Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare in "Anonymous." (Reiner Bajo / Columbia TriStar )
Roland Emmerich's film "Anonymous" has stoked those ancient tribal hatreds always ready to erupt over the question of who wrote Shakespeare's plays, the good old Bard of Avon or, as the lunatic fringe would have it, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
Partial as I am to fact-based reality, I'm unequivocally in the Shakespeare camp. But I think the discussion sets up something of a false choice, one that perpetuates myths about the individual talent and notions about modern authorship that are anachronistic when applied to Shakespeare.
As any bright English major can tell you, the entity known as Shakespeare is in no small part the product of poets before him and editors, scholars and theater artists after him. Speculating on his identity is as doomed an enterprise as writing an intimate biography of Jesus. Rather than spend so much time digging up and defending truths about the man, why not turn some of this obsessive curiosity toward that which allowed him to become the institution that he is today?
But first there are gnats to swat. The "Oxfordian" line of reasoning, cartoonishly adopted by "Anonymous," holds that Shakespeare's lowly socioeconomic status makes it inconceivable that he could have written plays of such exquisite merit. Heavyweight Shakespeare scholars such as Harvard's Stephen Greenblatt and Columbia's James Shapiro have effectively dismantled this argument, which exploits gaps in the historical record and thrives on conjecture. But like those who deny global warming, President Obama's birth certificate and the basic tenets of Darwinian evolution, the Oxfordians prefer shadowy doubts to irrefutable data. That De Vere died in 1604, years before a few of Shakespeare's prodigious masterpieces were completed, is of little consequence to their conspiratorial parlor game.
My impatience with the Shakespeare disbelievers, however, doesn't translate into an affirmation of the notion that the cavalcade of great works attributed to him tumbled out of his imagination the way that "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina" tumbled out of Tolstoy's. My own view is that although Shakespeare is indisputably the master architect of his work — the genius in chief, if you will — his plays took a literary village.
This isn't a sly way of flipping the Bard the bird. The miracle of Shakespeare is that he combines one of the most exacting poetic minds with the keenest of dramatic imaginations. But he wasn't divorced from tradition. Cultural context can't account for the rise of the unmatched virtuoso, but extricate Shakespeare from his milieu and you misrepresent his accomplishment, turning him into a false god rather than celebrating the wonder of a glover's son from Stratford becoming the most revered dramatist of all time.
No one seems to mind that "The Comedy of Errors" apes Plautus or that Christopher Marlowe supplied an early tragic model. But does it cause too much cognitive dissonance to remember that "Hamlet" is based on an earlier tragedy, a lost work sometimes attributed to Thomas Kyd? That the main plot of "King Lear" is largely drawn from an anonymous play, "King Leir"? That some of the most memorable characters of "As You Like It" were introduced in a frolicsome romance by Thomas Lodge?
Writing in an age unconstrained by modern copyright laws, Shakespeare roamed free through Italian, French and English literature. What we would call plagiarism today was considered borrowing back then, a practice cradled in the curriculum. The Renaissance value of learning through imitation, drilled into precocious schoolboys like Shakespeare, who spent hours upon hours absorbing and adapting Latin texts, encouraged budding poets to raid the literary storehouse.
Shakespeare, of course, never simply filched. Whatever he touched, he alchemized. His poetic and dramatic instincts could spin gold out of dross. A tragic bend in his nature opened him to mystery, ambiguity, doubt. His Lear and Cordelia don't survive and live happily ever after, as their precursors do. In "Othello," it is the Moor who alone kills Desdemona, not alongside his evil Ensign, who beats her to death in the mid-16th century Italian novella that fired Shakespeare's imagination. Acknowledge the compelling darkness as his own, but more often than not he wasn't inventing out of whole cloth.