Release Date: October 28, 2011
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Director: Roland Emmerich
Screenwriter: John Orloff
Starring: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson
MPAA Rating: PG-13
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
The Shakespeare authorship question is a debate that started over one hundred years ago surrounding the identity of the works traditionally attributed to the bearded Bard from Stratford-Upon-Avon, William Shakespeare. Was he really the genius behind Hamlet’s tragic life, Romeo’s burning love, and Lady Macbeth’s plaguing guilt? Could the intellectual behind literature’s most brilliant characters be this very ordinary man from Stratford?
So little is known about the man from Stratford that many find it impossible to believe that the son of an illiterate tradesman was the author of such literary masterpieces as “The Merchant of Venice,” “King Lear,” and “Henry V.” His education from a village school could never have provided Shakespeare with a vocabulary extensive enough to write the most talked about literature in the world and there is no proof that he travelled to foreign lands let alone learnt to speak their native tongues. The only written documentation historians can ascribe to Shakespeare is several signatures on official documents with at least six different spellings (Shaksp, Shakspe, Shakesper, Shakespere, Shakspere and Shakspeare). Aside from the plays attributed to him, there are no manuscripts, letters, journals or poems accredited to Shakespeare, which is quite astonishing, considering this was his legacy. His death in 1616 was met with silence, unlike other celebrated writers of his time, and his illiterate wife and children were bequeathed only his “second best bed” – no money – and even more shockingly, his will mentions no books or manuscripts of any kind.
“Anti-Stratfordians,” those that believe there is reasonable doubt that Shakespeare is the real author of the works, include literary greats, teachers, writers, world-renowned actors, directors and scholars such as Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Sir John Gielgud. Whilst some believe in group theories (i.e. that a collective group of writers is responsible for the works), others favor singular writers such as Edward De Vere – the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, or Christopher Marlowe.
Oxford is perhaps the leading alternate candidate within anti-Stratfordian circles due to the remarkable concurrences between the nobleman and the scribe. There are many significant facts to support Oxfordian arguments that simply cannot be debunked by Stratfordians, among them that Oxford took a 16-month tour of the Continent which took him to all to of the cities in Italy with which Shakespeare evinces an easy familiarity, among them Padua, Milan, Verona, Mantua, Florence, and Siena. Another is that “Hamlet” eerily parallels Oxford’s life in an almost autobiographical form, depicting his father-in-law William Cecil as Polonius and his daughter, Anne Cecil, being Ophelia; the Queen herself, on whom Gertrude is modeled, was a surrogate mother to Oxford from the age of twelve and later became his lover. Was it a pure coincidence that Oxford’s annotated copy of the Geneva Bible marks passages that were used by Shakespeare or that Oxford’s nickname was “spear shaker?”
By contrast of course, Stratfordians believe that without a doubt, William Shakespeare from Stratford is, indeed, the man responsible for the 37 plays and 154 sonnets. To them, there is no authorship question and all the work attributed to Shakespeare was definitely written by the famous playwright who moved to London to seek his fortune. Their argument is backed up by four main reasons: the name “William Shakespeare” appeared on the title pages of many of the poems and plays published during his lifetime, Ben Jonson referred to the author as “Sweet Swan of Avon” in the preface to the First Folio (published seven years after Shakespeare’s death), fellow actors Heminges and Condell (mentioned in his will) point to him as the author in the Folio, and the effigy and inscription on his Stratford monument suggests that Shakespeare had been a writer.
Like all history of the period, records are vague, and it is easy to find inconsistencies and gaps in any of the theories, but less is known about Shakespeare than most of the other actors and playwrights of his time. Shakespeare was a writer who was admired – but not revered – in his day, and it was not until the mid-19th century that the Romantics and the Victorians revived his work with vigor.
In 1987, US Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens, William Brennan, and Harry Blackmun held a mock trial on the authorship. Justice Brennan, the Senior Justice on the case, ruled that the Earl of Oxford did not meet the burden of proof required under the law to claim the authorship, however, Justice Harry Blackmun added that whilst this conclusion was the legal answer, he was doubtful it was the correct answer.
