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Critic’s Notebook: ‘Anonymous’ and the Shakespeare debate

Roland Emmerich’s film “Anonymous” has stoked those ancient tribal hatreds always ready to erupt over the question of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, the good old Bard of Avon or, as the lunatic fringe would have it, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Partial as I am to fact-based reality, I’m unequivocally in the Shakespeare camp. But I think the discussion sets up something of a false choice, one that perpetuates myths about the individual talent and notions about modern authorship that are anachronistic when applied to Shakespeare.

As any bright English major can tell you, the entity known as Shakespeare is in no small part the product of poets before him and editors, scholars and theater artists after him. Speculating on his identity is as doomed an enterprise as writing an intimate biography of Jesus. Rather than spend so much time digging up and defending truths about the man, why not turn some of this obsessive curiosity toward that which allowed him to become the institution that he is today?

But first there are gnats to swat. The “Oxfordian” line of reasoning, cartoonishly adopted by “Anonymous,” holds that Shakespeare’s lowly socioeconomic status makes it inconceivable that he could have written plays of such exquisite merit. Heavyweight Shakespeare scholars such as Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt and Columbia’s James Shapiro have effectively dismantled this argument, which exploits gaps in the historical record and thrives on conjecture. But like those who deny global warming, President Obama’s birth certificate and the basic tenets of Darwinian evolution, the Oxfordians prefer shadowy doubts to irrefutable data. That De Vere died in 1604, years before a few of Shakespeare’s prodigious masterpieces were completed, is of little consequence to their conspiratorial parlor game.

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My impatience with the Shakespeare disbelievers, however, doesn’t translate into an affirmation of the notion that the cavalcade of great works attributed to him tumbled out of his imagination the way that “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” tumbled out of Tolstoy’s. My own view is that although Shakespeare is indisputably the master architect of his work — the genius in chief, if you will — his plays took a literary village.

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This isn’t a sly way of flipping the Bard the bird. The miracle of Shakespeare is that he combines one of the most exacting poetic minds with the keenest of dramatic imaginations. But he wasn’t divorced from tradition. Cultural context can’t account for the rise of the unmatched virtuoso, but extricate Shakespeare from his milieu and you misrepresent his accomplishment, turning him into a false god rather than celebrating the wonder of a glover’s son from Stratford becoming the most revered dramatist of all time.

No one seems to mind that “The Comedy of Errors” apes Plautus or that Christopher Marlowe supplied an early tragic model. But does it cause too much cognitive dissonance to remember that “Hamlet” is based on an earlier tragedy, a lost work sometimes attributed to Thomas Kyd? That the main plot of “King Lear” is largely drawn from an anonymous play, “King Leir”? That some of the most memorable characters of “As You Like It” were introduced in a frolicsome romance by Thomas Lodge?

Writing in an age unconstrained by modern copyright laws, Shakespeare roamed free through Italian, French and English literature. What we would call plagiarism today was considered borrowing back then, a practice cradled in the curriculum. The Renaissance value of learning through imitation, drilled into precocious schoolboys like Shakespeare, who spent hours upon hours absorbing and adapting Latin texts, encouraged budding poets to raid the literary storehouse.

Shakespeare, of course, never simply filched. Whatever he touched, he alchemized. His poetic and dramatic instincts could spin gold out of dross. A tragic bend in his nature opened him to mystery, ambiguity, doubt. His Lear and Cordelia don’t survive and live happily ever after, as their precursors do. In “Othello,” it is the Moor who alone kills Desdemona, not alongside his evil Ensign, who beats her to death in the mid-16th century Italian novella that fired Shakespeare’s imagination. Acknowledge the compelling darkness as his own, but more often than not he wasn’t inventing out of whole cloth.

A further complication is Shakespeare’s membership in a dynamic theater company. Elizabethan playwriting, as the rumors of Marlowe’s bar-brawl death hint, was a rough and tumble business. Shakespeare may have been considered an upstart by the University Wits, those snooty Oxbridge poets who scorned his lack of pedigree, but he seems to have been temperamentally suited to the messy democracy of a troupe. Slightly more is known about collaborations between playwrights than between writers and actors, but it is assumed there was give-and-take. Performers weren’t likely to have been passive vessels. Hamlet’s advice to the players — “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you"— betrays the frustration of an author routinely rewritten by his interpreters.

Questions surrounding publication only add to the swarm of voices behind Shakespeare’s plays. Which version of “Hamlet” does one trust? The quarto that goes “To be or not to be — I there’s the point” or the one that’s become enshrined in our hearts and minds? These decisions have come down to editors, who have established over the centuries our understanding of “Shakespearean.” They have fiddled with language and made choices with manuscripts. The “King Lear” many mid-20th century readers came into contact with was a hybrid text, collated from different possibilities.

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“Anonymous,” which paints a lively if specious portrait of Shakespeare’s bustling age, ultimately does the Oxfordians (the name comes from the earl, not the university) no favors. It blurs history into preposterous soap opera. Thankfully, the prospect of a mainstream movie debunking Shakespeare’s authorship turns out to be more worrisome than the reality. It’s hard to imagine even the most impressionable moviegoers being taken in by this farrago. That such top flight actors as Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance — accomplished Shakespeareans all — have lent their prestige to the project only reminds us that great actors are great not for their judgment but for their ability to inhabit a fiction.

Still, “Anonymous” may inadvertently do some good by forcing us to clarify what Shakespeare means to us today. Shakespeare’s defenders have the advantage not just in truth but also in eloquence. I just wish that more of their golden fluency were being used to spotlight Shakespeare’s exceptionalness within its broader context.

While no one could have filled his shoes, Shakespeare would never have become Shakespeare without the tradition that spurred him on. Ours is a culture that longs for the solitary genius to rescue us, but unless the ground is prepared no savior will be able to reach us.

The point is simple: How we imagine Shakespeare tells us a good deal about our own beliefs about artists, their relationship to society and their intersection with history.

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Shakespeare was part of a golden age that was connected to golden ages before him. In contemplating the staggering body of work that bears his name, it is important to give credit where credit is due. But let’s be careful not to fall into a do-it-yourself illusion of greatness. Shakespeare’s legacy is pretty much assured. That of our own age is still up for grabs.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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