Tuesday, October 18, 2011


 Roland Emmerich: a lean and hungry look, with a clear focus on the box office

My dear old Dad had a number of really corny jokes and riddles, apparently devised by and for the simple-minded, that he would pull out for all occasions.  This was unfortunate, since at the very best they worked on one occasion.   “My name’s Schmaltzmeller.  I sell Fuller brushes.  Anything you want to brush up on?”  Also: “I call my sweetie Oleo.  I haven’t any but her.”  That sort of thing.  Well, yesterday I had amazing success with one of these chestnuts.  I was walking along with a young lady when I injected into the conversation, all casual-like, one of my Dad’s favorites.  “Do you know who,” I asked her, “is buried in Grant’s Tomb?”
            Got her!  She fell for it!  Of course it is true that that the young lady, my granddaughter, is six years old, has had all her education (meaning pre-school and first-grade) in France, had never heard of Ulysses Grant, and did not know what a tomb was.  Still, my feeling of triumph was considerable.  If you wait long enough, and stoop low enough, you can find an audience for almost anything.
            I presume that is the principle animating the Hollywood “Shakespeare” film directed by Roland Emmerich and about to be unleashed upon us.  News of its dread approach has been crackling through the synapses of English Teacher listservs for the past month.  It is entitled Anonymous, and amid much foot-stomping, boob-baring, head-chopping, quill-flourishing, and fire-blazing (otherwise known in Hollywood as “Tudor history”) it dusts off the old one about Shakespeare not actually writing the plays of Shakespeare, which were in fact written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.


Lord Verulam (Category: niftiest hat)

The Earl of Oxford (Category: itchiest chest; cf Donnelly, below)

William Shakespeare (Category: coolest earring)

            The pre-emptive concerns of English teachers have to do with the cinematic power to render their students’ simple ignorance invincible—what might be called the “Kennedy effect”.  By the late nineties most undergraduates I met at the supposedly elite university in which I taught were sure that President John Kennedy had been assassinated by CIA agents—Lee Harvey Oswald having been nothing more than a convenient patsy, though of course also the possible author of the works once attributed to Christopher Marlowe.  That was on account of a movie of Oliver Stone’s (JFK, 1991).
            America’s English teachers constitute an endangered species already.  They have the unenviable task of trying to coax the kids to get beyond Act One, Scene Two even in the CliffsNotes version.  They need to persuade them of the redeeming social content of technical terms like soliloquy, stichomythia, and dramatic irony.   It is an annoying distraction, to use one of our President’s favorite terms of disapprobation, to have to explain to them that Shakespeare wrote the plays of Shakespeare, as of course he indubitably did.           
            Though it has by now been around for quite a while, the idea that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare is a comparatively recent aberration; it couldn’t appear until the last of Shakespeare’s close friends, business partners, and fellow players had all been dead for a couple of centuries.  When the theory did arrive, it must have been at least potentially pleasing to college professors.  It maintained that it was impossible that anyone could master the learning deployed in the plays without benefit of a college education, whereas it was a well-known fact that William Shakespeare was diploma-less. “Thou hadst small Latin and less Greek.”  Didn’t his old buddy, Ben Jonson, write that himself?
In fact he did—in a passage in which he compared Shakespeare, by no means unfavorably, to some other under-educated playwrights, such as Euripides, Æschylus, and Seneca, none of whom had college degrees, there being no colleges from which to get them back in the day.  Anyway, it must have been somebody else—Lodge, Greene, Chapman—yes, Chapman was the best bet, though even there one could occasionally identify the leaden hand of George Peele.
            Lord de Vere, though a late starter, is proving to be a strong finisher.  He could not append his name to Macbeth or The Merry Wives of Windsor because writing plays was, in the eyes of polite society, infra dignitatem, aristocratically speaking.  The hot candidate beginning in the later nineteenth century was Lord Verulam, the Viscount St. Albans, more familiarly known as Francis Bacon.  Bacon was not merely a much more appropriate author of Shakespeare’s plays than was Shakespeare, he was also immensely learned.  It takes erudition to write stuff like “The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon ...”
            Better yet, since espionage was one of Bacon’s many things, he had developed an interest in codes and ciphers.  Under these circumstances it was certain that, although he published all his plays under the ridiculous name “Shakespeare,” he cunningly left coded messages within them revealing their true authorship.  The great expert in crypto-Shakespeareanism was Ignatius Donnelly, author of The Great Cryptogram (1888) in about a thousand pages, a sequel to his equally revolutionary Atlantis : the Antediluvian World (1882).  Donnelly was a Republican congressional representative from Minnesota—founder of a great tradition.  Few men achieve even one truly cockamamie idea in a career.  Donnelly was so prolific of them as to capture the title “Prince of Cranks,” so far without serious challenge.
 Ignatius Donnelly (R-Minnesota)
            The word is that if you can manage to backmask the sound track to Anonymous—play it backward at one-third speed—it offers other startling revelations.  It gives a definitive resolution to the stirred-or-shaken controversy, and it confirms the fact that Nine-Eleven was engineered by the Mossad.  Finally, after centuries, we learn why Hamlet hesitated.
 Shakespeare's breakfast