Until such time that there is conclusive evidence or definite proof to support any one theory, theoretically there is no right or wrong conclusion to this debate. However, one important question remains. As long as these masterpieces live on in our cultural conscience, does it really matter who Shakespeare was?
About The Film
It might not seem that Roland Emmerich – best known as the director of the epic blockbusters Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 – would necessarily choose as his next project a story set in Elizabethan England. However, for nearly ten years, he has wanted to make a film with the Shakespeare authorship question as a backdrop – a yearning that is fulfilled with Anonymous.
Emmerich first became fascinated with the Shakespeare authorship question after a conversation with screenwriter John Orloff, who had himself been studying the subject for a number of years and had written a draft of a screenplay, then titled Soul of the Age. Orloff says, “We actually met to talk about another project. When Roland asked me what else I was working on, I bit the bullet and told him about Soul of the Age.”
Orloff says he had been fascinated by the Shakespeare authorship question since first learning about the controversy as a 25-year-old graduate student 20 years ago. “My first thought was, ‘Why had no one told me this?!’” he says. “My second thought was that this would make a fantastic film. It had everything – murder, sex, lies, betrayal – truly the stuff of Shakespearean drama.”
In writing that story, Orloff centered around the idea of two writers – Shakespeare, the front man, and the true writer, behind the curtain. “Ben Jonson wrote the introduction to the first folio, the first official published plays of Shakespeare – he writes this beautiful, beautiful poem dedicated to Shakespeare who by that point, had been dead for several years. But if you read other Jonson works, some shorter poems or some of his plays, he’s not quite so laudatory of Shakespeare and his poems actually make fun of him and are very angry with him. It made me think that Jonson was talking about two different people – one, the true poet, and the other, a fraud.”
Emmerich was immediately receptive to Orloff’s idea – and the director had some big ideas that he felt the story could support. “The script is very much about the relationship between Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, and Edward De Vere – that is very much the heart of the movie – but I felt it just needed a little more than that. I asked myself, ‘What was the most important thing in that era?’ and it was clearly succession” – the question of who would follow the heirless Elizabeth on the throne.
“I had a little story about art and jealousy,” says Orloff, “and with that suggestion, Roland wanted to propel the script into a whole new dimension of dramatic possibility.”
“What intrigued me was not just the idea that William Shakespeare did not write the plays,” says Emmerich. “That spark opened up all sorts of avenues for the story, to look at the creative fire in people and to explore the relationship between art and politics – is the pen truly mightier than the sword?”
Tackling a subject that is so widely discussed and documented proved rather tricky for Orloff in the early stages of his script writing. He says, “Writing something that is based on non-fiction and historical material simply has to find a way to balance between fact and drama,” says Orloff. “We tried as much as possible to keep to historical facts – and I’m very proud of how accurate it is, as long as you take the conceit that the movie portrays DeVere as the writer of the works and not William Shakespeare. Not everyone’s going to agree with that!”
“Roland has such a feel for the exciting topics that get people out of their chairs,” says Kirstin Winkler. In fact, Winkler explains that Emmerich was attracted to make the film by the opportunity to tell a story about the Shakespeare authorship question – to open up the subject for wider research and discussion. “I certainly don’t think that the film is trying to dictate his story as the truth; it’s just one take on the authorship question, telling one tale.”
That said, Winkler goes on that she expects Emmerich’s film to be controversial. “There is quite a radical group of Stratfordians out there who feel very strongly about preserving the image of Shakespeare as the writer of the plays and sonnets,” she says.
But controversy aside, David Thewlis says that the film works well simply as a story. “No matter what you believe, it’s a great story,” he says. “Roland is very passionate about authorship question and he wants to put it to a wider audience. He is a very mischievous man, but I think he’s been rather daring to do this story – he likes to push people’s buttons.”
One other aspect of Anonymous that made the project attractive to Emmerich was the chance to present Elizabethan London as it had never been seen before. “I wanted to show how London of that time looked – and for that, you have to show wide shots,” he says. “My first inclination was to build a huge model of London, but in the last five or six years, visual effects have become so advanced that the computer was the best choice. We could show London, not in a handful of shots, but hundreds, throughout the entire film.”
