Tuesday, November 29, 2011
From My Cinema: Anyonymous Takes on Shakespeare
by Kelly Bedard
In the weeks before Anonymous hit movie theatres I was asked no fewer than 20 times how I felt about the film. "Could it be true?" people wondered of the absurd tagline: 'Was Shakespeare A Fraud?'; "are you outraged?" demanded others, inquiring whether my bardolatry had me on the defense; "why is Xenophilius Lovegood in it?" some pondered, rightly wondering why the bright and witty Rhys Ifans was on the poster. "I don't know yet" was my answer to questions 2 and 3 since I'd yet to actually see the movie; question 1 has long had a definitive "no" attached to it, complete with a long rant about the gross pretentiousness that accompanies each and every theory positing that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wasn't educated or rich or respectable enough to be talented.
No, the outrage never came. And as for Ifans, I suspect it had little to do with anything other than the studio's need for a familiar face who could speak in a straight line and the actor's need for a paycheck.
Anonymous is flippin' hilarious. Rife with inaccuracies ranging from the should-be-dead Marlowe cavorting in the tavern to the incorrect assertion that Shakespeare has only 37 plays attributed to him (38's the real number; 40 including Cardenio and Love's Labour's Won), the film presents a version of "history" so preposterous that it's less threatening and more amusing, as though it'd been re-imagined and already satirized by Seth MacFarlane for the enjoyment of Fox's Sunday animation audience.
We were meant to take this seriously, which means that the complete misrepresentation of historical fact ceases to be funny and becomes somewhat alarming. Thank god the film tanked (hey, thanks pedantic writing and clunky direction, the academic community and Shakespeare fans the world over owe you one!) because for every viewer who doesn't know to laugh, Anonymous could really be messing with some heads. You can't count on every college kid to know when Macbeth was published or the average Joe to have read Richard III, so Anonymous rewards them with a hearty helping of "haha, you don't know any better!" and presents them with a supposedly real world full of unsettling conspiracies, sexual and political corruption and a lower class that apparently can do nothing of merit except claim things that aren't theirs- helpful!
Go ahead and mess with history for the sake of story-telling (you won't ever find me complaining about Shakespeare in Love's fact-light mythology), as long as you present it as though you're telling a story. No one's going to see Titanic then wonder why Jack Dawson doesn't appear on passenger manifests; they got the dates and locations right, then elaborated from there. What Anonymous does is pretend it's telling the truth. But there's only one real rule when it comes to telling the truth: You're Not Allowed To Just Make Stuff Up!
HERE) that took on the absurd misrepresentations in Anonymous and the classism and ignorance inherent in its founding conspiracies by putting hyperbolic pen to tongue-in-cheek paper and, well, making it worse. The hilarious lies formulated by Eric Idle are past plausibility, making it easier to discern the truth than it could be in Anonymous. His point, is that sometimes you just have to shut up and accept that maybe the truth isn't quite as entertaining or grand as you want it to be. Shakespeare wasn't an Earl, he had affairs but none of them were particularly interesting, and there was likely no incest involved whatsoever. So what? Does that somehow make King Lear any less brilliant? Is "what light through yonder window breaks" less beautiful when written by a peasant? And what of Comedy of Errors- are we claiming that this fancypants Earl wrote the crap stuff as well? Because I'm sure there are a few duds old Willy would be more than willing to escape the shadow of.
Genius doesn't live in the walls at Cambridge; they don't pump it into the Harvard water supply or distribute it as an automatic bonus when your offshore account exceeds a couple billion. I'm sure Edward de Vere, the conveniently timed Earl of Oxford, was a brilliant man, but he wasn't Shakespeare. I know that, my friends know that, all my professors knew that. I bet Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave know. Hell, I bet screenwriter John Orloff's even got a sense that he's spinning yarn instead of sharing history. Now if only we could convince Derek Jacobi...