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Anonymous My Ass

Cross-posted from Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether.

Caught this piece on NPR this morning, Renee Montagne interviewing John Orloff regarding the movie Anonymous. And aside from the very many reasons to stick a thumb in the eye of the Shakespeare Didn’t Write Shakespeare debate, one thing was savagely clear to me. It’s apparent at the end of the piece, if you read or listen to it – Orloff doesn’t stick to his guns. He’s claiming de Vere wrote the plays, but at the end of the interview, he claims authorship isn’t the issue – it is, he says, “What we’re really doing is having a question about art and politics and the process of creativity. And that’s what the movie is about. It’s not about who wrote these plays; it’s about how does art survive and exist in our society.”

I haven’t seen the film, I have to declare that right off, here. Thus I write with willful ignorance on the matter, and the limb upon which I stand creaks and bends and may well break. But it seems to me that you can’t have it both ways, here. You can’t proffer something claiming to be historical revision and then back away from it at the same time. And if you’re going to put forth the argument, at least, for God’s sake, have the courage of your convictions.

Which are apparently absent, here.

The response to the following really set me off. “Historical and literary inaccuracies abound in Anonymous — ­Christopher Marlowe, who is a character in the film, was dead by the time it takes place, and the screenplay suggests that Oxford wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was a green youth. But Orloff points out that Shakespeare himself collapsed time in his history plays.

“Real life doesn’t unfold in three acts,” he says, “but a movie has to.”

So his basic argument for the inaccuracies are that the guy who didn’t write plays did the same thing?

There are two things that really stick in my craw about this whole thing. The first is the basic premise that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays; an argument – in this context – that is entirely contingent on the conceit that only a nobleman could have developed the literary chops to create such enduring works of art. I find this, at its root, a classist argument, a reductive argument, and an inherently snobbish one, to boot (and was hardly surprised to discover that Antonin Scalia is another supporter of the argument – he practically makes my point right there; that Mark Twain would believe the same I find much harder to swallow, but, as Randy Newman once sang, “Pluto’s not a planet anymore, either.”) I find it petty. This is the same kind of argument that extends today, in variation, to declare that genre fiction isn’t “real” literature, or that, God forbid, someone who never attended college cannot possibly write a work of merit.

Wonder what Orloff would think about someone coming along fifty years after his death and claiming he couldn’t have possibly written any of his works, because he didn’t have the right parents, or go to the right school, or because he never even visited the forest of Tyto. (If that’s too oblique, I’ll explain – Orloff wrote the screen adaptation for the second Legends of the Guardians motion picture.)

That’s one.

The second is I find the whole thing incredibly crass. Because I don’t believe that Orloff believes what he’s selling. Rather, I suspect this is jumping on the conspiracy bandwagon. After all, books and films purporting secret histories have been doing pretty well of late.

Haven’t seen it, like I said. Could be a brilliant film. But that damn, “real life doesn’t unfold in three acts,” defense of deliberate misinformation in a story that’s purporting to reveal a real truth?

You can’t have it both ways. Either argue your facts within the fiction or admit that it’s fiction and be done with it. But the whiff of scandal over this smacks of a whore’s perfume.

I love Shakespeare’s works, his plays particularly. And one can argue that, even if he didn’t write them, the works remain and retain their beauty and power. The text is the text, after all.

But to a writer, it’s more than that. It’s what they leave behind.

It’s a legacy.

Hold fast.


14 Responses to Anonymous My Ass

  1. Tariq Leslie


    You’ve summed up my sentiments on this to a ‘T’.

    Thanks for doing so. Like you, I haven’t seen the film, but the trailers alone filled me with a measure of bile.

    This is a non-issue for me. I’ve read the conspiracy books, and I have read books about the man that address the man, his works, and spend pages debunking the conspiracy theorists.

    There’s no ‘there’ there, as far as I am concerned.

    I heave a heavy sigh at the thought of having masses now look at this film as having raised ‘significant’ questions, where, just as it seemed to me that we were coming out of the woods on this Shakespeare-authorship crap, we’ll be thrown right back into the thick of it.

    As an actor and director too, I’ll now have to muster my best poker-face for the inevitable post-show Q&A’s where this will become a ‘serious’ topic that someone wants to discuss with the cast.

    Never considered the classist implications – that never would have occurred to me, but nonetheless, it’s an implied nail that you hit soundly on the head.

