A new film Anonymous sets out the latest and least probable of the theories that suggest that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. In this case the putative author is Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford. As the critics tell us, this particular candidate needn’t detain us long: there is no evidence linking him with Shakespeare’s plays, and he died before 10 of them were written.

Oxford does share an aristocratic status with others whose names have been put forward – not by themselves, it should be added: nobody has claimed in their lifetime or their wills that they were the true author of plays that even in Shakespeare’s lifetime were noted works. So to believe this conspiracy theory we have to accept that ‘the true author’ was remarkably unmotivated by fame or profit. One can speculate that an aristocrat might be such a person, and might regard such a deception as some kind of courtly game. Undoubtedly too aristocrats of the time had the leisure time to write, and many did so. But as has been often said, a deeper and more disturbing prejudice lies behind the denial of Shakespeare – an unwillingness to accept that a poor boy could be a great poet and playwright. Great things are the preserves of great men (usually men) from great families.

There are several things that are surprising about this theory of art, apart from the fact that there is little evidence to support it: for every Michelangelo there is a Leonardo. It is less surprising that such sentiments should persist in the UK, which has had difficulties in shaking off its traditions of deference and currently if anything seems to be reinventing them. But why should such a vapid theory become such a big production number in the home of modern republican democracy, the United States? Is this a small sign of a transition to more imperial styles of popular culture, on parallel tracks to Hollywood’s poorly evidenced claims to a monopoly of deeds of valour in world war two?

But in contemporary American popular and political culture of the United States respect for evidence itself seems to been having a hard time. The legacy of Postmodernism seems to have become a licence to believe almost anything: creationism, collateralised debt obligations, tea party economics. Debate is lionised, conviction is preferred to evidence, action legitimises, as in the extra-judicial killing of those on the national ‘most wanted’ list.

In a chillingly cynical piece of commercial marketing, Anonymous has been promoted in the US through the distribution to schools of classroom packs to promote debate on the movies’ theories. Some schools apparently accept these, seemingly unaware that instead of honing the debating and analytic skills of their pupils they are deadening them. Ironically, Shakespeare, who understood better than most the black art of aligning historical narratives with the realities of early imperial power, might not be turning in his grave.