Monday, April 23, 2012

Happy birthday to the Bard

William Shakespeare
 It is the birthday of English playwright William Shakespeare (1564), the greatest writer in the English language. He wrote 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two narrative poems and lots of other poems as well. For the Bard's 448th birthday, let us consider a bit of foolishness that premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. No doubt it will eventually show up elsewhere. The film Anonymous, written by John Orloff and directed by Roland Emmerich, presents Shakespeare as a merely frontman who passes off the work of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as his own. Lord Oxford is depicted as one of many lovers of Queen Elizabeth I, and he is caught up in the political intrigue of the Elizabethan court. He sires a son with Elizabeth and supports the Essex rebellion against her. When it fails, Elizabeth agrees to spare their son's life but declares that Lord Oxford will never receive credit for his plays. Critics praise the film for its lavish production values and its attention to detail of the period but wisely upbraid this nonsense for what it is. Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune lauds the beautiful copper-and-honey-toned palette and Vanessa Redgrave's performance as Elizabeth but notes that "history is simultaneously being made up and rewritten." Roger Ebert is intrigued by the dialogue, acting, scenery and lust but insists the premise is "profoundly mistaken." David Denby, in The New Yorker, calls the film "preposterous fantasia" and says "the Oxford theory is ridiculous." In The New York Times, A.O. Scott is a bit stronger in his condemnation. He calls the film "a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination." Like Amadeus and The Da Vinci Code, this film does not let the facts stand in the way of a good story. It ought to be taken for the entertainment that it is. The true student of Shakespeare might be best served by reading the works themselves and the many volumes of history about the era.

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