To achieve Emmerich’s vision, the production designer Sebastian Krawinkel worked closely with the VFX supervisors/executive producers, Volker Engel and Marc Weigert. “You rarely see these wide shots in movies about that period, but Marc and Volker did it – it makes the movie a unique experience,” says Krawinkel.
Casting The Film
For Anonymous, Emmerich compiled what he calls his “dream” cast. “I got really lucky,” he says. “It’s probably the best cast I’ve ever had.” The cast is headed by Rhys Ifans as Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford, and includes Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, Xavier Samuel, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, Edward Hogg, Jamie Campbell Bower, and Derek Jacobi.
Rhys Ifans leads the cast as Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford. “Rhys did an incredible job,” says Emmerich. “He would come to work as Rhys Ifans, but as soon as he came out of hair and makeup and put his costume on, he behaved differently – he transformed himself into Edward De Vere.”
“I told Roland that if he wanted the easy ride, he could have asked me to play Shakespeare, but if he wanted to be a brave man, he should give me a crack at Oxford – and he did!” says Ifans. “The character is different than other roles I’ve had – Oxford is his own man and his own creation. His mind is a huge, swirling mass of richness, bursting at the seams; that’s what Shakespeare’s works are, too.”
Part of the reason Ifans was drawn to the project was his passion for the subject. “I’m surprised that this topic hasn’t been tackled before,” he says. “The body of evidence is very, very convincing, and the thought that we might be possibly teaching our students a lie is, in my opinion, shocking. It’s a claim against our intellects and our history and our understanding of the greatest writer of all times. If you re-read or approach these plays with an Oxfordian eye, it opens up new ways of looking at these works that we haven’t even touched on.”
The mother-and-daughter team of Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson share the role of Queen Elizabeth in her younger and older years. Emmerich explains, “Throughout the film, we have several flashbacks that explore the relationship between Elizabeth and Oxford. Our first hurdle was how to handle that? It just seemed natural to have Vanessa as the older Elizabeth and Joely as the character in her younger years. For me, it was an absolute joy and dream that they both wanted to be in this movie.”
"As an actress, it doesn't get much better than playing Elizabeth, but Mum and I both playing the role was an added attraction,” says Richardson. “For a little while, it didn't look like the dates for us both would work out and while selfishly I wanted the part, I felt that Mum must absolutely play this character. Thankfully it all worked out and the night the offer came through we happened to be together and we were ecstatic that we both got to play this role in this particular film. We didn't work on gestures or vocal intonations because we assumed that the similarities would already be there and anything contrived would just stand out a mile."
"I've wanted to play Queen Elizabeth I since I read Lytton Strachey's biography, Elizabeth and Essex," she says. "So I was delighted when Roland Emmerich asked me to play the old queen, and my daughter Joely to play the young queen. I would say that the time of Elizabeth I is full of more contradictions, more developments, more intricate politics than any time preceding it; indeed, our times are somewhat horrifyingly similar!"
About the Oxfordian theory, Redgrave says, "I am sure at this point in my life that the actor William Shakespeare, could not have conceivably written all those superb plays and poems. It seems more than possible that the author was in fact the Earl of Oxford. I remember how Senator McCarthy's House of Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s created a situation where a number of excellent writers could not be employed. Other writers agreed to put their names officially to film scripts, were officially paid for these, and then gave the fee to the true 'begetters' of the scripts. There are many question marks over the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, and I love people like our director Roland Emmerich who ask questions and explore possible answers. Anonymous is an enthralling story, and I think that finally this is what counts the most."
Anonymous presents a very different portrayal of Queen Elizabeth than audiences might be used to. Volatile and passionate, she is far from the “virgin queen” her legend would make her out to be. “Imagine what life must have been like for Elizabeth – especially as the daughter of Henry VIII,” says Emmerich. “She would have been in fear for her life, but had to go on and live her life, not hide away. I think the whole idea of the ‘virgin queen’ was an invention, one way that she could hold all her enemies at bay.”
