Monthly Archives: June 2011

Shakespeare and conspiracy: the prospect of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous

“What if I told you…that Shakespeare never wrote a single word,” plainly states Derek Jacobi at the beginning of the trailer for Roland Emmerich’s upcoming Shakespeare film, Anonymous. Shakespeare has made surprisingly few appearances on film, the last being 1998’s Shakespeare in Love,  a sort of Notting Hill-era Britcom with codpieces. It is, therefore, a shame Anonymous is not a film about Shakespeare, but takes as its subject the most peculiar aspect of Shakespeare’s legacy, the conspiracy theory that ‘the man from Stratford’ did not write the plays attributed to him.

The ‘anti-Stratfordian’ movement, as it is known, dates back to the mid-19th century, and the reasons behind the claims that somebody else wrote the plays are numerous. They frequently rely on reading the plays as autobiography, denial of evidence, and bizarre codes and ciphers believed to be hidden in the plays themselves, as well as a good dose of snobbery towards Shakespeare’s background. For a comprehensive debunking of the anti-Stratfordian myth, it is worth reading James Shapiro’s excellent book, Contested Will, or alternatively simply viewing the surprisingly clear Wikipedia page.

As for the candidates themselves, there are currently over fifty contenders, including Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, King James, and Elizabeth I. No less eclectic are their supporters over the years, who count among their ranks Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Malcolm X, and Sigmund Freud.

Two prominent contemporary figures in the anti-Stratfordian camp are Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, who, in 2007, issued a ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’ that features the signatures of several high-profile doubters, as an attempt to rally the anti-Stratfordian cause. In recent years the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy has gained greater mainstream interest:  the fact that Rylance even served as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre between 1995-2005 reflects this. Jacobi and Rylance will both appear in Anonymous, and director Roland Emmerich’s signature featured on the 2007 declaration.

While favoured candidates for an alternative author swap positions fairly regularly, the current frontrunner is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, an aristocrat, adventurer, playwright, and literary patron. Anonymous intends to fight his corner – with a few embellishments, namely that de Vere was also the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I, and had an incestuous relationship with her. Even in anti-Stratfordian ranks, this is a fringe theory, and one often met with derision.

By showcasing this dramatic and controversial theory, Anonymous could prove to be an own goal for the anti-Stratfordian camp. Oliver Stone’s JFK , released in 1991, is the daddy of conspiracy cinema. It succeeded in cementing the idea of a conspiracy in the public mind; following its release, more people were convinced of a cover-up and the US government even reviewed their records of the assassination. Its success lay in the simplicity of the plot, and the fact that it followed established and prominent theories of the Kennedy assassination, the ‘magic bullet’, the ‘second gunman’ etc. Could it be that Emmerich’s desire for blockbuster success via the most controversial and bizarre plot possible has overridden the anti-Stratfordian desire to maintain an image of legitimacy? Anonymous runs a serious risk of exposing them to ridicule.

In fact, the choice of such a bizarre theory seems so poorly considered that an intriguing, and just as unlikely, conspiracy of its own could be considered. What if Roland Emmerich is in fact a Shakespeare supporter,  is deep undercover in the enemy camp, and has gone to the trouble of shooting a multi-million dollar film that contends that Shakespeare did not write his plays, but with the most preposterous storyline possible – all as some kind of cunning ‘false flag’ operation to discredit the anti-Stratfordians. But, like the conspiracies themselves, this is an unreasonable theory based on zero evidence.

Belief in conspiracy theory in the modern world is widespread, a 2003 poll indicated that 75% of Americans believe in a JFK cover-up, a 2006 poll found that nearly half of all Britons believe the death of Princess Diana was not an accident, and we have only to look at recent conspiracies surrounding the 9/11 attacks and Barack Obama’s citizenship to see that the appetite for conspiracy remains strong. Not to mention the images of ‘Da Vinci Code tours’ that appeared in the wake of the book’s popularity, ferrying hundreds of Dan Brown enthusiasts around the Vatican to conduct their own examinations of the Sistine Chapel for hidden codes.

It is difficult to understand the current widespread appeal of conspiracy theories. In explaining his opposition to the Shakespeare conspiracies in Contested Will, James Shapiro writes, “No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story…I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story.” This can seem a strong statement to make in our tolerant age, in which giving a fair hearing to every argument is highly placed. It is also a refreshing indictment of the very postmodern notion of treating every opinion as equally valid, often rejecting any notion of objective truth, even when such truth is provable.

In an extreme example, the devastating consequencies of this policy were made clear in the UK media’s reporting of the possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The scientific paper that made the link in 1998 was widely discredited by the medical community as ‘fraudulent’ and ‘dishonest’, and the scientific consensus is that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, yet, in its mission to present both sides of the arguement equally, the media rejected the possibility of objective truth and carried on reporting the link as either possible, factual, or at least as important as the other arguement, leading many parents to deny their children the vaccine and thus leaving them exposed to potentially harmful infections.

