NEW YORK, N.Y. - O, for a juicy literary dispute that would pit scholars against Hollywood, with charges of snobbery, materialism, elitism and opportunism flying around like so many slings and arrows — not to mention the spectre of young minds poisoned by the character assassination of a hero.
Heard about the new movie "Anonymous"?
The film by Roland Emmerich, a director better known for apocalyptic blockbusters than period dramas, opens on Friday. But already, its contention that Shakespeare was a simpleton, a fraud and perhaps a murderer who never wrote a word of those great plays has set off some epic sniping of which the Bard himself might be proud.
"A new low for Hollywood," says Columbia University professor James Shapiro. "Completely grotesque," says Stanley Wells, of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Britain.
Emmerich says he's been called names, and screenwriter John Orloff says one critic even suggested he be taken "to the tower" — the Tower of London, that is. Orloff dismisses Shapiro's complaints as "frothing at the mouth."
Not that the authorship dispute is new, of course. It has been around since at least the mid-19th century (even that time is in dispute).
Nor is the film's main contention new, that the actual author was the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere: There's a whole "Oxfordian" school of thought, along with a "Baconian" school (Francis Bacon). Some think it was playwright Christopher Marlowe, or even Queen Elizabeth I herself.
But Emmerich's film goes further, pitting the story of Shakespeare in a political context involving a fight for succession using the plays as propaganda. As for Elizabeth: the Virgin Queen? Not so much. (The film suggests she had several children secretly, and one of them was born of incest.)
Also, some scholars are disturbed by the film's dismissal of complaints of factual errors with an "it's only a movie" explanation. "It's the best of both worlds for Emmerich," wrote Stephen Marche, a former Shakespeare professor, in The New York Times magazine. "He gets to question hundreds of years of legitimate scholarship ... because, after all, it's just a movie."
And then there's the educational push into schools. Sony, in concert with an educational company, has prepared study guides for educators on the authorship question, as with some previous films. "I don't have a problem with Roland Emmerich drinking the Kool-Aid," says Columbia's Shapiro. "But when he serves it to kids in paper cups, I do."
The acrimony is mystifying to some of the actors.
Rhys Ifans plays de Vere, and he feels like the authorship debate isn't even the central point of the film.
"It's a political thriller," Ifans says in an interview. "It's a historical piece, a visual banquet. And it shows the potency of the theatre as a vital form of change."
Ifans particularly enjoyed shooting the scenes where, as de Vere, he sits in a recreated Globe theatre and mouths his own words as the crowd becomes entranced. He is, of course, the author, but must keep that secret.
"I was really moved by the words," Ifans says. "We owe it to whoever wrote these plays — him, her or a group of people — to ask these questions."
The actor mimes pulling a text down from a high shelf, and blowing off the dust. "That's what Roland is doing," he says with a smile. "He's cleansing the plays, elevating them. It's really refreshing."
Joely Richardson plays the younger Elizabeth, and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, plays the older queen. Richardson says the cast would sit and discuss the authorship debate during filming.
Many were swayed, she says, by various points of Emmerich's argument: that Shakespeare was a country bumpkin with only a grammar-school education; that there's no physical evidence of his writing (even a letter); that his daughters were illiterate; that his will didn't refer to any plays or books.
"All of us started to get pretty convinced," she says, including her mother, "not necessarily that it was Oxford, but that it's definitely up for debate. There are just so many missing links."
Stratfordians argue the Oxfordian theory is simply impossible — de Vere died in 1604, before a number of Shakespeare's most famous plays were written. Others say not so fast: Do we really know when the plays were written, or are we guessing? About the will, Shapiro argues that like other wills of the time, it had a separate inventory that hasn't been found.
One of the more eloquent cases against the Stratfordian view comes from the celebrated Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, who was artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London for 10 years. He plays an actor in the film.
"This anger about the film is bizarre, because Shakespeare has always been a mystery," he says. "It's not like Emmerich is the first person to question this. Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, many others have. And even if we knew the answer, it would still be a mystery how one person did this, how he had a greater vocabulary than anyone else."
"But once you really look at the man from Stratford, the mystery gets larger," Rylance said in a telephone interview from London. "Because, what we know of him just doesn't correspond to a writer's life."
Rylance is one of more than 2,000 people who've signed a 2007 "declaration of reasonable doubt" about the authorship. Among his co-signers: fellow actors Derek Jacobi (also in the film) and Jeremy Irons, and two U.S. Supreme Court justices.
Most important for Rylance, who believes the plays could have been a collaboration, is the idea that the whole inquiry is based on a deeply felt appreciation for the work. "It stems from great love," he says.
As for Emmerich himself, he doesn't share the long history with the material that his actors do, nor did he study much Shakespeare in school in Germany. But, he says, "I was always the kid who asked, 'Why?'"
So when screenwriter Orloff pitched him a script he'd written years earlier, Emmerich became fascinated with the issue; he became convinced that the man from Stratford didn't write the plays.
"I'm 100 per cent sure of that," he says. The rest of the film, he adds, is merely presenting hypotheses of how things might have happened — including two fringe theories about Elizabeth and her supposed out-of-wedlock children.
"I really don't know what they're afraid about," says Emmerich of his critics, especially those worried about young people. "We have the greatest actors in this film, and they're doing Shakespeare's greatest hits. We're making Shakespeare cool!"
He jokes that no one is happy with him — not the Stratfordians, and not the Oxfordians. On that, he is correct.
"We're a bit ambivalent about it," says Richard Malim, general secretary of the De Vere Society in Britain. "It will make a lot of people sit up, but the trouble is there's so much manifest rubbish in it that we're in fear and trembling. It's completely unnecessary," he says of the more lurid elements about Elizabeth, "the most utter nonsense."
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is not ambivalent — it is furious. The charity, which promotes the playwright and his work, is running an online campaign to rebut the film's claims. It has also published an e-book, "Shakespeare Bites Back." And on Tuesday, it blacked out Shakespeare's name on road and pub signs in his home county of Warwickshire to highlight its campaign against the movie. It also covered a statue of the Bard with a sheet.
All of which puzzles the actors who are realizing Emmerich's vision.
"I don't see why people are threatened," says Joely Richardson. "At the end of the day, it's all celebrating Shakespeare."
That's how John McEneny feels. The drama teacher at Middle School 51 in Brooklyn, N.Y., is taking some 100 students to "Anonymous" next week. Why? "Both sides have some really good points," he says, noting there are disagreements even among his fellow teachers at school.
"If you believe the Stratfordians, you have to believe a dream — that this man could come from this small town and become the greatest writer in the world. If you believe the Oxfordians, you have to believe a conspiracy."
McEneny himself actually believes the answer is somewhere in the middle — a collaboration of some sort. Either way, he says, it's all good.
"It's a wonderful mystery," he says.
Associated Press writer Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.