Those of us who teach or have taught, whether at school, college or university, are familiar with the manner in which film informs students about literature. Mel Gibson and Glenn Close in Hamlet, Leo and Clare in Romeo and Juliet, even Larry in Henry V – students all too often mistake the film for the playtext. This is inevitable and often quite useful, as it allows entry into the debate about originality, sources and so forth.
Anonymous would be the same. As is being reported everywhere, renowned Shakespeare scholar Roland Emmerich has bought into one of the conspiracy theories which state that Shakespeare was a cipher, and the real, secret author was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. I won’t bore you with explanations of why this is nonsense, and of why the arguments being peddled are intellectually dishonest, specious and demonstrate a whole heap of ignorance about the period, the plays and the nature of authorship, because this has been done better by better minds than mine.
But I was alerted yesterday to a worrying phenomenon – the hollywood-sponsored study pack.
A group called ‘Young Minds Inspired’ of the UsofA have produced, for Sony Pictures, a work book which not only implies that anyone believing in Shakespeare is a fool, but is riddled with advertising. It keeps moving, but the New York Times has a link here.
This is a little like McDonald’s producing literature on nutrition.
‘Uncover the true genius of William Shakespeare’ it has as its strapline. On every fucking page.
There are a number of interesting suggestions here. To whit:
Fears about the power of performance actually came true in 1601, when the Earl of Essex used the Globe Theatre to help incite a public uprising against the Queen’s counselors.
‘Know ye not I am Richard’ – is what Elizabeth is meant to have said, on hearing of this specially commissioned performance. She did so a few months later, however, and the performance, if an incitement to rebellion it was, was something of a failure, as Essex and his men mostly lost their heads over the issue. But, apparently, ‘fears about the power of performance actually came true’ … apart from the coming true bit, then.
Another delightful bit of speciousness is this paragraph:
According to director Roland Emmerich, Anonymous has “all the elements of a Shakespeare play. It’s about Kings, Queens, and Princes. It’s about illegitimate children, it’s about incest, it’s about all of these elements which Shakespeare plays have. And it’s overall a tragedy.”
That’s right, Roland. All of Shakespeare is about this. All Shakespeare is riddled with incest. Well, actually, this is the same nonsense that gets education ministers excited about teaching children Shakespeare’s stories. Sorry, but they ain’t his. Like everyone, he used old stories, messed them up a bit for fun, and made them into plays.
Shakespeare is about language.
Then the worksheet asks this:
After you have seen the film, discuss these questions in class:
•How does the plot of the film compare to a Shakespearean tragedy?
•How does the filmmaker’s use of scenes performed by Elizabethan actors compare to Shakespeare’s use of actors to stage a play within the play?
•How did the film affect your opinion about the theory that de Vere was the true author of the Shakespeare plays?
Oh. My. God.
This is, as a friend of mine recently remarked, the humanist equivalent to evolution-doubters. The same arguments obtain here ‘we haven’t got x, therefore x didn’t exist, I can’t conceive of y without x, therefore god done it’. That is quite delightful reasoning, and no mistake. People who doubt that evolution through natural selection is by far the best explanation we have for life on earth don’t understand how it works.
But let’s start at the beginning. This is the big intro:
There’s little debate that William Shakespeare is one of the world’s greatest poets and playwrights. But who is William Shakespeare? The answer to that question is the starting point for Anonymous, Sony Pictures’ exciting new historical thriller directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) and starring Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave, which arrives in theaters on October 28,2011.
Anonymous takes us back to a time when plays and politics were intertwined,and when uncovered secrets reveal how the works we attribute to William Shakespeare may have actually been written by Queen Elizabeth I’s one-time favorite, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.
Your students can explore this theory,and gain a fresh perspective on Shakespeare and his times,with this free educational program from Sony Pictures and the curriculum specialists at Young Minds Inspired (YMI). The program includes easy-to-implement activities for English literature, theater,and British history classes. Students will investigate the true identity of William Shakespeare,and discover how power struggles surrounding Queen Elizabeth and the political strife of 16th-century England impacted the players and playwrights of that Golden Age.
Oh. My. God.
‘The answer to that question is the starting point for the film Anonymous’
‘Students will investigate the true identity of William Shakespeare’
That’s right, children, the maker of Independence Day has single-handedly overturned several hundred years of academic orthodoxy (oh, and just because it’s the orthodoxy doesn’t make it automatically right, but it does make it more likely to be right than wrong. Until something serious in the form of evidence comes along. In his case, it hasn’t).
How about this for quite beautifully unbiased writing, designed to allow students to make up their own minds:
Set in the political snake-pit of Elizabethan England, Anonymous(Rated TK) speculates on an issue that has for centuries intrigued academics and brilliant minds ranging from Mark Twain and Charles Dickens to Henry James and Sigmund Freud, namely, was William Shakespeare the author of all the plays for which he is given credit? Experts have debated, books have been written,and scholars have devoted their lives to protecting or debunking theories surrounding the authorship of these most renowned works in English literature. Anonymous poses one possible answer, focusing on a time when cloak-and- dagger political intrigue, illicit romances in the Royal Court, and the schemes of greedy nobles hungry for the power of the throne were exposed in the most unlikely of places—the London stage.
‘scholars have devoted their lives to protecting or debunking theories …’
This is quite subtly unsubtle. The question really hasn’t engaged anything but a core cohort of romantic fantasists who wish Shakespeare had been more bloody interesting, or romantic. Sorry. Genius can be dull, too.
Check out this bit:
RESOURCES AND REFERENCES
Young Minds Inspired—www.ymiclassroom.com
Declaration of Reasonable Doubt— www.DoubtAboutWill.org
For a complete list of references, go to www.ymiclassroom.com/AnonymousReferences.pdfSincerely,
Well, now there’s authority for you.
Well, I could take this piece of ‘educational literature’ apart piece by piece. It’s not hard, but I’m more worried about the rhetoric. For impressionable young minds, I’m afraid that this will be persuasive. Why? Because it’s specious. It looks good, but (insert the obvious Shakespeare quotation here). The worksheet admits some of what we know, followed by this:
Skeptics accept all these facts, but they find it impossible to believe that a mere grammar school graduate could have written the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare. Wouldn’t it make more sense, they ask, to suppose that William Shakespeare was only the stand-in for a better educated author?
Well, no, actually, it doesn’t. Fuck it. Look. Jonson was the son of a brickmaker. Bacon’s grandfather was a sheepreeve (look it up). This is pitiful snobbery. It doesn’t ‘make more sense’. Oh, and while we’re going down this route, it ‘made more sense’ that the earth was stationary. Hardly anyone believed that the earth went round the sun in the late sixteenth, early seventeenth centuries.
Without getting too snobbish, the rigours of academic proof revolve around evidence, not around ‘common sense’ – common sense is what the Daily Mail peddles – and the evidence overwhelmingly points to Shakespeare, not to De Vere, Bacon, Marlowe (and speaking of Marlowe – where is the proof that he existed? Letters? Examples of handwriting? MS copies of his plays? ‘Common sense’ dictates that he therefore didn’t exist, right?). What we do in academia is make observations, and come up with theories based on those observations. This is all backwards. This is coming up with a theory and trying to find stuff that fits.
Now. The real scandal is not that people believe this shit, nor even that they teach it (after all, Intelligent Design?), but that this misleading advertisement, which is happy to fuck up the intellectual development of students for the sake of bums on seats is trumpeted at the last because it ‘Meets Common Core and National Standards.’
Be afraid. Be very afraid. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.