Independent on Sunday, 4 September 2011
Poor old William Shakespeare hasn’t had much luck in movies. He didn’t get his girl in the truly appalling Shakespeare in Love, and now he’s about to be accused of not writing his own plays in a new Hollywood film. Anonymous opens in the US next month and is directed by Roland Emmerich, who is best known for blockbusters such as Independence Day and Godzilla. It stars Rhys Ifans, whom I last saw as a sex-crazed DJ in The Boat That Rocked, as the Earl of Oxford – sorry, that should be “the 17th Earl of Oxford who is the true author of all these plays”. That’s what Emmerich says, anyway.
I’m already picturing Ifans morphing into a giant lizard and swallowing the upstart actor from Stratford while Vanessa Redgrave – for it is she, playing Elizabeth I – urges him on. Emmerich has tried to bolster his thesis about the Earl of Oxford being the plays’ real author with the claim that Ms Redgrave shares his doubts about Shakespeare. I’m not sure it helps, given that the actress has previously supported an array of loony causes, but there are discussion groups on the internet asking “Is Shakespeare a fraud?”. I can’t help thinking old William isn’t currently anything at all, having been dead for four centuries.
The real problem with Shakespeare is that he just isn’t enough of a celeb for modern tastes. The idea that someone pretty ordinary could have written the plays and sonnets goes against romantic notions about genius; it doesn’t meet the demand that writers have to be tempestuous and tortured, in the mode of Hemingway or Lord Byron. If Shakespeare were around today, he would have reporters door-stepping him with questions about his marriage: “Have you had a row with Anne Hathaway? You haven’t been seen together for some time.” (Just to be clear, I’m talking about the 16th century wife, not the Hollywood actress.)
Authorship and celebrity have become so entwined that it’s anathema to suggest it wouldn’t matter if we had no idea who wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. I’ve learned a great deal from the biographies of some authors but there are writers I admire, from the ancient world in particular, about whom I know next to nothing. Writers differ enormously in this respect, from authors who directly incorporate their own experience into their work to those who barely allude to it, and it’s perfectly possible to enjoy a novel or play without knowing much about its creator. Biographical details are relevant when they bleed into the work itself – think of the debates about T S Eliot’s anti-Semitism, for instance – but it’s not unusual to discover a chasm between someone’s internal world and their everyday existence.
This species of pointless controversy isn’t confined to literature. There are tediously frequent claims that someone has discovered the identity of the Victorian serial killer Jack the Ripper, and a common theme in these sensational “revelations” is the elevated status of the favoured candidate. Whether we’re talking about a world-famous playwright or a serial killer, the names put forward tend to belong to aristocrats or people famous for something else; the eccentric American crime writer Patricia Cornwell has wasted a huge amount of money, for instance, trying to “prove” that the Ripper murders were committed by the Victorian painter Walter Sickert. It’s a weird form of snobbery, excluding ordinary people from the ranks of the great and the good – and the very bad.
On second thoughts, I might go and see Anonymous. But only if it turns out that Shakespeare’s plays were written by the giant lizard.