Quick news – The Young Australian Skeptics’ Skeptical Blog Anthology features as the Client of the Month on the Faster Pussycat Productions website! You can get your copy of the Skeptical Blog Anthology in print or pdf here.
While I’m taking a break to focus on work – here’s a few transcripts from the Token Skeptic podcast. I’ll return to a regular schedule in February, but you can check out the podcast at www.tokenskeptic.org and forthcoming articles out on the JREF Swift blog and the CSICOP Curiouser and Curiouser column.
The following discussion features on Episode Ninety-Eight – On Shakespearian Conspiracies And The Film Anonymous. It features Dr Bob Blaskiewicz and Dr Eve Siebert, both of Skeptical Humanities blog.
“While some skeptics have been having conniptions about the film, others have wondered what the big deal is. After all, it’s just a movie. Of course, so was Oliver Stone’s JFK, but like Anonymous, it was also propaganda for a genuine conspiracy theory. Anonymous features several prominent Shakespeare denialists, like Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, who will no doubt use the film’s release to promote their conspiracy theories, and since they sound more intelligent and less crazy than other conspiracists, like 9/11 truther Charlie Sheen, people will perhaps pay attention to them. After all, they’re Just Asking Questions…” - Skeptical Humanities, Shakespeare Denialism: The Roland Emmerich Study Guide
Kylie Sturgess: You’ve mentioned the film “Anonymous.” If people do choose to go and see it, what should they be prepared for?
Eve Seibert: Confusion.
Bob Blaskiewicz: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s weirdly strung together.
Eve: It jumps forward and backward in time, which, you know, is OK, but it’s confusing. For one thing, Ben Jonson always seems to be the same age? Other characters don’t seem to age, like, the Queen Elizabeth I seems to age a lot more the Earl of Oxford does, by decades. So, it’s difficult to know what time period you’re actually in?
Bob: One of the funny things, we went to a afternoon show / early evening show, and there was a pair of little old ladies in front of us at the movie theater. And as we were leaving, we were just sighing very loudly and we started talking to this pair of women. And they said that they had gone to the earlier show and the power had gone out. And they were very glad that they got to come back, because they didn’t understand what was going on the first time!
So, yeah, it’s confusing, but I would like to give credit where credit is due. They had some magnificent facial topiary! The beards were phenomenal. The rest was horrid. But the beards were great!
Eve: Well, there was some good cinematography…
Bob: There was, yeah, there was some good cinematography. A really beautiful scene of Elizabeth’s funeral procession, yeah.
Eve: Everything else kind of was awful, I think.
Bob: Yeah – “The Essex Rebellion Was An Inside Job”!
Kylie: So, what exactly is their main argument? Who are they claiming is the true author of Shakespeare’s works? Or are there several authors?
Eve: No, [they claim] it’s Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford? Or Anonymous. I mean, in the whole history of the authorship made up conspiracy, there have been absolutely scores.
Kylie: That’s what I thought. I thought “OK, which one would you choose to be the main one?” I remember even hearing that Elizabeth I was meant to be the author of some of them…
Eve: Yeah, yeah, that’s one theory. But the three most prominent ones have been Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, who actually, at least, was a poet and a playwright, and a good one, but, you know… dead!
Bob: For a good part of Shakespeare’s career!
Eve: Yeah, very dead! And then, the Earl of Oxford is currently the most popular claim. Although there are still Baconians and Marlowians and others.
Kylie: I don’t think the film “Shakespeare In Love” helped with that very much?
Bob: Yes, but there’s a difference between a movie like “Shakespeare In Love,” which was clearly for entertainment purposes…
Eve: Than alternative history claim, yes…
Bob: …And a movie like “Anonymous,” that the producers came up with an educational guide. For college professors and in high schools. They were actually sending it around!
Eve: For one thing, it’s an advertisement for a film that’s pretending to be a study guide. And they say, the students don’t have to see the film to complete the activities. But then, on two out of three of the activities, they include a phrase like, “before seeing the film,” or “after seeing the film”!
Bob: What these people are really bad at is contextual analysis.
Eve: They’re not really interested in that, because it all has to do with “biographical stuff”. And the authorship question, then, is very geared toward the fact that, “No, Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, it was Oxford“. And they’re sending it to colleges and high schools!
Bob: This is a movie with an agenda. You should go and know that they’re trying to persuade you of something. And they’re serious – it’s not just an attempt at a ripping storyline, they really do want you to believe it.
Eve: Right, and the director, Roland Emmerich, also, made a video, called something like “Ten Reasons Roland Emmerich Thinks Shakespeare Is a Fraud,” which got some heavy play on You Tube.
Kylie: So, who’s behind it? I mean, not to sound conspiratorial about it… but why would someone fund Emmerich’s film?
