Someone actually made a movie based on the modern conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare’s plays were in fact the work of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, writing under a pen-name. I’m almost, but not quite, curious to find out how Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous” attempts to explain how Oxford, who died in 1604, managed to write the last 10 or so plays that virtually all Shakespeare scholars say were written after 1604.
I suppose it was bound to happen eventually.
Someone actually made a movie based on the modern conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare’s plays were in fact the work of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, writing under a pen-name.
I’m almost, but not quite, curious to find out how Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous” attempts to explain how Oxford, who died in 1604, managed to write the last 10 or so plays that virtually all Shakespeare scholars say were written after 1604. Were they written by Oxford’s ghost perhaps?
Given modern man’s penchant for irrationalism, it would be surprising if the greatest playwright in the English language did not become the subject of a ridiculous conspiracy theory. Still, despite its dependence on shoddy scholarship, Oxfordianism at least is a testament to Shakespeare’s greatness and abiding influence on our civilization.
It’s far from the only absurd idea about Shakespeare and his plays floating around out there, though. Recently I encountered the belief that the names of Rosenkranz and Guildenstern, two relatively minor characters in “Hamlet,” prove that Shakespeare was an anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic bigot.
Anti-Catholic? An interesting question. In recent years some writers have argued very compellingly that Shakespeare was a clandestine Catholic, and now the Vatican’s newspaper has even chimed in with the opinion that there is “little doubt” that Shakespeare was Catholic. The least we can say is that any anti-Catholic sentiments Shakespeare may have held were not overtly presented in his writing.
But anti-Semitic? In light of the culture and age in which Shakespeare lived, it would be shocking if Shakespeare did not hold anti-Semitic prejudices. Nevertheless, I would have thought it’s “The Merchant of Venice,” not “Hamlet,” where one would more reasonably expect to find evidence of anti-Semitism.
What about the names Rosenkranz and Guildenstern could be anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic? “Rosenkranz,” you see, is German for “a garland of roses” or “a rosary,” while “Guildenstern” is, well, it’s just so obviously Jewish, isn’t it? Rosenkranz and Guildenstern are bad guys, and clearly only somebody who hates Catholics and Jews would give those names to a couple of bad guys, right?
Wrong. For one thing, Claudius and Polonius are even greater villains in “Hamlet,” yet neither of them has a Catholic or a Jewish name. For another thing, most Jews that Shakespeare and his audiences would have encountered in England were Sephardic, with Spanish names, not Ashkenazic, with German names.
But most important, in the play the characters of Rosenkranz and Guildenstern are never presented as a Catholic-Jewish pair. Rather, they’re said to be nobles attached to the Danish royal court — and wouldn’t you know it, the Danish and Swedish noble families of Rosencrantz and Gyldenstjerne (or Gyllenstierna) were relatively prominent in Scandinavia during the 1500s and 1600s. Shakespeare critic Charles Boyce has noted that at the Danish royal coronation of 1596, 10 percent of the nobility in attendance had either the name of Rosencrantz or Gyldenstjerna.
Another fascinating detail is that the Danish ambassadors Frederick Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstierne visited England in 1592. Around this same time, the surnames of Rosencrantz and Gyllenstierna frequently appear among the students at the University of Wittenberg. Interestingly enough, Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet studied at that same university, and he refers to Rosenkranz and Guildenstern as “my two schoolfellows.”
Only a coincidence? Perhaps. But much more reasonable and obvious an explanation than discovering hidden prejudices in the Bard of Avon’s choice of names for a pair of sycophantic Danish courtiers.
What’s in a name? Not necessarily what you think.
Jared Olar may be reached at email@example.com.