“On that especial issue, Peter made something like a near approach, taking into account his great reasons, the particulars and nuances and complexities, they being, of course, more important than the main point, they being really fine, and grand, and ravishing, and although he hung fire on his answer, and really, who might blame him, before committing himself, as it were, to a definite position, which if stated plainly, might fall a little flat, might seem a little thin, might reveal too baldly a poverty of thought and a desolation of feeling, conveniently concealed in a thicket of syntax, great flashes of brilliance aside, yet he did half commit himself, in the end, all of which is to say, perhaps, he wouldn’t decide James wasn’t coming out something more ahead than not.”
Holy cow, he’s rich and handsome. Holy crap, he makes me horny. Holy Moses, he’s got a sex dungeon. Holy f*ck, he can f*ck. Holy sh*t, I have to sign this contract? Holy crap, he’s mysterious and tortured. Ouch! he’s spanking me. Oh, I like it. Holy cow, he loves me for me? Hey! he tied me up. Huh, I like it. Holy crap, I’m meeting his mother. Holy f*ck, he can f*ck. Holy sh*t, shocking personal revelations! Glider. IHOP. Flogger. Handcuffs. Holy crap, he plays the piano too. Such a nice boy. Holy cow, the love of a brave woman should fix any broken man. Ah … aah … aaahh … aaaahhh! … aaaaahhhh!! … AAAAAAHHHHH!!
Henry V may be the most cinematic of all Shakespeare’s plays. It stars a young underdog hero who wins the battle and gets the girl. It is a spectacular piece of theater, with nearly a dozen stand-out scenes, some of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, and battles just begging to be filmed. Henry V has drama, action, comedy, romance, heartbreak, and a rich vein of ambiguity – all of which give actors and directors wide scope to shape their own versions of the play. Here’s how three of them did it, in order of personal preference.
Kenneth Branagh (1989)
Branagh’s Henry V is not only the best film version of the play by far – it is one of the finest film versions of any of Shakespeare play – because it flawlessly executes Branagh’s vision of the hard consequences of war.
Every element of the film reinforces this theme. Branagh’s screenplay presents many of the play’s darker elements: the English traitors, the hanging of Bardolph, the deaths in battle. The mood and production design are somber throughout: Branagh splashes mud all over Olivier’s bright Technicolor Henry V. Branagh assembles a remarkable cast of A list actors for all the major roles, who all bring their characters to specific human life. Branagh fully exploits the dramatic possibilities of each scene. And he delivers the knock-out punch with a four-minute tracking shot of King Harry carrying the body of a young boy killed by the French across the battlefield and through a tableau of almost every character in the play, living, wounded, or dead, while the non nobius is sung.
If you require nitpicking, there are traces of Branagh the insufferable ham within his very fine performance of Henry V. And Branagh doesn’t quite convince us Harry and his princes go only reluctantly to war. They prosecute their campaign against the French with too much vigor to make us believe that.
Laurence Olivier (1944)
Laurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V was a remarkable achievement, and greeted with great acclaim, when it first appeared during World War II. (The film was intended to raise the morale of wartime Britain.) The problems are that so much of Olivier’s version is out of step with modern taste, and so many of the scenes fail to make effective use of film as a medium, that contemporary viewers will see it as a half-success at best.
This Henry V still makes an impact, however. Olivier is excellent as an unambiguously heroic Henry V playing his role as public leader of the English army to perfection, most especially during the St. Crispin’s Day speech. He is very good showing us the private King Henry the night before Agincourt and the appealing young conqueror who wins the heart of his young French queen. Olivier’s charging knights and mounted sword fights still impress in an era of massive digital special effects. And the diction, presence, and physicality that made Olivier a star on the English stage are all on rich display.
Unfortunately, the phrase “stage star” sums up the difficulties with this Henry V. Much of the acting, including Olivier in many scenes, is the “presentational” style well suited to clearly communicating every word and gesture to the last row of a large theater but which on film comes across as loud, stiff, flat, and dull. Olivier’s clowns are worse. They play their lines for the broadest and most obvious comedy and the clowns include not just Falstaff’s retainers, but also most of the French nobility as well as the English clergy seeking to divert King Henry’s attention from their wealth by provoking a war with France. (The “Salic law” scene is hysterical, though.) All the comedy and the many actors playing “types” rather than individual men and women make this Henry V only rarely moving.
