"What if" — two words that ignite the plot of Roland Emmerich's new movie Anonymous, which conjures up an Elizabethan England rife with dark motivations, political maneuverings and bold conspiracy, and dares to imagine a different identity for the world's most celebrated playwright. John Orloff wrote the screenplay for the movie, which starts with the premise that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare.
The authorship question isn't new. Since the 1800s, some — including Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and several Supreme Court justices — have publicly doubted that Shakespeare wrote those plays and sonnets, suggesting that a businessman and sometime actor didn't have the learning and life experience it would take.
Orloff became intrigued with the idea back in graduate school, and his script for Anonymous proposes that the true playwright was the 17th Earl of Oxford — Edward de Vere, a patron of the theater and an insider in Queen Elizabeth's court. Like King Lear, he was a widower with three daughters. Like Hamlet, his father died young and his mother remarried in haste. And unlike William Shakespeare, the Earl of Oxford traveled in Italy, where many of the plays are set.
"His biography becomes fascinating," Orloff tells NPR's Renee Montagne, "when you start to learn that events that happened in the plays seem to be autobiographical. And suddenly these plays cease to be the imagination of a genius, but rather the inner dialogue of a human being."
(The de Vere speculation is one that has been kicking around for decades, and one that holds little water with most scholars. "The fatal weakness of the Oxfordian theory is chronological, a weakness that Anonymous never addresses," notes Stephen Marche in a withering New York Times response.)
Nonetheless, Orloff buys it. The film he and Emmerich (2012, Independence Day) have put together imagines the Earl of Oxford approaching not Shakespeare, but the playwright Ben Jonson, who would eventually go on to be England's first poet laureate.
"I noticed in my initial research that Jonson seemed to have a complex relationship to William Shakespeare," Orloff says. "On one hand, he called him 'the soul of the age.' On the other hand, he called him 'the Poet Ape,' and he devoted a scene or two in his plays [to] caricaturing William Shakespeare."
A light bulb went off in Orloff's head.
"I thought, 'What if he's talking about two different people?' And so that led me to the dramatic conceit that the Earl of Oxford first approaches this young and hungry playwright called Ben Jonson. But Mr. Jonson doesn't want to be anybody's front; he wants to be famous for his own work, so he enlists the aid of his friend the actor William Shakespeare to be the beard instead."
Orloff argues that it's a reasonable notion in a world where aristocrats weren't expected to sully themselves in the disreputable — and occasionally politicized — world of the theater.
"We need to look at this through the lens of the 16th century," Orloff argues, "and not the 21st century, where we worship celebrity. They didn't. Quite the opposite: Celebrity was something to be avoided at all costs."
De Vere, son-in-law to one of Queen Elizabeth's most powerful ministers, and thus privy to state secrets, would have been particularly conscious of the risks, Orloff says.
"Playwrights had their hands cut off if they got in the way of the government," Orloff says. "It was actually quite a dangerous act to write a play that might annoy or anger the powers that be; it was a very dangerous thing to be a playwright in 1600."
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."
And in any case, Orloff says, he's less interested in the authorship question than in a bigger exploration.
"At the end of the day, what we're really doing is having a question about art and politics and the process of creativity," Orloff says. "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."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
What if? Those two words ignite the plot and the controversy behind a new movie. "Anonymous" dares to imagine a different identity for the world's most celebrated playwright.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANONYMOUS")
SHAPIRO: "Anonymous" conjures up an Elizabethan England of dark motivations, political maneuverings and conspiracy. It's a conspiracy in which William Shakespeare was merely a front man.
Renee spoke with the screenwriter of the movie.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
First, a bit of background, the authorship question has been around since the 1800s. And great minds, including Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and several Supreme Court justices have publicly doubted that William Shakespeare wrote those plays and sonnets; doubted that this businessman and sometime actor had the learning and life experience.
Screenwriter John Orloff became intrigued with the idea back in graduate school, an idea many view as blasphemous.
JOHN ORLOFF: I've been a dinner parties - âcause, you know, I've been trying to get this movie made forward two decades. I've had people at dinner parties start screaming at me. Just casual dinner party, what are you working on? Oh, well, working on blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And, I mean, they get very angry.
MONTAGNE: In "Anonymous," the movie, the true playwright is the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. De Vere was a great patron of the theater, an insider in Queen Elizabeth's court. Like King Lear, he was a widower with three daughters. Like Hamlet, his father died young and his mother remarried in haste. And unlike William Shakespeare, the Earl of Oxford traveled in Italy where many of the plays are set.
