Let me say from the start I am no fan of the “WS didn’t write the plays” theories. My major objection is to the Main Premise, with which the film starts off in its Prologue (and with which it doesn’t advance much further): the poorly educated son of a middle-class suburban glove-maker could not have had the mental or experiential bounty to bring forth the richness of these plays and poems. This accusation, reeking as it does of Good Old English Classism, reminds me of the thesis that the Egyptians couldn’t have built the pyramids because such backward people were incapable of doing so; it must have been aliens.
I utterly reject this premise because I was, in my former career, an actor. Actors with whom I have worked are among the most well-rounded and culturally well-informed people I know, as are not a few of the directors and playwrights. The upper-class English twits I’ve encountered over the years couldn’t hold a literary candle to some of my actor friends. I’ve sat backstage in dressing rooms with actors wiling away their off-stage moments doing the London Times crossword, or working on a monumental thesis on Finnegans Wake. In my undergraduate school, actors were treated to a superb course on “Theater in the Humanities” where faculty from across the college were brought in to lecture on the history, culture, science, literature, art and religion of the various eras in which plays were written and set — producing an enviably well-rounded liberal arts education that would put the specialists in other of those fields to shame. So don’t get me started on the impossibilist assertion in re WS’s capacity for brilliance. Oxford himself gives the verdict, of course, when he tells Jonson, “People like me don’t write plays.” Aristocrats are often the most boring and ill-informed people.
What about the film as film? Well, the underpinning “theory” and the attendant revisionist history aside, it was diverting and beautifully produced. Someone got the “secretary’s hand” down pat, and the costumes and CGI scenery were impressive. The use of the theatrical Prologue in the manner of Larry O’s Henry V was clever. The snippets of the Bard’s own words are inspiring and rather well spoken (Henry more than Hamlet, but I digress...). Vanessa Redgrave is as quirky and brilliant as ever, and there are other creditable performances.
But it is in how the film failed to make use of the ample possibilities of WS’s architectonic genius that it was most profoundly disappointing. One of the things WS was so brilliant at was the layering of multiple stories in parallel and counterpoint. Here we had two stories, both reflecting the issue of anonymity, running side by side: the authorship of the plays, and the “authorship” of the progeny of ER I. Yet this rich material just sits there, never truly woven together in the delightful way that WS could do, so that the great “A ha!” moment of revelation is more of a “Huh? Oh...” The things that ought to have clicked into place didn’t. There is little or no humor in the film, none of that brilliant interplay of “conceptual rhyme and rhythm” that carries you through scene upon scene. The time-shifting was not well handled (again, providing the audience with too few of the kinds of visual and verbal cues that would enable them immediately to know when was when and what, what — the very thing the Prologue of Henry V knows must take place in the viewers’ minds — and of course this lack is fatal to the story as the author intended it to be understood.
In short, it goes to show that not everyone can write with the genius of a Shakespeare — or perhaps even be aware of the technical aspects of what make Shakespeare’s plays so enduring: it isn’t just the stories, for goodness’ sake, or even the poetry, but the resonances and braided layers of a highly refined narrative art.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG