Regular as the seasons, another Shakespeare shlock-horror.

This one is Anonymous, doing the rounds at your local multiplex:

First thought: interesting how that US marketing differs significantly from that in the UK. Here the focus is Rafe Spall having a good time:

That may be because this show was over-cooked for the US frat crowd, and quite frankly doesn’t travel well. The UK reviews have been blistering. Consider Philip French, who has suffered considerable celluloid bollocks in his time:

A dozen years ago in his delightful jeu d’esprit Shakespeare in Love, Tom Stoppard wove a beguiling, knowledgeable comedy around the Elizabethan theatre and the writing of Romeo and JulietAnonymous is a shoddy, witless companion piece, a crude costume drama at the service of the theory that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was the real author of Shakespeare’s work, a nutty thesis largely associated with an early 20th-century Tyneside clergyman with the glorious name of John Thomas Looney. As argued in the film, Oxford (Rhys Ifans) was the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth. Their incestuous relationship produced a son, the Earl of Southampton, and Oxford then used Shakespeare as a front to put on his plays both as an outlet for his literary yearnings and as a weapon against the Cecil family.

Robbie Collins, for the Telegraph, hasn’t suffered so much or so long for his critical art — his time will come, so he manged to “enjoy” an extravagantly daft movie:

Anonymous might be riper than a month-old plum, but it’s every bit as juicy. Rhys Ifans has a ball as the Earl of Oxford, who’s compelled by the voices in his head to write plays in iambic pentameter. Oxford asks the playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to stage them as his own – it would be unseemly for a man of Oxford’s standing to be outed as a writer – but a puffed-up actor called Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) rumbles their plot and blackmails Oxford into using his name instead. Naturally, this all ties into a conspiracy involving the royal family.

While John Orloff’s script has a sprinkling of in-jokes (the first page of Oxford’s Twelfth Night manuscript has “What You Will” scribbled out at the top), it’s much closer in tone to Blackadder than Shakespeare In Love, and merrily fudges facts and dates to suit its preposterous premise. But this is all part of the fun…

Fair enough. Except is What You Will, really an in-joke? Not on the title-pages of any copy Malcolm has ever seen, it’s not.

And, if this is no more than a Whitehall and Southwark farce, and a run-of-the-mill feature, why is the US sales-talk claiming it as a “political thriller“?

Malcolm has a couple of thoughts.

First, the Looney thesis (see Philip French above) and those for all the other “claimants” (who never claimed such in person) have been detonated, exploded, derided and left for dead repeatedly — most recently by James Shapiro in Contested Will. Michael Dobson, of the Shakespeare Institute at Brum Uni, summed all up in a piece for the Guardian:

The plot of Anonymous, by comparison, is based on the premise that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare. It isn’t just a piece of sexed-up historical drama in the great Elizabethan tradition: it belongs to a much more recent mindset, that of the great Victorian conspiracy theories.

I say Victorian because nobody doubted that Shakespeare had written his own plays until the 1850s. The first claim to the contrary is Delia Bacon’s article William Shakespeare and his Plays; an Inquiry Concerning Them, printed in Putnam’s Magazine (in 1856). Bacon thought the Complete Plays represented a deliberate attempt to spread enlightenment, modernity and progress, and that rather than being the work of a single supremely talented showbusiness professional they must have been written by an occult committee of world-designing philosophers. Its leader, she hinted, could only have been Sir Francis Bacon, who had somehow scheduled its meetings in between his other duties as attorney general and his efforts to invent empirical science.

Delia Bacon died in an asylum after failing to find a single piece of evidence in favour of her claim, but her example has not inhibited successive waves of other champions, who have credited the plays to Francis Bacon alone, to Christopher Marlowe, to the Fifth Earl of Rutland, to the Sixth Earl of Derby, to the 17th Earl of Oxford, and even to Queen Elizabeth I, among many others. The obvious truth that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, sadly, is not news, and popular journalism since the 1850s has preferred news at all costs.

In effect, any prominent personage, who gets a passing mention in the Dictionary of National Biography, for around 1585-1612, must be a suspect, on the principle of A1bW (Any one but Will). Reading these attempts can be thoroughly diverting. The notion of Kit Marlowe, smuggled out of Deptford and consigned to exile in the Veneto, posting back his products to his mate Bill in London, qualifies for Malcolm as the most inventive and entertaining.

“Not one of us”

Yet this piffle and pother amounts to something grotesque. Strip off the varnish and it’s rank intellectual snobbery.

The essential argument against Shakespeare is that he didn’t have a university education, and so cannot have been a practising and fully-functioning creative artist. As Michael Dobson puts it, such speculators:

… accordingly misread the distinctive literary traces of Shakespeare’s solid Elizabethan grammar-school education visible throughout the volume as evidence that the “real” author had attended Oxford or Cambridge.

Stratford in the 1570-80 period was no rustic boondocks. E.K. Chambers did the digging:

Although remote, the town was not out of touch with a larger civilization. Access to Oxford was easy, and to London itself, by roads on which carriers came and went regularly, and the burgesses journeyed on their public and private business. Nor was it entirely bookless. Leading townsmen could quote Latin and write a Latin letter if need be… The Grammar School was probably of good standing. The schoolmaster’s salary, which Joliffe fixed at £10, was increased to £20 by the charter. This was much more than the £12 5s. paid at Warwick or than the amounts usual in Elizabethan grammar schools, outside Westminster, Eton, Winchester, and Shrewsbury. It was better than the emoluments of an Oxford or Cambridge fellowship. And from Oxford or Cambridge came William Smart (1554-65), Fellow of Christ’s, John Brownsword (1565-7), a Latin poet of repute, John Acton (1567-9), Walter Roche (1569-71), Fellow of Corpus, Oxford, Simon Hunt (1571-5), afterwards a Jesuit at Douai and English penitentiary at Rome, Thomas Jenkins (1575-9), Fellow of St. John’s, Oxford, who came from Warwick, John Cottam (1579-81), and Alexander Aspinall (1581-1624). The actual curriculum of the school is unknown; it was probably based on those planned by Colet for St. Paul’s in 1518 and Wolsey for Ipswich in 1529, and not unlike that in force at St. Bees in 1583. Colet required an entrant to be able to ‘rede and write Latyn and Englisshe sufficiently, soo that he be able to rede and wryte his owne lessons’.

We can rest assured that the burgers of Stratford, John Shakespeare included, had their money’s worth out of the grammar school. Young Will was receiving as good a grounding as scholarship boy Marlowe had at Corpus Christi, Cambridge.

Mr Shakespeare

There is one further dimension, well employed by Robert Winder in his frolic, The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare (which Malcolm dealt with elsewhere):

When he passed Banbury, Shakespeare began to look forward to seeing the low rooves of Stratford once more. He squeezed his knees into the horse’s flanks, quickening the pace. Spring was bursting in the trees on either side; he was riding through a wild green tunnel. By the time he sighted the silver slash of the Avon he was a changed man: no longer Will, the playwright, scourge of kings and the toast of the capital, but Mr Shakespeare, gentleman, husband and merchant.

Therein is a depth of character which is easily overlooked. Back home in Warwickshire, “Mr Shakespeare” was a proto-capitalist and entrepreneur, a wool-trader (and a shrewd one at that). He and his wife ran a highly successful business — not quite an empire, but enough to have the finest house in town. All that didn’t come from being a front-man for his betters, the idiot Shakespeare … a womanizing, boozy, buffoonish, egotistical actor that Roland Emmerich has Rafe Spawl represent in Anonymous.


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Filed under Daily Telegraph, education, fiction, films, Guardian, History, Literature, reading, Shakespeare

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