Monday, May 12, 2014

That fraud William Shakespeare

One of the things I enjoyed most about Roland Emmerich's Anonymous, which was one of my top ten films of the year it came out, was how it made me really reconsider the authorship of Shakespeare's works. I had known there were theories that the Bard was not actually the Bard, but that some other figure living at the same time (obviously) was the one who actually put pen to paper and wrote Shakespeare's peerless body of work. Several candidates had always been considered, and Anonymous takes the position (spoiler alert!) that it was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who couldn't reveal his identity because playwriting was considered one of the basest activities a member of the aristocracy could ever pursue.

But what really sold me on the fact that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's works was an interview I heard with Anonymous screenwriter John Orloff on the podcast The Q & A with Jeff Goldsmith. Orloff presented a truckload of evidence, both actual and circumstantial, about why it simply could not have been Shakespeare. Here's just one: Shakespeare never traveled outside England, yet a dozen of his plays describe Italy with a level of detail that indicates he had been there not once, but multiple times.

The conversation among academics about whether Shakespeare was a brilliant genius or a total impostor has always tended to fall on "brilliant genius" side of the scale. Academics, especially those who have devoted their careers to studying Shakespeare, have seemed unwilling to admit that they have been lionizing a reprobate, and have therefore cast the Shakespeare deniers as no better than whack jobs who might just as soon start telling you about UFOs.

I'm wondering if that conversation is starting to change, though.

In the space of a week's time on my viewing schedule, two new movies have renewed the charge -- albeit in a cheeky manner -- that Shakespeare was just an opportunist. I'm starting to wonder if that position is becoming steadily more mainstream.

First it was the movie I saw last Monday, Only Lovers Left Alive. "What is Shakespeare doing in a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie?" you might wonder, if you haven't seen it. Well, I'll tell you, but only after the requisite SPOILER ALERT to clear anyone out of the room who doesn't want to be here.

In addition to being hundreds (thousands? that's an altogether different discussion) of years old, the vampires in Jarmusch's film have also hobnobbed with some of history's most influential cultural contributors. In fact, the two main vampires (played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are still hobnobbing with one now: Kit Marlowe (John Hurt), one of the others who was suspected of having written Shakespeare's works. See, Marlowe never died back in the late 16th century. He faked his own death and went underground as a vampire who's still living to this day. (He never died in the traditional sense, anyway.)

The movie is not content merely to make the connection to Shakespeare. It's quite clear, from several references, that Marlowe definitely did write Shakespeare's works, at least in this movie's universe. At one point Hurt muses (paraphrasing here) "I wish I had met him [Hiddleston's character] before I wrote Hamlet ... he would have made the absolute perfect model for the character."

Quite by coincidence, I then saw Mr. Peabody & Sherman yesterday with my three-year-old, one of several gestures toward removing him from his mother's presence on Mother's Day. (My son displayed his best behavior yet in a film, and I quite enjoyed the movie.)

The Shakespearean reference here is just a throwaway, rather than a major character, but in one of the title characters' jaunts back through time, they are seen in a room, handing a manuscript to a man who can only be Shakespeare. Shakespeare then signs his name to it and cackles maliciously. So Mr. Peabody & Sherman doesn't follow any of the standard schools of thought about who might have written Shakespeare's words -- it ascribes the responsibility to a time-traveling dog and his adopted human son.

Of course, I do realize that it was just dumb luck that I saw both of these movies in one week -- especially since no two movies might attract more different audiences. I also realize that 98 out of 100 films that hit theaters make no reference to Shakespeare at all, and the two that do are unlikely to tackle the authorship of his works.

Still, I have to wonder -- are we all finally starting to agree that this Shakespeare guy might have been a total fraud?

I'd say the idea is gaining momentum, in any case, and these two movies make for especially interesting examples. One of them goes to the trouble of having a major character take on the role of the man who ghost-wrote Shakespeare. At one point he even struggles with the fact that he wasn't recognized for these efforts, and reserves a couple choice epithets for the man who actually got the credit. The other film contains just a throwaway two-second joke, but it also goes to more trouble than it need to, making the man cackle, as though his taking credit were an act of intentional mischief and bad faith, not just cowardice.

If there is anything so identifiable as a "trend," I'd like to hope Anonymous gets some of the credit. Like whoever that man (or woman???) was whose deeds have gone unrecognized, Anonymous itself did not receive its proper due when it was released. I hope both injustices are something that time, and a choice application of some basic logic, will correct.


William Ray said...

Although Anonymous was a brave cultural effort for the right reasons (the truth)I wish it had told the actual biography which is so full of drama it would have been spell binding. I think you are right that it may have broken the taboo against "mum's-the-word" whenever even the THOUGHT of a Stratford mock-up was social suicide.

Probably your best bet for a scholarly but fast moving book is Katherine Chiljan's Shakespeare Suppressed. It is a legitimate subject for inquiry. Getting the author of the stellar dramatic canon wrong should have been seriously taken up a century ago.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks for the comment, William!

I would indeed like to do some more research on this topic. That's a great recommendation of Shakespeare Suppressed, which I had not heard of. I'll put it on my list.

Don Handsome said...

You liked Mr. Peabody and Sherman?

Vancetastic said...

You didn't?