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Hollywood’s the thing…

New films pique public interest in Elizabethan era

by Gerit Quealy

This article was first published in the Winter 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

Hooray for Hollywood. Or, more accurately, independent filmmakers. And who better to support, albeit unwittingly, independent thinkers such as Oxfordians, than independent movers and shakers operating outside the conventional system. To wit, we have been treated in recent months to two films in wide release that cover our favorite topic and time period, namely Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love.

On the surface, an Oxfordian, being informed of two largely Stratfordian offerings of this topic, may be his usual disgruntled self. Why should we bother with or even endorse stories that further the Stratfordian myth? But I aver that this situation requires a closer and more perspicacious look.

In Love with Shakespeare

Of the two films, it is Shakespeare in Love that has reached the widest audience and level of popular appeal. Scripted by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, the latter a leading contemporary playwright and master of double and triple entendres himself, a wonderfully romantic and adventurous yarn regales us with how Shakespeare came to write Romeo & Juliet. Imagine! Positing a story where Shakespeare was inspired to write his plays based on events in his life! Complete with historic backdrop, practiced signatures, Marlovian contribution and yet another Elizabeth, this time older, wiser and in the person of the inimitable Judi Dench, the film introduces many of the players and theories of the Oxfordian argument in an entertaining and non-threatening forum (see the appendix for some examples of “authorship” talking points).

With Shakespeare in Love we are afforded numerous opportunities for Oxfordian exposition. Supposedly Stratfordian screenwriter Tom Stoppard denies being compelled by the authorship debate, although he does admit to having perused No Bed for Bacon, and earlier days when he pondered the alternative theories of Bacon and Marlowe, before dismissing it as groundless. Presumably this was around the time he wrote the witty Rosencrantz and Gilden-stern are Dead. But one wonders how thoroughly these theories were dismissed when considering his more recent and brilliant play, Arcadia (instrumental in this writer becoming an Oxfordian). One of the themes this muliti-faceted play covers is truth over time and, in that ever-widening gulf, the mistakes and misinterpretations that are its pitfalls. If this is a prevailing concern, can the impact of authorship questions lurk somewhere in the recesses of his cantilevered mind?

One critic called Mr. Stoppard an autodidact and, on the surface, his lack of formal education could lead one to believe he’d champion the conventional Stratfordian story. But his is not a conventional mind and knowing, as he must, the amount of time and effort expended to amass his wealth of knowledge, it is difficult to imagine him supporting such an incomprehensible tale. Certainly one aspect of Arcadia is giving credit where credit is due. Could this have led Mr. Stoppard, in his Golden Globe acceptance speech, to thank ” the onlie begetter, Mr. W. H.”? Like Shakespeare, Mr. Stoppard seems to choose his words very carefully and deliberately, so why did he say THAT? It’s a mystery.

In fact, that line, “It’s a mystery” is sprinkled liberally throughout the film when questions of “how” and “why” arise. Perhaps pointing up the fact that a mystery does exist?

What is a bit of a mystery is the genesis of the film. The original story, reports screenwriter Marc Norman, was suggested to him by his son. One can only sympathize with the boy’s frustration at the traditional story given in school that apparently led him to ask his father to fill in the gaps. Obviously any story is better than no story at all.

And this is certainly resoundingly echoed in the applause Shakespeare in Love has garnered from audiences. Fully 400 years later, the public is still hungry for an explanation of how all this came about–how these plays came to be written.

The Virgin Queen?

While Shakespeare in Love uses fiction to fill in the most famous blank spot in literary history–Shakespeare’s life–Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth uses historical drama to look beneath the surface of an existing life story.

Elizabeth tells the story of Elizabeth I’s early reign, from the events that immediately led up to her ascension to the throne to the initial turmoil and political intrigue she faced in trying to establish a respected and stable monarchy. It is based upon historical fact, but as the medium of film is wont to do, timelines are compressed, personalities are altered, events are fiddled with or fabricated altogether for dramatic impact and clarity as the story is folded into two hours traffic on the screen. Although strict historians–especially Oxfordians–may take umbrage with such liberties, we have more cause for celebration than derision.

Of special note is how Elizabeth spares us the accusation of tearing down yet another cultural icon when the filmmakers depict her making love with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Thus, the myth of the Virgin Queen as an actual physical description is ignored altogether. In addition to this, we have Lord Burghley demanding to see her sheets each morning, right out of Troilus & Cressida! He even intimates that there are rumors afoot that she is with child (giving rise to the theory of a child with Sir Robert, Arthur Dudley, touted by the Spanish in 1587-88 as a putative replacement monarch after deposing Elizabeth).

For Oxfordians of the Prince Tudor persuasion, this is propitious outside corroboration. To further augment this theory, the filmmakers present a striking visual image of the genesis of the Virgin Queen as a deliberate political act by Elizabeth to create a parallel iconography to the Virgin Mary.

In fact, the film’s story line of the Catholic issue and Catholic plotting against Elizabeth are fairly accurate history lessons that play well for Oxfordian revisionists. The film opens with scenes between the Catholic Mary and Elizabeth–who Mary says is not her sister as she begs her to keep England Catholic–and later we see the Pope demanding the heretic Elizabeth’s death.

This dramatically underscores the political and religious hotbed that was the prevailing undercurrent of her reign. It also supports speculation that she would do anything, including undercutting an insider court playwright–or at least his name–to preserve the careful cultivation of her public persona and the stability of her throne.

The Debate

Many–probably most–of us have had occasion to butt heads with Stratfordians over the evidence in the authorship debate and the quality of each side’s scholarship (i.e., Oxfordian “amateurs” vs. Stratfordian “professionals”). With these two films focused on the era, new opportunities are at hand to get the public asking questions about these times and then thinking about whose answers “ring true.”

Taken together, these films provide many cogent reference points to engage the public on such questions as “Who was Shakespeare?” or “Who was Elizabeth?” With numerous Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for both films–and already Golden Globe wins for Shakespeare in Love, its original screenplay and lead actress, Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as Elizabeth‘s Cate Blanchett–they have made an indelible impression on the public consciousness. So much so that many more films are being added to Hollywood’s Shakespeare canon. Look for further departure points of discussion with the opening of the forthcoming Midsummer’s Night Dream with Michelle Pfeifer, Kevin Kline, and Calista Flockhart, as well as Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, with Bill Murray as Polonius. On offer also is Titus Andronicus with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, “10 Things I Hate About You” (Taming of the Shrew), “O” (Othello), and “Near in Blood” (MacBeth). Kenneth Branagh has formed the Shakespeare Film Company which plans on three films per year, beginning with a musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, followed by MacBeth and As You Like It.

So, the challenge ahead for us is to present our rival poet as more adventurous and romantic than the current popularization. We certainly have the material. But will the public, so intrigued by the topic at the moment, prefer the fictionalized version as they have for the past 400 years?

Historical odds are not in our favor, but if indeed public curiosity is piqued enough to look further, they may just have to look to Edward de Vere. And then they truly can be in love–with the real Shakespeare.

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Appendix – Some authorship talking points
found in Shakespeare in Love

Back to text

Basing his writing on events in his life: Not only is the basic love story of Romeo & Juliet, according to the film, based on Shakespeare’s experiences, but many of the lines that end up in the play (and others later) are absorbed from events and speech in his daily life. With no suggestion that this denigrated his genius. Since so much of what we know of Oxford’s life was woven into the tapestry of the plays, this film adroitly points up the fact that true genius absorbs all the material at hand and transmutes it into Art.

The play Romeo & Juliet: One acquaintance asked me if R & J was in fact written at this time. Of course I had to reply that that depended solely upon who you assumed to be the author. But it is an opportunity to make note of the family feud that erupted between the de Veres and the Vavasours as a result of Edward de Vere impregnating Anne Vavasour (and to extrapolate further, if given the opportunity, to refer to plot points in other plays where this fact is relevant, such as Measure for Measure, where Claudio is imprisoned for impregnating Juliet, as was de Vere, in the Tower).

Sonnet XVIII: In the film, Shakespeare writes a sonnet to Viola de Lessups. Again, the subject arises of personal relationship to the writing. The Sonnets are the most personal account we have of Shakespeare’s writing. To whom were they written, and why? It’s a mystery, certainly, but Oxfordians have a plethora of theories, none of which resort to “it was a writing exercise.”

Moth: Here he’s Shakespeare’s analyst, but it further underscores the possibility of people that Shakespeare knew showing up as characters in his plays. Moth is a character in Love’s Labor’s Lost as well as Midsummer Night’s Dream. We certainly have many examples of people Oxford knew showing up in the Shakespeare canon.

Queen Elizabeth: We first see her here having Two Gentlemen of Verona being performed for her at Court. This brings into question the dating of the plays and records of court performances. And she, in effect, commissions Twelfth Night, inviting Shakespeare to write a play about the story we’ve just watched him live. This can lead to a discussion of her involvement with the writing of the plays, either as a character herself, or for entertainment purposes or even political propaganda. And did she pay Shakespeare? Well, she paid Oxford–1,000 a year, beginning in 1586. For what?

Marlowe: A ripe example for authorship discussion. The film has an amusing scene with Marlowe contributing ideas to Shakespeare’s play. This alludes to those who believe Marlowe wrote some of Shakespeare’s works. The character even acknowledges Marlowe’s influence on Titus Andronicus and Henry VI.

The signature: An early scene in the film has Shakespeare practicing his signature. This is a multi-level joke on, 1) writers write what they know– well, he knows his name, 2) there was no standardized spelling yet — hence, they were all spelled differently, and 3) actors constantly practicing their autograph. But it also points up the fact that the ONLY extant sample of his handwriting are the six signatures.

Poet Playwright: At one point, when Shakespeare is visiting Viola’s house, he identifies himself as poet and playwright (not actor!) in the same breath, illustrating the Oxfordian thesis on the name William (pastoral traditional name for poet at that time) and Shake-speare (alluding to the spear-shaker goddess Pallas Athena, patron of the arts in Athens, home of the theatre). A perfect nom de plume if EVer there was one.

Philip Henslowe: This is perhaps one of the most strategic coups for Oxfordians. To the layman Shakespeare enthusiast, Henslowe is largely an unknown figure. Thanks to the film, Henslowe, played by Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush (also nominated for this performance) becomes a memorable and significant figure in the story. This opens the door to discussions of Henslowe’s diaries–records of payments to actors and playwrights, but NOWHERE any mention of Shakespeare. How can this be?

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