ORLOFF: His biography becomes fascinating when you start to learn that events that happened in the plays seem to be autobiographical. And suddenly these plays cease to be the imagination of a genius, but rather the inner dialogue of a human being.
MONTAGNE: Well, in the movie, the Earl, Edward de Vere, does not approach William Shakespeare, the actor, to serve as the front for his plays. Instead, he approaches another writer, initially, who would in real life become England's first poet laureate. That's Ben Johnson.
ORLOFF: Yes, Ben Johnson is a fascinating man in his own right, as well. And I noticed in my initial research that Johnson seemed to have a very complex relationship to William Shakespeare. On one hand, he called him the Soul of the Age. On the other hand, he called him the Poet Ape, and he dedicated a scene or two in his plays, caricaturing William Shakespeare.
And there was this moment where I thought, well, what if he's talking about two different people. And so, that sort of led to me to have the dramatic conceit that the Earl of Oxford first approaches this young and hungry playwright called Ben Johnson. But Mister Johnson doesn't want to be anybody's front; he wants to be famous for his own work. So he enlists the aid of his friend, the actor William Shakespeare, to be the beard in his stead.
MONTAGNE: Let's play a scene from the movie, "Anonymous." Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, has just handed a play that he's written to Ben Johnson when he's still soliciting him. And Johnson, stunned, that he wants him to stay each the play under Johnson's name.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANONYMOUS")
MONTAGNE: Now, why would a powerful earl not have put his name or been able to put his name on plays, because aristocrats did write poetry and passed it around? Why not plays?
ORLOFF: Well, we need to look at this through the lens of the 16th century and not the 21st century, where we, sort of, worship celebrity. They didn't, quite the opposite - celebrity was something to be avoided at all costs. And in de Vere's, the Earl of Oxford's, particular case, he was married to the daughter of Elizabeth's most powerful minister. And so, he was privy to things that he probably shouldn't be talking about.
So the most powerful man in England, who just happens to be Oxford's father-in-law, isn't going to want his son-in-law to be publishing under his own name.
MONTAGNE: But you suggest in the movie, that it would be dangerous for him to write and be known to write these plays.
ORLOFF: Well, it was dangerous for anybody. Ben Johnson was arrested numerous times. Playwrights had their hands cut off if they got in the way of the government. So it was actually quite a dangerous act to write a play that might annoy or anger the powers that be. It was a very dangerous thing to be a playwright in 1600.
MONTAGNE: You know, it would seem that you do want viewers to embrace, not just this movie as a political thriller, but also the notion that Shakespeare did not write the great works that bear his name. But there are so many historical inaccuracies in "Anonymous." I mean, look, I'll just name one, but there're many.
The famous playwright Christopher Marlowe, he's a character in the movie. But he was dead by the time your movie takes place.
MONTAGNE: And there are many more like that.
ORLOFF: Well, I wouldn't say there's many more.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ORLOFF: But we take Shakespeare as our example in that. You know, his wonderful histories are filled with things like characters - since you brought this up - characters that are dead by the time the events in the play take place. So there is a tradition in dramatic retelling of history to make it work within a dramatic structure. Real life doesn't unfold in three acts, but a movie has to.
MONTAGNE: You have assembled quite a cast in this movie. It includes Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth, Sir Derek Jacobi. Do these actors not fear for their reputations?
ORLOFF: Well, some of them are already very clear in their thoughts. Like Sir Derek Jacobi is a very outspoken Oxfordian and believes Oxford wrote the plays. Many of the actors who worked on the film ended up having their own doubts creep in. And some, of course, didn't. And that's all fine, because, at the end of the day, what we're really doing is having a question about art and politics, and the process of creativity and where does it come from. 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.
MONTAGNE: Although, really, it is about who wrote the plays.
ORLOFF: No, it's not. It truly isn't. I mean I take issue with that. That is the starting off point for the film. If we just wanted to make a movie about who wrote the Shakespeare plays, we would have made a documentary. We would have made it an entirely different movie.
MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.
ORLOFF: My pleasure, thank you.
MONTAGNE: John Orloff wrote the screenplay for the movie, "Anonymous," which arrives in theaters today.
SHAPIRO: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Renee Montagne, I'm Ari Shapiro. Have a great weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.