Finally, Olivier’s production design is a fascinating mess. He uses three distinct styles. Most of the scenes in England are played in a reproduction of the Globe Theater, with the actors and audience interacting with each other, and the acting suited to that situation. The sets of the interior scenes in France resemble famous illustrations from Les Tres Riches Heures and the acting is again stage style. Exterior scenes in France, all around the battle, are filmed outside or on realistic sets, and the acting humanizes the characters by taking advantage of the power of the movies to make the smallest gesture big. All this further reduces the emotional impact of the play. But it does prove the old axiom that an interesting failure is superior to a dull success.
Tom Hiddleston (2012)
Tom Hiddleston is reasonably good as King Henry in the 2012 BBC production of Henry V (which is part of the “Hollow Crown” series), and many of the actors and scenes are persuasive. Overall, however, director Thea Sharrock has made a cock of her version of the play.
Sharrock doesn’t seem to have quite decided what she wants her Henry V to say or who she wants her King Henry to be. The film starts on promising notes. Sharrock opens with Henry V’s funeral (which The Chorus describes in the closing lines of the play) suggesting we are going to get an “all is vanity” approach. She reinforces this idea by giving us a King Henry who goes to war out of a sense of obligation to his own and his country’s honor.
But then she doesn’t follow through. Instead, much of this Henry V has the look and feel of Branagh’s. Sharrock underplays many of the scenes, most notably the St. Crispin’s Day speech, losing the drama without gaining new insight. And Sharrock muffs the Harfleur scene, where she has Hiddleston threatened the French citizens with genocide from within the walls of their own town if they don’t surrender . Didn’t anyone notice that the English army had already captured Harfleur?
This isn’t the only time Hiddleston’s King Henry shows irrational anger and a taste for violence. He also shows it when he orders the execution of the French prisoners at Agincourt. Then at other times, Hiddleston’s King seems deeply and sincerely pious. Then at other other times, we see flashes of the old charming rake Prince Harry from the Henry IV plays. The total effect of this is not a character who is complex and mercurial. The effect is that Hiddleston’s Henry V comes across as incoherent: a person who can be radically different from scene to scene, sometimes from moment to moment.
Big fans of Shakespeare, and of Tom Hiddleston, will not be unhappy with this version of Henry V. But for those who want to watch just one movie, Branagh’s is the version to choose.
Pretty lies sell. Politicians know it. Hollywood knows it. Clint Eastwood knows it – although perhaps he did not intend to sell pretty lies when he made American Sniper. But pretty lies are what Eastwood delivers. And in them rest the sources of the controversy, and the complications, of the movie.
As you likely know, American Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle, an American SEAL who is famous for being the “deadliest sniper in American history” with 160 confirmed kills to his name. The movie is far more interested in telling the story of the impact Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq had on him and his family, however. Much of that story is not pretty and much of it is true.
There Is Much Ugly Truth in American Sniper
There are quite a number of ugly truths wrapped around the pretty lies of American Sniper, which do a good job of giving the pretty lies of the film the appearance of “truth by association”.
Eastwood does not make war look fun. He makes it look like a tough, exhausting, dangerous job — Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post nails it when she called American Sniper a “professional procedural”. (The single exception is the scene where Kyle kills a rival sniper with a headshot from nearly a mile away. We follow the bullet in slow motion as if we were watching The Matrix.)
Eastwood certainly doesn’t make war look pretty. In one scene, one of Kyle’s friends is hit by assault rifle fire that instantly deadens his expression. He dies seconds later. In another scene, one of his friends is shot in the face, and we watch as the man chokes on the blood gurgling in his throat. Kyle’s sniper rifle blows holes the diameter of coffee cans in the bodies of the men, and the woman and the child, he kills.