The film even suggests that “the virgin queen” had heirs to her throne. “The idea that Elizabeth had quite a few lovers with the occasional result of a child is nothing new,” says Orloff. “It’s been said that she would go on progress, hide away in a castle or somewhere for the last few months of her pregnancy, and have the child. When the child was born, it would be given away to an aristocrat to raise as their own.”
Joely Richardson and Roland Emmerich last worked together in 2000 on the film The Patriot. Richardson says, "There is something really nice about working with someone a second or third time because that very rarely happens in our work. And it's so exciting to be part of a project that Roland has such a grand passion for. Anonymous is very much breaking his usual roots of action, but it's especially exciting to see him do that; his recreation of sixteenth-century England alone is breathtaking and something we have never seen before!”
For the role of Young Oxford, Emmerich cast Jamie Campbell Bower. Bower uses some of Ifans’ mannerisms as Oxford, he says. “Rhys does this thing with his mouth, where it’s as if the words wanted to come out but he couldn’t quite make it,” he says. “Oxford isn’t really pompous – he just knows he’s great. He knows he has the capability to write the most beautiful thing you’ve ever read.”
Rafe Spall plays William Shakespeare. “When Rafe came in, he was exactly what Roland had pictured the character would be,” says co-producer Kirstin Winkler. “He gave Shakespeare a depth – the bubbly, entertaining, drunken womanizer versus the slightly darker side.”
“In the movie, Shakespeare is just an ordinary bloke who gets put in an extraordinary circumstance,” says Spall. “He starts off as a guy who loves acting – it’s his passion and his main love. But at that same time, he equally loves the adulation that fame brings, because he has a massive ego.”
The award-winning actor David Thewlis plays Elizabeth’s chief advisor, William Cecil. “Cecil is such a wonderful villain,” says Thewlis, “such a loathsome, perfidious, manipulative character – I always prefer those kind of roles. He’s based on a real person, so I was able to do lots of research. But for the purpose of this story, he’s controlling the puppet strings with a motivation that may or may not be fictional: he’s trying to fix the succession of the throne for his own personal reasons.”
Thewlis says the reason the authorship question is so compelling is that there are no works like his plays. “There is so much beauty, so much passion, so much pain, so much horror in his plays,” he says. “We owe so much to him as everything in our lives stems from that time. The proliferation of language and poetry goes right back to Shakespeare.”
Xavier Samuel, who recently played a major role in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, plays Southampton, for whom Oxford has been a father figure his whole life. “He’s a very enthusiastic theatergoer – and he has the pleasure of introducing Oxford to a side of the theater he’s never seen before.”
Southampton is guided by his loyalties – not just to Oxford, but to the Earl of Essex, “Southampton fights for what he believes in,” says Samuel. “As Essex stages a rebellion, Oxford is one of the few people he can confide in.”
Sebastian Armesto plays Ben Jonson. He nearly missed out on the chance to audition as he was working in Japan at the time but instead he self taped from his hotel room and sent a link to his audition: “I just put myself on tape and sent it in,” he says.
Armesto was initially asked to tape for the smaller role in the film of Christopher Marlow, but according to co-producer Kirstin Winkler, when Emmerich saw the role, he said, “That’s our Ben Jonson. He basically had the part without ever having met – we did have a meeting before making it official, but it was a done deal.”
Armesto describes his character: “At the beginning of the film, he’s a struggling playwright, an idealist – and, like most idealists, he gets a reality check. He gets dragged into this maze of a plot by Oxford to influence the succession.” The rising star Edward Hogg plays William Cecil’s son, Robert Cecil, who takes over his father’s role after his death. “On a certain level, I don’t think he’s better or worse than anyone else in the story – everyone is power-hungry. But he and his father are certainly the villains, in the way it plays out.”
Hogg went through a remarkable physical transformation to play the role. “The hair and makeup is extraordinary – it completely changes who I am and what I look like. It’s a huge thing, because when I look in the mirror, I feel like someone different. I remember on my third day of filming, John Orloff arrived on set and had some script pages for me – ‘Have you seen that Hogg? I need to give this to him’ – and I said, ‘Are you kidding me? It’s me.’ It happened a few times."
Derek Jacobi rounds out the cast as Prologue, the actor who will shape the story to come.
