THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for April 2011

Letter Column: Addendum

with 2 comments

Seeing as Ben graciously answered many sudden salvos of complaint and protest, I thought I’d also respond. Jeez, who’d have thought a blog on the internet would foster disagreement…

Here at we read and review Shakespeare for the fun of it, amidst busy lives and a deadline to boot. We aim to be mindful of scholarly commentary but maintain a textual focus along with a wider cultural reference. Ben’s post on Anonymous, admittedly a ‘rant and rave’, met that broader criteria and was an exemplary insight into The Bard’s significance throughout popular culture and media. Also, we both know movies and you don’t need to see the Justin Bieber film before you can ascertain how much you’ll dislike it, likewise Emmerich’s Anonymous.

As for my own post, I took a few minutes to contemplate how we view history, whether we go with the standard option or second-guess it and choose one of many mystery prizes. Overall, due to a consumerist system with a history of authoritarian abuses, our zeitgeist has developed a deep suspicion as a survival mechanism that increasingly draws into conflict more and more of our societal perspective. For good or ill, this shift in critique is a big beast. Admittedly, my post did not do justice to this much larger question, but given the nature of this enterprise it didn’t need to either. I shared my reactions and feelings regarding the authorship issue and stand by them.

As for some of the recent reactions Ben has noted, I’ll be blunt: there is a feeling I get on certain occasions, like when I open my front door to Mormons, encounter an expert climate change denier or find myself seated next to a failed intellectual at a dinner party. It is a feeling of foreboding and resignation, knowing that I will be engaged in aggressive and polished rhetoric on topics I am blissfully unprepared to die for. These people are a type of contrarian ‘evangelist’, and though I admire their zeal and conviction, they’re rarely the bearers of good news…

I refer specifically to those folk, online and elsewhere, that spend every breath asserting a marginal theory in a combative manner that matches their pre-rehearsed (oft borrowed) arguments with measures of swagger. Such figures are often clever, often rude and rarely fun. To be perfectly honest, some of the Oxfordian protests that have found their way here smell of this and I have no interest in petty melees.

For those studied and serious individuals who passionately believe the 17th Earl of Oxford (or any of the other suspects) to be the true creator of Shakespeare’s corpus, I say ‘to each his own’. For those who want to argue about it lots and throw their keyboard machismo about, I say this probably isn’t the place for that (though I realise that for some Oxfordians to see Anonymous critiqued now is akin to a Catholic witnessing someone ragging on The Passion of the Christ during Holy Week).

As a man with a PHD on Shakespeare in his back pocket, Ben’s position on the authorship of the oeuvre is qualified and consistent with the majority of relevant scholarship. In future, I’d be interested to see Ben take the alternative theories out for a spin and alternatively support his right to ignore them altogether. As far as I’m concerned, he may respond as much or as little and with as many cuss-words as he chooses.

Personally, I haven’t looked into the authorship fray with any real intention since my uni days. However, I still find the standard historical account of William Shakespeare slim but satisfactory, and have neither the time nor inclination to further explore what is essentially a fringe theory that gains momentum the further it grows from the event in question. This blog isn’t here to dissect history after all but to engage with a body of literature and storytelling. The play’s the thing…

In the meantime, if you don’t enjoy the huff and colour of this blog, please alleviate yourself from the burden of visiting. If you want to come along for the ride, then we warmly welcome Oxfordians, Baconians and ‘911 Truth’ advocates equally 😉 . Ben and I have been, and will continue to be, two guys reading and reviewing Shakespeare for the fun of it.

With that in mind, I will hold on to my pipe and forge ahead. Ben will be in the U.S. for a while and I’m going on holidays, but keep an eye out for our takes on Titus Andronicus coming soon. Now, I believe it is only appropriate that I poetically reiterate Ben’s original sentiment regarding the forthcoming film that began this rumpus:

Copulate Anonymous! Copulate it in its vacuous rectum…



April 19, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Letter column: I’m “a clown, and an angry one at that”

with 10 comments

In the days since I published my post on Anonymous, a handful of comments have trickled in. It seems I’ve upset several people, primarily Oxfordians, and have been called an ignorant, foolish, angry clown. And that’s by just one person. As such, I thought it worth taking the time to respond to these comments and commentators.

Robert Detobel,

Thank you very much for this thoughtful comment. However, in writing “if you read Shakespeare and believe that one William Shakespeare is the author of the body of work bearing his name” you are presenting an argument to doubters. On a silver plate. Do you really mean that the attribution of the works to William Shakespeare of Stratford is a belief? Thanks also for enriching my vocabulary. Being no native speaker, I’d to look up some of the words you are using. “Fuck” and “ass”, of course, were known to me; but “douchey” and “crotch” were new. Again, thank you, even if I hope never to make use of them. 

Thanks Robert. Keep reading, because I’m sure I’ll introduce some other new words at some point. As for presenting an argument to doubters on a silver platter, I think my post speaks for itself, but you’re certainly right in noting that language can be a slippery critter, and phrasing like that can easily be seized upon.


Um, wow is all I can say. Maybe you intended to edit this before you published it? I mean, do you really think that profanity will help your case or cover over the monumental ignorance on which your outburst is predicated? You seem unaware that Sir Derek Jacobi (like Sir John Gielgud before him and so many others) has been an outspoken Oxfordian for over a decade. You need to do some homework, Ben. 

Thanks for the info re: Jacobi and Gielgud. I was not aware of their Oxfordian inclinations, and I appreciate this being brought to my attention. Regarding my use of profanity and lack of homework, I’d like to take this opportunity to assert that this blog is recreational, not academic or scholarly. Yes we refer to scholarship and stuff from time to time, but it is, as the descriptor clearly indicates, an ongoing conversation between 2 people reading and reviewing the work of Shakespeare (or de Vere, if that’s your take) over 12 months. It’s a space where we share our gut reactions to the plays themselves, and, in this particular case, to film news and related matters. That doesn’t excuse a slip-up when it comes to factual information, but it does illuminate it to some degree.

Regarding my “monumental ignorance”, I’d like to point out that the word “ignorance” is fairly loaded and there’s a time and place for its application. RACISTS are ignorant. MISOGYNISTS are ignorant. But people who don’t subscribe to or know much about Oxfordian authorship claims are not ignorant. I prefer to see that as a lack of knowledge, which I willingly admit to.


This guy is a real clown, and an angry one at that. I can tell he prides himself on his ignorance of the subject, spouting the hackneyed “snob” ad hominum attacks parroted by fools for the last century. Go ahead believing that someone can come up with the Shakespeare canon in his spare time, without much experience in the subjects Shakespeare handles so accurately. Perhaps we should take his attitude in relation to his stupid internet rants.

Again with the “ignorance” business. Seriously, if not knowing a lot about Oxfordian authorship claims is the textbook definition of ignorance, then I guess we really are reading different textbooks. I’m curious about the parameters of this supposed ignorance. Is it just me that’s ignorant, or is everyone who doesn’t know much about the subject or happily affirms William Shakespeare’s status as a genuine author ignorant? Because that would be a whole lot of ignorant people. Or maybe it’s just those who mouth off and talk smack like me. What about people who support alternate authorship theories? Are they enlightened because they’re not backing Shakespeare, or are they equally ignorant because they’re backing another candidate?


I’m astonished that you, Ben, would pronounce judgement–and a negative judgement at that–on a movie you haven’t even seen. By the way, I can’t speak for the other actors, but Sir Derek Jacobi is an Oxfordian, and has been for years. Thank you for your erudite response: “Fuck it. Fuck it up its stupid ass…” is certainly an original, insightful, and mature way to conclude an article.

Once again I appreciate people drawing my attention to Jacobi’s Oxfordian inclinations, so thank you. Regarding my pronouncement of negative judgment on the film, I think it’s safe to say we all do that. We see a trailer, or a poster, or a clip on TV or online, and on the basis of that decide either ‘that film looks good’ or ‘that’s not for me’ and act accordingly. In general I’m open to all sorts of subject matter and all sorts of genres, even, perhaps especially, the love-it-or-hate-it genres like Westerns, horror movies, musicals etc. And in another filmmaker’s hands I might be interested in Anonymous. But Roland Emmerich’s filmography is chock-full of overblown Hollywood junk: Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day after Tomorrow, 10 000 BC, 2012. Anonymous looks consistent with this body of work: slick, bombastic, possibly very entertaining, but not very subtle or nuanced or thoughtful. And even though it’s dealing with a historical subject and is sure to be well versed in Oxfordian theory and history, as a dramatic piece it’s likely to fudge the facts and data for dramatic effect and entertainment value. But of course that’s also what Shakespeare (or de Vere if you’re so inclined) did too , so perhaps that’s only appropriate.