Eastwood shows us the impact of war on soldiers. We are there outside the operating room when they die. We attend their funerals and see the grief of the family they left behind. We see soldiers trying to recuperate from horrible wounds in hospitals back home, and then try to build a new life with broken bodies and broken spirits.
We see what the war does especially to Chris Kyle’s wife, Taya, played by an excellent Sienna Miller. One of the strengths of American Sniper is just how much attention and respect it pays to the suffering of the wives (all wives in this case) of soldiers at war. And we see the impact of the war on Chris Kyle himself through the outstanding performance of Bradley Cooper – richly deserving his best-actor nomination – who in scene after scene, quietly and almost motionlessly, conveys the anguish of Chris Kyle’s job.
After Kyle shoots an armed enemy, he exhales and drops his head. Then he sniffs and returns to looking through the sight of his rifle, as if each shot were a burden he would need to carry and for which he would need to ultimately answer. This is particularly true after the famous opening sequence, when Kyle has to decide to shoot a young boy who is running toward an American patrol with a grenade, and then shoot the boy’s mother who picks up the grenade after her son is killed.
Later in the film, another boy picks up a grenade launch dropped by a dead fighter and seems to be attempting to aim it at an American patrol. “Put it down, put it down, put it down,” Kyle whispers as he fixes the boy in the sight of his rifle, a look of horror spread across his face. His relief when the boy drops the weapon is palpable.
Balanced against these many ugly truths – and they are very ugly indeed – are the pretty lies of American Sniper. These lies are very pretty indeed. The ultimately overwhelm the counter truths. And these lies start with Chris Kyle.
Chris Kyle: An Ideal and Idealized American Soldier
By all reports, the real Chris Kyle was in many ways the man American Sniper shows him to be. A tough professional elite soldier who joined the military to defend the United States from terrorists. A loyal and unwavering friend. A loving and devoted husband who struggled against the damage the war did to himself and his family, and who then committed himself to helping other veterans with the same struggles – including the man who killed Kyle in 2013.
But there are other parts of Chris Kyle that are absent from American Sniper and which are less than ideal. For example, the movie portrays Kyle as modest and reluctant to discuss his work. The real life Chris Kyle seems to have been much less modest. He actively promoted himself as “America’s most lethal sniper” and made good money doing it.
Kyle’s bragging also extended to things he didn’t do. Kyle claimed to have killed two carjackers in Texas and gone to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to shoot looters. No evidence for these claims exists. Kyle also claimed to have punched Jesse Ventura for criticizing the Iraq War. Ventura won a $1.8 million libel judgment against Kyle.
You could say that these were a few moments when Kyle’s mouth got ahead of his brain. You can’t offer the same defense of some of the opinions Kyle published in his autobiography. Such as these:
“I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL.” [From the introduction.]
“I missed the excitement and the thrill. I loved killing bad guys.” [On why he wanted to go back to Iraq.]
“It was like a scene from ‘Dumb and Dumber’. The bullet went through the first guy and into the second…Two guys with one shot. The taxpayer got good bang for his buck on that one.” [On firing at two insurgents on a moped.]
These are not the words of a modest and selfless soldier, doing the hard work most people are unable or unwilling to do; not the words of the Chris Kyle portrayed in American Sniper who is celebrated by much of the nation as hero. These are the words of a person who enjoyed being paid by the U.S. government to go on a murder junket. And there is nothing pretty about them.
What Exactly Does “Fighting for Freedom” Mean?
As amazing as it sounds, the prettied up Chris Kyle isn’t the prettiest – or biggest lie – Eastwood tells in American Sniper. That distinction goes to the justification the movie presents for the Iraq war. Or more precisely, the lack of justification for the Iraq War the film presents.
War is a brutal business and when a war is necessary (and I do believe some wars are necessary) then we need men like Chris Kyle to fight them; and if these men are less than perfect in their motivations, and less than perfect in their actions, it is nonetheless indecent to criticize them for their imperfections. Men like Chris Kyle are the means to the ends we pursue, and if we don’t like the means then we shouldn’t pursue the ends.