Recourse to conspiracy theory can also be an act of desperation, or a response of collective hysteria to a profound event for which ready explainations are not forthcoming. They can also be interpreted as a response to what the anthropologist George Marcus termed a ‘crisis of representation’, or the widespread disengagement and disillusionment from political structures in Western society. Here, a direct connection is made between the disappearance of meta-narratives – ‘grand explanatory schemes’ – or the decline of ideology in an postmodern and post-political age (the idea that politics no longer offers positive ideas to improve the world, but merely sound administration through crisis, of which we are almost always in a permenant state of), and the need to seek answers elsewhere, often in conspiracy. The crisis of bureaucratic democracy becomes a crisis of truth. It is an outlet for frustration, where the majority no longer sees any real ‘choice’ in the political process, to quote Slavoj Žižek,

‘The political frustration of the majority is thus understandable: they are called to decide, while, at the same time, receiving the message that they are in no position effectively to decide, i.e. to objectively weigh the pros and cons. The recourse to “conspiracy theories” is a desperate way out of this deadlock, an attempt to regain a minimum of what Fred Jameson calls “cognitive mapping.”‘

Compared to these grand speculations, the world of the Shakespeare question is an almost insignificant one, but suspicion of Shakespeare has followed the general trend of more widespread acceptance of conspiracies, and the alternative theories have recently gained a degree of respectability. At the beginning of the trailer for Anonymous, when we see his ‘Shakespeare never wrote a single word’ speech, Jacobi is not hunched beside a fire in the back room of some dingy pub, but in a packed and professional looking auditorium, minus any kind of tin foil headgear. It is indicative that having once been a mark of eccentricity, the debate has become respectable, and despite the ridiculous storyline, Anonymous has the opportunity to re-energise the debate. And it intends to do this aggressively: in a press conference last year, Rhys Ifans, who will play Edward de Vere, mentioned that the character of Shakespeare will be presented as an ‘illiterate drunk’, a reference to the more snobbish aspect of the conspiracies: that Shakespeare was too poorly educated and un-gentlemanly to have written the plays. The inclusion of the incestuous royal relationship storyline could be a coup for Shakespeare loyalists,  but the real test of the film’s success will be whether it legitimises questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, or marks a return to the days of the tin foil hat.

A shortened version of this post appears at –



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II. James Joyce, the fawning biographer, and the cult of the writer

Having had a few weeks of downtime from Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, and having re-read James Joyce by Edna O’Brien, my attitude towards Lewis’ book has softened. This is despite the fact that I still don’t like it. It doesn’t work as a biography, Lewis’ commitment to providing the story of Burgess’ life and work is minimal and a very distant second to the priority of attacking his subject. As I wrote in my last post, it is messy, unreadable in many places, and by the end the attacks on Burgess are unrelenting and bizarre.

Lewis’ book did, however, make an attempt to humanise its subject and deconstruct the aura of self-mythology that Burgess made a habit of building around himself through romanticisation and fabrication of aspects of his life and work. Cutting through the myth, de-romanticising, noting the fabrications, converting a godlike figure to a fallible human being is all part of writing a critical biography, and this is where Lewis momentarily succeeds. It gives us a clearer view of the subject’s works. The problem was that, given the savageness of his attacks on Burgess, Lewis’ efforts were self-defeating. The figure of Burgess is bought down from his heavenly pedestal to Earth, only the deconstruction is so personal and merciless, that Burgess passes through the zero-point of the earthly human, and is flung down into Hell under the weight of personal attack, unsubstantiated insinuation, and bile. We are left with a Burgess who consists of nothing but negative traits who, having been humanised momentarily, has now been mythologised again at the other end of the spectrum as inhuman. We start with Burgess as God, by his own mythologising, and are left at the end with Burgess as Satan, by Lewis’, and both are as unreachable as the other. But as made as Lewis seems, his book is a refreshing break from the kind of adoring adulation displayed to her subject by Edna O’Brien.

James Joyce is one of the most mythologised writers of the modern age, although, as opposed to Burgess, this can more easily be ascribed to those who write about him than the man himself, although Joyce was by no means a modest man. Confident of his abilities from a young age, he seemed, through years of poverty living in Trieste and Zurich, slowly building the book that was to become Ulysses, to know that one day he would be regarded as one of the greats. O’Brien goes through the motions of describing Joyce’s well-known early life in Dublin, through to his realisation so thoroughly documented in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that he must live a life committed to art. The description of Joyce’s formative years veers between either paint-by-numbers biographical writing, and being sucked into and repeating the mythology of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man itself. What is repeated could easily be a rehashed version of the novel, told through Edna O’Brien’s words.

We have Joyce drinking himself silly in pubs, taking walks along Sandymout, and cavorting with prostitutes in the grubby back streets of Dublin. All acts that were later to find a place in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses, and O’Brien’s descriptions of Joyce’s encounters with prostitutes bear significant resemblance to Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom’s hallucinagenic experience in Bella Cohen’s brothel in Ulysses.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is obviously autobiographical to one degree or another, but the danger here is in letting Joyce’s own works form his biography. Joyce did visit prostitutes in Dublin, and of course drank himself silly in pubs, but O’Brien’s retelling of these stories are told in the same romanticised manner as the books themselves. She is merely playing along with the image of the mythologised artist. She repeatedly describes Joyce as a ‘genius’, something which may not be in doubt, but which always sits uneasily in a work a biography. It shows that there is little critical distance being maintained between writer and subject.

