Home > Culture, Film, History, Literature > The “Anonymous” Shakespeare: Historical Accuracy and the Appeal of Conspiracy

The “Anonymous” Shakespeare: Historical Accuracy and the Appeal of Conspiracy

Upstart Crow!

Opening in limited release and to limited grosses this past weekend, German blockbuster director Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous has thrust the Shakespearean authorship question into the public eye as only a big-budget movie can do with an obscure scholarly subject. Of course, what a big-budget movie also tends to do with an obscure scholarly subject is to strip it of the sober cloaks of academic rigour and clad it instead in the tacky fashions of the ostentatious dandy (call it The Da Vinci Code Effect). One cannot exactly include citations in a film, after all, and strict historical fidelity can make for unsatisfying and lacking entertainment. Accuracy must, on occasion, be subverted to the service of “truth”.

Of course, this is a film about the authorship question from the “auteur” who rendered the American Revolution as a vicious revenge fantasy (The Patriot), turned the cinema’s greatest radioactive lizard into a leaden, murky bore (Godzilla), and did more damage to the climate change issue than a phalanx of energy lobbyists working around the clock could have ever dreamed to do (The Day After Tomorrow). Even the most committed Oxfordians (whose cause Emmerich takes up with typical truculent gusto) would be foolish to be anything but leery about what Anonymous might have to add to their already threadbare case (read my own review here).

Yeah, but can you explain where ‘Titus Andronicus’ came from?

This is to say nothing of the Stratfordians whose well-established and widely-accepted position on the authorship question is being targeted directly by Emmerich’s (by most critical accounts) frothy, incoherent period epic. Despite the apparent feebleness of Anonymous’ challenge to the historical Shakespearean consensus on any sort of factual grounds (just for a sample, it features Christopher Marlowe being murdered the wrong way, in the wrong place, by the wrong person, five years too late), the consensus-keepers have seen fit to respond anyway. In addition to detailed, admittedly pedantic refutations from Bard scholars Holger Syme and James Shapiro, one of my personal favourite historians – Columbia professor and twitching, erudite BBC presenter Simon Schama – lays out his objections to not only the film but to Oxfordianism in general for Newsweek.

If Syme hammers away at the factual lapses of Anonymous with exasperated wit and Shapiro, in a LA Times piece from April, wearily explores the general mainstreaming of conspiracy theory as the film’s eau de vie, Schama’s consideration of the controversy and the film’s role in perpetuating it characteristically focuses on the social mood and character of Elizabethan England (which Emmerich has said that he intended his film to depict, above all). These elements are ever a preoccupation of Schama’s TV documentaries, in particular on A History of Britain and The American Future: A History.  While echoing the general Stratfordian party line that the Oxford theory snobbishly privileges the privileged and assumes an aristocratic monopoly on creative genius in times of surprising social mobility, Schama also laments the post-modern inability to imagine and perceive that such a fertile imagination and inclusive yet retiring perspective could reside in the person of a mere provincial glover’s son.

How coincidental that I happen to currently be reading Anthony Burgess’ Nothing Like The Sun, a lively, worldly novel that artfully provides precisely the sort of vibrantly fictional argument in favour of the Stratford Shakespeare’s practical quotidian creative brilliance that Anonymous pretends to provide against it. Burgess (infamous as the author of A Clockwork Orange, but also behind the amazing, century-spanning Earthly Powers) portrays the immortal Bard as a very mortal striver, deep in poetic elbow grease, driven and inspired by unwise romantic entanglements, and jealous, judgmental and spiteful towards his contemporaries and theatrical collaborators.

The novel suggests, for its own sake and not to bite its thumb at anti-Stratfordians, that Shakespeare was “Shakespeare” through engagement with his fast-paced, wit-laced social reality, through his experiences of joy, pain, hope, and tragedy, and, of course, through sheer concerted effort. He need not be a highly-educated and sophisticated lord with access to power and experience of the wider world to write what he did, because he was simply, gloriously human, and no other requirements were necessary. Although Burgess engages in as many of his own flights of fancy as Emmerich does, they are grounded in a nuanced personal and social reality rather than in rabid conspiracy lust.

Following Schama and Burgess on this essential question of the spirit of the times, I have to come ultimately to the side of Stratfordian conventionality on the authorship question. If I sound reluctant, it’s because there is something undeniably attractive about the concept of the Oxford theory, even if the argument itself has little to offer in the way of conviction. There’s a deep-seated appeal to the thought that the condescending conventional wisdom of the elites is mistaken, that the ivory-tower academy is tying itself in hundred-year knots to perpetuate the greatest lie in literary history. Even the suggestion that cultural prestige is not properly earned is considered by some to be a blow against the established order (and what is more establishmentarian than naked Bardolatry?), and the surge of excitement that comes with that feeling is rather hard to resist.

As a consequence of a culture that preaches the ultimate importance of individual fulfillment and personal perception, the doubts, suspicions, and eventually the comically-hardened positions that characterize the anti-Stratford perspective should seem obvious. But, after all, no one can be absolutely sure, no one can prove beyond all debate who precisely wrote Shakespeare’s eminent oeuvre. And from that crucial seed of mystery can grow a great tangled forest of speculative creativity. Schama construes the Oxford theory as suggesting a failure of imagination, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. As the many amendments and confabulations of Emmerich’s Anonymous seem to suggest, believing that Shakespeare was not “Shakespeare” requires a very active imagination indeed.

Categories: Culture, Film, History, Literature

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