It has long been claimed that Shakespeare was not the true author of the works published under his name. This strange conspiracy theory dates back to the Victorian period, but it has recently entered wider popular culture through the film Anonymous, in which the real author is revealed to be the Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. This is not the first time that this idea has appeared in a film. Back in World War II Leslie Howard starred in Pimpernel Smith, an anti-Nazi propaganda movie in which the same claim was made. Where does this argument come from?
In fact the earl’s authorship was first proposed by a Gateshead school-teacher born in South Shields. His theory rapidly took off. Many followers developed his ideas, including Sigmund Freud. Some of these theories evolved into the remarkable claim that the earl had fathered a child with Queen Elizabeth. This story was said to be encoded in the works of Shakespeare.
This talk will look at the history of these “authorship theories”, assess their significance and examine the reasons why they have come about. We will also explore the “mythic” aspects of the story of Shakespeare and his role in British and American culture.
Paul Barlow is senior lecturer in the History of art at the University of Northumbria. He is the author of Time Present and Time Past, a critical biography of the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. He has also written widely on other aspects of British art and culture, including on Ruskin, Carlyle and other Victorian writers. He is currently researching aspects of Celtic culture in Brittany, and representations of Shakespeare.