At the start of "Anonymous," actor Derek Jacobi asks the audience, "What if I told you Shakespeare never wrote a single word?"
That, in fact, is the premise of director Roland Emmerich's film, which opened Friday. It portrays William Shakespeare as a barely literate actor who falsely claims credit for the more than 30 plays, to say nothing of the 154 sonnets — all in reality written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.
In the film, the earl wished it that way. "In my world, one does not write plays; people like you do," he tells Shakespeare. Translation: It's below the dignity of a nobleman to be known as a "scribbler." But in "Anonymous," the earl is a compulsive playwright. Voices in his head tell him to write the immortal tragedies, histories and comedies that most people associate with the Bard of Avon.
The real authorship of Shakespeare's plays has been in dispute for years, largely because of the scant evidence linking the actor from Stratford-on-Avon to his enduring body of work. Columbia University Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, author of "Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?" says Samuel Moshein Schmucker, an American Lutheran pastor, inadvertently launched the controversy in the mid-1800s.
In refuting historic doubts regarding the existence of Christ, Schmucker suggested — rhetorically — that the same doubts could be raised about the non-controversial existence of Shakespeare, and then listed some of the questions. Analysts have been debating them ever since.
But if "Anonymous" has a "patron saint," it's Thomas Looney, an English schoolteacher who in 1930 first championed Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the author of Shakespeare's plays.
"Anonymous" also advances other historically dubious claims, such as that de Vere was both the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I and, subsequently, her lover. Their son together was the Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare's sonnets are dedicated. In the movie, of course, that dedication is explained as a father's affection for his son.
"By bringing this unsubstantiated version of history to the screen, a lot of facts — theatrical and historical — are trampled," Mr. Shapiro wrote recently in the New York Times.
If the film gives so-called Oxfordians a boost, de Vere is still only one of many candidates put forward as the real claimant to Shakespeare's genius, including the Elizabethan philosopher Francis Bacon, and even two women.
A movement called the Shakespeare Authorship Trust declares on its website that it was founded because "there is room for reasonable doubt about the identity of William Shakespeare" and what he stands for.
An online trust manifesto listing the arguments against Shakespearean authorship is signed by more than 2,000 supporters, including former Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and John Paul Stevens. Justice Antonin Scalia has been quoted as leaning in that direction.
Derek Jacobi, a prominent member of the trust, says, "I'm on the side of those who do not believe that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays. I think the name was a pseudonym, certainly. [The film] puts the authorship question firmly and squarely on the big screen. It's a very risky thing to do, and obviously the orthodox Stratfordians are going to be apoplectic with rage."
Basic to the debate is the elitist assumption that Shakespeare, the son of a glover from a provincial town, without a college education, would not have had the wide range of knowledge displayed in the plays: law, classical literature, philosophy, falconry, and details of court life in England, France and Italy. Such erudition "was the exclusive province of the upper classes," says the trust document, and "no record places Shakespeare among them for any length of time." Furthermore, it says, only a courtier with a lofty spirit could write such poetic language.
"I don't buy the argument that a middle-class man who went to school couldn't be a genius," counters Michael Kahn, longtime director of Washington's Shakespeare Theater. "Picasso was a genius."
Even a genius has to learn somewhere, the skeptics insist, and Shakespeare, says the authorship trust, "is the only presumed writer of his time for whom there is no contemporary evidence of a writing career."
But the operative word in the debate is evidence, which is spread thinly in all directions. Pro-Shakespeare scholars and critics, known as Stratfordians, point out that there are no discernible ties linking anyone else, including the Earl of Oxford, to the plays or poems. "Anonymous" is not likely to make a dent in their conviction.
"I see no danger of us ever having to change our name to the 'Folger Oxford Library,'" says Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. "I'm delighted that after 400 years questions surrounding his life can still fill theaters, but as a scholar there seems no evidence to confirm the hypothesis that there was this grand conspiracy to cover up the real author of the plays."
Adds Mr. Witmore, "If a piece of paper is going to turn up someday saying, 'I, the Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays,' it's going to be found in a library, hopefully here."
"I don't think any new facts are going to come to light. They're buried with Shakespeare," says Mr. Kahn. "But people believe conspiracy theories very quickly these days, and a lot of young people are going to believe this movie."