Shakespeare or the Earl of Oxford? “It’s a shame sometimes that dead men can’t sue.”

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Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare ... or is it the Earl of Oxford?

Anyone who has attempted a novel, play, or screenplay based on real people, or a real event, has faced the difficult question: How much do you make up?  Do you make two people fall in love because it tidies up the script nicely – even though there’s no historical evidence for it?  Do you vilify a nice-man composer like Antonio Salieri because of a few rumors that started decades after his death – even for a top-notch script like Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, which was further cemented in the public mind by a couple remarkable screen performances?  At what point are you simply defaming the dead?

Screenwriter John Orloff feels completely comfortable making stuff up for Anonymous, a new movie about the eternal Shakespeare authorship question.

Spoiler alert: Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford did it, and William Shakespeare was merely the front man in this version, which the New York Times called the “cold-blooded murder of the truth.” David Riggs told me the only reason the gullible seek out alternative authorship for the plays and poems is that people are generally unaware of what top-notch grammar schools the Elizabethans had – he wrote about it in The World of Christopher Marlowe.

Here’s another story that should discredit the theory: I actually knew of someone who had gone through the Earl of Oxford’s letters.  The man couldn’t write to save his life.

Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere ... or is it Shakespeare?

Orloff is not a deep thinker, and the Wall Street Journal should be ashamed of printing platitudinous, clichéd passages like this:  “But I also wanted to tell a rocking good story and to express a theme that matters to me a great deal: that the pen is mightier than the sword.”

It gets worse.

The truth is, there is no truth in film—in any film. Even the films that we think are true, about real people in real places, actually aren’t.

This might seem obvious, but the emotions of a movie often overwhelm our intellect, blurring the line between fact and drama. We walk away feeling as if we have witnessed history.

But does this make a historical drama inferior to a history book or a documentary based on the same subject matter? Not necessarily.

Whatever a film might lack in literal truth, it can be far better at expressing the emotional truth of an event. [You don't say! – ED]  In a movie, an audience can become connected to characters in a way that they often can’t in a straight historical account.

And this: “And, as I said, the film is not really about the Essex Rebellion. It is about showing that ideas are stronger than brute force. So how to make that point without wasting 20 minutes of the audience’s time?”  If the audience isn’t prepared to waste time, they shouldn’t be in the movie theater in the first place.

Then Orloff compares his historical liberties with those of Shakespeare himself.

This is a case where the comment section probes the issues more closely than the author of the article appears to have:

Harumph.

From Bill Wood:  “Nothing justifies outright lying to an audience. It’s one thing to present the argument that Shakespeare didn’t right [sic] his own work. It’s an idea that is baloney … It might make good drama. But it is also a lie. And most people will never bother to read the works which demonstrate what bunk it is.”

From David Brown: “One possible answer to Orloff’s question of how to make a point without wasting the audience’s time is to write your own story. If the history doesn’t support the story you want to tell, pick a different history that does fit – or just write your story without the crutch of misrepresenting great names and events.

From John Tufts: “Yes, stories exist to tell deeper truths, but Mr. Orloff is kidding himself if he thinks his movie is in the pursuit of truth. Neither movies nor theater, nor music, nor poetry, nor any art form has ever been very good at presenting what is real, but the history of all art has existed and been very successful at showing us what is true. That’s what makes Richard III great. Ultimately, it’s not about the real Richard III, it’s about the power of language, and the seduction of evil. Henry V isn’t about the real Henry Monmouth, it’s about the cost of war, and the challenges of leadership. These plays bend what was real to arrive at an essential truth. But for Mr. Orloff to say that he’s doing the same is nonsense. He’s bending what was real to arrive not an essential truth about the human experience, but instead to arrive right back where he started – a claim about what was real. He bends history to write not a great nor true screenplay, but a bad, and very unreal melodrama.”

