Dons clash over Shakespeare film

A new film which suggests that the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, was the real author of some of Shakespeare’s plays has divided the opinion of Oxford dons. Anonymous, directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave, focuses on the Oxfordian theory that the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote the plays and poems usually attributed to Shakespeare.

The making of the film is a cause for concern for those who worry that audiences may begin to believe this controversial claim. Professor Katherine Duncan-Jones of Somerville College said, “I do think there is a risk that the film Anonymous may be seriously misleading…any film that is based on the premise that the works known to Elizabethan and Jacobean contemporaries as Shakespeare’s were in truth written by someone quite different is absurd.’

Generally, the theory that Shakespeare’s plays were written by the Earl of Oxford are disputed by academics, who point to the use of Warwickshire dialect in Shakespeare’s plays, and to the fact that Shakespeare’s competitors, such as Ben Jonson, never challenged his authorship.

Dr Colin Burrow, Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, said that “all of these reasons [for believing such a claim] are bad. They include social snobbery (a glover’s son? A genius?), and the conviction that a conspiracy must surround every interesting cultural phenomenon.”

However, not all Oxford English dons feel that the film will have a negative effect on the public’s perception of Shakespeare. Dr Emma Smith, fellow and tutor in English at Hertford College and author of The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare, said, “I do not feel particularly bothered by the film it if it makes people interested in the period or the qualities that make Shakespeare special…the worst thing that could happen is people don’t believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. That would be wrong, but it will not take away from the plays.”.

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Professor Duncan-Smith disagreed with Dr Smith, saying, “my view is that it will [take away from the plays]…in so far as it foregrounds the ‘authorship’ question as supposedly of more interest than the plays (and poems) themselves.”

Ben Williams, a second-year English student at Hertford, agreed with Dr Smith, saying, “I think any film which increases the popularity of Shakespeare and the period in general is a positive thing. If people do take more of an interest in Shakespeare after seeing the film, then they will quickly encounter the myriad of opinions which challenge the Oxfordian theory and won’t be able to believe that whatthey have seen in the film is factual.”

However, some tutors are unwilling even to give it this chance: Dr Burrow, looking forward to the film’s release, commented: “Wow. It sounds, like, unmissable. But somehow I think I will be giving it a miss.”