Movie shows why we like Shakespeare, the guy who wrote the plays

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WAS SHAKESPEARE A FRAUD?" asked the poster at the Ritz at the Bourse.

"Uh, no," I replied.

I was there for Anonymous, a movie about how William Shakespeare never wrote his plays.

I was a college teacher of Shakespeare for 22 years. I've read every word most scholars believe he ever wrote. More, I've read every contemporary document connected with him. I'm not special; lots of folks, in and out of school, can say the same thing.

This "he didn't write his plays" thing? Silly, pitiable bunk. But I went along and watched the flick. And I had fun. It's a mixed-up passel of crazy nonsense, but I had fun.

In spite of itself, Anonymous brings us back to the reason so many people - of all eras, origins, classes, levels of learning - keep returning to Shakespeare. Why people like Shakespeare is the issue here. It's why the "no-Shakespeare" thing persists, and why we have Anonymous.

I had a ball seeing some of the greatest writers in English - Shakespeare, Kit Marlowe, Ben Jonson - all in the same movie. I liked the re-creations of old London Bridge, the Mermaid Tavern, the Rose and Globe Theaters.

If you like Shakespeare, the movie may make you think about why.

And the movie itself? Hey, you got beards. And swords. You got quills dipped in ink. Sex, war, intrigue, and a debate over the meaning of art. It's nonsense, but as a movie, it's worth the popcorn - a rip-roaring paranoid fantasy, a conspiracy theory on, if not steroids, then a butt of malmsey.

The no-Shakes folks say another man wrote the plays. Anonymous offers us Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. He didn't want to be known as a playwright. He was a high-class guy, and playwriting was low-class stuff. He set up a bungler named Will Shakespeare as front guy.

Why do people keep whipping poor Will? I asked Robert Fallon, professor emeritus of English at La Salle. For a decade, he's taught a Shakespeare course at the Delaware Valley College Center for Learning and Retirement, "and every year, the very first class, they'll ask me: 'Do you think he wrote his plays?' "

But why? "People can't imagine that a man with no formal schooling past the age of 14 could have written such plays," Fallon says. "But of course he could have. . . . I can't understand such a mind, either, just as I can't understand Einstein or Mozart. So people have to invent other reasons."

Fallon has put his finger on it - and on Anonymous.

As a serious argument about some of history's finest cultural productions, the no-great-Shakes thing is feeble wastage - but as a premise for a movie, it's fine. I don't expect the truth. I expect a good story, good characters, interesting stuff that sticks in my brain. Anonymous tries.

It also food-processes the Elizabethan succession, the Essex Rebellion, the Irish Wars, sex-crazed Queen Bess, the murder of Marlowe, and the burning of the Globe. Is it accurate? Don't ask. Plays are wackily out of order, history sliced and diced. And  the second half gets so heavy with flashbacks the floorboards really creak.

Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is a semiliterate drunkard, blackmailer, and murderer. And a funny guy! Rhys Ifans is the tortured Oxford, longing for people to love his poetry, ruining his life and estate for art. Jonson's a pawn in the conspiracy. Vanessa Redgrave as ancient Queen Bess is wonderful, and Joely Richardson as frighteningly lusty young Bess . . . well, I wouldn't have turned her down.

The director is Roland Emmerich - and he's only doing to Shakespeare what Shakespeare did to Henry V. Emmerich made 2012 - a big reason so many people talk about the Mayan calendar at parties now. (And how the world's ending in December.) If the same thing happens with Anonymous, I'll be suffering Shakespeare jabs at parties for the rest of my life.

At the end of Anonymous, I found myself returning to why I have spent so mu ch of my life with Shakespeare, why so many of my friends have, and so many millions.

The poetry does something to us. The characters. Their situations, and what they do about them. The sweep of the vision. The language. Robert Fallon's right when he says: "These kinds of minds come along every so often, and he was one."

 


Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow him on Twitter at @jtimpane.