About The Production
To re-create Elizabethan England on the screen, Emmerich assembled a top collection of artists behind the scenes, including production designer Sebastian Krawinkel, costume designer Lisy Christl, and VFX experts Volker Engel and Marc Weigert. Emmerich’s director of photography is Anna J. Foerster, who first collaborated with Emmerich as a Camera Assistant on his first movie, Moon 44, and has since re-teamed with the director in various roles on several projects.
By using new technology capable of filming in very low light, Foerster helped give the film a very real and atmospheric tone. “With the new developments in digital cinematography, we could really take advantage of candlelight and firelight,” says Foerster. “For a period piece, using available light – candles, fireplaces, whatever comes in from outside – makes it real.”
Foerster and Emmerich were influenced for the look of the film by the paintings of Johannes Vermeer and Georges de La Tour. “Vermeer uses the soft, diffused daylight that comes in through windows; de La Tour would have a single source of light, a candle or a torch. This was very inspiring to us. Not that every image had to look like a painting – but we did want it to influence the composition of the shots.”
Sebastian Krawinkel, who serves as production designer for the first time, says that he undertook an extensive research period to prepare for Anonymous. “I travelled to London to visit many galleries and museums and bought every book available on the Elizabethan time and its architecture,” he says. “I think it’s important to be historically accurate. On other movies, you may have more freedom, but on Anonymous we made an effort to be authentic.”
Krawinkel’s biggest challenges were to re-create the Rose and the Globe Theatre. There were several illustrations of the exterior Globe but none of the interior from painters of the time in existence. No one can truly say how the Theatre looked like from the inside. Krawinkel wanted his outside structure closer to the illustrations he had seen from Claes Van Visscher – more like a tall tower. For the interior, he didn’t want to make a copy of the recreation of the Globe that is standing in London now but tried to make it a bit like a nobleman’s dress from that time – very colorful and rich in ornaments that sparkle in the light. “Here it was nice to have a little artistic freedom and make the Globe into a beautiful jewelry case,” he says.
For the movie, the two theatres are actually one set. The Rose got revamped into the Globe. Krawinkel differentiated between the Rose and the Globe by giving the Rose a more rural feeling. “It’s a bit more woody, darker and dramatic in color. It’s supposed to have been standing for about twenty years when Anonymous begins, so it is very much aged and run down,” says Krawinkel. “The Globe is brand new when we see it in the film the first time.” The idea was that the Globe would have been an advancement of the Rose, but with an influence in architecture and materials from the courts. Construction on the theater that Krawinkel and his team built at Babelsberg Studios in Berlin took about twelve weeks.
Krawinkel and his team in the art department also worked closely with the VFX department. On Anonymous, Emmerich once again teams with colleagues Volker Engel and Marc Weigert, who have worked with Emmerich on multiple projects, including Independence Day and 2012. “Volker and I are usually the first people to be hired along with the production designer, in this case the talented Sebastian Krawinkel. Most people think that visual effects is a post-production process because it used to be, but now we start before the first sets are constructed.”
Visual Effects were critical for the film, as Emmerich was intent on presenting Elizabethan England on screen as it had never been seen before. For example, there is a wide, sweeping shot – “a helicopter shot, basically,” says Engel – of the whole city of London with thousands of people in front of the Globe Theatre, created entirely in the computer. In addition, the decision was made early on that several key locations in the film – London Bridge, the Tower of London, Queen Elizabeth’s Whitehall Palace among them – could be built in the computer with visual effects.
“Roland wanted to have these small moments – conversations between characters – taking place in these dramatic settings, like London Bridge,” Weigert explains.
The job began with Krawinkel, the production designer, who created 2D designs and 3D models for the VFX team, based on his research. “We started with historic maps and from there designed the major elements – London Bridge, the Tower, and St. Paul’s. The Tower and St. Paul’s have plenty of drawings and models to look at, and in fact, most of the Tower is still standing. Other locations, like London Bridge and Whitehall Palace, were more of a challenge. And, of course, for each of the designs, Roland would choose the different camera angles for his shots.”
