Shakespeare In Hell

For a long time there’s been a strand of Shakespeare scholarship that contends William Shakespeare didn’t write plays credited to William Shakespeare. It might seem novel to those who do not know it, but it’s actually an argument that raged for quite some time dating back to the mid 19th century. I tangled with the topic back in the day when I had to produce educational videos about Shakespeare’s plays and slap bang ran into the problematic in the course of researching the man himself.

My own conclusion from that little side track was that if he were the author of all those plays and sonnets, then he seems to have written a lot of plays and sonnets but left very little of himself in writing otherwise. Many a notable figure has lent support to the theory that it was Edward de Vere earl of Oxford who actually penned the plays including, Mark Twain, Henry James, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. Even Derek Jacobi who appears in this film is attributed as being a supporter of the Oxford theory.

So it is against this background that the controversial film was released and just as you would guess, it promptly disappeared off people’s radars.

What’s Good About It

I never feel like I’m a big fan of Shakespeare’s canon, but here I am banging on about the bard – or a movie about the bard – so it must be true that I am some kind of culture vulture at least and maybe even a literary elitist. I loved ‘Shakespeare in Love’, contrary to all the people who point to it as an undeserving Oscar winner and even if this film totally flies in the face of the jaunty, feel-good prior film, this is some gripping, suspenseful stuff.

The fact that we know little about Shakespeare plays into a weird advantage with this film because we’re not really interested in him – We’re much more interested in the guy who ostensibly wrote the plays (in this narrative, anyway) who turns out to be a fascinating character. The story and its issues are gripping and compelling, and the sweep of the narrative totally sucks you in from start to finish.

Even if everything in this film were an utter crock of shit, it’s a really entertaining crock of shit if you have the right turn of mind and temperament. I happen to, so this film was a corker.

What’s Bad About It

Rhys Ifans as the 17th Earl of Oxford is great. The younger dude who plays him as a young man, Jamie Campbell Bower,  is not so much. The gap between them is just too big. Joely Richardson as the young Queen Elizabeth puts in a much better performance, but it somehow doesn’t line up well with Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of the aging Queen Elizabeth. The casting idea is great, but it doesn’t work out as well as one would hope.

The directing is a little naff. The sweeping camera moves are not as compelling as the closeups. There’s nothing special here except the performers doing their thing, but it just feels disjointed as if all these good actors are just doing their thing with very little centripetal pull on the narrative. I blame Roland Emmerich – Mr Independence Day – for his relative lack of subtlety and fine control. This thing would have been better in the hands of John Madden who did Shakespeare in Love or Tom Stoppard himself but I imagine it takes a kind of cantankerous director to get behind this project.

It’s a shame because there’s actually so much good going for this film, but the directing is just a little unfocused.

What’s Interesting About It

First and foremost, this film is about the controversy and for the sake of telling a ripping yarn it does its own arguments a great deal of disservice. All the same it’s a film that shows it is worth reconsidering who may have written the collective works of William Shakespeare. Even if the subject might be complete and utter balderdash, it’s actually a particularly dashing dose of balderdash. I mean, is there really a problem in fiction being an utter lie? It’s not as if Dr.Henry”Indiana” Jones is a real personage.

The problem with the controversy starts in assuming that Shakespeare’s work is not only good, it’s too good to have been written by somebody of William Shakespeare’s background. In many ways, the crux of the biscuit falls on this little problematic. But it’s only a problematic if you assign a ton of value to Shakespeare’s work as being good beyond anything else of his contemporary era.  It’s a little like arguing that Don Bradman didn’t really score all those runs because how could somebody from Bowral with so little education have perfected his biomechanics to hit 3 standard deviations above the pack? It’s a kind of post factum argument – probably made worse because there is no basis for any kind of sensible comparison (“It’s literature, yo!”).

