Shakespeare’s tempestuous relationship with the cinema took another twist this week, as scholars turned on Roland Emmerich’s new film Anonymous. The film depicts Shakespeare as an imbecilic fraud, taking credit for plays written by the Earl of Oxford, and has been met with responses ranging from derision and disgust to comparison with Nazi propaganda.
Emmerich’s films thus far have seen him wreck Manhattan (Godzilla), Manhattan (Independence Day) and Manhattan (The Day After Tomorrow) without so much as a batted eyelid. His dalliance with Shakespearean conspiracy theory, by contrast, has incited vehement rebuke from Stratford to the States.
Fictionalised accounts of Shakespeare’s life are nothing new, Shakespeare in Love was hardly an accurate biopic, but the reason Emmerich’s clumsy foray has provoked such ire is not its inaccuracy but its pretence in posing a serious question to Shakespeare scholars. In a recent Guardian article screenwriter John Orloff countered the critics not by claiming that the movie was a blockbuster which should be taken with a pinch of salt, but rather by denouncing scholarship around Shakespeare’s life as ‘smoke and mirrors’ and his life as ‘a myth’.
Moreover, the movie’s tagline, ‘Was Shakespeare a Fraud?’, has all the subtlety one would expect from a director whose last move into literature was a tsunami hitting a library in The Day After Tomorrow. As such it shouldn’t be a shock that the reaction has been somewhat hostile. Perhaps the surprise is quite how much so.
The response in Warwickshire, home of both the bard himself and a fair slice of related tourism, has been public denouncement of the movie, as well as the slightly puerile step of taping over Shakespeare’s name on various road signs. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust clearly felt that such actions, alongside removing the signs from a number of local pubs, were a reasonable response to Emmerich’s provocation. The Trust not only argued that the film ‘flies in the face of a mass of historical fact’ but that ‘people…could be hoodwinked’ by its erroneous message.
However the most severe riposte came from Columbia professor James Shapiro, author, intellectual and, as the film’s production team found out, sworn enemy of conspiracy theorists. He labeled the film symptomatic of a society unable to distinguish between factual and irrational arguments, going so far as to call it ‘a hilarious and counter-factual presentation’, allegedly even likening the movie to Nazi propaganda.
Emmerich claims that his movie is ‘art’, and that ‘art should provoke’. Shapiro and his fellow Shakespeare acolytes beg to differ. Perhaps the old maxim is true, ‘all publicity is good publicity’; if it is then Anonymous has just bagged a few more cinema-goers. I just don’t think many will be from Stratford.