In Search of  Shakespeare

Directed by David Wallace (2003)

Howard Schumann


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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In responding to the Oxford challenge, recent books and films have tried to connect the biography of the man we know as William Shakespeare to his plays and poems. The popularity of films such as Shakespeare in Love indicates a hunger to find the true Shakespeare, the man behind the myth. New books such as Stephen Greenblatt's Will In The World, use a very astute literary imagination to embellish the few known facts about Shakespeare's life and present a picture of a colorful, exciting man. In this same vein, PBS, in collaboration with the BBC and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford, has produced a four-part documentary In Search of Shakespeare, written and presented by Michael Wood and directed by David Wallace. Accompanied by a 332-page book, it is a big budget, beautifully photographed, and highly entertaining pro-Stratford exposition that purports to show how an unschooled Glover's son from Stratford became the greatest writer in the English language. After four hours, I'm still scratching my head.

Wood (In Search of the Trojan War) narrates the documentary with a gee-whiz enthusiasm, yet offers, in addition to the usual embellishments, nothing new about Shakespeare except for some interesting items relating to his family and their Catholic inclinations. The documentary is worth watching, however, for its colourful dramatization of English history, excellent excerpts from Shakespeare's plays, and amazing Victorian photographs of old Tudor Inns and homes in London that are no longer standing. Wood provides a fascinating history lesson, describing the Catholic-Protestant schism in Elizabethan England, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot, the Essex Rebellion, and the accession of King James I. The host is often seen in an archive, office, or estate library thumbing through yellowing parchments and springing to life with a pixie-ish grin when he discovers the name Shaksper or Shakeshafte or some variety thereof. Through sleight of hand, William Shakspere, whose life is known only through marriage, birth, and death records, court cases, and a will emerges, in Wood's phrase, as "bold, streetwise, and sexy", vitally in tune to events taking place in the world around him.

Although the dating of the plays is guesswork at best, Mr. Wood boldly asserts the chronology of Shakespeare's work as if it was agreed by all, confusing dates of publication with dates of composition, desperately trying to fit the plays into contemporary events. One must forgive Mr. Wood for his over zealous attachment to the Stratfordian agenda when he makes statements for which there is scant evidence. These include: 

Will was an usher at King James' coronation and "bore the canopy", a reference to the first line of Sonnet 125 "Were't aught to me I bore the canopy". 
Will was the recipient of a "privileged education"
Shakespeare joined The Queen's Men and was a traveling player 
By his early twenties, Will had acted in plays and had written poems 
Sonnet 145 is a love poem to Anne Hathaway written at age 19 in which the words "hate away" in the lines:

"I hate" from hate away she threw 
And saved my life, saying "not you" 

are a clever pun on his wife's name. 

Another assertion without evidence is that Shakespeare collaborated on a play about Sir Thomas More because the handwriting "matches his". This is interesting in that the only specimens of William Shakspere's handwriting to come down to us are six almost illegible signatures, each formed differently from the others, and each from the latter period of his life (none earlier than 1612). Three of these signatures are on his will, one is on a deposition in someone else's breach of promise case, and two are on property documents. None of these has anything to do with literature. 

Wood also states categorically that Shakespeare's Sonnets about the fair youth refer to his mourning the loss of his son Hamnet at age 11. He does not mention of the dedication to a W.H, widely interpreted as referring to Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton to whom he dedicated his love poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Also carefully avoided is the fact that Sonnets 1 to 17 give advice to the young man to get married, hardly the kind of advice you would be giving to an eleven year old. 

There are some other issues not dealt with: the knowledge of Italy and the law exhibited in the plays, discussions in the plays about aristocratic sports such as falconry, and the many references to Classical Latin and Greek literature. There is also no discussion of the fact that the sonnets refer to the author as old, lame, and infirm, attributes that do not fit what we know about Shakspeare of Stratford who would have been in his thirties when the sonnets were written. Wood makes the statement that Shakespeare's goal in writing was to earn a living, yet he does not deal with the fact that after the success in 1593 of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, twelve plays later attributed to William Shakespeare were published anonymously for the next five years. Even after that, Romeo and Juliet was published anonymously in 1599, 1609, and 1622, hardly the actions of a man whose sole artistic purpose was to earn a living.