    Tariq Leslie

  2. Jonathan Batailles


    Huge fan of your work (read all your books, most of your comics work). Might I kindly suggest that you check out the following book:

    It’s another theory in the authorship question, but one that I find most compelling. It’s well researched and if nothing else offers up enough reasonable doubt on the man Shakespeare that maybe that creaky limb of yours will bend a bit further.

    I’ve been interested in the authorship question since high school, (I’m 32 now) and back then de Vere seemed like a good candidate to me. For many of the reasons you stated he’s just not a credible choice. This isn’t about the idea that only a nobleman could’ve written those plays and sonnets. It’s more about how could an illiterate who never left England write them.

    It’s an interesting topic that I enjoy learning more about, so if you have the time and desire I would definitely recommend reading Ms. Williams’ book on Mary Sidney. At the very least it’s a great book about a very strong woman, not unlike a lot of your protagonists.


    p.s. Please go back to DC and do another Batwoman arc!

  3. Nicolas Cuenca

    Hi Greg,
    Me and my two friends Duncan and Eric are huge fans, we specifically loved Batman: No Man’s Land and your webcomic. I was trying to figure out a way to get a couple (maybe three but my friends are more important) signed photos of yourself (or anything signed by yourself) to give as Xmas gifts. Is there anyway I could get you to send me something?

    I know you’re busy but it would mean the world to me and I know they would get a kick out of it.

    I’ll be able to send you money to cover any costs. Please let me know if you have a second. Thanks!

    Your fan,
    Nicolas Cuenca

  4. Tariq Leslie

    @ Jonathan Batailles …

    Sorry, and in all politeness, there is no debate or conspiracy involving Shakespeare.

    There is absolutely NO proof that the man was illiterate, or rather that the man cited by conspiracy theorists as being the ‘illiterate Shakespeare’ is the same man we know as Shakespeare.

    There can be no doubt about his ability based on his background either. Many of the greatest English writers emerged from the middle or lower classes. Dickens worked in a shoe-polish factory as a child. Keats was attacked for belonging to the “cockney school.” Ben Jonson and many other playwrights and poets who were contemporary to Shakespeare came from lower-working-class backgrounds. You ask me, that’s why so many of them were more than capable of touching on the human condition, and were among the first to capture the essence of more common, lower and middle class people. Why their work has become so endearing and universal. These guys lived it. They weren’t sheltered or separate from the ‘average Joe’ – because in most things, except their creative capacity they were the ‘average Joe’.

    Greg Rucka gets it right about how classist and snobby the whole conspiracy about Shakespeare tends to be. The snobbery then mingles with paranoia, particularly about the supposedly nefarious intrigues of Shakespeare professors to keep the identity secret. This to me is yet another example of the anti-elitist, anti-intellectualism that seems to be creeping up more in more with every passing year.

    Though not an academic, here’s an angle that no one tends to take AGAINST the conspiracy theorists regarding Shakespeare, and that I think worth putting forward against these conspiracies: Actors and theatre practitioners are the absolute last people on earth who could keep a conspiracy/mystery of this nature a secret.

    If the best, most watertight means of keeping a secret is to tell no one, then the absolute WORST way of assuring a secret is kept, is by telling anyone involved in the acting/theatre community. There isn’t one single scrap of gossip, diary entry or essay from any contemporary that calls into question Shakespeare’s identity.

    Ben Jonson and others had plenty to say about their colleague and friend, yet not once is there any mention or hint of suspicion that the man they knew as Shakespeare was anyone other than Shakespeare.

    Tariq Leslie

  5. Tariq Leslie

    Oh, and here’s some writing on the subject that is more articulate than my own:

    Oh, and another note that bears being made regarding Shakespeare’s apparent lack of imagination – the man did make his fair share of errors too, such as shipwrecks taking place in Bohemia – something Jonson chided him for.

  6. Tariq Leslie

    Sorry that should have read ‘apparent lack of education’ NOT ‘imagination’

  7. Jonathan Batailles

    @Tariq Leslie

  8. Jonathan Batailles

    @Tariq Leslie

    I must contest, in all politeness as well, that there is a debate involving Shakespeare (the author and the man). I do not claim to be a scholar, but my intellectual curiosity on this subject has led me to read many books this subject. I would implore you to at least read the one that I recommended for Mr. Rucka. The link again is here:

    That the works are some of if not the greatest works of the english language is not at all in dispute by me. I think that this knee-jerk reaction to anyone who questions the authorship as an affront to the works themselves is a bit baffling. Questioning the authorship does not belittle the works. They stand alone regardless of the name under the titles.

