In honour of Shakespeare’s probable birthday – and date of death; yes, Shakespeare supposedly died on his birthday, that must have spoiled the party, ho ho, bet you never heard that joke before – I’ve decided to make up a list of my favorites when it comes to his works, both plays and films based on his plays.
However, before we get to that, I felt the need to briefly address a certain film I was recently reminded of:
Anonymous, a film released in 2011, directed by Roland Emerich and starring Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave, is based upon the
Aka the simple theory that Shakespeare did not, in fact, write the plays for which he is so famous.
Then who did write the plays? Why, none other than Edward da Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford!
And that’s where it stops being simple; at least as far as this film is concerned.
To cut a long and needlessly complicated story short: de Vere is a child prodigy, writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was a tiddler. He has the need to write squashed out of him by being brought up by William Cecil, but is inspired again in his forties, when observing the power of the theatre, to write plays attacking his political enemies. (In the middle of this he becomes the lover of the not-so-Virgin-in-this-version-Queen Elizabeth I, and has a bastard son with her.) de Vere writes plays promoting another of her bastard sons, the Earl of Essex, and an unknown young actor, William Shakespeare, steps up to take the credit for the anonymous plays. Christopher Marlowe – because of course Christopher Marlowe is in this! – discovers the truth, and Shakespeare slits his throat. Plots abound, rebellions start and fail, it turns out that da Vere is another of Elizabeth’s bastard sons (seriously, how many secret pregnancies did the writers think Elizabeth would have been able to conceal?) he’s traumatized at the fact that he shtupped his own mother, gives up his political efforts, the Globe Theatre gets burned down to cover someone’s tracks or something, and da Vere remains the anonymous author of the plays.
Think that’s confusing? How about trying to process all that, plus all the confusing time jumps from one period to another that Anonymous contains.
(Also, was the incest really necessary?)
I’d never been too fussed about whether Shakespeare actually wrote the plays or not, but interestingly a few years back one of my dad’s friends – a former actor and an anti-Stratfordian – asked my opinion on the subject. When I professed my support for the Bard, he started on all the reasons why other candidates have been put forward, which I had to to admit carried some weight. They certainly labored under more credibility than this film, which is, to be perfectly frank, a complete and utter shambles. I can see what they were going for, but they just fell horrendously short.
To the film’s credit, it never claims to be hard fact, merely a ‘historical exercise’, right from the beginning when they bring on Derek Jacobi for a few minutes to make the disclaimer. This is just as well, since if it had held pretensions of accuracy I would probably have burned it in effigy – or DVD – at the bottom of the garden. As it is, I don’t even have to watch Anonymous to end up with my head in my hands; the order of the plays’ performances alone have me fighting the urge to pull out hairs.
Still, I will, grudgingly, grant that it makes sense to use the plays most recognizable to the general public; people are more likely to recognise a soliloquy from Henry V or Macbeth than they will from Henry VI Part 1, Shakespeare’s first performed play.
Another theme the film runs with is the political ramifications of the use of certain plays. While I maintain that Shakespeare was mostly writing the plays to make sweet sweet money, ten years of secondary school and university analysis means I’m certainly aware of when he was deeming it wise to suck up to Elizabeth (Richard III, Henry VIII) or James I/VI (Macbeth, another reason the order of the plays in this drives me up the wall.)
Interesting, especially when they bring in the Earl of Essex’s failed rebellion that began with the special commission of the performance of a play – even if they replace the historically accurate, and perfectly serviceable, Richard II with Richard III.
But then there’s the plot point that Marlowe has his Eureka Moment about the true author of the plays from watching Hamlet, when he died seven years before the play was actually performed in real life.
Even thinking about this film for too long makes me feel the urge to start tugging at the old follicles.
Going back to my discussion with my father’s friend, I realise my main problem with the anti-Stratfordian belief – and one of the reasons I dislike this film – is the sheer snobbery of it. All of the alternative candidates are far higher up the social scale than Shakespeare, the son of an alderman, because apparently a noble class and a university education automatically make you eligible to write works of great beauty. An internet reviewer I highly admire, OanCitizen on Brows Held High, summarizes far better than I could:
It’s already documented that he read Ovid, he read the classics, he was not uneducated. He had a grammar school education, but that was not a bad education…It’s elitist…the whole theory that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, it’s based on the assumption that people who didn’t go to university…are not capable of processing human emotion, and turning it into beauty…it’s an old idea, that the commoner cannot write. It’s classist! (1)
And the theory’s case really isn’t helped when it produces stuff like Anonymous. Maybe Shakespeare wrote the plays, maybe he didn’t, but I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, if only to escape theories portrayed as poorly as this.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, onward to my favorite of the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon’s works! Next time: the first of his plays that I ever saw, at the tender age of seven, Twelfth Night!
(1) Brows Held High, Anonymous is a Pile of Crap!