Against this is the seeming absence of concrete evidence, but plenty of contemporaries accepted that William Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford-upon-Avon was the author of the Shakespeare canon. If I were being a little boring, I might even suggest that the only reason the Oxfordian idea holds any appeal is because it would be inherently more interesting and supports an elitist bias. (I might also point out the first person to seriously put forward the theory in favour of the 17th Earl of Oxford was a school teacher by the name of Thomas Looney).

The confusion and chaos of the various theories find their echoes in this film, even as it twists some historic facts to make the story for the screen go. You have the Earl of Southampton, you have Kit Marlowe and Ben Johnson, you have Philip Henslowe and The Globe theatre; it’s all a very heady brew of characters.

All of this is enough to savor for hours after watching the film, pondering the fates of men.

London 1600

I was thinking this film might best be watched back to back with ‘Shakespeare in Love’, but I also thought it might be a lot of fun to watch this film back to back with the ‘Elizabeth’  movies starring Cate Blanchett. It’s certainly interesting watching scenes in the theatre as well as the layout of streets and inns in London. It’s also fun to bask ad soak in the scenes from London in 1600, as well as all those moments set in the Tower of London. It’s not as if Elizabethan England hasn’t been shot and done, but every time I see it, it fills me with a weird, “Oh yeah, that’s right, and there’s that bit on the east side where they chopped off heads…” sort of moment.

The London of 1600 in this film is particularly grim and filthy, but it has a marvelous, vibrant, lived in quality. The Rose Theatre and the Globe Theatre look a lot smaller than the current replica gracing the Southbank of the Thames. Still, it’s nice to see how the whole industry of theatre feeds into the movies and tourism and generates a field of “Culture” that the English have (and we don’t have) and forms a kind of gravitational centre.

Hello, A Baraband?

There’s a stuffed Baraband on Edward de Vere’s desk. Yes, I had a good look. I didn’t need to; alas Horatio, I know them well, they’re parrots of infinite jest! A couple of things  I just want to note:

No.1 They’re native to Australia and shouldn’t be discovered yet in 1600, let alone stuffed and shoved on a desk. Deduct the pay of the props master!

No.2 It’s an endangered species. What’s a stuffed one doing in the movies in England?!


Filed under Cinema, Film, Literature, Movies

2 responses to “Anonymous

  1. Not much of a movie, since it wasn’t scrupulously honest on a subject that has been wrapped with a dirty shroud of confusion for a long time. But the question itself is fertile. It isn’t so much that Shakspere of Stratford COULDN’T have been writer. It is that there is absolutely no evidence of any kind, other than the similarity to the stage name Shakespeare, that he could write, was interested in writing, had a book, wrote a book, letter, got a letter, or was thought or remembered to have done anything literate. The Stratford Shakespeare fable has no basis, but the sacred worthies of academia are so deep into the mistake that they will literally destroy anyone who presents a reasonable case for another author. The author who fits in every detail is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. It is a subject that rewards inquiry. I understand, appreciate, and sympathize with the Shakespeare canon and poems as I never could under the misapprehension that they were written by an illiterate money-lender whose happiest moments were when court-orders ruled that his debtors must pay. I recommend: Mark Anderson (Shakespeare by Another Name); Katherine Chiljan (Shakespeare Suppressed); and Charles Beauclerk (Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom). Great books with much detail.

  2. Oh I don’t know. I think for the people uninitiated to the ins and outs of the Shakespeare authorship, the film is probably a nice entry point to the topic. It’s easy to be harsh on a film that could have delivered more for the perceived cause, but as a film, it has more than a few great moments.
    All the same, I do take your point that it sort of spends more time on de Vere’s case than Shakespeare’s lack of background.

    Also, while I do lean towards the Oxfordian view, I think it’s fair to say the film forces a few too many unlikely bits together to keep the story going. The film buff side of me says that’s OK, but the history buff side sort of chafes. So I’m in two minds about the provenance issues; nonetheless I think it’s a rollicking good film if you like a bit of history and suspense.

    After all, it’s not every history film where you just don’t know where things are going to land, and the characterisation of the mature Edward de Vere was pretty darn good. I’d certainly watch it again for more than just kicks.

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