Engel and Weigert’s team of artists could then model the set designs in the computer. “We refine it, make it photo real, light it, adapt it to all camera angles,” Weigert explains. The actors shoot their scenes in front of a green screen.
“It’s exciting to do something completely different than for Roland’s previous films,” says Engel, who, with Weigert, transitioned directly from Emmerich’s 2012 to Anonymous. “We had just finished an epic disaster movie where everything gets destroyed. This is completely different – the challenge is to re-create a historical time – huge city vistas, London Bridge, the Tower of London, everything that looks completely different today or doesn’t exist at all anymore. It was our job to place the actors in a believable setting.”
For the veteran costume designer Lisy Christl, the project represented a great opportunity. “Elizabethan England is one of the nicest periods a costume designer could ask for,” she says. “As a German, I never expected to be working on a film in that period.”
In her workshop at Babelsberg Studios, Christl was able to create many of the hundreds of costumes in-house. Christl and her team hand-made about three hundred costumes, from Elizabeth’s bespoke dresses to the extras playing the commoners amongst the theatre crowd. Her busiest days saw seven hundred and fifty extras in the Globe Theatre watching the seven stage actors in full costume. To make each costume, Christl and her team would obtain fabric, boil it to shrink it, then dye, paint, and embroider it.
Christl researched the period by reading up on English history and studying portraits from the time period. “I made a collage of almost every main character and used the inspiration from various sources for materials,” comments Christl. “Roland loves details and he gave me a lot of freedom actually,” she says. “In the script, it might say that a costume ‘has seen better days’ – that would mean we had to bring the costume to life by aging it and making it look lived in.”
Queen Elizabeth wears approximately 20 gowns in the film, and these were made by hand at Sands Film in London, a costumier with an international reputation. Christl and her team also made all of Elizabeth’s accessories, including the jewelry, stockings, and shoes.
About The Director
Anonymous is a passion project for director Roland Emmerich – and once you get past the surface, he says, one that is not so surprising. “I thought it was a really exciting subject for a film,” he says. “I like making movies about something people can argue about. A movie like The Day After Tomorrow – of course I hope it’s entertaining, but also thought-provoking and a hot topic. When you look at it that way, I’m not sure it’s such a surprise that this movie would interest me.”
Emmerich says that his hope for the film is that “the younger generation will discover William Shakespeare. In essence, it doesn’t matter who wrote the works, as long as it’s appreciated how amazing the writing is. We should all feel lucky enough to be able to pass them on to generation after generation.”
Rhys Ifans says that Emmerich was uniquely suited to make this film, which required not only an incredible attention to detail, but also the ability to move large crowds like a well-oiled machine. “I’ve worked with directors who have loving attention to detail, but faced with a crowd they fall apart. I’ve also worked with directors who can only shout at a crowd and have no clue how to speak to an actor. Roland can do both,” he says. “It’s such an incredible talent and an incredible world of information to have to retain as a person. Never is a note shouted across the floor, they’re always whispered or discussed in a corner. I just find that absolutely spellbinding and thrilling.”
Rafe Spall adds, “Roland will come and give you a golden nugget of a note that will tune your performance. Every single note he gave me made me feel better – he understands acting, which I don’t think a lot of directors do.”
Excerpted from "Is Shakespeare Dead?"
For the instruction of the ignorant I will make a list, now, of those details of Shakespeare's history which are FACTS—verified facts, established facts, undisputed facts.
He was born on the 23d of April, 1564.
Of good farmer-class parents who could not read, could not write, could not sign their names.
At Stratford, a small back settlement which in that day was shabby and unclean, and densely illiterate. Of the nineteen important men charged with the government of the town, thirteen had to "make their mark" in attesting important documents, because they could not write their names.
Of the first eighteen years of his life NOTHING is known. They are a blank.
On the 27th of November (1582) William Shakespeare took out a license to marry Anne Whateley.
Next day William Shakespeare took out a license to marry Anne Hathaway. She was eight years his senior.
William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. In a hurry. By grace of a reluctantly-granted dispensation there was but one publication of the banns.
Within six months the first child was born.
About two (blank) years followed, during which period NOTHING AT ALL HAPPENED TO SHAKESPEARE, so far as anybody knows.