How long does it take you guys to moderate a short comment? It’s already a day since I sent it.

It takes us as long as it takes us. If you look back over the history of this blog you’ll notice concentrated bursts of activity alternating with protracted periods of slacking. We don’t blog regularly, we blog when we can, depending on how long it takes to work through each play and when we can fit it in around work, social, familial, and other commitments.


I was planning to boycott the new movie Anonymous but after reading this review I think I’d rather enjoy watching a good documentary on Elizabethan douchebags.

Go for it. Let us know what you think of it. 

Hank Whittemore,

Arthur Schopenhauer said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Which stage are in you in? One or two? Or both?

Three. But it’s all in the eye of the beholder.


Say smart boy. Please put down the pipe and help your cohort read (and post) his new comments from his new friends. Your participation is much appreciated. Thanking you in advance for your pipe’s willingness to be set aside.

This one was for Anthony, but I’ll comment on his behalf, as nobody should be made to put aside their pipe unnecessarily. Like I said above, we blog when we have the time, and read the comments when we have the time.

I’ll say one thing for the Anonymous trailer and all these comments: it raises some very interesting questions about what’s at stake in Shakespeare’s identity. How much does the traditionally accepted biography of Shakespeare, the portrait that adorns the spines and covers of countless books, even the name “Shakespeare” itself, inform our understanding and enjoyment of the plays? In the past – in my younger and more poststructuralist years – I’d have said not a lot, that Shakespeare’s an empty and arbitrary signifier, but my response to the Anonymous trailer indicated that I’ve actually got a lot at stake and invested in the traditional biography of the Bard. Is it simply because the name Shakespeare’s comfortable, his portrait reassuring? What would happen if de Vere, or any of the other names thrown about in discussions about authorship, was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be the author of the Shakespearean canon? Would they still be the complete works of Shakespeare? Would our very understandings and perceptions of the canon be forever altered, and a large number of the meanings and readings that have accumulated over 400 years be cast into oblivion? What would be lost? What would be gained? How important is Shakespeare’s biography to the plays: is it a synthesising figurehead, or an arbitrary banner? These are interesting questions, none of which I can answer now, but will ponder over the remainder of this project.

In the meantime, I’m curious: what should I be reading to illuminate my knowledge of alternate authorship theories and alleviate my “ignorance”? That’s a serious question, in spite of the inverted commas. I’m genuinely curious, so throw me some names and titles and I’ll take a look. Can’t promise I’ll agree with you, but I’m interested nonetheless.



April 14, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Richard III: lock up your princes!

with one comment

Richard III continues the storyline of the Henry VI plays, but is an altogether different beast with an altogether different sensibility. Here the supporting villain of the preceding history plays takes centre stage, chewing scenery and tearing assholes left, right and everywhere in between, and I’d argue that King Richard is the first truly great Shakespearean character in the first truly great Shakespearean play. While both character and play are not as refined or polished as subsequent classic characters and plays, it should be evident to readers that Shakespeare has achieved mastery and command of his craft. From the opening line – ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ – there’s an immediacy to the piece that’s missing from its predecessors: where the Henry VI plays are things of the past, belonging to history, Richard III is happening ‘now’. It’s on.

