October 26, 2011

I understand there’s a movie coming out about “who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.”  I’m deeply torn, because on the one hand I can go see it for all the yummy handsome men in full Elizabethan clothing in renaissance London — so many of my favorite things in one package!  On the other hand, the “who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays” question makes me furious.  You want to know who I think wrote Shakespeare’s plays?  A middle-class dude from Stratford-upon-Avon named William Shakespeare.  There’s no actual, concrete evidence to suggest otherwise.  Nobody from Shakespeare’s own time questioned the authorship of his plays.  Other famous playwrights, like Ben Johnson, commented on Shakespeare’s writing without ever suggesting the plays and poems were written by someone else.

The “questions” of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays didn’t begin until a couple of hundred years after his death, and they didn’t begin with any hard evidence.  They began with an assumption:  a non-aristocratic, middle-class dude from a provincial backwater couldn’t possibly have had the education and genius to write the most brilliant plays in the English language.  This is elitist, bigoted, condescending nonsense.  This stance ignores the fact that one of the trademarks of the renaissance was how the middle and merchant classes (of which Shakespeare’s family was a part) gained access to higher education, assumes that no one can ever be self-educated or that no genius can ever come from humble beginnings, and believes that only the elite are capable of making art.  Bad assumptions, all of them.

The best book I’ve read on the topic is Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, which makes the argument that the plays could only have been written by a middle-class dude from a provincial backwater:  the well-rounded and sympathetic portrayal of lower-class characters and women, the kind of insider knowledge of noble circles that would have been gained by playing in an aristocratic-sponsored theater company for many years, odd gaps in knowledge (such as geography) that suggest the author didn’t have a thorough education, and so on.

I think I’ll have to skip this film.  It’ll make me angry.


21 Responses to “Shakespeare”

  1. This makes me so angry too! I feel like it’s just people’s fear and jealousy of that kind of genius. “If I’m not that smart, no one was ever that smart.” Why can’t people just admire genius without trying to tear it down? Grrr.

  2. Doruk Says:

    Sadly the blog has no ‘Like’ button.

  3. Wm Annis Says:

    Hear, hear!

    Unfortunately, the allure of stigmatized knowledge — to say nothing of “if I can irritate you so much I must be right” — renders people impervious to argument.

  4. wickedcoolflight reblogged this on wickedcoolflight and commented: Carrie’s view on the new Shakespeare movie, I must say I’m with her but I’ll check out the movie most likely, even if I’m not happy that they are being asses.

  5. sef Says:

    A friend suggested that Sony made this movie to affect search terms.

    It makes more sense than the premise of the movie…

  6. Nicholas Says:

    I’ve never been convinced by any of the various alternative candidates, I have to say. The case for Francis Bacon, for example, seems to balance rather precariously on a combination of unfounded speculation (he might have been a member of a secret cabal of disaffected quasi-republicans, of whom no other evidence survives), a few isolated fragments of text in one or two of the plays that could in principle have been written by him, and a couple of obscure anagrams. It just seems far more likely that, as you say, it was some middle-class merchant’s son from Warwickshire, because there’s a lot of actual concrete historical evidence that supports that hypothesis.

    The late Colonel Gaddafi once claimed (presumably as a joke) that all the plays and sonnets were actually written by a little-known Arabian playwright called Sheikh Speare. I remember seeing a letter in a newspaper which disputed this, instead (even less seriously) ascribing authorship to a Turkish nobleman called Bey Khan.

  7. Miss Bliss Says:

    YES! What a load of hooey. But even more infuriating than the stupid premise of the film itself is that they had planned on sending out lesson plans to high school English teachers in support of the films theories so they could use this film as a TEACHING TOOL! OMG!! I can’t even spit enough on that idea. Sony has backed off on it’s wide release because there’s been so much bad press about it. Ya know if this film had been sold as an alternate history like Abe Lincoln as a zombie fighter or whatever it might have been fun. But putting this unsupported, badly researched crap out as any kind of truth that should be taught in schools makes my blood boil. I can only hope that the whole school tie-in thing has been canned because if not…many of us are going to spend a lot of time talking to various kids about how it’s just not true and they need to read some REAL scholarly works if they want to find out what is historically supported about Sir Will.

  8. Griggk the goblin Says:

    I’ll go see it. I love a good conspiracy theory movie, and the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays is great conspiracy fodder. It’s based on no evidence, has no witnesses to testify, yet can never be disproven.

  9. As a fan of Shakespeare and a huge fan of history, I have to say I’ll probably enjoy the movie. I’d never bought into any of the elitist, bigoted views myself, and didn’t quite get what all the hubbub was about: Shakespeare wrote them, they’re good, what’s the problem? But then I read a book called Alias Shakespeare, and I must confess, I was surprised and impressed. I’m still not fully convinced, but there actually is a formidable case that can be assembled for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

  10. Charlie Says:

    Not to mention that the film’s made by Roland Emmerich, responsible for rubbish like the US version of Godzilla, The Patriot and 2012.

    You’ll like this review, which really lays into the film:,64061/

  11. carriev Says:

    Gah, I had forgotten this was Emmerich! Double gah! That’s it, not going.

    And there was a student guide for teaching it? Isn’t the movie PG-13? So confused…

  12. ArcLight Says:

    Shakespeare is good in English, but you need to read him in the original Klingon.

  13. Miss Bliss Says:

    Yeah…here’s a link to one of the NYTimes articles about it that includes the information about the study guides Sony was handing out to teachers. It’s all just such trash.

  14. Heather Says:

    That is exactly how I feel about it. The lure of eye candy in period costume is pretty compelling, but I get indignant on Mr. Shakespeare’s behalf. I keep trying to convince myself that if I pretend the movie is actually about a fictional character *like* Shakespeare then I will be able to watch it without being mad. Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t seem to be working very well, thought, since I keep finding myself grumbling under my breath over just the TV commercials.

  15. carriev Says:

    Oh my, that’s a lovely takedown… Birtherism indeed…

  16. Nonny Says:

    There is also the linguistic evidence. Shakespeare grew up where four or five dialects of English came together, and that accounts for the richness of his language.

  17. CKelsey Says:

    I’ve read a number of “who is Shakespeare” books because they were there to stave off tedium. Never found a one to be interesting, but many of them provided some fun insight into Shakespeare’s world. This movie is definitely a don’t see though. OTOH, I just added “anti-Stratfordian” and “Shakespeare birther cult” to my knowledge of… well, I’m not really certain that’s contributing to my knowledge. I’m gonna go watch Hamlet now. Just not sure which version.

  18. carriev Says:

    There’s so much evidence in favor of Shakespeare authorship and so little evidence of a cover up…

    Branaugh’s Hamlet is my favorite, but it’s long. It’s also gorgeous and swashbuckling.

  19. Adam. Says:

    I came to the conclusion over the weekend that Shakespeare’s work is so far out of copyright (noone else’s decendents are going to get any money if it turns out he didn’t write them) that the question is mostly irrelevant.

    I only see one circumstance that will have a significant impact on any field of study (and it’ll be wide ranging on multiple fields, even outside of literature) if the plays and sonnets weren’t all Shakespeare’s own work.

    And that’s if they turn out to have actually been written by an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters.

  20. […] Carrie Vaughn posts her thoughts on the movie Anonymous and its claims about […]

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