Patt Morrison Asks: Canon lawyer, Bert Fields

A look into who wrote Shakespeare's works.

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?

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