Shakespeare’s characterisation of Richard combines several theatrical and literary tropes of the time and of earlier periods: the Vice figure, the Senecan criminal, and the Machiavel, all archetypes readily identifiable to the Bard’s audience. The Vice was an accomplice of the Devil in morality plays. Like Richard, the figure was humourous, interacted with the audience, and was thoroughly devoid of conscience and moral fibre. The Senecan criminal derived from the revenge tragedies by the Roman author of the same name. While the manner in which Richard goes about executing his tasks resembles this figure, Seneca’s criminals were usually committing crimes for revenge or to fulfill some personal vendetta, whereas Richard is simply seeking fortune and glory and power. In this respect he had much more in common with the Machiavel, a figure derived from Niccolo Machiavelli’s poltical work Il Principe. The Machiavel was the most modern and topical of these three influential archetypes, created in the Renaissance and recently paraded on stage in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta (the dude liked his Machiavels). This mix of conventions in Richard’s characterisation makes for an interesting combination of tics and tropes, and while Shakespeare would arguably create equally great, if not superior, villains with Edmund in King Lear and Iago in Othello, the big difference is that Edmund has to share the stage with Lear and Edgar and Iago has to share the stage with Othello. Richard, in contrast, does not share the stage with anyone that is anywhere near as compelling as he is: he is the gravitational core of each and every scene he’s in, and when he’s not on stage the play, to be brutally honest, can drag its heels a bit.

Anthony has already pointed out the legacy of Richard III when it comes to deformed villains ala Frankenstein’s Monster, the Phantom of the Opera, Batman’s rogue gallery etc. In addition, I’d say we can see clear shades of Richard in more aesthetically pleasing but still extremely dangerous villains like Scarface’s Tony Montana and Die Hard’s Hans Gruber. Montana’s over-the-top excess resembles that of Richard, and Gruber’s steely intellect and precision also finds its precursor in Shakespeare’s play. Indeed, Richard’s so villainous that other villainous characters around him look benign and benevolent in contrast: Clarence and Edward, who’d relentlessly pursued the throne and Henry VI alongside Richard in the previous history plays, become sympathetic here as they’re routinely crushed and defeated by their brother, and Buckingham , who for much of the play fiendishly aids Richard in achieving his goals, is rendered sympathetic when Richard blankly refuses to reward him his promised dues.

As I indicated in an earlier post, Shakespeare’s derogatory depiction of Richard was in part due to the Tudor propaganda machine initiated after the King’s death, to which we can probably attribute Richard’s killing of the two princes, his hunched back, and his birth with teeth and hair after spending two years in his mother’s womb. Sir Thomas More, among other luminaries, contributed to this propaganda, writing what Jeremy Potter has called a ‘Virulent piece of character assassination. directed against the last Plantagenet king by someone later put to death by Henry Tudor’s son and, later still (in 1935), canonised as a saint’ (Potter 1983, p. 110). In actual fact, Henry VII himself was a nasty piece of work, and Potter writes that ‘The obvious example of a Machiavellian prince in More’s youth had been not Richard III, but Henry VII. More’s youthful epigrams express hatred of just the kind of tyranny practiced by the Tudors’ (p. 115). While Shakespeare has been accused of being a Tudor gimp in perpetuating Richard’s villainy, it’s just as feasible that he was merely a playwright adapting an oft-told story, though he would of course become one of its greatest perpetuators: as pro-Richard biographer Paul Murray Kendell notes in his illuminating and excellent biography of the monarch, ‘The forceful moral pattern of Vergil, the vividness of More, the fervour of Hall, and the dramatic exuberance of Shakespeare have endowed the Tudor myth with a vitality that is one of the wonders of the world. What a tribute this is to art; what a misfortune this is for history’ (Kendell 1955, p. 434).

It’s tempting to say that without Shakespeare people probably wouldn’t give a shit about King Richard III today, and while there’s maybe a kernel of truth to that, it says more about Shakespeare than his subject; it’s a bit like saying Dan Brown’s responsible for keeping people interested in Leonardo da Vinci. Should we really be grateful for Shakespeare’s intervention in sustaining Richard III’s posthumous reputation even when his work distorts history and its very biographical subject? And if Shakespeare wasn’t a Tudor gimp validating one dynasty by bagging another, but simply a playwright working with the raw materials at his disposal, do we praise the playwright or the propaganda machine that furnished him with such a spectacular myth? Ultimately, these ideological quandaries are fairly messy, so let’s put them aside just this once and focus on what resonates loudest and most clearly after reading Richard III: the play is a thrilling piece of pulpy historical entertainment, and as I intimated earlier, the first truly great Shakespeare play featuring the first truly great Shakespearean character.

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks from now with my take on Titus Andronicus. In the meantime, keep on keeping true believers.

