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Assault on Shakespeare

Today the movie “Anonymous” opens in the US and UK.  It is a work of historical fiction centered around the notion that William Shakespeare was not a real person, but a pen-name used by the Earl of Oxford.  Under normal circumstances it would be best to simply ignore something this ridiculous, but reaction to it goes beyond defending William Shakespeare – there is an important undercurrent hidden in the need to assault history as we know it and uncover “conspiracies” long past.

Ownership of history is, at least in part, ownership of a culture.  Exposing history as a pack of lies suggests that education and culture, as we know it, is nothing more than a tool of exploiters.  The somewhat desperate need to uncover conspiracies is probably nothing more than a political statement borne from the politics of our time, not the politics of 1600 portrayed on the screen.  This trend is bizarre, wrong and … quite fascinating.

Shakespeare doubters have made their cases many times over, but it is worth noting that it is not an old phenomenon.  No one questioned Shakespeare’s existence before 1856.  The movement appears to have gained steam in the latter 20th Century, the exact “true authorship” always a moving target but often settling on Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  The case began by doubting that a commoner could possibly have known as much about how court life worked and how the levers of power operated.  More recently, the snooty dismissal of Shakespeare the Commoner has given way to more elaborate conspiracies hatched in the halls of power to deceive the people.

There is little to any of these theories and considerable evidence that Shakespeare existed and was indeed the author of the works attributed to him.  It has been compiled into one handy pdf that is available for anyone to read.

Personally, I think that the movie “Shakespeare in Love” put to rest all of the outstanding questions about Shakespeare.  It portrayed playwriting as a collaborative process distilled in the sharp mind of a man who had many friends and kept his eyes wide open for inspiration.  Understanding that great works are the product of a time as much as a person is not only well supported by other great artists’ experiences, it is something we can see happen around us to this day.

But this is all beside the point to those who want to find conspiracies in history.   Like the “DaVinci Code”, there is a deep belief that history – and thereby culture – as we know it is a lie, a plot to dupe us all into submission.  No amount of documentation on Shakespeare or gut-level common sense about the artistic process will change that impulse.

That is not to say that history does not have its share of veiled truths and conspiracies hidden deep within it.  My personal favorite remains the story of Vespasian, Emperor or Rome, and how bits and pieces of his triumph from the ashes of Nero and civil war survive to this day. But that particular one is extremely well documented by many historians – despite how it rubs against the contemporary political use of a book of the Bible.  Hidden histories always have a political struggle at the heart of them, and they only stay hidden as long as the politics of the story remains contemporary.

Which gets us back to the movie “Anonymous” and the Shakespeare doubters of the world.  There is no reason for this to have the cache it does other than it advances some kind of politics, feeling, world view, or whatever you want to call it.  Guess number one is that the “hidden history” thriller genre has raked in some decent box office receipts and kept Nicholas Cage’s career alive, which may be reason enough.  But Shakespeare?  Why would anyone care?

I believe the answer is simple.  Shakespeare has a tendency to be crammed down the throats of young students.  Rebellion against rigid education systems based on neat little desks in neat little rows naturally needs a villain, and Shakespeare is one damned good iconic target.

Caught somewhere in the middle is a common culture changing rapidly through global connections and a contemporary near cult-like belief in individualism. There are many contemporary political reasons why the assault on Shakespeare has its followers – but it’s still pure hooey.

There will always be a Shakespeare, there will always be an evolving English language, and there will always be a legacy culture that we have to deal with.  The heart of the story does not reinforce mind-control or threaten individualism, but puts it into context.  That’s far more liberating than the “History is full of lies” dismissal of everything we know – and it’s more accurate.

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12 thoughts on “Assault on Shakespeare

  1. I never cared much for Shakespeare but this does sound interesting. You make it sound like Fox news, telling lies for a political purpose. When things are repeated enough it does not matter if they are correct or not.

    • There are many lies told for many “political” purposes because people tend to believe what they want to believe – that which reinforces their world view. History does get re-makes all the time – and Shakespeare was as guilty of that as anyone. But ultimately the virtue of the storytelling and how often it is repeated does make more difference than anything as abstract as “truth”. It’s a good lesson to keep in mind always, IMHO.

  2. Two things come to mind. First isn’t re-writing history to suit his own needs what Shakespeare did? Second aren’t you making assumptions about the motivation of the people who wrote this by saying that they are just rebelling against their english teacher?

    • Jim, you’re right that Shakespeare almost has this coming to him. Whenever I hear one more “Shakespeare didn’t exist!” story I think of some great Lancasterian plot from beyond the grave as revenge for what Bill the Bard did to Richard III. :-)

      As to your other point, you can’t really take this as far as that kind of personal motive and I didn’t mean it that way at all. But to get this to the point where the resources to make and release a movie are put to bear – you have to wonder what the cultural motivation is in place to make all that happen & presume to make a buck off of it. So if you’ll give me a separation between cultural motivation, which I’m describing, and personal motivation, which I’m never sure of (and could just be the desire to make a buck!) I hope it doesn’t sit as badly.

  3. Shakespeare was required for us as well. Fortunately, the 151 year old Mrs. Ramsey [I'm pretty-sure she was Alexander Ramsey's elder sister] at White Bear Senior High in 1965, was quite good at making it fun. As Caesar, when confronted by a group of senators, instead of the line: “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!” wiseass that I was, I said “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Mrs. Ramsay replied simply “Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!”
    More on-point, it’s difficult to argue with a “conspirationist” as they always reply with something like, “That’s what they want you to believe.”

    • Jack, I must’ve had a good teacher, too, but I can’t remember exactly why. It just stuck, or sort of did at first and then grew. I don’t really care if they were written by one guy or many, but … the historical evidence it was one man is pretty heavy. What matters most, to me, is that these works have a heavy weight on our culture and our language, caught right in the middle of a huge transition to Modern English, and we have to deal with them. Me? I happen to love many of those plays – especially MacBeth. :-)
      Yes, I can still recite the “Queen is dead” soliloquy of MacBeth, at least mostly. And Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”, too. We had to memorize ‘em. Thanks, Ms. Sheridan! :-)

  4. I never cared much for Shakespeare so I really don’t know what the fuss is all about but history revision seems like a dangerous thing.

    • Sheryl, it is a dangerous thing but it is very common. Our view of history is always shaped by our own times, no matter who or where we are. What we see must serve someone’s purpose to keep coming back as strongly as it has the last 50 years or so – that’s really what I’m getting at.

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