Monday, November 21, 2011

Shakespeare and the Albino Monks

A few nights back, Father A. slipped out to his local multiplex to see the film Anonymous. The beautiful Mother A. declined to accompany him, claiming that she would be too distracted by his growls, grimaces and muttered cursing. She is a wise woman.

By now, you have read the reviews, and know that Anonymous is a picture about the supposed conspiracy to pass off the illiterate son of a rural tradesman as the author of plays and sonnets which, it is assumed, could only have been written by a person of noble breeding and top-notch education. You surely realize as well that this assumption is malarkey. Shakespeare came from the rising middle class, and attended a grammar school with a curriculum that would put some modern American colleges to shame. Some of his fellow playwrights -- Marlowe and Jonson -- made much more strenuous efforts to show off their formal education. The idea that only a nobleman could have written Shakespeare's plays is baseless snobbery; the idea that a nobleman would have is dubious in the extreme.

The whole thing is a bit Da Vinci Code-esque. One half expects the conspiracy to be revealed by a Harvard "symbologist" pursued by albino monks.

Here's a nice Smithsonian piece which gets at the basic problem: we don't a lot of documentary evidence about the life of Shakespeare. To people accustomed to having their websurfing histories and credit-card reports meticulously processed by computers and sold to marketing departments, this sounds suspicious. No data trail? The man must not have existed! In fact, as the Smithsonian says,
We know as much about Shakespeare as we know about most of his contemporaries–Ben Jonson, for instance, remains such a cipher that we can’t be sure where he was born, to whom, or even exactly when. “The documentation for William Shakespeare is exactly what you would expect of a person of his position at that time,” says David Thomas of Britain’s National Archives. “It seems like a dearth only because we are so intensely interested in him.”
In the absence of evidence, people are prone to make up stories. It is sweet, but also a little annoying.

All that said, Anonymous wasn't as bad as it might have been. The CGI sets are pretty, even though they seem to have been generated in black-and-white. There are a few bits of good acting, especially Rhys Ifans (the Earl of Oxford) and the daughter-mother team of Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave (both as Elizabeth I). Sadly, Richardson is party to the most comically bad instance of mock-fellatio ever filmed, but one can only blame Roland Emmerich for this. The supposed "history" presented in the film is utterly bogus, but it does at least succeed in giving a sense of the endless succession of spies, plotters and bullies that constituted the great and good of Renaissance England.

Sadly, for a film about a writer of so many sparkling lines, the dialogue is tepid. The most compelling scene in Anonymous, by far, is Henry V's "ye band of brothers," played straight -- and every line save one is by Shakespeare.

But let's get back to the bogus history. The idea that Shakespeare did not write his own works emerged in the 19th century. Candidates for the "real" Shakespeare abound; the classic is probably Sir Francis Bacon, whom we had always assumed was chosen because he is the only other Elizabethan literary figure whose name is recognized by the average non-English-major. In fact, as a moment on Google reveals, the "Bacon" hypothesis was first put forward by a writer named Delia Bacon. What a ... coincidence.

Albino monks aside, there is in fact a funny theological twist to the story of the Shakespeare conspiracy. Readers surely know that in 1835, David Strauss published his Das Leben Jesu, which marked the beginning of the interminable "quest of the historical Jesus." One of the early responses to Strauss was Samuel Mosheim Schmucker, who in 1848 published a book called Historic Doubts Respecting Shakespeare, Illustrating Infidel Objections Against the Bible. He was making fun of Strauss, mind you -- Schmucker knew perfectly well that Shakespeare had written his own works, just as he knew that Jesus had been Jesus. But he inadvertently gave ammunition to the crazy people.

(Aside to fellow Lutherans: Yes, this guy was the son of that Samuel Schmucker. The one we all hiss and boo like a stage villain. It is good to remember that by the standards of his own day, Schmucker pere was a confessional conservative, and that both his sons -- the other is the great Beale Melanchthon Schmucker -- turned out okay.)

The Smithsonian blog post linked above highlights one of the wee bits of Shakespearean data exhaust that scholars have preferred to overlook. Years ago, the Canadian scholar Leslie Hotson dug up a "surety of peace" -- something like an order of protection -- in which Shakespeare was named as part of a group that had made threats against the life of one William Wayte. A very close reading places Shakespeare in the middle of the London underworld, associated with pimps and strong-arm men. A "gangster," it calls him. Yes -- and who better to have written about Caesar's Rome and Macbeth's Scotland?


PrSBlake1 said...

Ultimately, I think that folks should spend less time with movies like "Anonymous" and pondering this authorship nonsense and more time actually reading, studying and exploring the great body of work that is the Shakespeare canon. Maybe some time with "Measure for Measure," Henry IV, part 2" or "Winter's Tale" might actually make this world a better place. Or - if you have to get it out of your system - Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus."

Father Anonymous said...


Although I'm not sure that people generally do spend that much time with what we might call "para-Shakespeare"; it seems like a pretty small genre. The only other examples that even come to mind are "Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" and "Shakespeare in Love," either of which is much better entertainment than "Anonymous."