And fuck Anonymous up its stupid ass some more…



April 12, 2011 at 11:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Richard: Portrait of a Serial Killer

with 2 comments

Richard III is a play of murder, ghosts, sword fighting and a hunchback king, returning us to the royal strife of England. Henry VI has just been murdered and Edward IV now rules. In response, our homocidal Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, employs a familiar Shakespearean motif where the villain details their dark motivations and darstardly plot to the audience. After thoroughly deciding to be bad (though he’s already been offing folk for yonks now) Richard does not disappoint, embarking on a spree of deceit, exploitation, murder and outright villainy in a bid to take the throne. Richard woos Lady Anne alongside the still fresh corpse of her father in-law Henry VI, then spurs the recently returned Queen Margaret to curse him a blue streak (my favourite lines being where she brands our Quasimodo ‘thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog!’ and ‘rag of honour’). At this point it’s clear we are in for a rotten good time.

In order to inch along the line of succession, Richard first arranges to have his brother Clarence killed in bed (the poor soul is stabbed and drowned). The king then dies and Richard finds himself being outwitted and challenged by his two bright young nephews who now stand to inherit the crown. So Richard beheads their cohorts, brands the princes bastards, locks them up, finally becomes king and then murders them, soon poisoning the fiancé he earlier widowed then wooed. Wow.

All this evil can’t go unnoticed and eventually the populace catches on, rebelling against their new king. Richard screws over one too many co-conspirators and Henry, the Earl of Richmond is called in to challenge the hunchback. Popular opinion turns and armies converge against our anti-hero, even the ghosts of his previous victims confront him. The heroic Earl of Richmond sweeps in and defeats Richard, throwing him to the ground and running him through. Richard finally meets his end and this dominant image leads us to our inevitable conclusion: never before has a hunchback so desired a horse… no wait, the other one, the abhorrent fruit of treason and civil war is that a murderous cripple becomes king and is slain in isolation and condemnation. More blood is shed and England is mocked. This is what happens when you mess with the throne.

Shakespeare is spelling out the lesson of the story loud and clear. In Elizabethan times it was considered that God, Peter and the saints, Queen Elizabeth, the aristocracy and the poor, the local butcher and whore, everyone fit into a preordained chain of command. The theology of John Calvin had also gone some way in teaching that the status of powers and souls were predestined and the monarchy was part and parcel of an established order that stretched from Heaven, top-down to London then to the bowels of Hell. So to challenge the established systems of authority is a treasonous, Luciferean act that invites judgement and chaos into the land. You want a different king? Fine, now you have a blood-thirsty monster for a monarch, and what a monstrous monarch he is…

If ‘The Henriad’ presented us with a myriad of players and a frequently absent protagonist, then Richard III makes no bones about who this story is about (actually, there’s an abundance of bones made here come to think of it). Our anti-hero Richard commands the narrative, defining his motivations for the audience and manipulating each character’s compliance or outrage. For the first time in this overarching story, possibly the oeuvre, Shakespeare has crafted a character in particular fullness. The namesake of the play is our key character, fully realized, dangerously active within the plot and unforgettable. Richard III is a cold, hard killer, built out of pure badness and lots of fun to boot.

Richard’s iconic villainy is notable for a few reasons. Overall, there is something strikingly familiar about Richard’s asexual, embittered ugliness. Richard III is indeed the progenitor of a troupe of deformed villains to arise in the popular imagination, such as Mary Shelley’s ‘Creature’ or Gaston Leroux’s Eric in gothic fiction, Dwight Frye’s hunchback Fritz in Universal’s Frankenstein, many of the Kane/Finger comic book villains like Joker, Two-face or Penguin (note Devito’s Richard-esque 1992 portrayal), battle-scarred Darth Vader in pop corn cinema or any number of goons portrayed by the tragic ‘actor’ Rondo Hattan. Even Johnny Rotten claimed a degree of sympathy with our raging outcast as he challenged the British monarchy. These diverse figures are all defined by their physical deformity and social isolation that lends itself to sociopathic behaviour. The lesson here? Ugly people are bad people.

Now, to suggest that beauty equates virtue and vice versa in common fiction is as obvious as it is painfully inadequate for real world application. In reality, many beautiful people are calculating vampires and many others who happen to look like Ernest Borgnine are the salt of the earth, but there is something to be said for the image of the outcast. It may be a left-over from some distant evolutionary instinct, maybe it’s just prejudice, but to lack normative appearance and health often leads to exclusion and an antisocial stance.

