When the Supreme Court Weighed in on Shakespeare vs. Oxford

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 4 2011 1:02 PM

Shakespeare vs. Oxford: A Supreme Court Ruling

Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

The fear shared by James Shapiro, Stephen Marche, and Slate’s own Ron Rosenbaum—namely, that the movie Anonymous would popularize the odd notion that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays of William Shakespeare—appears to have been unfounded: Box Office Guru says the film earned roughly one million dollars last weekend in 265 theaters “for a lackluster $3,774 average.” (Originally slated for a wide release, the movie’s opening was scaled back “less than two weeks before opening day.”) And the reviews weren’t any kinder: the movie has a 46% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 51 on Metacritic.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

So maybe now we can go back to enjoying Shakespeare conspiracy theories for what they are: a bizarre element of modern culture that for whatever reason will not go away.

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In that spirit I direct your attention to a surprisingly delightful video provided by C-Span: Shakespeare: Author or Pseudonym?, a moot court held on November 25, 1987, and officiated, remarkably enough, by three then-sitting Supreme Court Justices: William Brennan, Harry Blackmun, and John Paul Stevens.

The full backstory to this unusual event can be found in a long, 1988 New Yorker story by James Lardner (subscription required). As Lardner explains, the man who made it happen was David Lloyd Kreeger, a “Washington lawyer, businessman, and philanthropist” who made a fortune in the insurance business (he became president of Geico in 1964) and was able to persuade his “old friends” Blackmun and Brennan, along with one of their Supreme Court colleagues, to hear the case for Edward de Vere.

Thanks in part, perhaps, to Good Morning America, which mentioned the event, roughly 1,000 people (a capacity crowd) came to the Metropolitan Memorial Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., to hear Peter Jaszi argue for de Vere and James Boyle argue for Shakespeare.

Watching them now, the proceedings seem an odd mix of the solemn and the silly, with Boyle referring to “my client, William Shakespeare,” and Justice Stevens occasionally fishing for laughs. But, as Lardner reports, the Oxfordians were quite serious about the whole endeavor.

Sadly for them, the moot court ultimately decided for “the Stratford man,” as the Oxfordians call him (Jaszi pronounces his name “shack-spear” throughout, to distinguish him from the author of the plays—a clever lawyer’s trick, if you ask me). On the plus side, Blackmun and Stevens expressed reservations about the decision—and, in 2009, Stevens told the Wall Street Journal that he had come around: He now believes that Edward de Vere wrote the plays.

In fact, of the nine justices active on the court in April 2009, only William Kennedy and Stephen Breyer openly favored Shakespeare (Roberts, Thomas, and Alito declined to comment). It was a rare point of agreement between the liberal Stevens and the conservative Antonin Scalia, who suggested to the Journal that “the pro-Shakespearean people” might be “affected by a democratic bias” in wishing to believe “a commoner” could have written the plays.

Last week, just before the premiere of Anonymous, I contacted the now retired Justice Stevens through a Supreme Court spokesperson. He’s interested in seeing the movie, I was told. I don’t know if he saw it on opening weekend; if he waited, doing so has gotten (slightly) easier: Anonymous expands to 513 theaters today.