Saturday, November 9, 2013

Last Will. and Testament (Centropolis Entertainment/First Folio Films, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Last Will. and Testament — the period in the title is in the opening credits, though not surprisingly it isn’t used on the page for the film — which promised an interesting, if typically tendentious, exploration of the ongoing controversy surrounding the (presumed) works of William Shakespeare, the allegation that someone else wrote them, and the debate among Shakespeare-rejectionists of just who that someone might have been — including at least two candidates, Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and Christopher Marlowe, who were dead when new “Shakespeare” plays were still being produced and premiered at the Globe and Blackfriars theatres in London. The show, which I’d recorded from KPBS, turned out to be a cut-down one-hour version of a 90-minute documentary produced in conjunction with the 2011 film Anonymous, a dramatization of the Oxford theory featuring some of the same actors, including Mark Rylance (a first-rate performer who also has a quite large and uncut cock — I know that because I first saw him in the film Intimacy, in which he went full-frontal; that movie was basically a knock-off of Last Tango in Paris but one I liked better than the original) and Derek Jacobi.

What was most amusing about it was that after picking apart the traditional Shakespeare-accepting biographies for their attempts to build extensive structures out of a flimsy foundation of actual contemporary information — the show demonstrated how often the orthodox Shakespeare biographies use phrases like “may have,” “might have,” “must have,” “could have” — the authors of this film, Laura and Lisa Wilson, make even more bizarre leaps of logic, saying that because the name “Shakespeare” was spelled with a hyphen the few times works from the canon were published in his lifetime — “SHAKE-SPEARE” — it really meant “shaking a spear” and referred to Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess who had a magic helmet that could turn her invisible so she could affect battles without being seen either by the side she was helping or the side she was hurting. (The narration even argued that the first name “William,” a variant on the German “Wilhelm,” meant “wish-helmet” and was another reference to Pallas Athena.) The bizarreries get worse as the show argues that the Shakespeare plays couldn’t have been written without an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of Queen Elizabeth’s court (which, as I pointed out to Charles, would be like saying that nobody could write a play about the John F. Kennedy administration without having been part of it — true, there were far more readily accessible communications media in Kennedy’s time than in Elizabeth I’s, but there were town criers and other word-of-mouth methods as well as large posters in coffeehouses and other public places by which people got their news in the pre-newspaper age) and that Polonius in Hamlet was a parody of William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth’s key advisor (some said he was really running the country and she was just a figurehead) and the man who raised DeVere after he was orphaned in his teens (or was it William Cecil’s son Robert, who took over as Elizabeth’s principal advisor when his dad died?). The show didn’t offer any explanation for how “new” Shakespeare plays continued to come out for a decade after Edward DeVere’s death in 1604, though other “Oxonians” (the narration rather annoyingly referred to supporters of DeVere as the real “Shakespeare” as “Oxonians” and supporters of the Shakespeare-wrote-Shakespeare view as “Stratfordians,” as if they were rooters for rival football teams) have argued that the Earl of Oxford left behind enough manuscripts, albeit some in uncompleted or fragmentary form, to continue to produce “Shakespeare” plays for a decade more, with John Fletcher (who actually existed; though for centuries The Tempest had been regarded as Shakespeare’s last play, the current edition of The Oxford Shakespeare includes a later one, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and co-credits it to Shakespeare and Fletcher) as the person who whipped up the earl’s surviving manuscripts into performable plays and offered them up as “Shakespeare.”

There are certainly problems with the case for the historically known William Shakespeare as the author of Shakespeare’s plays — including the fact that there’s no evidence that he could read or write at all beyond being able to sign his name. Indeed, as far as we know neither of Shakespeare’s parents could read or write, nor could any of his children; and this show pointed out that the inventory of Shakespeare’s possessions taken on his death did not include any books. This led me, the last time I saw one of these tendentious Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare programs, on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle basis that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, to consider the possibility that Shakespeare couldn’t read or write but did create the content of the plays by dictating them. (This might in part reflect my own bias, which is that reading a Shakespeare play is pretty dull; for me these works only come alive when I see them performed, either live or on film or TV.) There’s also no known evidence from Shakespeare’s actual lifetime that he was involved in the London theatre as anything more than an investor — the attribution of the plays to him and also the claim that he acted in them rest on the First Folio, published seven years after Shakespeare’s death (and the only source for about half the plays in the Shakespeare canon). And there’s no known manuscript for any of Shakespeare’s work in Shakespeare’s hand — though that doesn’t bother me as much as it does some other people; after all, Christopher Marlowe was everything Shakespeare wasn’t as far as the anti-Shakespeareans claim the author of “Shakespeare” would have had to have been — university-educated, erudite, directly involved in the controversies of the day, employed by the Elizabethan court as a spy (the significance of the odd letter Marlowe wrote to the government requesting permission to go to France — “So he wanted to go to France? So what?” one might say today, but in Elizabeth’s time France was in a state of cold-war with England and was a hotbed of Roman Catholic sympathizers with the power that posed an existential threat to England, Spain) — and yet only one page of a Marlowe playscript in his own hand is claimed to exist, and even that is disputed.

