In September 2011, a friend who teaches at a small college in upstate New York shared with me free teaching materials he had been sent, designed ‘for students in English literature, theater, and British history classes’. A quick glance showed that Sony Pictures had commissioned this guide from a company called ‘Young Minds Inspired’, timed to coincide with the release of the film Anonymous, directed by Roland Emmerich. The teaching guide suggests that teachers ask their students ‘Are Shakespeare's plays the work of a highly educated writer with firsthand experience of aristocracy?’ After posing another cleverly worded question hinting at pseudonymous authorship – ‘what do we really know about this man named Shakespeare?’ – the guide then urges teachers to ‘Divide your class into two teams, the Upstart Crows and the Reasonable Doubters’, to debate yet another leading question: ‘Was William Shakespeare really an improbable genius, or just a front man for someone with real ability?’ Only a class dunce would, by now, have missed the point: the glover's son from Shakespeare of Stratford could not have had ‘real ability’ since he lacked the education, breeding and firsthand experience to have written the plays and sonnets.
Not content to release their film in the tradition of Shakespeare in Love – a fantasy, a romp, a $30,000,000 Hollywood costume drama – Sony and Emmerich chose to pitch the film (which depicts the Earl of Oxford as the true author of Shakespeare's plays as well as Queen Elizabeth's son and lover) as a version of the truth, to be promulgated onscreen and in classrooms. To this end, the teaching guide declares that Elizabethan England was an ‘era filled with political intrigue’ which served as ‘the perfect setting for a subterfuge that may have led to William Shakespeare taking credit for a series of masterpieces that were actually penned by a far more sophisticated author’. I was beginning to enjoy the syntax of the guide: was it a given that these masterpieces were actually penned by a more sophisticated writer and the subterfuge merely what led Shakespeare to take credit for them? It was hard to tell. My friend did not teach this lesson plan, nor did I.
Shakespeare biography hasn’t changed much in the past hundred years. With few exceptions, those who write about his life continue to obsess over a handful of issues that have little to do with what or how he wrote – from his sexual inclinations to his pursuit of status to his decision to leave his wife a ‘second best’ bed. Because most of his biographers accept as a matter of faith the Wordsworthian notion that ‘the child is father of the man,’ a disproportionate amount of attention has also been devoted to finding in Shakespeare’s early and ‘lost’ years – rather than, say, the first few years of his writing and acting career in London – the key to what made Shakespeare Shakespeare. Over time, the emphasis has changed, though the premise that his early years were crucial has not: Shakespeare the poacher, butcher’s apprentice, soldier, lawyer’s clerk and schoolteacher have all had their day and are currently supplanted by Shakespeare the crypto-Catholic. Given the absence of hard evidence to support such claims, the biographer’s search has usually begun not in the archives but in the plays themselves, which are ransacked for clues that can be read back into anecdotal accounts of his early years (and since the plays contain a vast range of experiences, this is not as hard to do as it may sound). Unless one believes that the plays are two-way mirrors, it is difficult not to conclude that this approach is ultimately circular and arbitrary.
Two hundred and twenty-five years ago David Garrick’s Stratford Jubilee helped establish Shakespeare as a national poet and as a permanent cultural fixture, one who, in Jane Austen’s familiar phrase, would soon enough become part of an Englishman’s constitution. Garrick’s subsequent play – called The Jubilee and written for those unable to attend the celebrations in Stratford – further secured this reputation, while positioning Shakespeare against those at the periphery of English culture. The Jubilee includes a bumbling unnamed ‘Irishman’ who travels from Dublin to witness the festivities only to sleep through them and return, as he says, to ‘go home and be nowhere’. The play also contains a comic exchange between Stratford locals, who, when they hear celebratory fireworks, fear that ‘’Tis certainly a plot of the Jews and Papishes’, a confusion no doubt exacerbated by the fact that to them, the word ‘ju-bil-ee’ sounded a lot like ‘Jew Bill’. Sukey, a young woman of Stratford, explains to her friend Nancy (who wonders ‘who is this Shakespur, that they make such a rout about ‘en?’) that had ‘you lived at Birmingham or Coventry, or any other polite cities, as I have done, you would have known better than to talk so of Shakespur and the Jewbill’. By framing the Jubilee events with the skewed perspective of these outsiders, incapable of grasping the difference between a local hero and a Jewish threat, Garrick offers up a Shakespeare who cannot possibly belong to Stratford, let alone to the boorish Irish, but is the rightful property of a cultivated London society that can properly know his worth.
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