Shakespeare Bites Back: Stratford Takes on Hollywood

Eminent Shakespeare scholars present their argument in response to the upcoming release of Roland Emmerich's Anonymous.

Roland Emmerich is really putting the cat among the pigeons; and he is taking eminent Shakespearean actors along with him, such as Sir Derek Jacobi, Vanessa Redgrave, and Mark Rylance (former artistic director of the London Globe Theatre) in his pursuit to create a ‘reasonable doubt’ in the minds of audiences about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.

Emmerich’s forthcoming film Anonymous is to be released on October 28th and seeks to establish a dramatic angle for Edward de Vere,the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), as the secret aristocratic author of the plays, who uses the humble actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) as his front in the escapade. All very conspiracy theory, as is Emmerich’s trademark, but not very original. That being said – things are hotting up in the build-up to the release date. The ‘pigeons’ are fighting back with a vengeance.

On 1st September, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-on-Avon hosted a webinar to promote the debate and defend Shakespeare as the author of his own plays, and to publicise forthcoming events and publications that reinforce this established academic position. The primary hosts and presenters of this webinar were Paul Edmondson, Director of Research at the SBT, and Stanley Wells, world famous Shakespeare scholar and Honorary President of the SBT. Both provided an inspiring and informative clear argument in defence of Shakespeare studies that support the reputation of the man as actor and playwright.

The advertising campaign belonging to Emmerich and his distributors is glossy and dramatic. I have only just dared to venture beyond the opening page of the site that has quite an intimidating soundtrack and slightly gothic feel. Dark corners and cloak-and-dagger conspiracy are both the order of the day. It looks like it will be an entertaining period film. In addition Emmerich has created a documentary that claims it will look at both sides of the debate. Professor Wells has contributed to this also, but admitted during the webinar that he looks forward to it with some ‘trepidation’.

By comparison, the efforts of the SBT are rather more modest. The project ‘60 Minutes with Shakespeare’ (Twitter: #60mins) has recruited famous and not-so-famous scholars, actors, directors, journalists, etc. to each offer a 60-second response to a question about Shakespeare authorship. This helps to open up the debate to a global collection of experts from across the full spectrum of the arts. One of the most inspiring responses to these questions has come from K. S. Vijay Elanqova, a journalist for The Hindu, a writer and a poet. He defends Shakespeare with the simple point that ‘Genius can come from humble origins’.

Part of the issue in the authorship debate is that of the snobbery directed at a man of modest background rising to become one of the greatest authors the world has ever seen. His reflection on life and grasp of the human condition has always been regarded as second to none. Some of his contemporary critics and fellow playwrights, such as Ben Jonson, ended up conceding greatness to him and offering glowing tributes. So, far from the justification of the anti-Shakespearean group that there is no evidence of his status during his lifetime – there is actually sufficient proof of his professional career. Edmondson and Wells both endorsed the importance of academic integrity and honesty that ought to be perpetuated, and warned the detractors to be wary of always proffering the negative argument.

Anyway – with the release of the film and the spate of works and broadcasts that will accompany it – it might be time to take sides. Are you with Team Edmonson/Wells or Team Emmerich? Team Shakespeare or Team Oxford/Essex/Marlowe (or 77 other candidates that have been proposed!)? The full recorded webinar will be available on the SBT site soon (I even get a mention a couple of times as they were kind enough to answer my questions, so listen out). And Emmerich and the detractors will be presenting their case on screens from October.

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