The problem is that American Sniper utterly ignores questions like these. Instead, it takes at face value, unexamined and unchallenged, Chris Kyle’s justification for the Iraq War, which is the pretty, glittering, noble-sounding phrase that he was “fighting for freedom”.
But what does “fighting for freedom” mean in the context of the Iraq War? Don’t look for the answers in American Sniper because they ain’t there. Which leaves us to guess.
One possibility is that “fighting for freedom” means protecting the United States from existential threats – that is from enemies that have the ability to destroy America and the freedoms it guarantees its citizens. In this case, there are two important questions: Was Iraq an existential threat? and if so Was invading Iraq the best response to this threat?
The answers to both questions have been definitely settled as “no” for everyone not living inside an intellectually dishonest fantasy land. (They were also clear to many before the war began.) The same answer holds true for the claims that we were fighting for Iraq’s freedom, and that all that was need to create a stable democracy in a peaceful Iraq was to get rid of Saddam Hussein. History – if you wanted to bother looking at it – would have told you otherwise.
In this context, perhaps “fighting for freedom” means we don’t want to admit we launched a war of choice out of a combination of fear, incompetence, stupidity, vanity, bravado, and magical thinking. Or perhaps “fighting for freedom” means that it would be too painful to admit the Iraq War was a mistake after all the sacrifices made by our soldiers and their families.
Or perhaps “fighting for freedom” means that we really just want to kick somebody’s ass; we aren’t too particular about whose we kick; and we need some high-minded sounding excuse to go do it.
This is an offensive suggestion. The problem is … of all the possible definitions, it makes the most sense. If you were really serious about protecting America, you would believe it is worthwhile to carefully assess threats and deliberately choose the best response, weighing risk against benefit. And examine and learn from mistakes. Yes? If you were really serious about spreading freedom, you’d look at the places where it was done successfully, and the many places it wasn’t, then get serious about exactly what it will take and how hard it will be.
If on the other hand, you’re a fan of the shit-kicking approach to foreign policy – Let’s go kill bad guys! – and you see military intervention as simply a whole lot more awesome version of the National Football League – then “fighting for freedom” full stop, end of discussion, is all you need.
American Sniper: Catnip for Red States
Eastwood has claimed in his public statements that American Sniper is a “character study” and that the film is “anti-war”. Neither one of these claims holds up to scrutiny.
In terms of Chris Kyle, not only are the ugly pieces of his character left unstudied in American Sniper, they are substantially prettied up. This idealized Chris Kyle, with all the storytelling and myth-making fire-power of an accomplished director behind him, is made by the movie into “the” portrait of “the real” American soldier. Too tough, too brave, too accomplished, too loyal, too tender, too strong, too steady, too vulnerable, too modest, too selfless – just flawed enough to be too heroic – to be true.
It’s hard to be anti-war if you make the impact of a war ugly (which Eastwood does) but make the reasons for fighting that war noble when they ain’t. Or put it this way. When horrible sacrifices are justified by beautiful lies, the lies don’t become horrible. The sacrifices become beautiful.
Considering the total effect of American Sniper then, the pretty lies are stronger than the ugly truths, and leave the stronger impression. No surprise then either that the film has the knickers of liberals in a twist or that American Sniper is a smash-hit success in Red State America. It’s perfect catnip. It acknowledges the horror of combat and the heavy sacrifices of military families, while telling us soldiers are heroes who volunteered to fight a good and necessary war. Based on all the reports of cheering during the movie, sounds like the shit-kickers got their money’s worth too.
Despite examining the life of arguably the most important American of the 20th century (Martin Luther King Jr.) and one of the major events in that century (Civil Rights), the discussion of U.S. history Selma has provoked is dominated by questions of the film’s representation of Lyndon B. Johnson, the president during the Selma marches.
And despite being better written, acted, and directed than the vast majority of films Hollywood produces, including the “issue” films through which the industry loves to celebrate itself, Selma was largely snubbed by the Oscars.
The question is Why? Having considered carefully, I’ve come up with the answer. Because director Ava DuVernay didn’t make the white guy the hero.