Eve: I think it actually was independent? I think it’s his first independent film. So, it didn’t have the big funding that, like, “Independence Day” had. I think, partly, it’s because he has a name.
Bob: It’s Big Oxford!!
Eve: Big Oxford, with the Big Shakespeare! And the other thing is, in the Oxford theory, there’s good soap opera action, as well, because Oxford and Elizabeth I are lovers, their son is the Earl of Southampton. And oh, wait, Elizabeth is also the Earl of Oxford’s mother. So you have incest, the Queen’s boinking everything in tights….
Bob: Yeah, it’s a ripping tale…
Eve: And that really is part of the conspiracy theory too!
Kylie: How many people did they get to propose an opposing view within the film? Did you get to see an example of a [skeptical view]?
Bob: No, it was one sided.
Eve: Shakespeare is portrayed as being barely literate. He can read, but not really write.
Bob: He was drunken, he was a fornicating lout, and possibly murdered Christopher Marlowe… You know, they’re so lucky that…
Eve: …That Shakespeare can’t sue them for libel!
Bob: They really did a job on Shakespeare.
Kylie: And yet they’re producing school materials on this?
Bob: I’d be willing to teach it, but I’m not going to use their materials to do it. Ha ha!
Kylie: So it’d be a useful teaching tool, but not the reasons that they want! What are some of the more ridiculous claims that you’ve heard? Not just in the film, but outside the film, on Shakespeare’s authorship question?
Eve: It is hard to get much weirder than the whole incest thing. Although in a way, the Oxfordians have stolen a lot from the Baconians. There’s a theory that Bacon was Elizabeth’s son.
Bob: There’s a type of…it’s kind of a Bible-Code-y approach to Shakespeare, where people… It started with the Baconians in, I think it was the nineteenth century. Well, late eighteenth, early nineteenth, and kind of expiring 1880-ish. Something like that.
Eve: I mean, it sort of made sense because Bacon was associated with ciphers. But the ciphers didn’t really make sense.
Bob: There was one fellow who built a machine where he would take the plays and lay them out on these big drums. He would use it as kind of a decoding machine to [support a claim that] “I, Francis Bacon wrote the plays and I fooled you, neener, neener…”
Eve: And people still do that sort of thing. Bible Code sort of things with the works; the inscription on Shakespeare’s memorial at Stratford… And it’s amazing because you can find conclusively that “Bacon wrote Shakespeare, that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare, that Oxford wrote Shakespeare…”. You know, whoever.
Bob: Probably that I wrote Shakespeare!!
Eve: Everyone but you! And at one point, I think it was in the nineteenth century, they got some mediums involved? My favorite one was, this woman did a reading for an advocate of Bacon. And Bacon came and he said, yeah he wrote Shakespeare. Then she did a reading for an advocate of Oxford, and Oxford showed up and said, yeah he wrote Shakespeare! And Shakespeare showed up too and he was like, yeah he was part of it and “We’re totally cool with it in the afterlife…”
Kylie: “…We hang out. Yeah, we share stories about who really wrote Juliet. Yeah, that’s my paragraph, that’s right…” Wow. That’s astounding. If you happen to come across someone who has alternative views about the authorship of Shakespeare they might be Oxfordonians, they might be Baconians. Are they generally just classed in those two, or do you get the occasional other? I know I mentioned Elizabeth the First as a being possible author…
Eve: I don’t know if on our website we’ve had any Marlovians? But I have encountered them. Which again, would make more sense except there’s a whole, then, conspiracy about, he faked his own death.
Kylie: I would have thought that would be the least credible, considering his death, and all. But clearly…
Bob: Well Oxford died long before…
Eve: Not as early…
Bob: Not as early. Fifteen years or so.
Eve: …Problematically early. Yeah.
Bob: So the idea. In the movie, Anonymous, the way they cover this is, is by having Ben Johnson secretly feeding Shakespeare manuscripts. And that’s just, you know, goofy.
Kylie: So overall how tortuous was it, going through that film, as people who have an understanding of the field?
Bob: I kind of want to say it’s sort of like hanging by your optic nerve. I mean, it’s just painful…
Eve: …Or having your eyes poked out by a falcon!
Kylie: “Being Attacked By Medieval Falconry Is Much More Preferable Than This Movie” – officially zero stars for the review in the Skeptical Inquirer! Will you be writing up about this any further? I really enjoyed the blog post you did on the skeptical humanities. Do you plan to do more with this?
Eve: Well, I don’t know. We’ve written about it a lot already.
Bob: It was actually the occasion for our starting this blog, that the humanities actually had something to contribute to the skeptical movement. You know, not only where we teach critical thinking and argument and persuasion, but also we have areas of expertise where we are occasionally useful.
Kylie: Absolutely. As researchers and as scholars, always extremely valuable people to have on one’s side.
Bob: We build cases based on evidence like everybody else in skepticism.