That’s why every school has that chubby kid with braces who dreams of being all-powerful then snaps one day and overturns a desk after being mocked in Maths class… well, maybe that just happened at my school… alright, maybe that was me personally. Regardless, I attended two high schools in my younger years and can attest to the fact that the freaks and geeks and the disabled can be groomed for aggression and ambition through maltreatment. Sadly, I suspect we have all known a ‘Richard’ at some point.

Also, Richard is the prototype for the moustache twirling, monologuing villain, the kind we often see in velvet cape and top hat. At any given point you expect him to burst into hand wringing cackling or to tie Queen Margaret to a set of train tracks. He’s witty, brilliant and as entertaining as he is pure, transparent evil. After pages and pages of murder and lies, I lost count of how many characters declare Richard to be the ‘devil’ right to his face.

Akin to the earlier offerings of ‘The Henriad’, this play is long with a big cast, heavy on the blood and politics. However, Shakespeare also begins to introduce shades of theatrical humour into his historical world, giving us a taste of the work that is to come. Ultimately, in Richard III Shakespeare presents us with his first unforgettable character, a character that is as familiar as he is innovative. Richard III is ugly, disabled, unloved and jealous of the throne, so he sows deceit, kills the virtuous and the young, eats away at the monarchy and threatens to corrupt the entire kingdom. We know his motivations, we know his plan, we know what is going to happen to him in the end and yet we can’t help but feel for him in his wretched plight. I hope we’ve all learned our lesson: don’t buck the status quo, don’t kill for power and don’t pick on the ugly kid in school…



April 12, 2011 at 6:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

‘Anonymous’: Revisionist History and Conspiracy Theories…

with one comment

As Ben previously pointed out, the guys who made the American Godzilla and those other movies where famous landmarks combust are releasing a film about William Shakespeare (surely it’s not unrealistic to expect a Union Jack waving hero to save London from the Macbeth witches while The Globe theatre explodes). Actually, the content matter in this latest popcorn offering revolves around certain Shakespearean authorship controversies. This time round, it won’t be architectural structures that are blown up, but literary institutions. Now, the cinema seems to be literally overthrowing the theatre and not since Chuck Berry sang Roll Over Beethoven has a medium rebelled in such flux…

The new film from Roland Emmerich, Anonymous, exploits the common conspiracy theory, of which there are many pernicious breeds, that William Shakespeare was a pen name for some anonymous author. Some say Shakespeare wrote only some of his attributed work, some say he wrote none of it and some suggest he never existed to begin with. Traditionally, these charges usually arise from the lack of data around Shakespeare’s life or a suspicion around the magnitude of his talent. Essentially, they place a wealth of meaning into an absence of information.

I find this idea actually quite common among the host of popular conspiracy theories, popping up amongst the Illuminati, UFOs or Elvis sightings. To question Shakespeare’s existence due to a lack of biography is akin to the old arguments suggesting Jesus Christ wasn’t historical because there is no secular account of his life, or that the number of gaps in the fossil record disprove the processes of biological evolution (yet often proves the involvement of aliens). It is an odd take on history, reading more into the negative than the positive, which swaps truth and fiction and makes both a lot stranger. On a whole, we’d be pretty lost if we applied this same lens to all aspects of our lives (if I always concluded that just because I can’t find my keys in the morning then I don’t in fact own a car, I’d never get to work).

I’m no historian (I don’t even watch those historical documentaries hosted by British comedians they air on the ABC) but I don’t feel an absence of historical data represents an absence of history. Likewise, if there are few facts recorded about The Bard’s life, then I don’t conclude that his life was not factual. Ironically, it is a body of fictional literature that are our clues to his significant existence, almost as the hagiography that quickly accrued around Jesus Christ implies the presence of a profound human, not the absence of one.

This theme is also indicative of a growing mistrust amongst pop culture and high-brow culture. Here, the blockbuster kills Shakespeare, Gen Y kills their classic education and post-modern suspicion kills history. This is not an innovative idea. In fact, I groan every time someone invokes the weary cliché ‘history was written by the winners’. That piece of pop philosophy is thrown around whenever the standard account of something is inconvenient or unpleasant. It can make us careless and lazy with our civilisation’s accumulated knowledge.