    Robin P. Williams does a much better job laying out all of the questions and giving the evidence than I ever could. The main point though is that no one from Shakespeare’s time writes about the man as a playwright, no one cites the plays as his until much later. He has no known manuscripts, he’s buried in an unmarked grave, his death notice fails to mention him as a playwright, not one book has ever been found to have been from his library… The list goes on. The notion that he was a front during his time to be the face for the playwright is a false argument. There was no conspiracy during the time of his life as he wasn’t even mentioned by his supposed contemporaries as even being a great playwright.

    This is not a question of snobbery or being classist. These questions exist separate from the works and whether the questions interest you or not, your enjoyment of the works will not be in any way affected. Anonymous is an average movie based on a very fictional accounting of history. My only aim in commenting on this blog initially was to alert Mr. Rucka about a book within this field of inquiry that also dealt with a very strong woman from history. As Mr. Rucka’s works often deal with strong women protagonists I thought that he might find it interesting.

    I respect your love and devotion to the works attributed to Shakespeare and mean absolutely no disrespect with my intellectual curiosity about the true authorship.

  9. Tariq Leslie

    @ Jonathan Batailles

    Firstly – peace. I mean that in reference to the season, not because I think that our back-and-forth has taken on a heated tone.

    I think the knee-jerk reaction is more a perception than a reality. The thing is, most academics don’t have a knee jerk reaction or dismiss this out of hand. They live and breath this stuff, and any bonafide academic who specializes in this field would love to be able to be the one who ‘discovered’/uncovered this.

    Most of these books, whether written by academics, intelligent sleuths or the like, build upon information that previous ‘scholars’ have brought forward which is itself false.

    I am not an academic, but I can tell you that wherever you got your information wrong about Shakespeare’s contemporaries not making mention of him during his life time is patently false.

    I’m currently reading an exhaustive biography on Ben Jonson and Jonson wrote much about Shakespeare, his life, and his passing/loss of his talent. He also criticized Shakespeare for his errors – such as having a shipwreck take place in Bohemia – a geographic impossibility.

    I can also assert as fact that we DON’T know that Shakespeare had NO library. This is one of those ridiculous notions that have been passed on from ‘researcher’ to ‘researcher’ but is such a huge leap in logic.

    Essentially the faulty argument runs as such: There is in no mention of Shakespeare having a library, or bequeathing a library to his heirs, therefore Shakespeare had no library.

    That is no proof that the man had no library.

    Middleton and Decker also make mention of Shakespeare, and in the case of Decker there is a strong suggestion that he and Shakespeare collaborated on at least one work.

    By the way, the same ‘proof’ can also be cited to ‘prove’ that Jonson, Decker, Marlowe, Ford, and Middleton – not to mention a host of others owned no books.

  10. Jonathan Batailles

    @ Tariq Leslie

    I agree that there can be a certain amount of intellectual sleuthing that can create supposition upon supposition until an epiphany has been reached without proper evidence. It’s easy to sensationalize a topic such as the authorship question. I have always aimed at viewing it without prejudice, or at least with as little as possible. I have come to believe that there is no way that the man William Shakespeare wrote the plays and sonnets that are attributed to his name. Some persuasive evidence to me:

