Reluctant as I was to watch this movie, I have done it. And because I have, I can firmly tell you that you don’t have to.
Let me start by saying that I love Shakespeare. I have read all of his Sonnets and poems, and I think I’m up to about 20 of the 37 plays. I have taken 3 college Shakespeare courses, and done a two-week program at the Globe in London that taught everything from acting and makeup to set design and costumes. I enjoy Shakespeare. I am not a Shakespeare scholar, but I am an educated English major who has read a lot of his work. As such, I find the ‘Oxfordian theory’ completely and utterly ridiculous, as well as being infuriatingly pompous and pretentious. But I’ll get to that later. I’m going to discuss two aspects of my dislike for this film: the film itself, and the conspiracy theory that makes up its premise.
First, the film. The basic plot revolves around the life of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. (In the film) he was a gifted writer and actor whose passions were squashed by his Puritanical guardian/advisor to Queen Elizabeth, William Cecil. Puritans certainly hated the theatre, closing most of them down during the reign of Cromwell, but this was a good 40 years before the English Civil War and I’m not certain they held that much sway in England at the time. But I digress! Young Edward can’t write publicly, but he does so privately. The film shows him first performing what appears to be a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he is only a tween, and then later reveals him to have stacks and stacks of completed plays in his manor house. As an adult, when he sees the influence that theatres are beginning to have on the English public, he convinces Ben Jonson to help him get his plays performed under a pseudonym. Ben Jonson, being one of the protagonists of the movie, and a good man, refuses to attach his own name to the play that he did not write. Will Shakespeare, an actor who can read but not write (in this fetid nonsensical ridiculous film) scoops up the acclaim when he sees that the play is a hit.
The rest of the film is two stories, one of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson dealing with the glory and success the plays receive. The larger and more difficult to follow plotline involves Edward and the Queen. It is revealed that Edward de Vere had an affair with Queen Elizabeth and fathered a secret son, the Earl of Southampton, who gets mixed up in a rebellion with the Earl of Essex (also a secret son of Elizabeth who seems to have been quite up for it, considering she was known as the virgin queen), and they are both sentenced to death. Confused yet? Because it gets even more ludicrous. Edward finds out that not only does he have a son with Elizabeth, but he himself is a son of Elizabeth. Yep, he had a child with his own mother. Originally, William Cecil wanted him to become king (there’s a ludicrous side-plot about the ascension of James I upon Elizabeth’s death), but that’s gone out the window now. In the end, Edward begs Elizabeth to spare their son (never telling her that the kid is also her grandson and that she is really gross). She agrees to spare him, but as punishment, Edward’s name will never be attached to any of his plays.
As if this isn’t bad enough, it all takes place through continuously shifting timelines and flashes forward and back! Edward de Vere is played by 3 different actors, Queen Elizabeth by 2 different actresses. If you can manage to keep track of what’s going on and who’s who, you’re a better viewer than me. But even if you do, the movie just isn’t that good. The acting is competent, the costumes and the recreation of Tudor London is great to see, but that’s the most praise I can heap on this film.
I feel I’m being a bit unfair. It’s not the worst film ever–Michael Bay didn’t make it, after all. My hatred of it is mostly due to my hatred of the theory behind it. But even if I subscribed to the theory, the film does a terrible job supporting it! So allow me a small paragraph to dispute some of the inaccuracies and nonsense that the film employs to make this theory more believable.
First of all, the idea of a young de Vere performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream some 40 years before it was first showed on stage is akin to (as the NYT puts it) Jay Z putting out The Blueprint in 1961. Or (to use a reference I feel I understand better) the Beatles releasing Sgt. Pepper’s in the 1920s. The genre did not exist yet, is the material point. But beyond that stupidity. The timeline of plays being released does not even remotely match the accounts we have from diarists of the time or from the playhouses themselves. Henry V is the first play that is attributed to Shakespeare, in this film. According to most chronologies, Henry V wasn’t performed until 1598ish, whereas over 15 other plays are believed to have been performed earlier than that (as early as 1590). There doesn’t seem to be a lot of thought put into which plays they chose to include in the film in terms of chronology, these plays are just chosen to advance the plot. They use Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard III. All of these were performed before 1599, but they are used in this film to incite a rebellion which actually took place in 1601.
At one point, in order to gain an audience with Elizabeth, Edward de Vere publishes the poem Venus and Adonis to get her attention. The poem, based on the Greek myth, features the god Venus essentially attempting to rape a young and disinterested boy who only wants to go hunting. Later, he dies after being impaled by a tusk. I suppose you could make some allegory of Elizabeth the Queen embodying Venus the goddess, and young Edward making a good Adonis. But…in the film this is seen as a love poem intended to make Elizabeth remember the love she shared with Edward de Vere. The poem is pretty graphically sexual for the time period, something of the 50 Shades of Gray of that era, but let’s rewind. Remember 2 seconds ago when I said the plot was that she wants Adonis but he couldn’t care less? He tells her to go away, despite her throwing herself at him, and then he goes off hunting and dies. If the Queen is Venus, how is this meant to woo her? It doesn’t even make sense.