Of course, there is veracity to the assertion that any account of events are biased by those who were privileged enough to write them. Indeed, ‘The Henriad’ alone is evidence of how the facts of history can be rearranged like flowers in a vase for a more pleasing effect. However, what Shakespeare altered he left intact enough for us to still distinguish hundreds of years later. History is not void because of the fingerprints we leave on it. After all, history is a narrative, not a catalogue of dates and names.

Generally, I feel we must be cautious and critical of history, though take it at face value. The history we got is the only history we have. The alternative is to deny what little information we often have and relegate our understanding of the past to a black hole of righteous ignorance.

Literary criticism, archeology and research can yield no end of new insight on old events, but there are more than enough instances when looking back at the origins of our proud and benighted species that we just have to shrug and accept whatever information we currently have. So, there is a noted, basic record of the man named William Shakespeare: he lived in the country for a bit, then made tons of dosh as a playwright in London and married Anne Hathaway.

I can buy that.

You might say that Anonymous is only doing what Shakespeare did centuries before, playing fast and loose with history in order to entertain. However, Shakespeare never erased someone from history altogether while dismantling their artistic legacy. Personally, that feels distinctly like some sort of profound sin, a literary and historical murder. It is an ironic tragedy that such a great figure could be threatened with anonymity, his life’s work attributed to others. In that sense, executed ironically, it could make a good movie. However, I doubt an ironic discussion on the nature of authorship is on the cards from Mr. Emmerich…

It is a generalisation and probably a little dramatic, but I’d say we often write from a fear of death. The pen and the reaper go hand in hand. We often hear that given the processes of chance, enough monkeys with typewriters would eventually produce Hamlet. I disagree. More monkeys with more typewriters will result in more gibberish (possibly the script the next Emmerich film), but gift these monkeys with an awareness of their mortality and they will begin to ponder on paper: ‘to be, or not to be’…

Akin to the bare hand traced on a cave wall or the first pictographs scratch into stone, we often write not only to record the world around us but to record ourselves. To make something a little more permanent out of the finite breaths we spend in our one cosmic moment. Shakespeare’s oeuvre recorded the politics, morality, religion, sexuality and humour of his day in grand gestures, etching his own name into history for eras to come. In this sense, I find there is a tremendous sadness to the continued authorship queries, whether they come from Oxford dons or Hollywood fun merchants. To think that a man can be the reputed greatest playwright in history, and still be considered nothing given the passing of time…

P.S. belated Richard III post up soon. Stay tuned…



April 11, 2011 at 6:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Anonymous: WTF?

with 11 comments

UPDATED: A couple of people have informed me since I posted this that Derek Jacobi is indeed an Oxfordian, a fact I was not aware of. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Some people have also raised objections to my stance in this article and the manner in which I presented it, and I will respond to these objections in some detail when the opportunity arises (I’ll be travelling over the next couple of weeks, so it will need to wait until my return).

We interrupt our regular programming for a good old-fashioned rant and rave.

Earlier this week a trailer was unleashed for a new film by Roland Emmerich, the director of popular, bombastic and spastic films like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. The film in question is Anonymous, and seems to be a bombastic and spastic historical action extravaganza about, get this, Shakespeare. Moreover, the crutch, or crotch, of the film is the idea that Shakespeare was not the author of his plays, and was a convenient frontman for the real author, a person in a position of considerable power.

Do I even need to say WTF?

