"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 theatre 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's 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'd 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's 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."