeare. They love Shakespeare.  They just don’t want to allow a tradesman’s son from Stratford to claim authorship.  

Kenji Yoshino:  One of the things I actually really love about your book Contested Will is how gentle you are to the Delia Bacons and the Loony’s of the world–

Jim Shapiro:  These people love Shakespeare and the only reason why it really matters, people say what difference does it make, is because usually there is a politics–

Kenji Yoshino:  Of course, it’s a huge issue there, right? 

Jim Shapiro:  It’s a class issue, but especially in Britain. Here in America, for those who have been pushing it, it’s a political agenda.  In other words, the Earl of Oxford is a leading contender and Loony, who created this, was a member of a right-wing cult who believed that women are subordinate to men, that all lower classes are subordinate to a priestly class and he wanted to bring back a feudal England that he believe the Earl of Oxford represented. So people keep pushing the Earl of Oxford at me who are democratic and I just say ‘you’re really pushing a movement that is fundamentally antidemocratic.’ They’re confused because they don’t understand the intellectual roots of it, although I’ve never had the conversation with Justice Scalia. I would love to. 

Kenji Yoshino:  Great.  So at least you can bring reassurance to the 10 year-olds that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, but Shakespeare does.   

Jim Shapiro:  You know what? I don’t know if you know this. There is a movie that’s going to come out by Roland Emmerich and it’s going to be called Anonymous, and the movie is going to star Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth and Mark Rylance and Sir Derek Jacobi and a lot of really good-looking, young Irish actors and it’s going to argue that Queen Elizabeth was not a virgin queen, that she slept with her own son and he went on, the Earl of Oxford, to write the plays attributed to Shakespeare. And school teachers everywhere are going to have little boys and girls coming in and saying, “Why did you lie to us and say Elizabeth was a virgin queen and that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?”  So in a certain way it’s going to turn attention away from what we should really be doing in classrooms, which is talking about the psychology and the complexity the world of Shakespeare creates. To my mind, it’s a fruitless search for an alternative author.  


Up Next
A protest in Toronto last weekend against sexual assault stereotypes, affectionately called the “Sluts March”, reminded me that I have omitted (or perhaps avoided) talking about rape here on Dollars […]