Donald Forbes: “To aver that there is ‘no truth’ makes impossible any attempt to understand anything. There are no such things as facts, merely assertions of points of view. Relativism as usual morphs into nihilism and destructiveness. …”

As Thomas Conway, Jr., wrote, ” it’s a shame sometimes that dead men can’t sue.”


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14 Responses to “Shakespeare or the Earl of Oxford? “It’s a shame sometimes that dead men can’t sue.””

  1. Linda Theil Says:

    Oxford couldn’t write? You read his letters? Did you read his heartbreaking letter to Robert Cecil on the death of Elizabeth I? Oxford says: “In this common shipwreck, mine is above all the rest, who least regarded, though often comforted, of all her followers, she hath left to try my fortune among the alterations of time, fortune and chance, either without sail whereby to take the advantage of any prosperous gale, or without anchor to ride till the storm be over past.”

    Where are Shaksper’s letters to his friends and family? As for lying about history, you have to speculate that the man from Stratford even knew how to write! Every program note I’ve read on the Shakespeare productions at the University of Michigan states that the Stratford man attended grammar school in Stratford — even though there is absolutely no confirmation of any kind that this statement is true, this speculation is repeated as fact. Which is worse — creating a story in a clearly fictional format, or repeating lies in program notes?

  2. The Death of the Truth in Movies | Drexel Publishing Group Says:

    [...] surfing the internet looking for information about the new movie Anonymous, I happened across this article by Cynthia Haven in her blog “The Book Haven.” I was surprised to learn from her that the [...]

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    This one got lost in spam file – thanks for your patience!

  4. ruthenia Says:

    There is a smoking gun that proves Edward Vere, Earl of Oxford wrote ‘The Merchant of Venice’.

    On July 22, 1598 , the printer, James Roberts, entered The Merchant of Venice in the Stationers’ Register as follows:

    Iames Robertes
    Entred for his copie under the handes of bothe the wardens, a booke of the
    Marchaunt of Venyce or otherwise called the Iewe of Venyce./ Provided that
    yt bee not printed by the said Iames Robertes; or anye other whatsoever
    without lycence first had from the Right honorable the lord Chamberlen.

    Orthodox scholarship can offer no satisfactory explanation for the final clause, which states that the play could not be printed by Roberts, the legal holder of the copyright, nor by any other stationer, without the permission of the Lord Chamberlain. Shakepeare scholars have seen the uniqueness of the entry. In ‘The Elizabethan Stage’, E.K. Chambers noted: “This entry is conditional in form, but it differs from the normal conditional entries in that the requirement specified is not an indefinite ‘aucthoritie’ but a ‘lycence’ from
    a PARTICULAR individual, ‘the Right honorable the lord chamberlen’”

    The wording of Paragraph 5 of the Ordinance of 1588 means only that a work could not be published without the permission of the author. Thus it is upon those who do not want to accept that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, wrote The Merchant of Venice that the burden lies to prove. Edward Vere was sometimes referred to by his title of ‘Lord Great Chamberlain’. Edward Vere was the author from whom the ‘lycence’ was required.

  5. John Orloff Says:

    Dear Ms. Haven

    hope you don’t mind if I respond– I rarely do with all the hatred my film seemed to engender, but I happen to love this topic, and found your post rather odd… so here goes.

    First as to the “depth” of my thinking. Well, I WAS only given 500 words or so in the WSJ! Can’t get too deep in that space– though, in my thinking’s defense, I’d like to add that the NY Times thought my first film, “A Mighty Heart” was “a surprising, insistently political work of commercial art”. And “Band of Brothers”, which I wrote part of, has some fans– and again, the NY Times singled me alone of the writers for my work on “Band”.

    So can we take away the ad homonym attacks? Thanks

    On to the issue at hand. You quote me at length– but I don’t understand your counter points. You don’t seem to have any actually. Yes, I have no problem making stuff up. And trust me, neither did anybody else when I made stuff up for “A Mighty Heart” or “Band of Brothers”, or as you noted, when Schafer did with Amadeus. Or how about Stoppard on Shak. in Love?

