CMC’s Shakespeare scholars

I had no idea, but Claremont McKenna College has a Claremont Shakespeare Clinic that for a quarter-century has used computers to analyze the Bard’s texts and reputed texts. This may be of interest now because of the current movie “Anonymous,” which promotes in the multiplex the controversial academic theory that the Earl of Oxford was really the author of Shakespeare’s plays.

Says student Patrick Paterson: “The Claremont Shakespeare Clinic has been pioneering the use of computer-based stylometric analysis for almost 25 years. … It has found far too much stylistic discrepancy between Oxford’s poems and Shakespeare’s for Oxford’s claim to be credible.”

His piece on the movie appears below. Thanks for the guest contribution, Patrick.

Director Roland Emmerich, whose resume includes blockbusters like Independence Day and 2012, recently released his latest film, Anonymous. Like his earlier projects, which depict an alien invasion and the world ending this decade, Anonymous rests on an implausible notion: that the plays we attribute to William Shakespeare were actually written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. The film suggests that Oxford, a secret lover of Queen Elizabeth I’s, obscured his authorship for political reasons, and gave his plays instead to Shakespeare, an illiterate and morally bankrupt actor.

“I can’t decide whether you are Prince Hal,” the Virgin Queen breathes to Oxford in her bedroom at one point in the film, “or Romeo.” The Earl, as Emmerich presents him at least, is Romeo. He loves quickly and intensely; he’s petty, emotional, and equivocal, and he leaves an inadvertent trail of bloodshed in his wake. But in the end, he’s good for little more than his pretty verses (some of them, anyway; a lot of Oxford’s lines sound more like Romeo’s maligned “brawling love or loving hate” than “what light through yonder window breaks”). The film’s William Shakespeare, meanwhile, is far more the Hal character–if only for the opening acts of Henry IV–a lecherous and drunk who spends his time in bars and brothels, giving little thought to the loftier affairs of the world.

The dichotomy of these two characters–and of their classes–lies at the center of the film. The courtly stagings of Oxford’s plays attended by the upper classes contrast starkly with the squalid, muddy performances in Shakespeare’s theater populated by the commoners; the Earl himself, stately and refined, clashes with the grubby, drunken William Shakespeare. The film’s central villains, William and Robert Cecil, are presented as commoners inadequate to their station among the nobility. Class, of course, is the soul of the authorship debate itself. J. Thomas Looney, the Oxfordian theory’s father, believed that the son of a glover from Stratford-upon-Avon could never have composed the works of beauty that we attribute to him, and suggested instead a second-rate poet with more noble blood.

If it were so, Emmerich would be righting a grievous wrong of crediting the greatest works of all time to an impostor. But if it were not, they would be committing an equally grievous wrong of their own, lampooning the greatest author of all time as an illiterate fraud, simply for his lowly birth, and handing over his laurels to another, largely for his rank. A man’s worth should be based on what he accomplishes, not who his parents were. One would hope that Emmerich, born the son of a garden tool manufacturer who went on to become the highest-grossing director in Europe, would be able to appreciate this distinction. Imagine the outrage he would feel if he knew that, centuries from now, someone tried to pitch Prince Charles as the true auteur behind his films.

Moreover, the Oxfordian view is hardly probable. There is not a shred of conventional, documentary evidence to connect Oxford with Shakespeare’s works, and much evidence that would rule out someone of Oxford’s standing. The overwhelming consensus of Shakespeare scholars that it is William Shakespeare, not Oxford, rests on the best available evidence, not on a self-serving conspiracy, as the Oxfordians suggest.

The Claremont Shakespeare Clinic has been pioneering the use of computer-based stylometric analysis for almost 25 years. It was the first to challenge the Funeral Elegy and A Lover’s Complaint as Shakespeare’s on stylometric grounds, and the first to computer-test test all the available True-Author candidates for Shakespeare resemblance. It has found far too much stylistic discrepancy between Oxford’s poems and Shakespeare’s for Oxford’s claim to be credible. The odds of Shakespeare himself producing as much Shakespeare discrepancy as we found in Oxford are lower than the odds of getting hit by lightning. None of the other 40 or so Shakespeare claimants tested, including Bacon, Marlowe, and the latest claimant, Aemelia Bassano Lanier, match Shakespeare’s style.

There are, to be sure, a few grains of historical truth in Anonymous, but there are far more factual absurdities. Macbeth, for instance, a play that was written largely for the pleasure of King James I shortly after his coronation, is presented as a weapon Oxford used to prevent his rise to the throne in the first place. Outside of the authorship question, the film does manage to create a reasonable amount of emotional drama, but much of it feels unearned. Many of the characters are one dimensional and unsympathetic: Elizabeth is a rash and fiery hothead; Shakespeare is an extortionate buffoon. Even the rounder players often feel like cheapened rip-offs of stock characters. Ben Jonson, for instance, comes off as a caricature of Amadeus’s Salieri. Only Oxford remains intriguing and relatable, and it is on his character that the minimal appeal of the movie rests.

Elizabeth, back in the bedroom, continues after some thought. “No,” she says, “you’re Puck.” She’s half right. Puck is a mischievous, imaginative fairy who spins stories and guides us through the complicated web of the plot. He manipulates the characters into loving, hating, and laughing, and everyone comes away better off for the experience. The man who wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream was Puck, but that man wasn’t the Earl of Oxford. Oxford was Oxford. Shakespeare was Puck.

Patrick Paterson, Class of 2012 (Claremont McKenna College)
Ward Elliott (professor)
Claremont Shakespeare Clinic

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