Monday, November 14, 2011

Eponymous


"I have felt with even greater force, the same feelings - this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits - thereby distorting their aesthetic and ethical understanding - is a great evil, as is every untruth." Leo Tolstoy, "Shakespeare and the Drama", 1906

"Was Shakespeare a fraud?" [Tagline for the film Anonymous]


Ever since the man who wrote "Hamlet", "King Lear", and "The Tempest" was recognized as perhaps the greatest writer of English, some people have been trying to prove that he was not William Shakespeare. This is probably due to the adulation that began to be heaped on him by scholars in the 19th century, attributing qualities to him that he did not possess, like a well-developed philosophy. Over the years, various theories have been put forward about who else might have written the plays, like Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, and Edward de Vere. Now comes a film, Anonymous, directed by the German Roland Emmerich, that dramatizes one such theory.

It seems to me there are two kinds of Shakespeare dissenters: people with an educated, informed hunch, brilliant laymen not attached to conventional scholarship who have a unique perspective on a wide variety of subjects; and literary outsiders who latch on to such theories because they somehow resent Shakespeare's overinflated reputation.

Leo Tolstoy evidently hated Shakespeare, so much so that he wrote a notorious pamphlet about it. George Orwell wrote a fascinating review of Tolstoy's essay, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool", which pretty much demolishes Tolstoy's argument. But there have been plenty of dissenters over the years who haven't changed anyone's mind about Shakespeare's importance. Even some of his admirers had reservations. As Jacques Barzun wrote, "From Shakespeare’s time to ours — that is, from Ben Jonson to John Crowe Ransom—competent judges of literature have not ceased to point out Shakespeare’s singular combination of mastery and ineptitude. He is said to be transcendent and also crude, careless, vulgar, incoherent, rhetorical, exaggerated, naive, cheap, obscure, unphilosophical, and addicted to bad puns and revolting horrors. Dryden, who admired Shakespeare just as Wagner admired Berlioz, found his master’s phrases 'scarcely intelligible; and of those which we understand some are ungrammatical, others coarse; and his whole style is so pestered with figurative expressions that it is as affected as it is obscure.'"

The movie Anonymous doesn't attack the common perception of the greatness of the plays, but it attacks the man we're used to thinking of as the writer of the plays, which is only a roundabout way of attacking the plays. It's no accident that for Roland Emmerich English is, at best, a second language. Many native English speakers find Shakespeare "difficult", for the same reason they find the King James Bible rough going.

Emmerich is the maker of hypertrophied trash like 2012 which wants us to believe, if only for the sake of the movie, in a Mayan myth that the world will come to end in December 2012. Anonymous is rich in its own mythology, but it's about as worth taking seriously as Mayan astrology. Shakespeare scholar Stephen Goldblatt goes further:

"The idea that William Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays and poems is a matter of conjecture and the idea that the “authorship controversy” be taught in the classroom are the exact equivalent of current arguments that “intelligent design” be taught alongside evolution. In both cases an overwhelming scholarly consensus, based on a serious assessment of hard evidence, is challenged by passionately held fantasies whose adherents demand equal time. The demand seems harmless enough until one reflects on its implications. Should claims that the Holocaust did not occur also be made part of the standard curriculum?"

Emmerich should stick to destroying the world.

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