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question of the day: Does it matter if Shakespeare wasn’t the author of the Shakespearean plays?

Shakespeare bobblehead

Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous — which The Daily Beast’s Chris Lee calls “$33 million bodice-ripper” — is reopening a controversy that has been ongoing for centuries: What if the author of plays including Hamlet and Macbeth wasn’t the man named William Shakespeare? From The New York Times:

The case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, dates from 1920, when J. Thomas Looney, an English writer who loathed democracy and modernity, argued that only a worldly nobleman could have created such works of genius; Shakespeare, a glover’s son and money-lender, could never have done so. Looney also showed that episodes in de Vere’s life closely matched events in the plays. His theory has since attracted impressive supporters, including Sigmund Freud, the Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia and his former colleague John Paul Stevens, and now Mr. Emmerich.

But promoters of de Vere’s cause have a lot of evidence to explain away, including testimony of contemporary writers, court records and much else that confirms that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. Meanwhile, not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects de Vere to any of the plays or poems. As for the argument that the plays rehearse the story of de Vere’s life: since the 1850s, when Shakespeare’s authorship was first questioned, the lives of 70 or so other candidates have also confidently been identified in them. Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing de Vere’s supporters is that he died in 1604, before 10 or so of Shakespeare’s plays were written.

The Times goes on the characterize Anonymous as recasting the controversy into “a conspiracy to suppress the truth” way back in the 16th-century day. But the relative merits of the film aside (it is not being warmly received by critics on either side of the Atlantic so far; I’ll see it tomorrow):

Does it matter if Shakespeare wasn’t the author of the Shakespearean plays? Not to be too obvious, but aren’t the plays the thing? Does it matter materially to how we embrace the plays today whether they were written by a commoner or a nobleman? Aren’t they still amazing, entertaining, frustrating, and challenging regardless of who wrote them?

(Thanks to bronxbee for the NY Times link.If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)


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