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Authorship by Indirection

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Richard Waugaman (l) and Hank Whittemore (r) talk with another attendee during break time in the Great Hall.

Richard Waugaman (l) and Hank Whittemore (r) talk with another attendee during break time in the Great Hall.

It’s now two days later, and I’m gathering my thoughts after attending a remarkable three day conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography.” About 150 attendees packed the small Folger Theater to hear some of the major names in Shakespeare studies speak on a topic that those of us involved in the authorship debate have grappled with for years. In addition to myself there were a handful of other Oxfordians present, including Roger Stritmatter, Hank Whittemore, Peter Dickson, Richard Waugaman, James Warren, and Shelly Maycock. The authorship debate itself was barely mentioned, although on several occasions Delia Bacon and Baconians came up, most notably in a presentation on the final day, “Secrets and Ciphers; Decoding the Decoders,” that had much fun showing Baconians getting lost in cipher codes, and concluding with William Friedman taking them on and taking them down in 1954 with his The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined.

 

Prof. Graham Holderness (University of Hertfordshire)

Prof. Graham Holderness (University of Hertfordshire)

The word Oxfordian was spoken once, at the very end of the last day, when Graham Holderness (University of Hertfordshire) mentioned the movie Anonymous during a Q&A and noted that the depiction of Oxford in it was a disservice to Oxfordians since it showed a Shakespeare who was not a man of the theatre. Holderness also made a statement that I have been using for years to characterize the real problem inherent in having no biography of the author in hand, namely that interpretations can go all over the map when they are unbounded by any facts about the author: “What’s to be done if anything can mean anything to anyone?” he asked. John Drakakis (University of Stirling), to whom the question was directed, replied, “Yes, it’s a problem … the debate will go on, it won’t ever end.” [and at this point I wrote in my notes, “how about replacing the wrong author with the right author? … that would help]

My initial take on the whole event is that it represents a real attempt to deal with the authorship debate, but only by indirection, to borrow a phrase from one paper, “Anne by Indirection,” in which the life of Elizabeth Quiney (wife of the guy who once wrote but never sent a letter to the Stratford man) was parlayed into a “probable” portrait of Anne Hathaway—believe it or not—and that “probable” portrait could then tell us things about her husband. Over and over during the three days the same themes kept popping up, in one form or another: can a text be interpreted and understood without a lot of facts known about the author? Is the author “in” his works somehow, whether he means to be or not? Does the biography of the author matter at all? Why are there so few facts available to us about this particular author, Shakespeare? What is the role of generations of critics and their criticism in understanding Shakespeare? What is the relationship between biographies of an author and criticisms of his/her work? This is a short list that I think touches on the highlights of what was said most often.

Let’s remember, it was thirty years ago this year that Charlton Ogburn published The Mysterious William Shakespeare, and re-ignited the authorship debate for a new generation. Just a year later William F. Buckley featured Ogburn and his book on Firing Line. A couple of years after that came the Moot Court debate in Washington DC (1987). And two years later came the Frontline documentary, The Shakespeare Mystery (1989). The debate has raged on since then. But through it all the mainstream scholars have stood firm on two things: they had the right guy, and biography doesn’t matter that much in literary criticism anyway.

Well, at this “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” conference they continued to hold firm on having the right guy, but the whole notion that biography doesn’t matter came up in talk after talk, and, in my humble opinion, it is definitely under seige and may be on its way out. And that’s a big deal, especially if your guy (Stratman) has no real, factually-based biography to speak of (and this “problem” of having few facts was spoken of and commented on throughout the conference, almost like a confession). Several speakers did say quite openly and clearly that biography doesn’t matter (most notably Brian Cummings, University of York, in his opening talk, when he said, “Biography is not necessary for literary criticism” and “biography is not necessary to historicism”). The same line was echoed by Jack Lynch (Rutgers) the next day when he too said, “Biography is not necessary for literary criticism.” Yet Joseph Roach (Yale), in a short, powerful presentation that highlighted the power of Shakespeare’s words centuries after they were written, stated in his conclusion, “Shakespeare’s life is in his works.”

And that is the authorship dilemma in a nutshell: Biography doesn’t matter vs. the author’s life is in his works.

There is much more to say about some of the statements made in each of the separate talks, and I will return to that over the coming weeks (drawing on the many pages of notes I took down).

Movie Review – Anonymous

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    • You don’t screw with The Bard.

