Sunday, August 02, 2015

Who Wrote Shake-speare: Why It Matters

[Note: Cheryl Eagan-Donovan, author of this guest blog post, has launched a Kickstarter for her documentary Nothing is Truer Than Truth, which is partly based on "Shakespeare" by Another Name. She's now working with a great composer on the film's score and a top editor who, among numerous credits, worked on the Academy Award-nominated film Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me.

A guest post by documentary filmmaker Cheryl Eagan-Donovan

I am often asked why it matters who wrote Shake-speare. As a writer, educator, and parent, my answer is that it matters now more than ever. Great writing is the result of access to great books, the ability to draw on and synthesize life experience, and the art of relentless revision.  The author of the world’s greatest literary works must have had these opportunities and developed these skills. Education is the pursuit of knowledge combined with constant critical analysis that challenges what we know and how we know it. I teach writing, literature, and cinema with the aim of inspiring my students to become lifelong learners, actively engaged in research, discovery, and innovation.  

I discovered Edward de Vere in a history class at Harvard University. Professor Don Ostrowski suggested the authorship question as a topic for an essay on source material and history, and recommended J. Thomas Looney’s book, Shakespeare Identified. Looney noted Shakespeare’s conflicted feelings toward women and analyzed De Vere’s early poetry. Having written poetry and completed an independent study on the theme of androgyny in Shakespeare’s work, I was convinced by Looney’s argument that De Vere was the true Shakespeare. I searched for other books on the topic and found Joseph Sobran’s Alias Shakespeare. Sobran makes a very strong case for De Vere’s sexual preference as the reason for the pseudonym. 

Sobran links the publishing of the Folio of Shakespeare’s work in 1623 with the suppression of the Sonnets: “It makes no mention of Southampton, to whom all of Shakespeare’s major nondramatic poetry had been addressed.” He further suggests that “One aim of the Folio… was to portray Shakespeare as a mere untitled common player…thereby implicitly dissociating him from Southampton and the poems written in his honor – thus burying any memory of the homosexual amour between Oxford and Southampton, who was still very much alive and to be reckoned with.”  Sobran concludes, “The 1623 Folio deliberately focused entirely on the plays and so reinvented Shakespeare.” (1)

After reading Looney and Sobran, I did some research on the still nascent internet and learned that Mark Anderson was writing a biography of De Vere. I knew that I wanted to option Mark’s book, “Shake-speare” By Another Name, to make a film, before he had even finished writing it. As a writer, I immediately recognized its narrative potential. De Vere’s story has all the elements of the archetypal hero’s journey, from losing his father at age twelve, to answering the call to adventure on the continent, and returning home to England with the Holy Grail of the Renaissance and commedia dell’arte. Mark is one of the world’s leading scholars in authorship studies research, and I am honored to have had the opportunity to adapt his seminal work. As an educator and a parent, I also recognized the importance of acknowledging the themes of sexuality and gender identity in the canon and their relationship to the author’s life. 

I am not alone in my reading of many of the Sonnets as homosexual love poems, nor am I the only one to identify the theme of bisexuality in so much of Shakespeare’s work.  Marjorie Garber, Harold Bloom, Stanley Wells, Rene Weis, and Stephen Greenblatt are just a few of the Shakespeare scholars who acknowledge the significance of sex and gender identity in the canon. None of these authors, however, is an Oxfordian. In my essay for the Harvard history class, I concluded that the author’s bisexuality was the reason for the resistance to De Vere as Shakespeare in academia. 

While making the documentary film, Nothing is Truer than Truth, I discovered some facts to support my thesis. Many of the university professors I contacted preferred not to appear on camera, or politely declined to be interviewed. De Vere remains taboo on most college campuses. I learned more about the relationship between Elizabethan theater and the sexual behavior of actors and patrons at the playhouses. I researched the attitudes towards sexuality and gender identity in late-sixteenth century Venice. I read respected authors and interviewed scholars about the use of pseudonyms by writers throughout history. I found a correlation between the use of a pen name and a desire to conceal sexual preference by several playwrights and authors. Though this evidence is circumstantial, I am committed to the premise that De Vere’s sexuality is a major reason for the pseudonym. 

When I discovered De Vere in 1997, Ellen DeGeneres had just become the first television personality to come out on the air.  Much progress has been made in terms of attitudes toward sexual preference and gender identity in the past eighteen years, but some things remain unchanged. Students are still persecuted in schools and online for not conforming to sex-role stereotypes. Bullying behavior is often related to anxiety about sexual identity. Bisexuality, like homosexuality, was not just marginalized but denied by many people until quite recently. Science has proven that human experience includes a broad spectrum of gender identity and sexual preference. Shakespeare’s writing reflects an unprecedented awareness of psychology and behavior. 

As a writer and filmmaker, I bring to this project the point of view that defines an author: the search for voice and identity. I am committed to providing students the opportunity to express themselves through words and visual images, and to develop their own unique and powerful voices. Through understanding Shakespeare, we can enhance our knowledge of human behavior and the complexities of interpersonal communications. 

Shakespeare for Bullies, the educational outreach program for my film, empowers students to change behavior by sharing their stories. The interactive website aggregates the canon, commentary, extant letters and poetry written by De Vere, and students’ own stories, providing a resource for learning and a platform for communication. By focusing our attention on the search for identity and cultivating respect for differences, Shakespeare can be not just an effective tool for confronting the self-perpetuating violence of bullying, but a catalyst for lasting change. 

Please join me in bringing Nothing is Truer than Truth to audiences around the world, because it really does matter who wrote Shake-speare. 

(1) Sobran, Joseph, Alias Shakespeare, New York, The Free Press, A Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1997, pp.  219-220