As I’m sure you’ve all noticed, a movie came out last week which, despite its risible nature, seeks to ruffle feathers in the world of Shakespeare studies. Many scholars would rather not dignify the nonsensical issue with a response (not to mention our reluctance to give Emmerich more free publicity), but the matter has pressed itself sufficiently that the community has responded. If Anonymous realized its own fictional nature and were not attempting to masquerade its inventions as fact, perhaps we wouldn’t have such a problem, but because Emmerich has taken to the media, smugly pronouncing himself the savior of truth, and because Sony has begun distributing supposedly “educational” packets to high schools (I’ve seen them; they’re alarmingly misleading and ethically irresponsible) — those conditions provoke the defense that Shakespeare deserves. The kid gloves have come off, and rather than dancing delicately around the issue, many scholars have attacked the issue head-on and free of hedging. I submit here, for your perusal, a smattering of the reviews and opinions published in response to the Anonymous absurdity.
- James Shapiro, author of Contested Will, took to the New York Times in defense of Shakespeare: “Promoters of de Vere’s cause have a lot of evidence to explain away, including testimony of contemporary writers, court records and much else that confirms that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. Meanwhile, not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects de Vere to any of the plays or poems.”
- The Times also has a piece by Stephen Marche, which not only disapproves of the attempt to portray the film as educational but also derides the conspiracy theory in general: “No argument could ever possibly sway the Oxfordian crowd. They are the prophets of truthiness. ‘It couldn’t have been Shakespeare,’ they say. ‘How could a semiliterate country boy have composed works of such power?’ Their snobbery is the surest sign of their ignorance.”
- An editorial in the Washington Post sought out opinions from James Shapiro, the Folger’s Michael Witmore, and eminent period scholars Eric Rasmussen and Stephen Greenblatt.
- Simon Schama advises, simply, “Don’t buy it” in regards to Emmerich’s spurious claims. “None of which would matter very much were there not something repellent at the heart of the theory, and that something is the toad, snobbery—the engine that drives the Oxfordian case against the son of the Stratford glover John Shakespeare. … The real problem is not all this idiotic misunderstanding of history and the world of the theater but a fatal lack of imagination on the subject of the imagination. The greatness of Shakespeare is precisely that he did not conform to social type—that he was, in the words of the critic William Hazlitt, ‘no one and everyone.'”
- A public radio commentary fights the idea of privilege attached to the Oxfordian theory: “I could never stand before a class of high school students and tell them that great writing, and a deep understanding of humanity can only be achieved by the educated elite.”
- Woman About Town links the “controversy” to other conspiracy theories. “It was only as the centuries passed and Shakespeare’s work began to be seen as the pinnacle of artistic achievement that it was that ‘doubts’ emerged. And the biggest reason appears to have been plain old-fashioned snobbery and frustrated romantic yearnings.”
- Jonathan Hobratsch for the Huffington Post presents 10 reasons why Shakespeare is Shakespeare.
- Slate.com has a movie review, complete with podcast, demonstrating that even objective reviewers with no dog in the fight find the whole premise absurd. The podcast is particularly interesting for what the reviewers have to say about the relationship of modern actors to the conspiracy. Another article on the same site asserts the need to defend Shakespeare: “To remain silent in the face of stupidity this blatant is to acquiesce to a kind of culture-destroying ugliness. … Most of all, I hate the way they pride themselves on the vain, mendacious conceit that they’re in on a grand historical secret deception that only they have the superior intelligence to understand. It’s an insult to everyone else’s intelligence if they’re taken seriously.”
- James Ley challenges Sony’s choice to promote the fictional movie as educational: “There is something pernicious about the way Anonymous is being promoted. The ‘teach the controversy’ strategy, beloved of those whose arguments are on the wrong side of the evidence, is now apparently so normalised that an implausible work of speculative fiction can be brazenly offered as an exercise in historical revisionism and an educational tool.”
- Skeptical Humanities also challenges the movie presenting fiction as fact: “So, no, Anonymous is NOT just a movie: it is a huge propaganda machine that wants desperately to sway viewers and students.”
- Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson, from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, have written an e-book which they’ve made freely available. Shakespeare Bites Back synopsizes the argument nicely and also advocates that we stop using the term “anti-Stratfordian” and begin calling a spade a spade with the term “anti-Shakespearean”. Additionally, Edmondson and Wells discuss the issue in a short podcast, Wells has a piece in the Telegraph, and a series of posts from back in June demonstrates that Shakespeare solidly wins the debate.
- Finally, the Utah Shakespeare Festival solicited responses from a number of scholars and practitioners from Shakespeare institutions around the country. When they asked the ASC for our thoughts, Sarah was kind enough (and brave enough) to let me reply — so if you want to know what I personally think about the issue, my argument is encapsulated there in a 500-word essay.
I’m also in the process of finally reading Shapiro’s Contested Will, which Simon & Schuster sent to me for a review, so hopefully I’ll be able to post that soon. It’s also worth noting what several of the scholars who’ve weighed in have pointed out: this conspiracy is not something that dominates the field of Shakespeare studies. It is a distraction from real work. As entertaining as it sometimes is to spork a ridiculous fiction, I think we’ll all be quite pleased when the movie flops (as it’s reportedly doing), the hype dies down, and we can go back to arguing about the finer nuances of scansion, pedagogical technique, and the merits of Q1 Hamlet.