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Documentary questions Shakespeare as playwright

 Posted: 2:00 AM October 05, 2012

Documentary filmmaker Lisa Wilson has wondered whether William Shakespeare really penned the plays that bear his name ever since she was a university student, picking up on subtexts, double-speak and hidden allusions in the plays while going through a series of acting exercises.

For more than two decades, Wilson and her twin, Laura Wilson Mathias, have explored the authorship question. They now have a new documentary about the issue, titled "Last Will & Testament," which officially debuts at the Austin Film Festival in Texas on Oct. 21.

But Ashland residents can watch the film during a free pre-release screening from 3 to 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, in the Schneider Art Museum Meese Auditorium on the Southern Oregon University campus. The museum is located at 1250 Siskiyou Blvd.

As a documentary, "Last Will & Testament" complements the feature film "Anonymous," which stirred debate when it opened in Ashland in 2011, positing the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, as the true author of Shakespeare's plays.

Wilson and Wilson Mathias served as script consultants on the feature film, and the director of "Anonymous," in turn, is the executive producer of "Last Will & Testament."

The sisters remain troubled by the possibility that Edward de Vere — or some other person — may have written the plays credited to Shakespeare, a merchant without de Vere's aristocratic upbringing and advanced education.

"What reached out to us was that there is a real person behind the text reaching out through the generations to appeal to us 400 years later to set his cause aright," Wilson said, noting that de Vere had been consigned to virtual oblivion.

Wilson said she would love to believe that Shakespeare the humble merchant could have written the plays, but there is little convincing documentation.

Meanwhile, she said de Vere had the right background to be the actual author and had numerous family ties to real people who scholars believe served as inspiration for various characters in the plays. As a member of the aristocracy, it would have been beneath de Vere's station to write plays.

"There was something known as 'the stigma of print.' A nobleman didn't write for the public theater," Wilson said. "You were a statesman. You didn't engage in frivolous things. You took on a pen name or concealed your name with anagrams. De Vere was the highest ranking earl of the court. You couldn't be seen penning plays for the common players."

The plays attributed to Shakespeare are also politically charged and lampoon many powerful figures of the day — adding to de Vere's motivation to keep his identity a secret if he really did author the plays, Wilson said. He possibly was a lover to Queen Elizabeth I or perhaps was her illegitimate son, Wilson said.

The film "Anonymous" portrays de Vere as both Queen Elizabeth I's secret son and unwittingly incestuous lover.

In the feature film, actress Vanessa Redgrave portrays the queen. Redgrave appears in "Last Will & Testimony," along with a host of other actors, writers and Shakespeare scholars.

Five years in the making, the documentary takes audiences to locations throughout the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany. Wilson Mathias said she and her sister are excited to bring the documentary to Ashland. The two will be on hand at the free SOU screening for a post-screening discussion.

"We couldn't be more pleased. Ashland is one of the high temples of the celebration of Shakespeare," Wilson Mathias said.

"Last Will & Testament" will be available via iTunes and On Demand on Oct. 23. For more information on the documentary, visit

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or

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