    * Although the plays and sonnets were popular and well known in his time, upon his death he was buried in an unmarked grave inside the Stratford village church not Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey in London as was the tradition at the time with poets and dramatists of his day (such as Jonson, Spencer, Beaumont, etc). No one wrote him a eulogy, there was no public tribute. His own will mentions no books.
    * If a name on the title page is enough to prove authorship, than what of Sir John Oldcastle, A Yorkshire Tragedy, The London Prodigal, Locrine or Thomas Lord Cromwell? All are plays that were printed in his time bearing the name William Shakespeare as the author. Scholars all believe that none of these were written by the same author as Hamlet or Much Ado. But surely his name was popular and these works would benefit from that! And yet there are no passages in any book written in that time identifying William Shakespeare as A POPULAR PLAYWRIGHT. None. His name is mentioned off-handedly in William Camden’s Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine, Poems. Richard Carew mentions him along with other writers as being inferior to Philip Sydney. Thomas Freeman mocks Venus and Adonis and refers to Shakespeare as being like Mercury in boring Argus to sleep. All of these are references to poems, not plays.
    * All but four of the plays are not original stories, but have been adapted from earlier works. Some of those earlier works had yet to even be adapted into english. There is no proof that Shakespeare spoke or read any other language much less Latin, French, Italian and Spanish. The Narrative And Dramatic Sources Of Shakespeare runs eight volumes with no less than 150 works being inspiration for Shakespearean plays. This meant access to an enormous and expensive library. There is no evidence that the man William Shakespeare had such access. By comparison, the sources for the accumulated works of Ben Johnson would fit into one volume.
    * The first 8 Shakespearean plays were published anonymously. Richard III was reprinted in 1598 stating “Newly augmented by W. Shakespeare” Henry IV Part 1 was reprinted in 1599 stating “Newly corrected by W. Shakespeare”. Of the 37 plays in the Shakespeare canon, only 12 appeared bearing his name while he was alive. Why? What reason could there be to publish anonymously so many of his works? Were all of these publishings pirated copies? If so why wouldn’t Shakespeare take action as many other playwrights had when pirated versions of their works were printed?
    * Ben Johnson wrote the introduction to the First Folio and yes he starts his poem off with “To the memory of my beloved, the author, Mr William Shakespeare…” however read the poem and you see that there are irregularities that have plagued scholars since. His reference that the author is a Muse (all of the Muses are women). His assertion that the author was “gentle”, or well-born as the term meant in that time meaning nobility or royalty of which William Shakespeare definitely was not. The comparisons to Terence, who was a plagiarist, or Lyly, Kyd and Marlowe who were all playwrights that were either murdered, tortured or neglected.
    * Ben Johnson also wrote about the “Poet-Ape” with whom he despised. Scholars all agree that the “Poet-Ape” was the man William Shakespeare. This poem was written earlier and portrays the man as a thief. Also in Ben Johnson’s Timber, or Discoveries written well after both Shakespeare’s death and the publication of the First Folio, Johnson recommends the best authors to read-Sidney, Donne, Gower, Chaucer and Spencer, not Shakespeare.

    There’s a lot more, but this is what drives my curiosity. It is important to note that no one disputes the authorship of Ben Johnson’s plays or any other contemporary of his time. They have surviving manuscripts, they were held in high regard in their time as authors and playwrights.

    These kinds of discussions and debates are essentially just really fun to take part in. Unfortunately there will probably never be any “new” evidence that will end the debate, so I say have at it! It’s all in good spirit and although tone is tricky on the internet I would never mean to imply that an opposing view was lesser than my own. I mean this discussion sure beats arguing the relative merits of a conservative’s dissatisfaction with his perception of a “liberal-bias” in comic books.

    -Jonathan Batailles

  11. Tariq Leslie

    “sure beats arguing the relative merits of a conservative’s dissatisfaction with his perception of a “liberal-bias” in comic books.”

    You stalking me? ;)

  12. Tariq Leslie


    From a fellow theatre associate who recently visited Shakespeare’s “Unmarked Grave”. I would have offered observations akin to this if I could have, but I last visited Stratford when I was 9 years old, and being a precocious brat that had no idea that the visit would one day have any connection or use for his career and passions, I found the whole thing ‘boring’ and ‘wanted to go to the toy shop’.

    “Having been there on Wednesday, I will comment on the “unmarked grave” issue: it’s not quite the image one normally has of an unmarked grave. First, it has the famous elegant quatrain curse, carved in stone. Oh sure, the “unmarked” grave does have a stone slab… why? Well, because it’s in a church. No, not there in the back. Up there. Further, further. Yes, way up there. In the sanctuary. Next to one of the only pre-reformation stone altars left in England. As one of five graves of Shakespeare’s wife, daughter, son-in-law… Yeah, I guess it would be pretty expensive to get that.

    I mean, really. “Unmarked”?! He’s buried with family, in the single most expensive plot in Stratford, ever. It ain’t De Vere buried next to Anne. “

    For me?

    ‘Nuff said. There’s no ‘there’ – there.

  13. Tariq Leslie

    So, this ‘unmarked grave’?

    The man is buried, in a plot, with his family in the single most expensive plot in Stratford.

    No, it doesn’t have his name. It has the famous quatrain verse carved into stone slab, and it is inside the sanctuary inside a church next to one of the ONLY pre-reformation stone altars that remains in England.

    There are people buried next to him though. Who might they be?

    Shakespeare’s wife.

    Shakespeare daughter…

    Shakespeare’s son-in-law…

    Also worth mentioning is that it is a fact that he was baptized in Holy Trinity (the same church he was to be buried in) on 26 April 1564 and that he was buried there on 25 April 1616.

    Also, Holy Trinity still possesses the original Elizabethan register giving details of both his baptism and burial.

  14. Tariq Leslie

    Should have capitalized the “r” in pre-Restoration.

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