    You just happen to disagree with the uber-idea of this movie. That’s what makes it different, isn’t it? Its sort of like Bush v. Gore…. IN THIS SINGLE CASE making stuff up is morally offensive to literature.

    You are welcome to base your decision on who wrote the plays based– apparently– on your friend’s opinion.

    I, however, did my own research and came to the same conclusion as Sigmund Freud, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Sir Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance (Artistic Director of the Globe Theater in London for a decade)– as well as some folks who know a thing or two about evidence: US Supreme Court Justices Blackmun, Stevens, Powell, Alito, O’Connor… Namely there is reasonable doubt, and it is worthy of examination and discussion.

    You may disagree. Totally fine.

    So I don’t count that as making stuff up. There is evidence Oxford and Elizabeth were lovers. So that’s not made up. Did they have a child? I doubt it. But not impossible. But, OK, made up. Was he the son of Elizabeth? Of course not– and in the film it’s unclear whether that is brought up as truth or as a hateful lie by a spiteful character. Was Marlowe already dead when much of the film takes place? Yup. Was Margaret in England when Henry VI takes place? Nope. Is she in Shakespeare’s play? Yup. Is Falstaff a real person? Yet he’s in a history play, right? And do you think Richard III is more historically accurate then my film?

    I took the exact same skills and liberties with “truth” on those other projects.

  6. John Orloff Says:

    Dear Ms. Haven

    hope you don’t mind if I respond– I rarely do with all the hatred my film seemed to engender, but I happen to love this topic, and found your post rather odd… so here goes.

    First as to the “depth” of my thinking. Well, I WAS only given 500 words or so in the WSJ! Can’t get too deep in that space– though, in my thinking’s defense, I’d like to add that the NY Times thought my first film, “A Mighty Heart” was “a surprising, insistently political work of commercial art”. And “Band of Brothers”, which I wrote part of, has some fans– and again, the NY Times singled me alone of the writers for my work on “Band”.

    So can we take away the ad homonym attacks? Thanks

    On to the issue at hand. You quote me at length– but I don’t understand your counter points. You don’t seem to have any actually. Yes, I have no problem making stuff up. And trust me, neither did anybody else when I made stuff up for “A Mighty Heart” or “Band of Brothers”, or as you noted, when Schafer did with Amadeus. Or how about Stoppard on Shak. in Love?

    You just happen to disagree with the uber-idea of this movie. That’s what makes it different, isn’t it? Its sort of like Bush v. Gore…. IN THIS SINGLE CASE making stuff up is morally offensive to literature.

    You are welcome to base your decision on who wrote the plays based– apparently– on your friend’s opinion.

    I, however, did my own research and came to the same conclusion as Sigmund Freud, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Sir Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance (Artistic Director of the Globe Theater in London for a decade)– as well as some folks who know a thing or two about evidence: US Supreme Court Justices Blackmun, Stevens, Powell, Alito, O’Connor… Namely there is reasonable doubt, and it is worthy of examination and discussion.

    You may disagree. Totally fine.

    So I don’t count that as making stuff up. There is evidence Oxford and Elizabeth were lovers. So that’s not made up. Did they have a child? I doubt it. But not impossible. But, OK, made up. Was he the son of Elizabeth? Of course not– and in the film it’s unclear whether that is brought up as truth or as a hateful lie by a spiteful character. Was Marlowe already dead when much of the film takes place? Yup. Was Margaret in England when Henry VI takes place? Nope. Is she in Shakespeare’s play? Yup. Is Falstaff a real person? Yet he’s in a history play, right? And how accurate is Richard III?

    Shakespeare used history for dramatic ends. I was not comparing myself to him, I was merely mentioning the entire genre of historical drama is exactly that– historical DRAMA. As it has ever been.

    I would be fascinated what you disagree with in any of this.