Now this sounds like the kind of provocation on which bloggers depend, but it happens to be my true opinion. And highly defensible. Here’s why.
Selma the Movie Versus History
The first thing to know about any work of art that dramatizes historical people and events is that when the needs of the dramatist conflict with the truth of the historian, the truth of the historian always loses.
This is the nature of storytelling, and we would all be better off if more storytellers would acknowledge this fact up front and more historians would stop bitching about storytellers failing to do their jobs for them, and instead embrace the opportunity to talk about history that movies like Selma offer.
The right questions we should ask film-makers like Ms. DuVernay are What did you change? and Why did you change it?
These are the questions DuVernay answered in a January 5 Rolling Stone interview. She reduced Johnson’s role in Selma because she was “interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma” and because she wanted to portray Lyndon Johnson as a “reluctant hero”.
That is what she achieved. Watching the movie, and reviewing the historical arguments swirling around it, the worst you could say about DuVernay’s LBJ in regards to the Voting Rights Act is that he saw it as somewhat less of a priority than the historical LBJ. But both Johnsons worked with Dr. King, both Johnsons cared about the bill, and both worked to get it passed.
You wouldn’t know this from the reaction of Joseph Califano, a top Johnson aid from 1965 to 1969, who acts as if DuVernay did a full-on Shakespearean Richard III hatchet job on Johnson; who claims Selma was all Johnson’s idea and implies LBJ cared more passionately about voting rights than the people of the Civil Rights movement; and whose self-righteous appeal to the “facts” of history don’t quite fit the facts he quotes (see the New Yorker article).
Califano and other critics are on much more solid ground when they complain that the movie portrays Johnson as behind the FBI secretly taping Dr. King’s extra-marital affairs. If they want to ding DuVernay for that, have at her. While I think the spying is important to include in Selma, the way DuVernay included it in the film is clunky and her defense of the inclusion, clunkier.
But in all the outrage over the horrendous slander against Lyndon Johnson people like Califano express, it would be nice if they paused to also express some outrage at the government spying on one of its own citizens to stop him from claiming rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
Or perhaps even a little outrage over the fact that men in the pay of government routinely beat the living sh*t out of people – beat these people with impunity and without consequence – as they tried to claim the same rights. If the truth about LBJ in 1965 is worth getting upset over, shouldn’t the truth about everyone else in 1965 still matter too?
Selma the Movie, What Sells Tickets, and The Great Oscar Snub
The answer is clearly “no” or the experience of the men and women of the Civil Rights movement would be part of the conversation too. To understand the reason why it’s not, the best place to go is Hollywood.
Hollywood is even more attuned to what people want than governments, because while governments can make you give them money whether you like it or not, Hollywood has to convince you to open your wallet through pure selling.
Mostly what Hollywood sells are fantasies of sex, money, love, power, and freedom from social restraint. Occasionally, they sell stories about inspiration, uplift, and redemption. And occasionally within this subset of inspiration, the stories are about real people and real events.
But there are rules that must be followed. Some of these rules are that such movies should be simplistic, over-obvious, and end in triumph. An iron-clad rule is that they must make the audience (that is “white people”) comfortable by assuring them they are right-thinking, right-acting human beings firmly on the right side of history.
Call this the Dances with Wolves model or if you like, the “white savior” model, which is what DuVernay told Rolling Stone she wanted to avoid making Selma. And boy she sure did.
Her Selma gets the formula half right. The movie clearly identifies the “bad” white people like Alabama Governor George Wallace and Selma Sheriff Jim Clark who we can all congratulate ourselves for despising. But Selma then fails to give us (again “us” means “white people”) the counter-balance of the unambiguous white hero whose actions are absolutely essential to achieving the ending’s triumph and with whom we (“white people” still) can identify.
DuVernay takes away LBJ as simple hero and then does more. She mixes into her Lyndon Johnson qualities that fall between those of the obvious hero and those of the obvious villain – those inaccuracies previously discussed. She has King say all those who do nothing while innocent people are killed share complicity in those killings. And she closes the movie with Common and John Legend singing a song (“Glory”) that explicitly connects Selma to Ferguson, which when you compare the news footage of the two events look, ah, kinda similar.