      “He has long been regarded as one of the finest literary minds in all of human history; his 30+ plays, countless sonnets and poems, and sheer volume of respected works have become established English language mainstays for centuries. William Shakespeare, however, is seen by many as a fraud. It has been claimed by those who follow the Oxford theory, that the works of Shakespeare were actually penned by a nobleman during Elizabeth I’s reign, the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. The question of authorship has long been disputed by both sides of the argument, although exactly what’s at stake for the “winner” of the argument baffles me – surely, no matter who wrote them, the quality of the work itself is not diminished? In any case, the weight of a major Hollywood director has been thrown into this controversial subject, in Roland Emmerich, a man best known for destroying the planet in nearly all his feature films thus far. Watching films like Independence Day and 2012, you might find it hard to imagine that a director of such commercially successful blockbusters might risk his reputation (ha!) on a film about the great English playwright, but it’s true. There’s no approaching asteroid, no gargantuan alien army, no marauding menace from Mother Nature here: no, Anonymous pits Emmerich against his most powerful foe yet – the English language. Does he succeed in making sense of the arguments? Does Emmerich lay waste to the naysayers and poppycockers that claim Shakespeare alone was the author of literary gems such as Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth? Or is Anonymous too wrapped up in its own mystique to make much sense to anyone other than those for whom the argument remains a legitimate question?”

      “I’m no expert on Shakespeare, but even looking at the most miniscule evidence I did while researching this review, it’s a fair bet that some, if not most, of the plays attributed to the man weren’t written by him. I know, there’ll be some who cry heresy at that statement, but how can any rational, free-thinking man believe that an illiterate man like Shaksepare could produce some of the most glorious prose in the history of the English language. Regardless of your thoughts on the matter, this controversy only serves to fan the flames of Anonymous’s often zealous charges against the legitimacy of old Willie’s claim to authorship. The film presents itself in a cloud of political and dramatic postulating and posturing: Anonymous is a terribly dense film to watch, and for most people I suspect it’ll be too much. The film wanders tangentially through a variety of time periods, skipping back from present day, to Elizabeth I’s later reign, and back again to the early part of her life, all to try and encapsulate the eras that influenced one of literature’s great authors. Which, on reflection, is probably the film’s key failing.”

      “Performances across the board are exemplary. The entire cast, and I mean the entire cast, never put a foot wrong, in either delivery or characterization; leading the charge is Rhys Ifans, who is soulfully circumspect and potently driven as de Vere, bringing an intensity I’d not seen in him as an actor before. Vanessa Redgrave, as the older Queen Elizabeth, is simply breathtakingly powerful in her delivery – she reminds me of Judi Dench for the ease of her ability not to look like she’s acting. Redgrave’s real-life daughter, Joely Richardson, plays the younger version of Queen Elizabeth in a casting coup – Richardson’s nowhere near the level of her mother, but she’s good enough not to shortfall on this dual role. Sebastian Armiesto is commendably solid as a competing playwright, and of all the players here, it’s he who provides the most poignant emotional performance – he’s the Everyman character here, in a role I saw paralleled with F Murray Abraham’s Salieri in Amadeus: Ben Jonson wishes he could write like de Vere, but cannot, so he remains content simply to be a lesser man. It’s a potent portrayal of a man destined to be forgotten by history, although you’d never know it.”

      “The film is bookended quite potently by a monologue by Sir Derek Jacobi – himself a vocal proponent of the Oxford theory – and it’s here that Emmerich sets up the story, and the motivation to tell it, quite well. It’s the attention to detail that Emmerich provides the film with that I really enjoyed, regardless of the story. The unfolding drama seemed to my untrained eyes to be a collision of ideas and concepts, of personalities in clash with one another, and without a direct motivation as to why this story needed to be told in the first place. It is a well told story (if you can follow along), but the film’s about twenty minutes too long, and not focused enough on the core story, which should have been the authorship of Shakespeare.”

      “…but at its core Anonymous remains a loud, forceful film arguing against the legitimacy of one of history’s greatest writers. Whichever side of the conspiracy you come down on, regardless of your appreciation of the works of Shakespeare himself, there’s little doubt that Anonymous provides ripe fruit for discussion, and that in itself can only be a good thing. Densely plotted, almost infuriatingly so, Anonymous is recommended only on the strength of Ifans’ performance and the hilarious work of Vanessa Redgrave as the Queen.”

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Anonymous (2011) Movie Review – Joely Richardson

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  • Recorded history is … creatively re-imagined in order to present a compelling period drama in which the theatre of Shakespeare’s day becomes caught up in political manoeuvrings and a power play to decide England’s next monarch after Queen Elizabeth.

    As the Earl of Oxford explains; “All art is political, otherwise it would just be decoration.”

    Anonymous is also original and engaging in the way in which it deals with a range of other subject matter, including conspiracies concerning Queen Elizabeth and Essex’s Rebellion, although at times these did seem to overwhelm the Shakespeare storyline. Nevertheless, the film was highly watchable and will probably act as inspiration for others to do their own research on the subject of England’s Greatest Playwright.