    Apart from who wrote the plays of course…

    Best

    JO

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    You have me at a disadvantage. I’m cold and tired in Paris, writing from the BNF. Point taken about the WSJ, which didn’t make you sound very sharp – well, you oughta sue…

    Obviously, we all feel like we “own” Shakespeare – hence the brickbats you speak of. And yes, I have a problem with Shakespeare in Love. I have a problem with Richard III, too, which appears to be (last I checked the most recent scholarship on the subject) a serious defamation of a not-so-bad king, and Amadeus, a defamation of a not-so-bad composer. Does this stop me from enjoying and appreciating either work? No. So…

    So where is the line? Is it okay to say anything of the dead for the sake of entertainment, or even art? Where do you draw the line? I’m not so sure where I’d draw it myself. Obviously, historical “truth” in toto would sink the interest in just about any movie or play, which are not meant to be documentaries. Unlike the WSJ, I’ll give you as many words as you want (within reason).

    Apologies for the ad hominem attacks – you’re right on that score, in any case. The blogosphere lends itself to snark, as you’ve undoubtedly already found out.

  8. trabalhe para si com o part-time-internet Says:

    trabalhe para si com o part-time-internet…

    [...]Shakespeare or the Earl of Oxford? “It’s a shame sometimes that dead men can’t sue.” | The Book Haven[...]…

  9. Karen Escalona Says:

    Following advice from my daughter, I viewed “Anonymous” earlier today. I am the daughter of a Shakespeare “scholar”, therefore I feel compelled to respond as my father would:

    History, sayeth Churchill, is written by the victors,
    Therefore the plays the thing
    to those who win.

    The movie, Anonymous, allows a few ideas, whether true or non, to ferment.
    And in the process of distillation, a few delicious drops trickle to a copper pot.
    The naysayers will cry that Will was a man of the People –
    –That dissidence and criticism could only sprout from the mind of a Common man.

    Yet, what if? What if the Earl of Oxford, blood of blue
    deserves his due?
    Is it so wrong to place a Noble within a landscape of moral hue?

    If there is a Will, tried and true,then there’s hope for humble Me and you.
    For that reason, and perhaps a few more,
    Orloff’s back must bear a score.

  10. RRR Says:

    I have only one question for the author, and it’s something mentioned in the movie.

    Can you reference me to any piece of material written by Shakespeare own hand, or any signature of his other than the know six that in no way match?
    For a man who wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets and lived to be 52, well after his writing career had ended, why is it that there is not a single piece of work or writing of any kind (Other than the above mentioned mismatched “signatures”) existed in his hand?

  11. Amanda Caballero Says:

    As an English teacher to persons from first grade through community college (25 years), my observations of my students and their writing skills has convinced me that Edward de Vere was indeed the true author.

    I acquiesce that this is observation. But it is also common sense.

    I applaud John Orloff for his vision, his courage, his brilliance, his evident ability to state the obvious. “Anonymous” has at least one exceedingly strong fan and supporter!

  12. michael mendelson Says:

    Whoever wrote the ‘STUFF”would probably agree the movie is great theater and art-art for art’s sake or may be paul’s sake! Willy’s good too.

  13. Paul Gavin Says:

    SAmerican journalist Mark Anderson, author of Shakespeare By Another Name, made this case:
    “You look at the Italian cities and locations that Shakespeare refers to.
    “They’re basically the ports of call on de Vere’s Italian itinerary in 1575 and ’76.
    “If you take a map of Italy and grab ten push pins and put them in ten cities – Venice, Padua, Milan, Genoa, Palermo, Florence, Siena, Naples, Verona and Messina – that’s essentially Shakespeare’s Italy.
    “That to me is quite a remarkable happenstance.”
    Dr Egan added his own thoughts to this: “There are details that obviously reflect first hand information, for example knowledge of the paintings of Giulio Romano, who is generally known as a sculptor but who was known as a painter in his day and Shakespeare shows knowledge of that.
    “There is also information about the canal system in Northern Italy, no longer extant, but which would have required first hand knowledge to gain that information.”

  14. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Apologies for the late posting, Paul. You got lost in a spam folder – I get tons of it. And thanks for commenting!

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