x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Shakespeare conspiracy theory comes to the big screen

Those leading the outcry over Anonymous, which suggests Shakespeare did not write his plays, should consider the source.

Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave in Anonymous.
Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave in Anonymous.

Protesters daubed tape over Warwickshire road signs that bear Shakespeare's name. The Shakespeare Inn at Welford-upon-Avon - where the Bard is said to have had his last drink - covered up its sign. And in the centre of Shakespeare's famous hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon, tourists hoping to see the Gower Memorial, the statue to one of the finest writers in the English language, have to use their imaginations: the imposing Victorian bronze is shrouded in a white sheet.

But this isn't the work of an anti-Shakespeare contingent intent on causing trouble. It is, instead, a campaign led by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, furious with the suggestion in Roland Emmerich's new film, Anonymous, that Shakespeare may not have written the likes of Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream or Macbeth himself. Their intention is to emphasise what a world would have looked like without perhaps the greatest playwright ever.

If only they'd actually watched the film first. Because anyone who sees Emmerich's Anonymous - expected out in the UAE on November 24 - will surely not be able to take such claims seriously. It's not a plot spoiler to reveal that the movie suggests Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was in Emmerich's view the author of "Shakespeare's" plays - it's indicated within the first 10 minutes. But the film goes too far the other way, casting the Bard as a boorish, illiterate, womanising fool who was somehow fortunate enough to have the confidence of De Vere and be able to call the plays his own. Take Emmerich's Elizabethan world at face value and Shakespeare would surely have been laughed out of town.

Still, any film based on a thesis first posited in 1920 by an ex-clergyman with the brilliant name of John Thomas Looney was always likely to have plot holes. What infuriates the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is that Anonymous is the latest in a long line of conspiracy theories, which somewhat snobbishly doubt whether a grammar schoolboy from the modest Midlands could ever have had the inherent skill or experience necessary to write such brilliant verse.

The problem is, there are no letters, diaries or any real way of properly documenting his writing - not least because this man who also went by the name Shakspere simply wasn't interested in publishing it. So it became fashionable in the 19th century to suggest that the real writer was Christopher Marlowe - the author of Dr Faustus. It appeared not to matter that he had been murdered in a London pub in 1593, when there were only eight of the 36 Shakespeare plays in existence. The death, it's argued, was a CIA-style hoax to allow Marlowe to write in peace, from France. Of course it was.

Or if not Marlowe, then Francis Bacon, the famous, er, scientist - who wrote the more seditious plays under Shakespeare's name because to come clean would have damaged his ambitions in government. However, he did, supposedly, leave secret code in the plays confirming he was the queen's son. Supporters of that ridiculous theory included no less than Mark Twain, who somewhat strangely thought that because nothing of note had happened to Shakespeare in his life, he couldn't possibly have used his imagination.

Essentially, all this really proves is that we really like a conspiracy theory. Emmerich appears to enjoy one too - particularly when it also reveals potential for a salacious love story involving a reigning monarch: although it would have made for a more intriguing film if he hadn't given away the identity of his author in the first 10 minutes.

What's not in doubt is these tremendous plays still exist, whoever wrote them. This is Anonymous's get-out-of-jail-free card played in a slightly clunky modern section: that the authorship conversation isn't, in the end, as important as these brilliant pieces of work still performed 400 years later. The play's the thing, as "Shakespeare" writes in Hamlet.

But that isn't enough for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust - nor should it be. For as the Shakespeare expert James Shapiro says in his excellent Contesting Will book from last year, it's important that Shakespeare was a normal man who could shape what he'd read in books into thrilling new tales. From Hamlet (drawing on a 13th-century story called Amleth) to A Midsummer Night's Dream (borrowed from Ovid's Metamorphoses), Shakespeare made the best of what he'd learnt from the masters. And that's perhaps why his stories have stood the test of time - he wasn't some monied aristocrat writing from an ivory tower, but someone who genuinely understood the everyman's struggles with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Besides, in 400 years' time, will we be discussing the timeless work of Emmerich? Unlikely. In the meantime, Anonymous is good fun - but much ado about nothing.