O’Brien’s habit of describing Joyce as a genius may not be so bad in itself, but it gets worse. She quotes Richard Ellman from his biography on Joyce, ‘Joyce had read everything by the time he was twenty’. Obviously not a claim to be taken too literally, Ellman merely means that Joyce was well-read. O’Brien then supplements this with,

‘Who can blame him if in that spate of high-hearted youth and virtuosity he likened himself to Parnell, Hamlet, Dante, Byron, Lucifer, and Jesus Christ? Gravity and despair were for much later on. The Golden Fleece was his. He had snatched it unbeknownst to his literary friends and he himself would be the dragon to guard it against all predators’.

So, from being merely well-read in the eyes of Ellman, to O’Brien he is now (in her words, not Joyce’s) comparable to Jesus Christ. And apparently this is fine. The reference to the ‘Golden Fleece’ is an interesting one, what better way to mythologise the author than through tales of antiquity that are tied with concepts of divine mission and singular greatness.

Joyce leaves Dublin for Zurich in 1904, and after having grappled with a family holding him back, he now must contend with his demanding wife. While not as abusive as Lewis’ descriptions of Burgess’ first wife, Lynne, O’Brien treats Nora Barnacle with just as much animosity, displaying what at times seems like an odd jealousy. When they first leave Ireland, Nora is criticised for being homesick, mopey, inept at learning new languages, and a permanent whinger. All unexceptional emotions for somebody who has left their home country for the first time. Joyce belittles her, and at times treats her rather badly, but this is apparently ‘his way of asking forgiveness’. When she becomes pregnant with their first child, Joyce makes plans to leave her, which are justified on the next page by her irritability and mopiness ‘sapping his natural cheerfulness’. Later it gets more personal,

‘Many have been baffled that a man of Joyce’s daunting intellect chose and remained constant to this peasant woman. It is beyond these letters, it is beyond propriety, in remains inexplicable as the Eleusian mysteries’.

Joyce’s marriage is then ‘beyond propriety’. O’Brien seems to think it offensive to her sensibility that the ‘genius’ of Joyce could have been wasted on a woman that she clearly designates as inferior. This is sucking up to the subject on a different plain, and reading these words you start to long for Roger Lewis to burst onto the page and issue expletive laden insults at Joyce, if only for a bit of variety. It begins to seem like O’Brien is positing herself into the book, as the only person, from a father who didn’t understand him to a stupid wife or a jealous brother, who is capable of understanding his troubled genius.

Of course, O’Brien it not alone in mythologising Joyce. He has a legion of adulators and hangers-on unrivalled compared to the memorialisation of other writers of his time, from the popularity of ‘Bloomsday’ celebrations in Dublin to books positing Lucia Joyce, his troubled daughter who spent most of her life in mental institutions, as an unrecognised genius of modern dance, (see Lucia Joyce: Dance in the Wake by Carol Loeb Schloss). Joyce’s family has also been instrumental in keeping the mythology of Joyce alive, notably through the bizarre actions of his grandson and literary executor Stephen Joyce, who refuses academics the right to quote from Joyce’s work and vigorously pursues those who do through the courts. Even more shockingly, he apparently burned thousands of Joyce’s letters upon receiving them after the death of Lucia. An excellent essay by DT Max in the New Yorker a few years ago  details Stephen Joyce’s bizarre resistance to Joyce scholars.

Given this, it is not surprising that Joyce has been mythologised to the extent that he has. But James Joyce takes this to a different level, not only is it uncritical, it often seems bordering on adulation. It also makes yet another contribution to the tiresome habit of some writers to mythologise their own work or life. For a recent offender, we can look at the most tediously inept self-mythologising example of James Frey, a man apparently unaware that in an age where privacy is on the wane, if you write a purportedly autobiographical book detailing years of harrowing drug addiction, which is in reality based on being arrested once for drug possession and spending one night in the cells, the truth will come out, you will look stupid, and you will be forced to make a cringing appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show to apologise for it.

O’Brien plays along with this attitude, adulating the profession of writing to that of a superior race, for whom we can excuse everything. She writes, ‘Do writers have to be monsters in order to create? I believe they do’. No, of course they don’t. And as mad as his book is, Roger Lewis’ attitude towards Burgess is at least a break, albeit a disturbing one, from the sycophant biographer, and the boring dynamic of the myth of the writer. And in the same way that it is worth putting up with the existence of the films of Alex Cox to maintain the tradition of a director having control of his films away from the hands of studio executives, maybe it is worth suffering a biography that goes too far, like Anthony Burgess, to maintain a wider critical perspective in biography writing.

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