October 27, 2011

The Play’s the Thing, But History Still Matters

Hello. I'm Leonard Nimoy. The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It's all lies. But they're entertaining lies. And in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer is: No.
- The Simpsons, “The Springfield Files”

This past weekend, K and I were out at the West Virginia Book Festival, where we ran into my sister-in-law and my niece plowing through the used book sale. My niece, who’s in high school, already had two armfuls of books. Among them were a boatload of Shakespeare. She got them not to fulfill some requirement for English class, but because Shakespeare references were popping up lots of places and she wanted to know more about them (in contrast to her lunkhead classmates, as I understand it).

Yes, I was one proud uncle.

Perhaps inevitably, discussion slid towards Anonymous, the latest Roland Emmerich opus to hit the silver screen (opening tomorrow). It’s about how Shakespeare really didn’t write the stuff that’s attributed to him, giving the honor instead to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (who, in the movie, is also the son and lover of Queen Elizabeth I). It sounds like riveting, entertaining, popcorn scarfing fun. It’s also complete fiction.

Which, you know, is fine when it comes to drama. The parallel that immediately came to my mind when I heard about Anonymous was Amadeus, which tells the fictional tale of how Mozart was offed by a jealous rival.* It’s fantastic drama, but it ain’t history. Which is fine, as long as that’s all it presents itself as.

If only Anonymous was doing that. Instead, Emmerich and Sony “have produced a documentary and classroom study guide”  to go along with the film. Which is why Shakespeare scholars and boosters are pissed.

One scholar laid out the case against Anonymous in the New York Times last week. The de Vere theory has some history behind it, at least:
The case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, dates from 1920, when J. Thomas Looney, an English writer who loathed democracy and modernity, argued that only a worldly nobleman could have created such works of genius; Shakespeare, a glover’s son and money-lender, could never have done so. Looney also showed that episodes in de Vere’s life closely matched events in the plays.
Historian Simon Schama did a similarly caustic putdown here (http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/10/16/film-anonymous-doubts-shakespeare.html).

But what’s so wrong with a theory that’s famous believers include Freud, Antonin Scalia, and John Paul Stevens?
[P]romoters of de Vere’s cause have a lot of evidence to explain away, including testimony of contemporary writers, court records and much else that confirms that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. Meanwhile, not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects de Vere to any of the plays or poems. As for the argument that the plays rehearse the story of de Vere’s life: since the 1850s, when Shakespeare’s authorship was first questioned, the lives of 70 or so other candidates have also confidently been identified in them. Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing de Vere’s supporters is that he died in 1604, before 10 or so of Shakespeare’s plays were written.
Supporters of the Looney theory get around the lack of evidence in a way well known to modern political observers – a conspiracy theory! Thus, the absence of evidence is, in fact, evidence itself. The usual caveats about such things apply, of course, from the traditional problem of how all those conspirators kept the secret for so long to the equally prevalent issue of why would anyone care to put up and maintain such a façade?

Shakespeare supporters are striking back, too. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is:
is protesting the release of “Anonymous,” . . . by covering Shakespeare’s name on several signs in Warwickshire, the British county that was the playwright’s home.

BBC News reported that the trust had taped over Shakespeare’s name on nine local road signs to coincide with the London Film Festival premiere of “Anonymous.” It said the group would also cover up signs on 10 pubs and drape a sheet over a Shakespeare memorial in the playwright’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.
I guess the idea is to protest the writing of Shakespeare out of history by . . . writing him out of history, albeit temporarily. It’s not the most clever protest, but it will do.

Although I wonder if the Shakespearians doth protest too much. After all, the Bard himself is well known for his “histories,” most of which have little to do with actual history. They are sublime dramas, but anyone really wanting to know about the fate of Julius Caesar or King Macbeth of Scotland should dive into actual history. Given Shakespeare’s own loose relationship with history, maybe Anonymous is a certain kind of karmic payback?

Or maybe not. A.O. Scott’s review is less than kind:
“Anonymous,” a costume spectacle directed by Roland Emmerich, from a script by John Orloff, is a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination. Apart from that, it’s not bad.

Unless the point of the film is to undermine what Scott calls “a hoary form of literary birtherism” by exposing just how absurd the whole theory is. I suppose you’ll have to buy a ticket and see, which is the best thing for Emmerich’s bottom line, regardless.

And in the end, does any of this matter, anyway? Times theater critic Ben Brantley argues that it doesn’t. After all, the play’s the thing, as somebody or another once said. Nonetheless, there’s nothing wrong with standing up to conspiracy theories that upend the settled historical record. Truth is its own reward. Or at least it should be.

* To be completely fair to Amadeus, it’s told as a series of flashbacks by a man in an asylum, so there’s an obvious unreliable narrator problem staring you right in the face.  I have no idea if Anonymous uses the same trick to ensure some plausible deniability.

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