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Alluring Untruth (Movie Review for Anonymous) @ ClickTheCity.com Movies

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    • Anonymous was created to further the cause of the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship. It represents the beliefs of a fringe group of scholars who believe that Shakespeare was merely a front and that his works were actually authored by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. It is a theory that has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked over the last few decades, and the movie does little to raise its status. It is a lavish spectacle that is reasonably entertaining, but its insistence that it is presenting the truth creates a few problems.
    • The movie spins a compelling yarn; one filled with intrigue, politicking, secrets, lies and just a hint of incest. It’s a fantastic story, but so little of it is true. Normally it wouldn’t be that big of a problem. Historical accuracy tends to be less important in cinema than thematic relevance. But the film is trying to make a case for a rather controversial theory. Its manipulation of history to make that case just doesn’t help its cause. Some artistic license might have been forgiven, but the film strays too far from the truth to ever be convincing.
    • The film is certainly well made. Roland Emmerich applies the same bombast to the movie as he does to any blockbuster. Period films about Shakespeare don’t tend to be thought of as exciting, but this movie moves with plenty of intent, and the scale of the production is pretty admirable. The acting is carried out with the same sense of bombast, but it’s balanced out with a few subtle details in the performances. Rhys Ifans is as good as he’s ever been as de Vere, finding deep levels of humanity beneath the character’s aristocratic veneer. Vanessa Redgrave is predictably amazing as the Queen, playing out an entire life of regrets in every scene she’s in.

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Movie Review: ‘Anonymous’-Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Rhys Ifans, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall and Edward Hogg | Staten Island Bob (SIBob)

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COMMENT: Another review of Anonymous, now out on DVD. This enthusiastic review augurs well for the long-term effect that Anonymous may yet have on the authorship debate.

    • ‘Anonymous’ is a great movie. Based on fact, and conjecture, it is a “what if” tale that settles the true authorship of the William Shakespeare catalog once and for all. In fact, it ties up a lot of other loose ends as well. Having just finished ‘Players-The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare’, by Bertram Fields, earlier in the week, it has become evident to me that the producers of this film have exercised a large amount of artistic license. I guess you could say it falls into the category of historical fiction, based on the assumptions that are made. But it is also true, based on the limited facts that are available from 400 years ago, that it could have happened as presented. We will never know for sure.
    • But you can say one thing for sure. All of the latest developments in the Shakespeare legend have also “punched-up” that story. No longer will he be remembered just by the long dreary dissections we are all forced to undergo in English class. We can now consider that this whole thing may have been the biggest put-on in history. But one thing is for sure, once you get past all of the hype, there can be no denial that this canon of work stands alone. No matter who did it, it is likely never to be matched.

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Thoughts on Shakespeare and Anonymous | LiteraryMinded

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    • Are you a Stratfordian or an Oxfordian? For a long time I’ve avoided the debate around Shakespeare’s ‘true identity’. Partly because, like many people, I enjoy the romantic idea of the enigmatic genius. And partly because any debate around authorship (I believed) could potentially take away from the focus on, and the enjoyment of, the words themselves.
    • What I don’t doubt is that whoever the author was, he (or maybe even she) was a phenomenally insightful and entertaining storyteller.
    • What do you think? Does it matter? History and authorship are contentious and malleable concepts. The words and stories live on. You might say they are celebrated, some might argue they are abused, perhaps t’is neither here nor there. To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the next way to draw new mischief on.
    • Funnily enough, the film Anonymous, which still attributes all the Bard’s works to one man (though not the man from Stratford-upon-Avon), is mainly about the ‘power of words’, and is still, definitely a celebration of the plays.
    • I never believed Shakespeare was a brand name for a conglomerate of writers (as some do) because there is too much symmetry across the body of work: through literary, rhetorical and dramatic devices; imagery and figurative language (use of analogy, different types of irony, metaphor, puns and symbols, to name a few); types of humour employed; and a certain self-awareness or meta-aspect (in many of the plays).

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

A Review A Day: Today’s Review: Anonymous

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    • The premise of Anonymous is quite excellent. Although there may be no proof whatsoever into the theory, it is very nicely integrated with the political turbulence of the time. There are some historical inaccuracies that have been pointed out on Wikipedia and the like, but in the name of entertainment the movie is a very good effort.

    • The only real problem I had with the movie is that fact that it jumps around a lot. Some of the action takes place in the time of Shakespeare’s rising fame, while half shows the earlier life of de Vere, his prodigious talent for writing, and his relationship with Elizabeth. Many characters are introduced and the action often jumps backwards and forwards without warning, so if you’re not paying attention it’s quite easy to get lost.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

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