The result? A whole lot of white people going frickin’ bat sh*t because Selma suggests that maybe they aren’t quite as right-thinking and right-acting as they’d like to believe.
This seems to me to be the heart of the matter. The objections to the historical inaccuracies in Selma look strangely out of proportion to the inaccuracies themselves until we see them as damaging the image of LBJ as “white savior” and so damaging the self-esteem of people like Califano who want to identify with him as such. What else would explain Califano over-playing Johnson’s importance to voting rights, after bitterly complaining Selma under-plays it, except that Califano is reflexively defending his self image?
This also explains the strange pattern of Oscar snubs the academy has bestowed on Selma. No person associated with Selma was nominated. Many of these nominations went to other less accomplished, though perfectly serviceable “serious” films like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Only Selma the movie itself and the closing song were nominated. In other words, things.
Things the academy can claim as their own, celebrate, and congratulate themselves as right-thinking, right-acting people for celebrating.
That is what they sell, after all.
Tick tock as we drink our coffee.
Tick tock as we check the scores.
Tick tock as we sip our cocktails.
Tick tock when we close the door.
Tick tock the clothes are dirty.
Tick tock the bills lie unpaid.
Tick tock the lawns grow wilder.
Tick tock the beds sleep unmade.
Tick tock our griefs grow colder.
Tick tock days are long in age.
Tick tock the twilight’s failing.
Tick tock the low candles fade.
The Money Girls
Beauty is marketing to the
Money girls and they spend
With lavish precision because
Big dreams need big budgets.
Seal-sleek hair, shinning pumps,
Pearl earrings, suit and skirt,
All elegance and no sex they
Interrogate their prey with
Smooth questions; and when
Your answers satisfy they slide
Their treasured secrets from
Leather cases softer and more
Durable than flesh, click-clasp,
Showing what you long to see:
MBAs and GPAs, KPIs and ROIs.
Will they be content after they
Eat the world and don’t grow fat?
Will work and reward fill the void
Or just gild it over? I can’t say, but
The money girls will spend their youth
In acquisitive pursuit, and if those years
Go to hard waste, they can’t buy them back.
From the Fall 2014 edition of Apeiron Review.
I’m delighted Philadelphia Stories published one of my poems. The art below combines the page with the magazine’s front-cover masthead.
The greatest and most amusing — and most tedious – literary conspiracy theory bouncing around is the assertion that “Shakespeare” the genius dramatist was not actually the historical William Shakespeare but some other far more deserving (and often far more aristocratic) person.
The various theories against Shakespeare’s authorship are amusing because conspiracy fans insistent on them so stubbornly while arguing for versions of the “truth” that often require a greater suspension of disbelief than the generally accepted “Shakespeare” story. These theories are tedious because they entirely miss what is important about Will.
But to the entertainment first. There are a couple reasons why Shakespeare conspiracy theories are so persistent. The one good reason is that there are relatively few documented facts about the historical William Shakespeare’s life, and within these few strong facts that link him to the authorship of the plays. This lack of conclusive documentation offers a fertile opportunity for the paranoid at loose ends for an object on which to fix their obsessions; or academics in need of their next publishing topic; or the occasional aesthete who is offended by the idea that the brightest star in English literature was also a grubby businessman.
This fertile opportunity is supplemented by two dubious assumptions that the conspiracy fans like to promote as self-evident facts. The first is that it is impossible for a person to become an artist of any quality unless he or she has received a highly privileged education. The second is that it is impossible for an artist to write persuasively about persons or topics unless he or she has had direct experience with those persons and topics; which in Shakespeare’s particular case means kings, queens, and nobles for the persons and the dynamics and psychology of power within a monarchy for the topics.