I must say that in my youth I was briefly attracted to the idea that Marlowe and Shakespeare were the same person — the theory here is that Marlowe, who was ostensibly killed in a tavern brawl in 1593 (but, as Hugh Williamson persuasively — at least to me — argued in his historical novel Kind Kit, was really the victim of a hit squad organized by Walsingham, the head of Queen Elizabeth’s equivalent of the CIA and uncle of a noble boy Marlowe had had the bad luck to fall in love with), actually faked his own death and made his way to Italy (or, according to some versions, Spain), where he hid out and continued to work as a playwright, sending his scripts to England where they were produced with Shakespeare as a “front.” (One supposed piece of evidence for this was the number of Shakespeare plays that take place in Italy. This got mentioned in Last Will. and Testament too, as evidence that the author of the plays must have been someone who had actually lived in Italy, which DeVere had and Shakespeare hadn’t.) Then I actually read Marlowe’s plays, and decided he was a genius author at Shakespeare’s level but the two were so different it was hard to believe they were anything more than two literary giants working in the same medium in the same language at the same place and time. And one of the big things that sets them apart is Marlowe’s erudition; his plays simply read like those of a man who had obviously had much more “book-learning” than Shakespeare. Another is that Marlowe was more a dramatist of ideas than Shakespeare, whereas Shakespeare was more interested in creating multidimensional human characters than using his people as mouthpieces for his own political and social ideas (indeed I’d regard Marlowe as a forerunner of Wagner, Shaw and Brecht in that department). This isn’t to say that there isn’t any crossover — Edward II is my favorite Marlowe play not only because it’s the most open and out-front about the author’s Queerness (when Marlowe died he was under indictment for both homosexuality and atheism, capital crimes in Elizabethan England — and his principal accuser was Thomas Kyd, the mediocre playwright, author of The Spanish Tragedy and probable author of the first 1580 version of Hamlet, who was more popular at the time than either Marlowe or Shakespeare) but it’s the most “Shakespearean” of them, the one in which he created the deepest, richest, most rounded characters of any of his works.

But I continue to see no reason to believe that anyone other than the historical William Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s works; Shakespeare is known to have been involved in the theatres where the plays were premiered, and he was hailed as their author just seven years after his death — when a lot of people who would have had knowledge of a literary fraud, had there been one, would have still been alive and able to blow the whistle on it. I’ve long thought the “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” myth began in the early 19th century, during the Romantic era, when Shakespeare, largely forgotten in his own country (thanks at least in part to the Commonwealth period when England was ruled by Puritan Oliver Cromwell, who had all the theatres closed down on moral grounds and thereby broke the performance tradition of Shakespeare’s and others’ plays), was rediscovered by playwrights, novelists and composers on the Continent and reinvented to fit the Romantic stereotype of what an artist should be. Shakespeare, by all accounts, led a supremely dull bourgeois life; he didn’t get in trouble with the authorities, he didn’t get a picturesque illness, he didn’t participate in a revolutionary movement, he didn’t lead a licentious sexual life, and he didn’t die young (whereas Marlowe qualified on all those counts except the picturesque illness) — so it’s not surprising that some of the Romantic Shakespeare fans responded to the contrast between the dazzling quality of the work and the dullness of the known author’s life by suspecting that someone else actually wrote the plays. Indeed, the first published claim that Edward DeVere was the author of “Shakespeare” came out in the early 19th century and was a book written by the author with the name Thomas Looney — and though the people in this documentary conscientiously pronounced it “Loney,” I still think that the more common pronunciation of its actual spelling says all you need to know about the Oxford legend’s credibility!