I watched a documentary this weekend on Shakespeare – all about who he was and whether he did in fact write all of those plays and sonnets. It was on Sky Arts, a channel I’ve not really noticed before in the listings.
Called ‘Last Will and Testament’ (did you see what they did there?), it was produced by Roland Emmerich, who rather circumstantially has recently directed and produced a film called ‘Anonymous’ about the very same thing.
It was a shameless plug for his own work. But I can deal with that when it is done as well as this.
The central theme was, that the common view that the world has of Shakespeare is a veiled myth perpetuating a rather financially rewarding lie for those involved in the industry.
The programme declared that ‘Shakespeare of Stratford’ couldn’t have written those works, for not only is there absolutely no evidence of him having done so (and clear arguments for how he didn’t have the education or breadth of knowledge required), there are actually a number of clues strewn through his work and how it was published that identified the ‘Shake-spears’ character as nothing more than a nom de plume.
No, the real writer of the Shakespeare canon is the rather less well-known (although ironically, more well known in 16th Century England), Edward de Vere, the 7th Earl of Oxford.
Who? You might ask. But it turns out that he was a major player in Queen Elizabeth’s court, was a ward of Lord Burghley (who ran the kingdom on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I), was schooled extensively and was exceptionally intelligent, and during his early years he travelled widely.
Oh, for the conspiracy theorists among us, he might also have been the Queen’s son and may even have been having it off with her behind everyone’s backs. Possibly. Okay, that last bit might have been stretching it a bit far, but there are those that subscribe to this being the case which would explain why he managed to get away with treasonous and seditious works like Hamlet.
But did I believe it? Well, the arguments put forward by the ‘Shakespeare wasn’t real’ camp were very powerful, logical and rational, whilst the chair of the Shakespeare society could only bluster that ‘of course it was him, look at all those people out there that say so’, pointing to the legions of companies and societies making money out of the Shakespeare name.
So in the end I fell down on the side of logic and rationality, who had rather more than circumstantial evidence to back up their argument. To me, it is clear that Shakespeare is nothing more than a carefully constructed façade to allow a member of the queen’s court to construct fairly contentious plays without getting caught.
But does it matter? Some might say that it doesn’t. After all, Shakespeare is an icon rather than a person – a man of the people (sort of) that transcended his basic roots to write the most influential and compelling English literature of the last 1,000 years. That’s a great symbol of how even those from a relatively humble background can achieve greatness.
However, I would say it does. It’s important to understand how one man (even a different one to whom we thought it was) can have provided us with such a powerful legacy, and that we celebrate his achievements with the legitimacy that he was never afforded when he was alive.
If you do have the chance to catch this documentary in the future, I heartily recommend it. Sorry for giving the game away. Oh, and by the way, that famous picture of Shakespeare? Take a close look. It’s a mask. Spooky, huh?