Early in the history of cinema, the medium validated itself as an art form through adapting Shakespeare’s plays to film. I use the term ‘adapting’ loosely: the films were short silent dramatisations of King John’s death, Hamlet’s duel with Laertes etc, but still served to invest the burgeoning medium with the prestige of Shakespearean drama. Since then, the Bard’s played a relatively minor role in the development of the medium. There have been some truly great films derived from Shakespeare (such as the Shakespeare films directed by Akira Kurosawa and Orson Welles) and some popular successes, such as Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968), which at the time of its release was the most successful film in its studio’s (Paramount) history, and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), which helped launch the career of Martin Scorsese’s patron saint Leonardo di Caprio and popularised youth-oriented Shakespeare for a brief period. However, the Bard’s grip on the medium has been, to be perfectly honest, minimal. Recently, it was with some curiosity that I noted that Laurence Olivier’s three Shakespeare films were not included in Time Out’s list of the top 100 British films. I’m aware that these sorts of lists are shallow popularity contests, but that’s exactly what makes Olivier’s absence all the more striking. Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948) were cultural institutions at the time of their release, the former rallying national patriotism in the thick of World War Two and the latter consolidating the links between Freud, Oedipus, Hamlet and Shakespeare in the popular consciousness. Both films won Academy Awards, and along with films like Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and The Third Man (1949) helped establish British cinema’s prestige on the world map. Well, Encounter, Expectations, Narcissus, Shoes and Man all rank highly in the top 25, but Henry V and Hamlet are nowhere to be found. Neither is Richard III (1955), which was televised to an audience of 25 million – as Kenneth Rothwell notes, “more people… than in all the previous centuries of Shakespeare performances combined” (Rothwell 2004, p. 59) – the same day it was released in cinemas. And yet Theatre of Blood, about a demented Shakespearean actor played by Vincent Price killing his critics in macabre ways inspired by Shakespeare’s plays, clocks in at 96. If the list’s just a popularity contest, the message it sends is clear: neither Olivier nor Shakespeare are all that popular, though demented actors killing film critics and taking inspiration from Shakespeare have some cache. Maybe Shakespeare’s relationship with film has reached a point where, having validated itself using his plays in its earliest days and exhausted the raw materials provided by the canon over time, there’s nothing left for cinema to do with Shakespeare but turn to the Bard as signifier, as totem, using his brand recognition and slim biography as the basis for romantic comedies like Shakespeare in Love (1998) or historical thrillers like Anonymous.

More likely, though, is that Hollywood is cashing in on audience appetite for secret histories and textual conspiracies kickstarted by The Da Vinci Code and drawing on a hackneyed history of half-baked conspiracy theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays for inspiration. Shakespeare’s biography is slim compared to other luminaries of the time like Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, both of whom clocked in far more public appearances and generated much more attention than their journeyman colleague (Marlowe, for instance, was a spy, a heretic, and a homosexual). Shakespeare’s presence in the records of the time, apart from playbills and legal documents, is limited to a small handful of anecdotes in contrast to these contemporaries, and many have been lured to look for things that aren’t there. The major motivations for the earliest conspiracies about the authorship of the Bard’s plays were class-based: filthy rich eccentrics and douchebags from wealthy and eccentric and douchey families couldn’t quite grasp how a rural born and bred hillbilly like Shakespeare could have any genuine insight into the human condition or the ennui of monarchs, and thus concluded he was a frontman for another writer, someone in a position of power who could not publicly claim authorship of their plays. Armed with abundant resources and too much time, these strange cats investigated this literary crime, carried out extensive research, and concocted theories postulating other people – usually rich and famous and powerful ones – as the genuine authors of Shakespeare’s work. Earls, dukes, politicos, Marlowe, the Queen, all were put forward as likely suspects. And while today the public has a better grasp of the whole fiction thing – the idea that you don’t have to go to the moon to write about going to the moon, you don’t have to be a private eye to write about a private eye etc – over time these doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship have gradually crept into the mainstream, to the extent that there’s now a niche industry of writers and researchers continuing these investigations. So much so that while carrying out my PhD research I had countless conversations with members of the public who, on finding out I was a Shakespeare scholar, asked if I took stock in any of the conspiracy theories.

And now, thanks to Roland Emmerich and company, it’s possible that these conspiracies, in particular the case for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, will reach a wider audience than ever before. What I find even more shocking than the film’s existence is the fact that talents like Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi and David Thewlis are actually in it, validating the conspiracy theories by their very presence. Maybe they’re genuine believers, maybe they just gotta eat. I don’t know, but I’m truly perplexed. I’m not sure what the film’s likelihood of success is: it looks slick and mainstream and, as mentioned earlier, might appeal to viewers in a Da Vinci Code-type way, but it certainly isn’t Avatar. All I can say is, if you follow this blog, if you read Shakespeare and believe that one William Shakespeare is the author of the body of work bearing his name, don’t see this film. Even out of curiosity. Fuck it. Fuck it up its stupid ass…



April 9, 2011 at 5:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized