Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Mini-talents trying to diminish Shakespeare’s genius

Roland Emmerich, a disaster-film director (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) whose London flat features “200 or 300” penis sculptures might be challenged on grounds of taste. This goes for his new movie Anonymous, with (alas) an all-star cast of classical actors, which puts forth yet another tiresome variation on the theory about how Shakespeare didn’t write the plays. This time, though, given the power of the movies, much more damage will be done to Shakespeare’s reputation—which is, after all, the goal of the conspiracy-theorists.

Emmerich claims (proudly), speaking of the Shakespearean scholars, that his movie “is pretty much challenging their life’s work.” One of these scholars, Professor James S. Shapiro of Columbia University, author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? responded to this with good humor, saying, "That's pretty funny... [if a document actually turned up proving] that the Earl of Oxford wrote Midsummer Night’s Dream at the age of 9, as the movie has it, my career would be made.” On a more serious note, Professor Shapiro stated that Emmerich’s approach to Shakespeare is "reductively anti-intellectual, and dangerously so." Emmerich and Sony have produced a documentary and classroom study guide that Professor Shapiro described as full of “half-truths repeated through a 20th century perspective. I have no problem if Roland Emmerich wants to drink the Kool-Aid, but I do have a problem when it’s doled out in small cups to school kids.” Gag. (Quotes are from Ari Karpel's article, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare [or Who(m)ever]," The New York Times, 10/23/11)

The most distinguished English literary critic of our time, of Sir Frank Kermode (he never used the title) sums it up:

There are modern attitudes to Shakespeare I particularly dislike: the worst of them maintain that Shakespeare’s reputation is fraudulent, the result of an eighteenth century nationalist or imperialist plot. A related notion, almost equally presumptuous, is that to make sense of Shakespeare we need first to see the plays as involved in the political discourse of the day to a degree that has only now become intelligible. These and other ways of taking Shakespeare down a peg seem, when you examine them, to be interesting only as evidence of a recurring need to find something different to say, and to say it on topics that happen to interest the writer more than Shakespeare’s words, which are, as I say, only rarely invoked. The tone of these novelties is remarkably confident…As I believe in the value of Shakespeare and, without ignoring historical issues, regard the plays as about more than such issues, I shall not pay much attention to what are the nevertheless prevailing modes of Shakespeare criticism.
Forget Stephen Greenblatt. If you own one book of Shakespeare analysis, it should be Kermode's Shakespeare's Language.

More reactions:
Professor Shapiro has blasted the movie and its pretensions in an op-ed article. Here's the link:

And here is another link, to film critic A. O. Scott's dismemberment of the movie Anonymous (though he does allow that the actors who have unaccountably lent themselves to this pernicious enterprise are splendid):

I look forward to The New York Review of Book and its treatment of this subject.