Pseudonymous Shakespeare— A Pleasant Conceit

There were in fact at least three remarkable writers in London during the era of Elizabeth I– Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and yes, William Shakespeare. There have long been theories that Shakespeare did not in fact write Shakespeare, with the bets being either on Jonson or Marlowe. The fact is we have no ‘ocular proof’ to use a phrase of Shakespeare, that either had anything to do with Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets. Enter Roland Emmerich and his theory that the Earl of Oxford was Shakepeare’s actual ghost writer.

On the one hand, for a theory that has no material evidence to support it, it makes a certain amount of sense. These plays are not child’s play. They reflect a writer who is not merely literate, but eloquent, and not merely eloquent but learned to a considerable degree– he knows his prayerbook, he knows some Latin, he knows Greek and Roman and English history, and I could go on. He knows a lot. He is no slouch, and when it comes to writing, certainly no amateur.

Emmerich’s point is that it stretches credulity past the breaking point to imagine that the Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon that we actually know something about could actually be such a writer. I understand this argument, but it is largely an argument from silence, as we actually know so very little about the life and education of Will Shakespeare— sadly we just don’t know enough. So it is not possible to say he didn’t write these plays.

So, my approach to this two hour and 10 minute PG-13 period drama is that I was willing to suspend my disbelief and see what came to light. What came to light is a very interesting and enjoyable drama with some acting that Shakespeare himself would have been impressed by. Vanessa Redgrave as the old queen Elizabeth near the end of her reign is superb. Even better is an actor I have never seen before, Rhys Ifans, who is superb as the Earl of Oxford.

One of the things movie certainly accomplishes is making clear that politics and the theater were intimately intertwined, and the theater had the ability to incite the ordinary folk, the ‘groundlings in the pit at the Globe theatre’. We only get snatches of the plays, much like we did in ‘Shakespeare in Love’ another pleasant fiction, and frankly we could have used more of that as it is well staged, but in fact Emmerich’s concern is the story behind the scenes, the political intrigue and maneuvering that catches up Ben Jonson and Will Shakespeare into its web.

Are there problems with this film? Well for a person who does not know English history it will be quite confusing. If your criteria of a good movie is its ability to inspire and illuminate while presupposing the audience knows nothing of your subject matter, then you will not view this as a good film. And if you know nothing about penetrating Elizabethan English, then of course Shakespeare himself without Cliff Notes will be a bit of a bother for you to comprehend. On the other hand, if you know even a smattering of Elizabethan lore, you will get through this film just fine. Indeed, gentle reader, you may even find yourself elevated to another sphere of understanding of the Bard.

As for the bare facts (and when it comes to trysts and liaisons there are always bare facts), It is likely true that the ‘Virgin Queen’ was definitely not. It is possible she had a liaison with the Earl of Oxford, or the Duke of Earl….or….. As for the possibility of her committing knowing incest— probably not. She was too shrewd a person to make that sort of colossal and incendiary blunder. There is a fine speech in the second hour by Elizabeth to the Earl of Oxford in which she makes clear just how ‘politic’ she was, and how good at statecraft she was. I see no reason to doubt it. And no, there is not really any nudity in this film to speak of. But it is definitely a film over the heads of most children. Alas, it will also be over the heads of history challenged adults as well.

If your idea of a good time is to be wafted away into another world, this movie will give you that in spades. It is a divertimento on steroids. You begin to get the sense of the life and loves of both the commoners and the royals in the late 16th and early 17th century. You also become thankful you did not live then, in all the squalor where the disparity between rich and poor was even more extreme than most anywhere today.

The cinematography is grand, the acting is good, and the Bard is the best. So even if you come out of the theater scratching your head, or irate over the theory that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, you will still be informed and entertained. This movie is a pleasant fiction, and a pleasant conceit, though as history, it stretches credulity past the breaking point. And if your thing is conspiracy theories, well, there are more plots in this plot than you can shake a spear at :)

Alas, we also find the last appearance of a very great actor in this film– Derek Jacobi…. ‘parting is such sweet sorrow…’ We shall miss him badly, the man who could play Claudius and then Father Cadfael with equal skill and verve.

  • Tobias Lampert

    “Emmerich’s point is that it stretches credulity past the breaking point to imagine that the Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon that we actually know something about could actually be such a writer. I understand this argument, but it is largely an argument from silence, as we actually know so very little about the life and education of Will Shakespeare— sadly we just don’t know enough.”

    It’s not just an argument from silence – it is an argument against everything that’s likely and/or to know about Shakespeare’s early life! Shakespeare was probably educated at King’s New School in Stratford, which would have provided him with intensive knowledge in Latin, Greek, history, poetic arts and so on. The main argument for assuming an anonymous authorship is thus invalidated, that is to say that a “simple actor” like Shakespeare couldn’t have been educated enough for writing such works.

  • Hal Tarleton

    Doubts about Shakespearean authorship did not originate with Roland Emmerich; those doubts are nearly as old as the plays themselves. The theory of Oxfordian authorship has been the subject of numerous articles and books. I have followed this controversy for decades and recently addressed the matter in a blog post: http://xeditor.blogspot.com/2011/10/shakespeare-controversy-is-not-dead.html

  • Anonymous

    Nice to hear from you Hal. Hope ya’ll are thriving in Tar Heel land. And you are quite right……

  • Jaltman

    You likely have seen Rhys Infans. He played Xenophilous Lovegood (Luna’s father) in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1.” Since you reviewed Part 2, I “assume” you also reviewed Part 1.


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