Also, even if I believed this theory, the film portrays Edward de Vere as a writer and a nobleman. When he goes to the theatre to see his own plays performed, he is more or less uninterested and detached. He is pleased to see the influence his plays can have, but has no attachment to the actor’s performances or the reception his work gets.
One more note about the film before I get to why the whole Oxfordian theory makes my blood boil. The film depicts a righteous but incompetent Ben Jonson and a Christopher Marlowe who is conniving and a backstabber. I could perhaps forgive that, but their depiction of Will Shakespeare is so pathetic and moronic that I cannot believe it. It is as if they think we will only believe their theory if we also see a Shakespeare who is a glory-hound, money-hound, cannot even write his own name, borderline-illiterate moron. The film portrays him with less sympathy and less depth than the puritans or the palace guards. And they propose that he murdered Christopher Marlowe. It’s the equivalent of those swiftboat captain ads in the John Kerry campaign. You can’t believe it’s happening, and even more so you cannot possibly believe other people accept it as true.
Okay, so the movie sucks. What about the theory? Why do I hate it so much?
The big point of the Oxfordian theory, their bread and butter, is that Shakespeare was uneducated and not a nobleman. How could a common man from a small town, whose father made gloves, write so well? How could he know Greek and Latin myths without going to Cambridge or Oxford? How could he know about the politics at court without living in that environment his whole life?
Let’s just take a moment and think about what that means. They are basically saying that only a person of noble blood could write these plays, because…because they’re better than commoners. That’s their main argument. The presumptuousness makes me crazy. I know I sound pedantic and ridiculous, but I don’t care! In fact, it makes my point for me! I am someone who was born in the Midwest, to parents who didn’t graduate from college (they later went back and got their B.S.s). I was educated at public school. When I was 19 I had to leave my (state) university and try to get my life together, because I was a mess. Anyone might have looked at me at that point, or in the ensuing years, and seen someone completely average or possibly less successful or intelligent than average. I had no experience of high society, of elite education, of culture or financial success. I had never been out of the country or even to NYC.
But those things did not define who I am or my potential or my passion. I read constantly, I taught myself about history, about literature. I went back to an Ivy League university and got my degree, with honors. I spent 6 months living in Europe and saw 10 countries. I continue to learn and to grow. I write, I read, I embrace all the knowledge I can get my hands on. And I’m just an average person with a lot of curiosity! Shakespeare was a bona fide, once a century sort of genius. When has genius ever needed anything other than itself to succeed? Leonardo Da Vinci was the bastard son of a wealthy man and a peasant girl, born in a small town in Tuscany. He received only an informal education. Michael Faraday was a bookseller with no formal education, but he read a lot, and he ended up making incredible scientific discoveries (mostly related to electricity) and making much of our modern life possible. I think the bottom line is that if you are one of those people, a genius, someone destined to forever change the world and how we understand it, the only thing that can stop you is death. The idea that Shakespeare couldn’t have learned Greek or Latin on his own, or couldn’t have learned of court politics from his patrons and friends in the upper classes, is ridiculous. Not to mention that the incredible understanding of humanity, of personalities and emotions, that Shakespeare displays is not something that could ever be learned.
That’s my main problem with the theory, the utterly insulting idea that anyone from humble means could not have achieved so much or written so well. But there are other problems. Like, for example, Edward de Vere died in 1604 but Shakespeare continued to debut new material much later. Unless he’s Tupac Shakur, I don’t see how that works.
And what about the performances? If you’ve ever taken a Shakespeare class (or 10th grade language arts) you’ve gotten the speech about how these were never meant to be read, they were meant to be performed. And if you’ve ever gone to the Globe or seen a real Shakespeare company (I highly recommend it), you will undoubtedly ‘get’ things that you didn’t understand before (mostly bawdy puns, but still). We are meant to believe that:
1-de Vere was such a genius at writing plays that he could simply hand them over and not have any part in the production of them. He would just have faith that all the actors would portray his parts as he envisioned them.
2-None of the actors ever had any questions about how things should sound or look.
3-If they did have questions, no one was confused by why Will Shakespeare couldn’t answer them.
And, one last hiccup. Shakespeare collaborated on many of his later works, most usually with John Fletcher. Fletcher (or his other collaborators) never noticed that Will didn’t do any of the writing? Oh yeah, and they are believed to have written these plays together in the 1610s, despite Edward de Vere having been dead for nearly a decade. Even if I believed the nonsense about a bunch of plays being left behind in Ben Jonson’s possession, that doesn’t really track with the collaboration with other playwriters. And anyone who reads a lot of Shakespeare can clearly see the writing style differences in his solo plays and his collaborations.
I read one article about this theory that said it was given as much credit in the literary world as the theory that we didn’t actually land on the moon. I think that’s giving it too much credit! It is absolutely insulting and stupid. And so is this film!