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Academic Response to ‘Anonymous’

November 27th, 2010 No comments


In his Oct. 29 post, “Academic Response to Anonymous”, Hardy Cook, editor of SHAKSPER: The Global Electronic Shakespeare Conference,  faced the looming crisis of Roland Emmerich’s Oxford-as-Shakespeare film (scheduled for release in September of 2011) by soliciting advice from members:

…how will we as responsible scholars and academics respond to and address the issues that will arise from the premier of this film.

A few days later, in a post offering “Evidence of Authorship ” he restated his query to include the subject of Emmerich’s film, Edward de Vere:

…my original query was concerned with ways to address those who might ask about authorship and in particular de Vere after seeing the film Anonymous when it is released

I especially liked Tom Reedy’s “No More Sneers” advice, and Dave Evett’s sensible caution against presumptions regarding “evidence”. On Nov. 17, I also sent Hardy Cook some thoughts on the matter, but since he didn’t include my response in what appears to have been his last digest on the thread, I’ve taken the opportunity to revise and upgrade my submission for posting here, with links and images.

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Dear Hardy Cook,

It seems to me that most of your respondents reacted against the main issue that will arise from viewing Emmerich’s film (namely, the authorship question) in general, and against the ways in which the case for Oxford has been presented in particular.  My response is more on the nut-n-bolts level of strategic preparation.  In order to anticipate how Emmerich’s story will pique the public’s curiosity, it seemed to me that you might want to have a better idea of what “Anonymous” will actually be about.  A few suggestions:


1) READ THE WORKS THAT INSPIRED THE SCRIPT: In 2004, I had the opportunity to read John Orloff’s original script, which told an imaginative “insider’s story” of the Elizabethan theatre world from the triple perspective of Ben Jonson, William Shakspere and the earl of Oxford.  The script opened from a “Sons of Ben” perspective with the closing of the theaters in 1642, five years after Jonson’s death in 1637, before diving into the bitter rivalries that accompanied the tail end of the Elizabethan era and Oxford’s life.  From what I recall, Orloff’s version of “William” seemed inspired in part by Alden Brooks, who saw him as the frippery-of-wit writer, play-broker and all-around knave that Ben Jonson excoriated in his epitaph “On Poet-Ape” (see “The Dyer’s Hand”, 1943,  and Charles Wisner Barrell’s review, “A King of Shreds and Patches“).

If you take the time to follow Brooks’ reading of the various legends, pamphlets, plays and poems upon which he builds this reprehensible image, you’ll find the essence of his “Wm. Shakspere of Stratford” in the scurrilous character of “Captain Tucca“, who appears in Jonson’s “Poetaster” and in the Marston-Dekker reply, “Satiromastix“.  Scholars long ago identified other characters from these “Poet’s War” plays as lampoons on Marston, Dekker, Weever and Jonson, but no one has yet found a real-life counterpart for Tucca.

If, indeed, Emmerich gives us a Brooks’ inspired play-broker/pander/showman as his take on “William Shakespeare”, the best answer to questions on this portrayal might be to suggest a reading of these plays, along with “The Dyer’s Hand” and more recent (albeit less imaginative) studies of the Poetomachia, such as James Shapiro’s Rival Playwrights, and Shakespeare and the Poet’s War by James Bednarz.

2) READ UP ON THE HISTORY COVERED BY THE MOVIE: We know for certain that Emmerich has chosen the Essex Rebellion and the fateful staging of Richard II by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, for the catastrophe of his narrative.  Students and the general public may see a version of these events that highlights Shakespeare’s play as a provocative transgression – one that should have been severely punished but wasn’t. Be ready for the inevitable question, “Why not?”  With a dispassionate and respectful approach, the Essex Rebellion of “Anonymous” could provide a marvelous teaching opportunity, and a perfect launch into “Henry V”, “Julius Caesar” and “Troilus & Cressida“.

3) KNOW THE BASIC FACTS OF OXFORD’S BIOGRAPHY: Emmerich’s film will show the well-connected earl of Oxford walking about the streets of London as a patron, poet and direct contemporary of William Shakspere.  Be prepared for people to ask, “Couldn’t they have known each other?” or “Wouldn’t Shakspere at least be very aware of the earl, maybe even curious about him?”  Whatever the claims that others have made in his behalf, Edward Oxenford did, indeed, serve as patron to writers and playing companies, and had direct connections, whether through blood, enmity or patronage,  to major and minor literary figures of the day: Henry Howard, Arthur Golding, Philip Sidney, John Lyly, Gabriel Harvey, Thomas Nashe, etc.


Reportedly, Emmerich will present Oxford as a royal bastard with an identity crisis, along the lines of Charles Beauclerk’s study of an alienated poetic psyche, Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom. You should know that Oxford was regarded as illegitimate by his half-sister Katherine, who soon after their father’s death brought a case against him that would have stripped him of his name and inheritance.  On record, we have Charles Arundel’s witness of Oxford’s fury “that the Queen said he was a bastard for which cause he would never love her, and leave her in the lurch one day.”

Finally, I suggest that you portray the movie as Opportunity rather than Disaster.  Ridicule – of the film, of the authorship question, of Oxford himself – may seem to your students like a nervous defense against a devil you don’t dare look in the face.  The way I see it, anything you can say that will send your seeker back to The Bard’s ever-living poetry, with confidence in his or her own ability to discern the truth, may turn out to be a kindness long remembered.     ~Marie Merkel