Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Different Shakespeare

Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays?

It’s a question that won’t go away. Why not? Because many who have read, seen, or acted in the plays can’t believe that a semi-literate, mean-spirited corn-merchant from a rural backwater could have produced the most compelling and erudite drama in history.

Countless tenured academics and popular biographers, not to mention the folks who benefit from the billion-dollar tourist trade at Stratford-on-Avon, have a vested interest in casting ridicule on attempts to re-examine the question. Yet doubts about authorship of the plays date back to the eighteenth century, and John Quincy Adams, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Vanessa Redgrave, and Derrick Jacobi are only a few of the literary and theatrical luminaries who have felt that the corm merchant from Avon was not a playwright. (The evidence suggests he could hardly write his name, much less write a play.)

Scholars, too, have weighed in on the question, with J. Thomas Looney presenting the first well-reasoned argument almost a hundred years ago in defense of  Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the “real” Shakespeare. In 1984 Charlton Osburn gathered together all the main threads of the argument in his well-written The Mysterious Mr. Shakespeare. The question was given a pop-culture twist not so long ago in the fictionalize film, Anonymous (2010) which brought widespread exposure to the authorship question while also offering further material for academics to ridicule.

Now, in Last Will. andTestament, Lisa Wilson and Laura Wilson Mattias have followed the main threads of the issue in a well-paced 85-minute documentary. The talking-heads format features eminent scholars of the conventional persuasion, including Stanley Wells, as well as tweedy literary types who propose an alternative. The film is enlivened by fifteen minutes of costume-drama footage from Anonymous, scattered here and there, and the musings of Redgrave, Jacobi, and Mark Rylance (former artistic director of the Globe Theater in London) on behalf of DeVere certainly add to the sparkle.

The Wilson sisters have done a good job of avoiding most of the highly speculative detours and subplots to which Oxfordians are sometimes prone. What we are left with, in a nutshell, is this: There is no contemporary evidence linking the man from Stratford with the plays of Shake-speare (as it most often appeared at the time). Nothing about his life is interesting. And neither Wells nor any the other Stratfordian scholars involved have any real evidence to bring forth in defense of their candidate—except tradition.

The second half of the film examines the life of Edward DeVere, which makes a far better story, questions of authorship aside, than the "must-have-done" and "probably-went"s that pepper the official story . He translated Ovid (Shakespeare’s favorite Roman poet) at 13, and was captured by pirates and left for dead on an island. (So was Hamlet, you may recall.) He was raised by a domineering guardian of Polonian fatuousness, spent a good deal of time in Italy, owned the Globe Theater, was considered by many as the heir apparent to Queen Elizabeth—and even signed his name as such without being hauled in on charges of treason.(Why not?)

The film will make its official premier in Austin in a week or two, and it will be available on pay per view soon afterward. Meanwhile, you can study up on the pros and cons of the Oxfordian position on Wikipedia. Seeing this choice little film, made by two former Minneapolitans, is sure to whet your appetite for more.


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