Who wrote Shakespeare? Sounds like "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" Yet about 150 years ago, people on both sides of the Atlantic began asking how an otherwise obscure William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon could have crafted the most brilliant works in the English language. Most scholars regard this as an annoying sideshow; and only more annoying now that the film "Anonymous" has been released, purporting that Shakespeare was just a front for the pen and brain of the Earl of Oxford.
Cometh now Bert Fields. On his clients' clock, he's one of L.A.'s most renowned entertainment attorneys. On his own, he has written books examining whether Richard III was the monstrous murdering king of legend (and Shakespeare), and whether "the Stratford fellow" wielded the pen that wrote the plays. He and the "Anonymous" director, Roland Emmerich, just received the Crystal Quill award from the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. Fields was on a case in Washington, D.C., when we talked, but his heart was clearly in 16th-century England. And thereby hangs a tale....
The Shakespeare combatants champion many contenders -- playwright Christopher Marlowe, the thinker Sir Francis Bacon, and the subject of this film, the Earl of Oxford.
There's nothing agnostic about the film. They tell you it was Oxford and say a lot about Queen Elizabeth that I very strongly doubt: that she had six illegitimate children, that she was the mother of Oxford and almost everyone else in the cast! [But] it's a wonderful film, and beautifully directed.
I doubt even the pro-Oxford believers could be happy about all that implausible conjecture.
They're very happy. The film has Oxford as the nobleman who couldn't be seen to write for the public theater, [so he] had this theater owner/actor front for him for money. That may very well have happened. Supposedly [playwright] Ben Jonson, who's loyal to Oxford -- after Oxford's death he continues the charade. That's a little hard to believe.
Many people regard historically themed films as accurate. They think of Oliver Stone's "JFK" as documentary. Is there a danger in this?
It's a very valid point, with film but also with books. You write a book, somebody quotes it, it becomes part of the lore. And a film even more so. I think millions of people, literally, are going to believe the fellow from Stratford did not write Shakespeare's poems and plays. They're going to think Oxford did. And that may be true. And it may not. We just don't know.
The Shakespeare-as-Shakespeare people must be tearing their hair out.
They are tearing their hair out. I'm sure Roland Emmerich has gotten tremendous amounts of hate mail. People were very angry at my [Shakespeare] book, "Players," but here's a film that cuts right to the heart of what these people believe.
As you know, I don't take a hard position one way or the other. There are good arguments both ways. It would be really nice if someone did a film on the other side and you could play them back to back and say, "What do you think?" to the audience.
Don't we judge the past through our own standards and culture, which may account for these doubts?
There's a lot to that. But the things we know about Shakespeare you could put down on one page or maybe a page and a half. How did this guy with a fourth-grade or maybe sixth-grade education in a rural school learn fluent French, courtly French, Italian, Greek and Latin? Where did he learn legal terms and military terms and use them metaphorically? I'm not saying they're dispositive, far from that, but an intelligent person, being objective, would have to say there's an issue. To say "Oh, there's no issue" is putting your head in the sand.
I think the Shakespeare canon is the greatest body of work ever generated in the English language, but that doesn't mean I can't question whether this fellow from Stratford wrote [it].
As a lawyer you're used to arguing one side or another. Are your books different?
When I put on my historical hat, I try to be objective, as opposed to an advocate. By the way, it is the mark of a good lawyer that he can see both sides of the question and understand his opponent's case even though he is arguing his own. When it comes to history, I try to apply that skill to both sides; here, there are about eight sides!
Can't you in fact apply evidentiary standards? His name does appear on the plays, and his contemporaries acclaimed him as the author.
If I were applying legal standards, it would be a very tough case. We have the First Folio [bearing Shakespeare's name]. Oxfordians say it doesn't really mean the guy from Stratford wrote the plays. I think it does. I don't think there's any way to construe [the Folio] other than [that] the guy from Stratford wrote the plays -- that's what the First Folio says. But that doesn't mean it's true, because the First Folio could be a fraud, deliberately created by Ben Jonson, who was handsomely paid by the families who were involved. That's a tough sell because any time you've got a written document that's stood up for years, and you're going to say it's a fraud, you'd better damn well prove it's a fraud! The anti-Strats have to overcome the First Folio and [Stratford's Shakespeare] monument, and that's why a judge might say, "Good try, but you really haven't convinced me the First Folio is a fake.'' All I can really conclude is I think there's definitely an issue and I don't think we should close our minds to either side.
How much of this is our fondness for conspiracy theories about complex, massive coverups?
I think there's a tendency in the modern world to look for conspiracies, and this is an ideal conspiracy. [The phone line goes dead; we reconnect.]
The ghost of Francis Walsingham -- who was Queen Elizabeth I's sinister spymaster -- must have cut us off.
He could have! He could do anything, that guy.
Many years ago, three U.S. Supreme Court justices held a moot court on the authorship question. With some reservations, the justices sided 2 to 1 with Shakespeare-as-Shakespeare.
[Chuckles.] Yeah, well, courts are courts, and they're not always right. That doesn't mean they're wrong in this instance. If they bring their own prejudices, like any judge does, they have to try to divest themselves of those prejudices. And unlike the usual law case, there really isn't any hard evidence.
My book group read "Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?" by James Shapiro. Interestingly, the Americans in the group thought Shakespeare was an authentic genius who wrote the plays. The Englishman, an Oxford graduate, said, tosh, not possible -- the Earl of Oxford wrote them.Usually it's a little bit the opposite -- Americans are much more ready to find a conspiracy to discredit the guy from Stratford; the English, especially if you go to Stratford, you don't dare say the guy from Stratford didn't write it. That's what's keeping all the taverns and hotels alive!If you weren't lawyering, would you be a historian?If I weren't lawyering and I couldn't be a professional football player, I would probably be a historian.What is it that grabs you?I've always loved English history. The characters are marvelous and there's no language barrier. I can make out a little bit of Middle English. Chaucer isn't that bad -- "Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote/The droghte of March hath perced to the roote." That's about [all] I know.Listen to you! What are your favorite Shakespeare plays?I really like the histories. I love "Richard III" even though I think it's dead wrong [about Richard's character]. If you're balancing his talent and abilities against what happened to him, he's probably the most tragic figure [to sit on the English throne].The interest in historical mysteries -- is that the lawyer in you, or the historian?I think [it's] the lawyer. I'm fascinated with trying to solve these mysteries, and of course they're basically insoluble because of all the time that's gone by. But we can come closer in the case of Richard III than in the case of Shakespeare. We'll probably never know the truth about Shakespeare.This authorship question didn't come up until the mid-19th century, but combatants have made up for lost time.People have the strongest feelings! This lady in New York came up to me after a lecture and said, "Mr. Fields, you don't understand -- Francis Bacon is Shakespeare." I guess she just lives this. There are Baconian societies, Oxfordian societies. Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, Oliver Wendell Holmes -- the list of names of distinguished thinkers who have questioned the authorship of this man I call the fellow from Stratford. T.S. Eliot said the best we can hope for in talking about the Shakespeare authorship is to be wrong in some new and different firstname.lastname@example.org.This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times