ARI SHAPIRO, host: What if? Those two words ignite the plot and the controversy behind a new movie. "Anonymous" dares to imagine a different identity for the world's most celebrated playwright.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANONYMOUS")
Sir DEREK JACOBI: We all know William Shakespeare, the most famous author of all time. But what if I told you Shakespeare never wrote a single word?
SHAPIRO: "Anonymous" conjures up an Elizabethan England of dark motivations, political maneuverings and conspiracy. It's a conspiracy in which William Shakespeare was merely a front man.
Renee spoke with the screenwriter of the movie.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host: First, a bit of background, the authorship question has been around since the 1800s. And great minds, including Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and several Supreme Court justices have publicly doubted that William Shakespeare wrote those plays and sonnets; doubted that this businessman and sometime actor had the learning and life experience.
Screenwriter John Orloff became intrigued with the idea back in graduate school, an idea many view as blasphemous.
JOHN ORLOFF: I've been a dinner parties - 'cause, you know, I've been trying to get this movie made forward two decades. I've had people at dinner parties start screaming at me. Just casual dinner party, what are you working on? Oh, well, working on blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And, I mean, they get very angry.
MONTAGNE: In "Anonymous," the movie, the true playwright is the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. De Vere was a great patron of the theater, 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.
ORLOFF: His biography becomes fascinating 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.
MONTAGNE: Well, in the movie, the Earl, Edward de Vere, does not approach William Shakespeare, the actor, to serve as the front for his plays. Instead, he approaches another writer, initially, who would in real life become England's first poet laureate. That's Ben Johnson.
ORLOFF: Yes, Ben Johnson is a fascinating man in his own right, as well. And I noticed in my initial research that Johnson seemed to have a very complex relationship to William Shakespeare. On one hand, he called him the Soul of the Age. On the other hand, he called him the Poet Ape, and he dedicated a scene or two in his plays, caricaturing William Shakespeare.
And there was this moment where I thought, well, what if he's talking about two different people. And so, that sort of led to me to have the dramatic conceit that the Earl of Oxford first approaches this young and hungry playwright called Ben Johnson. But Mister Johnson 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 in his stead.
MONTAGNE: Let's play a scene from the movie, "Anonymous." Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, has just handed a play that he's written to Ben Johnson when he's still soliciting him. And Johnson, stunned, that he wants him to stay each the play under Johnson's name.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANONYMOUS")
SEBASTIAN ARMESTO: (as Ben Johnson) My name, my Lord?
RHYS IFANS: (as Edward de Vere) Well, I can't very well use my name, can I? I am the 17th Earl of Oxford, The Lord Great Chamberlain of England, Viscount Bulbeck, Lord of Escales, Sanford and Badlesmere, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. No, I have a reputation to protect.
(as Edward de Vere) In my world, one does not write plays, Johnson. People like you do.
MONTAGNE: Now, why would a powerful earl not have put his name or been able to put his name on plays, because aristocrats did write poetry and passed it around? Why not plays?
ORLOFF: Well, we need to look at this through the lens of the 16th century and not the 21st century, where we, sort of, worship celebrity. They didn't, quite the opposite - celebrity was something to be avoided at all costs. And in de Vere's, the Earl of Oxford's, particular case, he was married to the daughter of Elizabeth's most powerful minister. And so, he was privy to things that he probably shouldn't be talking about.
So the most powerful man in England, who just happens to be Oxford's father-in-law, isn't going to want his son-in-law to be publishing under his own name.
MONTAGNE: But you suggest in the movie, that it would be dangerous for him to write and be known to write these plays.
ORLOFF: Well, it was dangerous for anybody. Ben Johnson was arrested numerous times. Playwrights had their hands cut off if they got in the way of the government. So 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.
MONTAGNE: You know, it would seem that you do want viewers to embrace, not just this movie as a political thriller, but also the notion that Shakespeare did not write the great works that bear his name. But there are so many historical inaccuracies in "Anonymous." I mean, look, I'll just name one, but there're many.
The famous playwright Christopher Marlowe, he's a character in the movie. But he was dead by the time your movie takes place.
MONTAGNE: And there are many more like that.
ORLOFF: Well, I wouldn't say there's many more.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ORLOFF: But we take Shakespeare as our example in that. You know, his wonderful histories are filled with things like characters - since you brought this up - characters that are dead by the time the events in the play take place. So there is a tradition in dramatic retelling of history to make it work within a dramatic structure. Real life doesn't unfold in three acts, but a movie has to.
MONTAGNE: You have assembled quite a cast in this movie. It includes Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth, Sir Derek Jacobi. Do these actors not fear for their reputations?
ORLOFF: Well, some of them are already very clear in their thoughts. Like Sir Derek Jacobi is a very outspoken Oxfordian and believes Oxford wrote the plays. Many of the actors who worked on the film ended up having their own doubts creep in. And some, of course, didn't. And that's all fine, because, at the end of the day, what we're really doing is having a question about art and politics, and the process of creativity and where does it come from. 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.
MONTAGNE: Although, really, it is about who wrote the plays.
ORLOFF: No, it's not. It truly isn't. I mean I take issue with that. That is the starting off point for the film. If we just wanted to make a movie about who wrote the Shakespeare plays, we would have made a documentary. We would have made it an entirely different movie.
MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.
ORLOFF: My pleasure, thank you.
MONTAGNE: John Orloff wrote the screenplay for the movie, "Anonymous," which arrives in theaters today.
SHAPIRO: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Renee Montagne, I'm Ari Shapiro. Have a great weekend.