Willful ignorance

It seems strange to defend Shakespeare against hacks who sacrifice history to entertainment, since that was his stock in trade, but I'm pleased to see Anonymous getting not a few critical thrashings. Here's one from Ron Rosenbaum in Slate, and another from Stephen Marche in the New York Times.

There's lots to say about a film that so lavishly entertains such a foolish premise, and I don't think Rosenbaum will be the last to castigate it as, in Macbeth's words, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The Oxford theory, on which the plot depends, has been more than adequately debunked by any number of proper scholars, who wouldn't have given it attention it patently didn't deserve if its proponents hadn't been so damned irrepressible. As Rosenbaum moans, though every credible scholar has convincingly killed it, it won't stay dead. And I fear this film, in spite of the critical drubbing, will breathe life into it.

Of course the argument in defence of the film will be that it is, after all, just a film. Who cares whether it's true or not? Where's the harm in indulging a fantasy? You all liked Shakespeare in Love, riddled though it was with historical inaccuracies and aesthetic irritants - what's the difference?

First of all, no we didn't. It was awful.

Secondly, there's a great difference between a playful version of historical truth and a fantastic conspiracy masquerading as history. There's a difference of intent that this defence disingenuously elides.

Thirdly, the film, like Dan Brown's novels, gives lunatic theories cultural purchase they would not otherwise have had. It normalises nuttery and gives the flimsy fringe of speculation equal standing with the fruits of serious scholarship. The argument that “it's only a film” rests on the assumption that scholarship ultimately carries more cultural weight, though in practice films have radically overtaken scholarship as determinants of what is generally known and believed.

Fourthly, where good art makes explicit the temporary compact between teller and told, this kind of art rests on a shadowy pact where the agreement is never quite made. There's a wink and nudge with every fictive marker, a juvenile refusal on the part of the teller to acknowledge that what he is engaged in is, in fact, play. (For Shakespeare, the play was the thing.)

Fifthly, where a conspiracy interferes in history, very often the truth is much more interesting, compelling, and rich than the fantasy that displaces it, and it demands our attention. By ceding influence to untruth, we dull our receptivity to truth. If we have no capacity for truth, we render ourselves incapable of justice.

Finally, the persistence of the Oxford theory does injustice of the most ignoble kind to the greatest writer in the English language. Based not on any documentary evidence but on the assumption that a working-class boy with a grammar school education couldn't have written so beautifully and profoundly, it is an enduring insult to a miraculously good writer. Instead of spending energy on underserving conspiracies about these literary miracles, we should be striving to deserve them.