The first assumption of the conspiracy fans is dubious because it is contradicted by life. We can find many examples of people with intelligence, talent, energy, and determination who thrived without an elite education or special privileges. Robert Zimmerman, a college dropout from Hibbing Minnesota whose family possessed no special distinction moves to New York City and within a few years explodes into the culture as Bob Dylan. By the logic of the conspiracy fans, such an artistic life should not be possible and Dylan’s works should actually be the secret production of Pete Seeger, son of a Harvard-trained musicologist and a concert violinist who enjoyed all sorts of advantages and opportunities. (I’m not trying to bust on Pete here, just saying.)
The direct experience assumption is even more problematic. First, it assumes that the characters of the nobility and the dynamics are monarchical power are fundamentally different from those of – for example – ordinary people competing for position in a theater company. And yet we often find Shakespeare’s nobles sympathetic and their problems familiar. If these nobles are a different breed than us, why would we understand or care about them? If they aren’t a different breed – and that is my assertion – then Shakespeare would not need to have been at court to write about them and we would not need to be nobles to care.
Even worse, the direct experience assumption denies that artists possess any real creativity. If artists can only depict what they know or have experienced personally, that makes them, at best, recording clerks in whom the power of imagination is largely irrelevant.
Also, if we apply this logic consistently, then we’d have to delegitimize enormous numbers of artistic works. What are we going to do with all those paintings of the crucifixion? Clearly, no painters were present at the death of Jesus. Did the real author of Macbeth – Shakespeare or otherwise – personally know a murderous king? Because if he or she didn’t, by the conspiracy fan’s logic, the play couldn’t have been written and shouldn’t exist. Unless Melville survived a whale attack, he couldn’t have composed Moby Dick. And so on. There are convenient ways to get around this problem, of course. The most convenient is to assert that direct experience is necessary for acts of artistic creation. Except when it’s not.
These two assumptions cause additional mischief. Since they are used to “prove” Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays attributed to him, they also push the conspiracy fans to identify university-educated playwrights such as Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe, or various aristocrats such as the Earl of Oxford, as the real Shakespeare. This produces some of the most fun to be had with the conspiracies, because the explanations are considerably more fantastic and more unlikely than Shakespeare’s own dullish biography.
In the case of Christopher Marlowe, as an example, the problem is that Marlowe was killed in 1593 while Shakespeare continued to write plays for a good twenty years afterwards. How does that work? Did Marlowe leave a trunk-full of unfinished plays? That’s quite an incredible explosion of unexploited creativity. Why didn’t Marlowe publish the plays himself or make arrangements to do so? How did Shakespeare get a hold of them? Were they written in secret? If so, why? How come nobody else except Shakespeare knew about them? Or if other people did know, why did they not care Shakespeare was presenting the plays as his own?
Or take this possibility. Marlowe faked his own death (perhaps to avoid a heresy investigation), succeeded at faking his death, was never found out, continued to write plays, used Shakespeare as a front to present these play, was never discovered or exposed as the real author, and presumably died in anonymous peace sometime around the time Shakespeare retired without Marlowe reappearing at the last moment to claim credit before he joined the bleeding choir invisible.
Really? As a potential movie starring Tom Hiddleston, stuff like this sounds superb. As history, considering we are talking about private citizens and matters that do not touch the vital interests of a state, it’s pretty ridiculous. The problems with the conspiracies generally fall under the categories of motive and means: why would another writer pretend to be Shakespeare and how did he pull it off? By contrast, all we need to believe about Will was that he was a slightly unlikely, extraordinarily talented autodidact.
When it comes to Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare conspiracies, I fall back on that old stand-by: Occam’s Razor. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation for an occurrence should be preferred. In this case, the simplest explanation is that “Shakespeare” really was Shakespeare. And until such time as new reliable evidence appears, which demonstrates that what sounds pretty ridiculous is gosh-darn-it the truth, that is where I will settle.
These who enjoy canvassing the question may continue to do so with all liberty, of course. But after a little time I find the whole debate boring. And depressing. Because what really matters about “Shakespeare” is our experience of his work, which is so wonderful, so deep, so multi-various, so entertaining and consoling. Who Shakespeare was doesn’t really matter. It’s what Shakespeare created that matters. Listening to the people who don’t understand that is amusing, for a minute or two. Then it becomes tedious.