Then came twins--1585. February.
Two blank years follow.
Then--1587--he makes a ten-year visit to London, leaving the family behind.
Five blank years follow. During this period NOTHING HAPPENED TO HIM, as far as anybody actually knows.
Then--1592--there is mention of him as an actor.
Next year--1593--his name appears in the official list of players.
Next year--1594--he played before the queen. A detail of no consequence: other obscurities did it every year of the forty-five of her reign. And remained obscure.
Three pretty full years follow. Full of play-acting. Then
In 1597 he bought New Place, Stratford.
Thirteen or fourteen busy years follow; years in which he accumulated money, and also reputation as actor and manager.
Meantime his name, liberally and variously spelt, had become associated with a number of great plays and poems, as (ostensibly) author of the same.
Some of these, in these years and later, were pirated, but he made no protest. Then--1610-11--he returned to Stratford and settled down for good and all, and busied himself in lending money, trading in tithes, trading in land and houses; shirking a debt of forty-one shillings, borrowed by his wife during his long desertion of his family; suing debtors for shillings and coppers; being sued himself for shillings and coppers; and acting as confederate to a neighbor who tried to rob the town of its rights in a certain common, and did not succeed.
He lived five or six years--till 1616--in the joy of these elevated pursuits. Then he made a will, and signed each of its three pages with his name.
A thoroughgoing business man's will. It named in minute detail every item of property he owned in the world--houses, lands, sword, silver-gilt bowl, and so on--all the way down to his "second-best bed" and its furniture.
It carefully and calculatingly distributed his riches among the members of his family, overlooking no individual of it. Not even his wife: the wife he had been enabled to marry in a hurry by urgent grace of a special dispensation before he was nineteen; the wife whom he had left husbandless so many years; the wife who had had to borrow forty-one shillings in her need, and which the lender was never able to collect of the prosperous husband, but died at last with the money still lacking. No, even this wife was remembered in Shakespeare's will.
He left her that "second-best bed."
And NOT ANOTHER THING; not even a penny to bless her lucky widowhood with.
It was eminently and conspicuously a business man's will, not a poet's.
It mentioned NOT A SINGLE BOOK.
Books were much more precious than swords and silver-gilt bowls and second-best beds in those days, and when a departing person owned one he gave it a high place in his will.
The will mentioned NOT A PLAY, NOT A POEM, NOT AN UNFINISHED LITERARY WORK, NOT A SCRAP OF MANUSCRIPT OF ANY KIND.
Many poets have died poor, but this is the only one in history that has died THIS poor; the others all left literary remains behind. Also a book. Maybe two.
If Shakespeare had owned a dog--but we need not go into that: we know he would have mentioned it in his will. If a good dog, Susanna would have got it; if an inferior one his wife would have got a dower interest in it. I wish he had had a dog, just so we could see how painstakingly he would have divided that dog among the family, in his careful business way.
He signed the will in three places.
In earlier years he signed two other official documents.
These five signatures still exist.
There are NO OTHER SPECIMENS OF HIS PENMANSHIP IN EXISTENCE. Not a line.
Was he prejudiced against the art? His granddaughter, whom he loved, was eight years old when he died, yet she had had no teaching, he left no provision for her education although he was rich, and in her mature womanhood she couldn't write and couldn't tell her husband's manuscript from anybody else's--she thought it was Shakespeare's.
When Shakespeare died in Stratford IT WAS NOT AN EVENT. It made no more stir in England than the death of any other forgotten theatre-actor would have made. Nobody came down from London; there were no lamenting poems, no eulogies, no national tears--there was merely silence, and nothing more. A striking contrast with what happened when Ben Jonson, and Francis Bacon, and Spenser, and Raleigh and the other distinguished literary folk of Shakespeare's time passed from life! No praiseful voice was lifted for the lost Bard of Avon; even Ben Jonson waited seven years before he lifted his.
SO FAR AS ANYBODY ACTUALLY KNOWS AND CAN PROVE, Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon never wrote a play in his life.
SO FAR AS ANYBODY KNOWS AND CAN PROVE, he never wrote a letter to anybody in his life.
