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Roland Emmerich does for Shakespeare what he did for climate change.

October 28, 2011

Roland Emmerich, guardian of literature.

I have resisted writing about the movie Anonymous after my friend Connie Ogle, critic extraordinaire at the Miami Herald, warned that it might make my head explode. Resisted, that is, until today.

Connie already knew how strong is my belief that none other than Will Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to his name, and that any other notion is a farago of anti-democratic snobbery and lunatic conspiracy mongering.

Visit the Miami Book Fair International website to see the glittering author list (Roseanne Cash! Jeffrey Eugenides! Nicole Kraus! Michael Ondaajte! Hundreds more! Literally!). This year’s fair runs Nov. 13-20. More details to come. Watch this space!

But my indignation tugs me by the hand, like a persistent child, into the discussion. Anonymous, in case you don’t yet know, is a movie dramatizing the Oxfordian hypothesis, which postulates that Shakespeare was slipped the plays by their real author, the suave yet haunted Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.

Just writing these words makes me itch all over. I have no intention of seeing Anonmyous, for the same reason Thomas Monson, president of the Mormon Church, has politely declined to attend the irreverent Broadway smash, Book of Mormon:

No matter how good it is, it’s very premise offends my sensibilities and assaults my understanding of life, literature, and what makes the universe spin.

But of course, while Book of Mormon is written by those witty rascals behind South Park and may actually merit the critics’ raves, Anonymous is the work of Roland Emmerich, the auteur who gave us such cinematic monuments as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and 10,000 BC.

Besides, I could not possibly surpass movie critic A.O. Scott, whose New York Times review begins, “Anonymous, a costume spectacle directed by Roland Emmerich, from a script by John Orloff, is a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination. Apart from that, it’s not bad.”

Likewise I leave the finer details of the pro-Will argument to wiser heads, such as James Shapiro and Hillary Mantel, who I wrote about last year.

Let me give the opposition its due: The aforementioned Ms. Ogle has an admirably even-handed story in a recent edition of the Herald, wherein she gives equal time to the thoughts and comments of Roland Emmerich, the hack filmmaker, and James Shapiro, the distinguished popularizer of Shakespearean studies.

Furthermore, allow me to refer you to the Huffington Post, where John Orloff, Emmerich’s screenwriter on Anonymous, makes a cogent presentation of the Oxfordian argument.

Over at the Telegraph, you can find a pithy examination of the various major Anti-Stratfordian theories. Yes, dear reader, the Earl of Oxford is not the only candidate identified by literary snobs who cannot abide the idea a proletarian actor wrote the plays of Shakespeare.

Finally, I recommend Hoyt Hilsman’s HuffPo essay championing the Christopher Marlowe theory, on the excellent grounds that “it makes the best story. If you are going for fictional intrigue, I say, choose the best fiction.”

The most offensive of the Anti-Stratfordian arguments, the one that raises my blood pressure and forced the writing of this column is the one that says, with a condescending chuckle, that a provincial thespian like Will Shakespeare, with the benefit of only an elementary school eduction — at best — could not possibly know all the things that are in the plays.

The plays, therefore, must have been composed, cough-cough, by someone with the advantages of an aristocratic classical education, like, say, the Earl of Oxford.

This is rank snobbery, expressing a kind of classism I would have thought went out of style, at least in this country, circa 1776. It does not account for autodidacticism — self-education through reading (the best kind!), and even more outrageously, it does not account for genius.

Supremely well-educated men and woman, I cannot help but mention, fail to write great works of literature in every generation. Genius, by contrast, flourishes where it may.

I suppose Emmericha’s next film may show how Lincoln, born in a log cabin and given scant education, could not possibly have saved the Union, freed the slaves or written the Gettysburg address. It must have been William Seward, on the sly for some reason.

Or Sam Clemens — how could this untutored frontier newspaper reporter have written the books of Mark Twain? It must have been William Dean Howells (although he didn’t have much formal learnin’, either).

Or Arthur Rimbaud — surely this unruly adolescent could not have written the poetic masterpieces that altered French literature and helped found modernism by the age of 19, after which he wrote nothing more. No, it must have been his lover/mentor, Paul Verlaine.

In the end, the only good thing that can come out of Anonymous is that it’s so wretched, like The Day After Tomorrow, which set the cause of global warming back at least a quarter century, that it destroys rather than advances its own thesis. Shaprio certainly thinks that’s the case.

“I’m jealous in a way,” Shapiro joked with Connie Ogle. “The movie makes the case that scholars have tried to make for years. There will be conspiracy theorists who will claim I’m behind this film to hurt the cause.”

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2011 3:01 pm

    Smiled throughout this, Chauncey. I’m on your side, and the side of autodidacticism and genius.

    Let the rest eat popcorn…

  2. Connie permalink
    October 28, 2011 3:17 pm

    One of my favorite silly Oxfordian arguments is the one in which they point to a handful of plays and say Look! It’s propaganda! or Look! Oxford stabbed a guy through a curtain too, just like Hamlet! They never say, oh, Oxford was a fairy like Ariel, or a monster like Caliban, or a drunken whoremonger like Sir John Falstaff. They pick and choose what they want to fit their stories. They did the same thing with Francis Bacon, too; Shapiro writes alot about that, how all these people pored over the plays looking for secret ciphers. It’s just laughable. Though not as laughable as the theory in which Oxford beds Queen Elizabeth, has a son with her – and then finds out she’s his mom. Oops.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 28, 2011 11:53 pm

      Yeah, thanks, Connie, good stuff. There’s even a useful term for this tendency, “confirmation bias,” or “confirmatory bias.”

  3. October 28, 2011 8:52 pm

    I was wondering what you thought about this. I hear about this movie on npr all the time. And I must say, I am not disappointed by your argument. Thank you for making it.

  4. October 29, 2011 5:55 am

    Oh, tush, tush! Seeing rude ruminations as if dancing upon the head of a pin in the moonlight as being dangerous is cklearly just having a bit of fun, indeed, a bit of fun-filled frolics as being performed in a flush of Freudian slumber: One is supposed to enjoy, not annoy. Oh, tush, tush, tush!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 29, 2011 12:00 pm

      Thanks for the comment, but if I may, a modest bit of advice: Verbs are our friends.

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