Assault on Shakespeare

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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.