This piece is one month well over-do:
I sat nervously at my computer at work. My eyes tore back and forth, feverishly reading the article. Nevermind that it wasn’t work related. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I read the disturbing second-to-last paragraph, before running to the opposite side of my desk. My coworker was working, staring raptly at her computer, blissfully unaware of my distress. I perched on a spare chair, crouching Gollum-like with my feet on the seat, nervously gripping the wooden armrests.
“Dude, I’m worried.”
My coworker whipped around, surprised to see me lurking next to her desk. She prompted me about my “worry”.
“I’m worried about where this Shakespeare-authorship debate is heading.”
This all may seem a bit (or very) melodramatic, but I felt justified in my concern. Once again, people with an agenda were arguing against a supported fact, armed with half-baked gimmicks and intent on “disproving”, undermining, and just plain lying about actual, physical, contemporary and historical evidence.
Let me take a step back.
The first time I had even heard of the authorship question was in my Shakespeare II class, a course I took the spring of my senior year in college. My professor, Boston University’s English Department Chair Bill Carroll, mentioned how several conspiracy theorists over the years (read: centuries) put forth alternate authors, figures whose education, social status, and talents made them “better suited” as candidates for the big question: Who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays?
(Chandos portrait, National Portrait Gallery, London)
The argument is so snobby, it’s almost painful to type up. But essentially, the question is how could a glover’s son, without a nobleman’s education, write plays of such poetry, vitality, depth, lyric quality, and also chock-o-block full of references to Greek and Roman classics, pageantry, the language and culture of foreign nations (particularly Italy), and, the one that never fails to make me laugh, falconry?
I’m not going to write too much about the details of these arguments, especially considering one particular scholar has done a very elegant and thorough job of it already. I am of course refering to Columbia University’s James Shapiro. In Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, Shapiro details in straightfoward yet animated language a moderate summary of how support was garnered for the most prominent of the alter-ego Shakespeares (Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford), and a more in-depth analysis of why the alternate author idea seemed so attractive to intelligent, famous minds such as Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, Mark Twain, etc.
Prof. Carroll first suggested we read the book at the end of the semester, and I decided to finally read it (I had owned it for over a year) this past summer in light of a dark, sinister cloud on the horizon: a new film titled Anonymous.
I have to (grudgingly) admit, the movie poster looks pretty cool
Dramatic design, huh? Well, the trailer (and film) is as well, and it was just what one would expect: slick, with insinuations of a “dark”, guarded secret lodged in a past fraught with sex, lies, torture, plenty of action…the drill. It seems Hollywood continues to bank on your prototypical action movie splashed with a vague air of scholarship or intellectual depth in hopes of a Da Vinci Code-esque audience reaction, usually with mind-numbing results (National Treasure, anyone? I’m sure you can name many others).
I actually saw the movie back in October, and almost immediately after breathed a sigh of relief. I was concerned at how they would portray the ludicrous theory that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays (ludicrous because he died before most of the plays were written and performed (in 1604), as historical documents on the plays’ release confirms, and because there is not a scrap of evidence that ties the Earl to the writings, unlike plenty of documents which tie Shakespeare to his own works) as actual, arguable fact. But the movie put plenty of my anxieties at ease.
It was essentially a joke. Unlike other historical films which play with interesting, if unlikely, alternate theories of what history could have been like (such as the rather excellent film Shakespeare in Love), Anonymous was pretty ridiculous. Its snobbishness is too heavyhanded to ignore: it paints excellent playwright Ben Jonson as a snivelling groupie of De Vere (there’s an actual line where De Vere screams at Jonson “You have no voice! That’s why I chose you!”, which is complete nonsense). It ignores basic historical fact, like the fact that Macbeth was certainly released after 1605, with hints towards the Gunpowder Plot and in light of James the I’s Scottish nationality, while the movie portrays the play as released before the death of Queen Elizabeth the I. More importantly, it implies that economic privelege (exemplified by the fact that the prodigy De Vere has a extensive array of tutors, and yes, there is a FALCON in his study, to symbolize his knowledge of the sport) is the only path through which great literature can be forged.
In short, the movie presented no real intellectual threat. Except for the little fact that the filmakers released it along with a documentary (geared toward educators) that implied that the facts portrayed within were actually historically accurate. Shapiro lambasted the film (and these ridiculous claims) in a New York Times editorial. As he puts it, “So much for [claiming] “Hey, it’s just a movie!”. But it did little to appease my apprehension.
I didn’t fully freak out until I saw the piece in the Dailybeast website. That was the article in question I was reading when I was at work. The part that disturbed me the most was the last paragraph that stated author Bert Fields’ opinion:
“Why do these academics feel threatened by this? It isn’t threatening anybody,” Fields exclaimed. “The movie does things that I don’t necessarily agree with. But if anything, it makes the work more important. It focuses attention on the most important body of work in the English language.”
I’ll tell you why people should be threatened by it. Who cares if more people pay attention to Shakespeare if it’s only because they like a good conspiracy theory? That’s like Dan Brown claiming, Who cares if Da Vinci Code portrays an alternate view of Jesus’ divinity if it ultimately draws more attention to him? (which I will sustain Brown certainly does not. While interested in alternate history, he does not make religious or atheistic claims of any definitive kind). It’s the typical accusation against real academics: Jeez, why can’t people have an open mind? Well the problem stems from when one’s mind is so open, one’s brains fall out.
And doesn’t this argument sound familiar? It’s the same slick argument heard in the sciences when certain someones proposed a certain modification to public schools’ science curricula: Why not show both sides of the story? Why not expose students to the debate? I need not emphasize that I’m refering to the evolution versus intelligent design debate. Too often have I seen people propose unsustainable, vacuous claims under the guise of real scholarship and debate.
Arguing that it’s important to present two sides to the issue is wrong in the case of this alternate Bard nonsense for the same reason applying it to evolution versus intelligent design was wrong: it implies the existence of a debate where there is none. There is no evidence that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, except elitist considerations that only one of the higher classes can produce anything of artistic worth. It’s just as absurd as assuming tried and true scientific evidence is irrelevant in the face of untestable religious beliefs.
This isn’t about healthy skepticism: this is about promoting an agenda and perpetuating lies (such as that of Shakespeare’s illiteracy: a completely false fact, yet often lauded) simply because the facts go against a vocal group’s own ideology. And such motivations is where the real intellectual crime lies.