Adventures in History and Romance

Monday, April 25, 2011

To the Shakespeare Naysayers

I recently saw a trailer for an upcoming movie called "Anonymous". Here is the basic plotline: A political thriller about who actually wrote the plays of William Shakespeare-- Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford-- set against the backdrop of the succession of Queen Elizabeth I, and the Essex Rebellion against her. It stars Derek Jacobi, who has been on record for a years as believing DeVere wrote Shakespeare's plays.

The movie looks like an exciting conspiracy-theory kind of thriller. But it is, of course, FICTION.

Try watching the 4-part PBS series by Michael Wood called "In Search of Shakespeare" if you are interested in an exciting and thrilling look at his life and work. Far from being dull, this series is electrifying.  Do this BEFORE "Anonymous" comes out this fall. Then see how the two stack up.  My guess is there will be no comparison.

There is far more to Shakespeare’s life to know than had been the accepted line for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Scholarship of the last 10 years or so has shown just how much we CAN know of the man and his life. Far from being a myth, Shakespeare was the man far more likely to have “written Shakespeare” than any other.  Genius knows no bounds or class. More than education alone (although Shakespeare had a good dose of that), it was a life in the theater, the mind open to all he could see and learn in London, the “forge and working house of thought” as he put it, that helped to shape his plays.

Shakespeare lived in a time of religious and political turmoil. In fact, religion and politics were inseparable. Henry VIII started a tussle for crown and church headship that would continue through his children until Elizabeth firmly established Protestant rule.

Shakespeare’s family was Roman Catholic, the wrong side of the political divide. He would have learned early on to play his cards close to the vest when it came to his personal world views. His own cousin ended up with his head on a pike on London bridge after speaking too publicly about his hatred of the queen and her religious politics.

He was, above all, a poet, and he wanted more than anything else to pursue his art. He had the brilliance to see all points of view, and the wisdom to keep his own beliefs firmly out of sight. This combination enabled him to showcase the multi-variegated sides to every story. He even illustrated with clear brilliance how even every “villain” sees himself as the hero of his own story.  It is why you can read Shakespeare’s works today, 400 years later, and still make a case for any point of view you want.

Also hugely recommended:  Peter Ackroyd's "Shakespeare: The Biography," Stephen Greenblatt's "Will in the World" and James Shapiro's "A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare."  These books plus the PBS series inspired me to write my novella "MUSE OF FIRE."

MUSE OF FIRE reflects this fascinating sense of Will constantly living his life in the balance, on the edge between two warring factions. It contains references to Sonnet 145, which many scholars believe was written by a very young Will Shakespeare to his new wife, Anne Hathaway. There are two puns on her name embedded in the lines, including “Anne saved my life…” Might this literally have happened?  If so, did that event first spark the passion, and later the assiduous care of his family that persisted even after the flame seemed to have died out? MUSE OF FIRE is one guess at what might have happened.

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