Wood discusses the theory of A.L. Rowse and others that the dark lady of the sonnets was Emilia Bassano Lanier, the daughter of a Jewish Italian musician from Venice and a courtesan at the court of Queen Elizabeth. A fellow poet, Ms. Bassano was also the mistress of Lord Hunsdon who became the patron of Shakespeare's theatrical company. This is a tenuous connection but if we are indulging in speculation, it seems to me that Oxford was much more likely to have known her. She moved in court circles, she was the child of a court musician, and she was the first woman to write a book of poetry in English. In my mind a stronger candidate for the dark lady of the sonnets is Queen Elizabeth who in a fit of jealousy (yes they were lovers) over Oxford's affair with Anne Vasavour, one of the women of the court, threw both Oxford and his lover into the tower. The sonnets use the word black thirteen times and dark six times as a way of characterizing evil and the misdeeds of the Queen, not to signify the color of a person's hair or skin.

Another issue brought up by Mr. Wood is the use of words and phrases unique to Warwickshire allegedly scattered throughout his plays. Indeed two plays make reference to Shakspere's Warwickshire environs. One is Henry IV, the other is Taming of the Shrew. In the first there is a fleeting and uncomplimentary reference to a character named William Visor of Woncot who is called "an arrant knave". In Taming of the Shrew, the principal Warwickshire character, Christopher Sly, is a boor and a drunk, a rogue and a vagabond. In this situation a passing nobleman decides to play a practical joke by dragging the drunk up to his manor house, dressing him in aristocratic finery and trying to convince him when he wakes up that he is the lord of the manor (perhaps an allusion to the pretense that Shakspere of Stratford is the author of the plays). 

Wood's main thesis, however, is that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic whose life was shrouded in mystery because he went to great lengths to dodge the authoritarian network that was chasing Catholics during Elizabeth's reign. He discovers documents indicating that William's father John along with other Warwickshire cousins and acquaintances were active members of the Catholic underground. Wood points out that William grew up in a region known for its resistance to the Protestant reformation and discovers a posthumous document in which Will's father John asserts his allegiance to Catholicism and points out that Will was baptized by a Catholic sympathizer. Another strong bit of evidence is William's purchase of the Blackfriars' Gatehouse in London after his retirement to Stratford, a notorious refuge for Catholic dissidents and priests on the run from civil authority.

If Wood's thesis is correct that William of Stratford was indeed a Catholic, it only serves as a further indication that the author of the plays and sonnets was a different man. While the purchase of Blackfriars was going on, five Elizabethan dramas were being presented at events celebrating the marriage of King James' daughter Elizabeth to Frederick a leader of the German Protestants. There is no greater incongruity. In fact, Mr. Wood seems not to have looked to the plays to find evidence of whether or not the author was a Catholic. Transcending any specific religious agenda, the plays advance the model of a humanistic Reformation society, showing a skeptical attitude toward Catholic orthodoxy and laying down a challenge to the political authority. According to scholars, Shakespeare, throughout his works, denies the supremacy of the Pope and scorns his spiritual authority. If Shakespeare, the playwright, had been a Catholic he would not have pursued as his life's work, the very avenue used by the Elizabethans to advance the Protestant agenda. 

Can one imagine a Catholic writer meditating, as in Hamlet, on the nobility of suicide or could Hamlet have said, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so"? Contrary to his intentions, what Wood reveals is that the free-thinking humanist with a passion for romance, history, fantasy, and high comedy could not have been the narrowly parochial, Catholic entrepreneur from Stratford. The true Shakespeare was a literary revolutionary, our first modern writer, who supported and brought to fruition the Protestant revolution, creating works that transcended the medieval morality of the mystery plays and opened a new chapter of unrivalled literary richness.

Old myths die hard. In Search of Shakespeare may be looked upon by future generations as one of the last attempts to cling to the myth of the unlettered common man as literary genius. In spite of ferocious opposition by the academic establishment and British Tourism to even consider the question, I think the average person has serious doubts about the attribution of the Stratford man as the author of the Shakespeare canon. Many of course, simply don't want to know. They prefer their Shakespeare to be a kind of a disembodied intelligence looking into our lives like some literary Jehovah, a man who understands and knows everything. 

We recoil at the thought that Shakespeare was an ordinary man, a spendthrift who could not manage his money, an adventurer, a womanizer, a man with a villainous streak, or even (heaven forbid) the lover of the Queen who produced a bastard child or, stepping even further out of bounds, the possibility that our Shakespeare himself was the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth, in line for the throne of England. So we don't want to know too much and the Oxford challenge makes us confront both our urgent need to know and our strongest fears that it is better not to know. Yet as Shakespeare said, "Truth is truth, to the end of reckoning" so let us have the truth one way or the other. Then we can all have a safe sleep, perchance a dream, for it is only the truth that can set us free.



Also see Elizabeth - Film And History by Howard Schumann and Francis Akpata's:

Shakespeare In Hollywood

For some very useful links to material about Shakespeare in the movies and much more visit the 
Mr William Shakespeare and the Internet website at:

http://shakespeare.palomar.edu

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