SO FAR AS ANY ONE KNOWS, HE RECEIVED ONLY ONE LETTER DURING HIS LIFE.
So far as any one KNOWS AND CAN PROVE, Shakespeare of Stratford wrote only one poem during his life. This one is authentic. He did write that one--a fact which stands undisputed; he wrote the whole of it; he wrote the whole of it out of his own head. He commanded that this work of art be engraved upon his tomb, and he was obeyed. There it abides to this day. This is it:
"Good friend for Iesus sake forbeare To digg the dust encloased heare: Blest be ye man yt spares thes stones And curst be he yt moves my bones."
In the list as above set down, will be found EVERY POSITIVELY KNOWN fact of Shakespeare's life, lean and meagre as the invoice is. Beyond these details we know NOT A THING about him. All the rest of his vast history, as furnished by the biographers, is built up, course upon course, of guesses, inferences, theories, conjectures – an Eiffel Tower of artificialities rising sky-high from a very flat and very thin foundation of inconsequential facts.
Isn't it odd, when you think of it: that you may list all the celebrated Englishmen, Irishmen, and Scotchmen of modern times, clear back to the first Tudors--a list containing five hundred names, shall we say?--and you can go to the histories, biographies and cyclopedias and learn the particulars of the lives of every one of them. Every one of them except one--the most famous, the most renowned--by far the most illustrious of them all--Shakespeare! You can get the details of the lives of all the celebrated ecclesiastics in the list; all the celebrated tragedians, comedians, singers, dancers, orators, judges, lawyers, poets, dramatists, historians, biographers, editors, inventors, reformers, statesmen, generals, admirals, discoverers, prize-fighters, murderers, pirates, conspirators, horse-jockeys, bunco-steerers, misers, swindlers, explorers, adventurers by land and sea, bankers, financiers, astronomers, naturalists, Claimants, impostors, chemists, biologists, geologists, philologists, college presidents and professors, architects, engineers, painters, sculptors, politicians, agitators, rebels, revolutionists, patriots, demagogues, clowns, cooks, freaks, philosophers, burglars, highwaymen, journalists, physicians, surgeons--you can get the life-histories of all of them but ONE. Just one--the most extraordinary and the most celebrated of them all--Shakespeare!
You may add to the list the thousand celebrated persons furnished by the rest of Christendom in the past four centuries, and you can find out the life-histories of all those people, too. You will then have listed 1500 celebrities, and you can trace the authentic life-histories of the whole of them. Save one--far and away the most colossal prodigy of the entire accumulation--Shakespeare! About him you can find out NOTHING. Nothing of even the slightest importance. Nothing worth the trouble of stowing away in your memory. Nothing that even remotely indicates that he was ever anything more than a distinctly common-place person--a manager, an actor of inferior grade, a small trader in a small village that did not regard him as a person of any consequence, and had forgotten all about him before he was fairly cold in his grave. We can go to the records and find out the life-history of every renowned RACE-HORSE of modern times--but not Shakespeare's! There are many reasons why, and they have been furnished in cartloads (of guess and conjecture) by those troglodytes; but there is one that is worth all the rest of the reasons put together, and is abundantly sufficient all by itself--HE HADN'T ANY HISTORY TO RECORD. There is no way of getting around that deadly fact. And no sane way has yet been discovered of getting around its formidable significance.
Its quite plain significance--to any but those thugs (I do not use the term unkindly) is, that Shakespeare had no prominence while he lived, and none until he had been dead two or three generations. The Plays enjoyed high fame from the beginning; and if he wrote them it seems a pity the world did not find it out. He ought to have explained that he was the author, and not merely a nom de plume for another man to hide behind. If he had been less intemperately solicitous about his bones, and more solicitous about his Works, it would have been better for his good name, and a kindness to us. The bones were not important. They will moulder away, they will turn to dust, but the Works will endure until the last sun goes down.
Mark Twain is the pen name of Samuel Clemens, an American humorist, satirist, lecturer, writer, and riverboat pilot. He is best known for the classic American novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Is Shakespeare Dead? was first published in April 1909.
Studio photos, notes and videos © 2011 Columbia Pictures