‘Shakespeare’ as Hollywood likes it

United Kingdom film critics are apoplectic with rage over the fact that their beloved William Shakespeare has been stolen from them, in a film, Anonymous. He has been converted by Hollywood into a charlatan and a mere actor — who was near illiterate and could barely read or sign his name. The “real” Shakespeare, according to the slickly produced film, was actually the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, and certainly not that shabby Will Shakespeare, who merely pretended to be him, and worse, blackmailed the poor Earl into parting with his plays and his pennies.
This completely “outrageous” assumption has set the cat among the critics and has led to an unseemly squabble between the makers of the film and sniffy British historians who cannot believe that such a lowly theory (and one that is absolutely “impossible”) is accepted by a respectable production house. Overnight, Sony Pictures have turned into unparalleled villains.
The critics question: Has Hollywood gone stark, raving bonkers? Does Hollywood not care? Can’t they understand that this theory — like so many others — has been already debunked? Apparently, a man by the very apt name of Thomas Looney had made such a claim in his book “Shakespeare” Identified in the 1920s and was never taken too seriously.
But the ire of the critics has forced them to completely trash the very successful director of Anonymous, the bold Roland Emmerich (director of Independence Day) and even the wonderful Rhys Ifans who plays the “real” but anonymous author of the plays and poems, i.e., the Earl of Oxford. The film has received scathing indictments for daring to forward such a foolish theory and some critics have given it a single star in their reviews.
So far the controversy has meant that more and more people will get to read and hear about the film, which is obviously good for it. However, I have to say that the day I watched it, it was a fairly full house. What’s more, no one was booing or hissing epithets at it. A sheepish admission: I actually got quite involved with the film (and its rubbish history).
The story is well plotted and Rhys Ifans plays a convincing author. Most of the actors, too, are very accomplished. These include Vanessa Redgrave, who plays an ageing and slightly unstable Queen Elizabeth — another reason to make the British stomach turn. (Remember the fuss when director Shekhar Kapur decided to produce his “Bollywood” version of the Queen’s youthful misdemeanours — angry critics then, too, forgot that this was not a documentary, but a feature film.)
And so, at the end of Anonymous, I even shed a few tears for the poor Earl of Oxford who, because of the puritanical family he had married into (and the fact that he was also writing against his brother-in-law, the powerful secretary of state in Elizabeth’s court, Robert Cecil) could never take credit for his work. Whilst as a mere author, I could sympathise, and therefore weep, let me assure you no one in England, nay, upon the whole Shakespearean stage, is crying in sympathy.
Yet, even if it is a historically inaccurate film, it does tap into the multiple theories about who Shakespeare really was and the constant inability of many to reconcile themselves to the fact that he may have been a fairly ordinary man. He neither lived the romantic life of a poet or that of a highly educated but dissolute nobleman. And he didn’t look like a mad genius.
The inexplicable puzzle for many is that the “real” Shakespeare may have actually been quite a boring man, according to research. He went to a town grammar school and did not have a superlative education. He was a landlord who rented out his property and invested the money he earned from his writing.
It is tough, for many, to reconcile this pragmatic image with the kind of poetry and plays he produced. Instead of being just a British middle-class businessman, why couldn’t he have been another Lord Byron?
Amusingly, when I was in Spain recently, it was interesting to learn that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (the author of Don Quixote) is also suspected to be Shakespeare — or vice versa. Or perhaps, they were twins…
With so many conspiracy theories floating around about Shakespeare’s true identity, why can’t this well-made film be allowed to explore the idea if this amazing man was actually the Earl of Oxford? Sony Pictures has even, rather bravely, put out some material supporting their film’s thesis — but historians refuse to take the film lightly as they are worried that, especially in America, people will believe anything! After all, many still think that President Barack Obama was probably separated at birth from his bad brother, Osama…
Anonymous also makes many other bold assumptions: It is not just that the Earl of Oxford was the anonymous author of Shakespeare’s plays but was also both the son and the lover of Queen Elizabeth. Mistaken identity, revenge, blackmail, sex, incest… it sounds deliciously like a play Shakespeare could have written!

The author can be contacted at kishwardesai@yahoo.com

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