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Shakespeare In Love

A good movie, and an authorship Valentine

by Joe Eldredge

Joe Eldredge is a long-time Oxfordian, architect, critic and poet. He is on the Board of the Oxenford Press.

Now that all of the Oscars have been given out and the celebrities have gone home, someone has to do the cleaning up. With the accolades ringing in our ears we can now set to work and find out just how it’s producers were able to do such a splendid job. For those who have remained faithful to the Stratfordian myth, and for all who look to a brave new (oops!) Oxfordian world, there are some surprises.

It will be a long time before any of us forget the clever credits in the playbill-within-the-play. Then there were those smart “anons” to the good nurse being used in a parallel world; the obligatory ghost scene; and heartbreaking lines from some of the sonnets.

Bowdler and the Lambs to the contrary, the Bard knew where the funnybones were inter-connected. Love has its own brand of joy, underplayed to an audience that has only recently milked the Oval Office for every double-jointed entendre. The “plucking” of Viola (Violet?) is appropriately unsubtle. It speaks quite properly to Her Royal Highness’ well-known understanding of and concern for her Ladies; and what they (probably) were in-waiting for. But a “plantation” in “Virginia”: please! Perhaps the most Shakespearean is “nothing better than a play,” which prurient key word gets 30 lines in Eric Partridge’s compendium Shakespeare’s Bawdy.

My admiration and wonder peak at the splendid way in which the play is interwoven with the the action of the film. While I can not speak for someone who does not know Romeo and Juliet (and who does not?) it is actually possible to understand this version of the play while living through it. The sense of love and love of love created by the film was stronger than ever I can recall being generated by the play itself. This smorgasbord approach has been tried with other Shakespeare, but never so effectively; and may I say, “theatrically,” in the best sense of that soggy word? Had Tinker Belle or ET urged us to clap or cheer at critical points I would have shed some sixty-five years to be first. The only way to de-suspend my disbelief is to bring this remarkable production kicking and screaming back into the real world.

Before putting on my rubber gauntlets I would like to say that the cast was seamless; the spirit of the Bard was with them. Rarely does one see in the cinema, even in films about plays, the kind of centripetal spirit that one likes to think once infected the best of those sixteenth century revels. Had I the time and space and skill, I would write (for the entire cast) the beauty of their art. As for that other gang, those clever producers, writers, and directors, it is only the garters and whips of history that prevent me from falling as readily at their feet.

The original version of Romeo and Juliet goes way back; there have been others along the way. Thanks to wizards like Leonard Bernstein there will be more. But the version worked over between 1581 and 1594 by someone who called himself William Shake-speare (note the hyphen) is the only one that has the facts right about the topography of Verona. This play was written by someone who had been there (circa 1575-1576). Now there was a real person living in Stratford-on-Avon at the time Romeo & Juliet was begun –but he was only eleven years old. It was, of course, the dashing twenty-five year old Earl of Oxford who had just returned from the Continent loaded down with enough of the Renaissance to last him (and us) eight or more lifetimes. Having learned rather more about love (and women) he re-worked a boyhood poem called Romeus and Juliet into the vehicle so appropriate to the skills of both Ms. Paltrow and Judi Dench.

The significance of the above is that Time has been out of joint for nearly four hundred years. In order to make history support the viability of an uneducated genius from up Warwickshire way, it was necessary to stir up a second batch of production and publication dates. Since William Shagsper was not born until 1564, the plays end up being dated (according to Harold Bloom) an average of ten years after dates established by both biographical and topical evidence. This dis-chronology is the mainspring of the Stratfordian theme park.

I have tried to imagine the problems facing Love’s producers in reconciling the conflicting claims of authorship of what is usually considered the most important body of literature in the English-speaking world. Other than a “text consultant” the Credits seem not to have included anyone claiming to be an authority on either side of the issue. Perhaps in their wisdom they decided to kill all the experts. Some say the first version of Romeo and Juliet was a legend; but I’ll bet there were two real lovers back there somewhere who are technically more real than Hollywood’s unhappy pair. I say “technically” because in order to entertain us, the producers have systematically disregarded facts that are not even in dispute. Here are a few examples:

  • The film is set in 1595. At that time the Stratford man was thirty-one years old. There is no record of his presence or doings either in London or Stratford from 1592 until 1596, when he showed up at his son’s funeral.
  • Elizabeth was 62 (nice job Judi) and still going strong. Oxford, her sometime paramour (and more) was 45 and had written some thirty plays already. He was in semi-retirement, married for the third time, and living in Hackney to be near the theater groups for which he was responsible.
  • Marlowe, a central character in the film, had been dead for two years. Fourteen years younger than Shake-speare (i.e. Oxford) he started out working for the Bard and may have finished off at least one of his plays (Edward II). The lines used in the auditions about the topless towers of Illium were from his Dr. Faustus which may have been produced as early as 1592, but was not published until 1604. Shake-speare’s play All’s Well That Ends Well first performed at Court in 1580 had the following lines spoken by the Clown (often Oxford’s “voice”):

    “Was this fair face the cause, quoth she, why the Grecian’s sacked Troy?” More of this anon.

  • Sonnet Seventeen, “If I could write the beauty of your eyes,” was written by Oxford to his son, the Earl of Southampton, along with sixteen other sonnets, to get him to marry. For reasons which we do not have time to go into here, the right choice would have had a profound effect on the lad’s career options. Screenwriters take note: the Tudor heir story will provide ample provender for the digital age and beyond. And, Oh yes, these particular Sonnets had been written by 1590.
  • That tobacco plantation in Virginia comes near the mark, but –pardon the expression– “no cigar,” being off by fifteen to twenty years. Oxford did invest in two voyages looking for the northwest passage, and his son funded the Gosnold expedition that invented Martha’s Vineyard. But Gosnold, who was a kissing cousin of Oxford and Southampton’s college roommate, died in Virginia in 1607 (his second trip) well before there were any real plantations.
  • That splendid urchin, who was to become John Webster, gets five points (out of a possible ten) for accuracy. Webster went on to write some scary stuff, mostly in the 1600s. In 1595 he was all of seventeen years old. The film character is so good, it is possible to overlook the age discrepancy but not the fact that he was actually the son of a wealthy coach maker in West Smithfield.
  • And finally, at the end Her Royal Highness asks our hero for something lighter the next time, something for Twelfth Night. It’s a good thing she did, for that particular play had been on hand since 1580, where it was played at Court for –you guessed it– Twelfth Night.

Perhaps you can begin to see how miraculous it was that there was a film there at all. In the script it was always a “mystery.” But was it? While seeming to grovel before the production team, there is someone else that should get most of the credit. There isn’t a play, film, sit-com, soap, or even opera today that doesn’t owe something to the Shakespeare Canon. Throw away lines like “follow that boat” and “a rose by any other name” used for the theater (The Rose) rather than for social taxonomics, blend Bard-like genius with Saturday-Night (Live) irreverence.

Appropriately the film’s two theaters were actually in use in 1595, one run by Burbage, the other by Henslowe. Of the two impressari, Burbage (as well as his wife, mother, and father before him) was the more disagreeable. He was also acting at that time in the Lord Chamberlain’s company (being run sub-rosa, in the opinion of some, by Edward de Vere –our friend Oxford). Between Tilney (Master of the Revels) and the plague these houses had a rough time of it. This part of the film becomes almost “cinema Vere-itay.”

But back here in the Pit, snatching up orange peels and trampled handbills, we are still trying to figure out what really happened. “All men at court have no poetry” hangs in the air but does not further the plot. The Shake-speare Canon is replete with clues left for a future generation with sufficient intelligence to decipher (and accept) them. While there are several possible reasons for his anonymity, one had to do with nobles (i.e. courtiers) not being caught writing for a living.

The pre-eminent skill of the Stratfordian “scholars” who have locked arms around their “dumb man” is in “in-effing” the ineffable, “un-knowing” the unknowable, and lubricating their shaky hegemony with gratuitous insults for anyone who prefers history to mythology. Did one of these Marlovian Merlins advise the producers to use the court-poetry line to buy time for their heresy? Or does Hollywood really know whodunit and is just teasing us?

Want another? Ms. Paltrow reads and identifies with Sylvia, the object of a poem from Two Gentlemen of Verona. This choice, if the film’s advisors know their Shake-speare, is sheer genius. This same Sylvia, we’ll warrant, is Good Queen Bess herself, and these two gentlemen (Valentine and Proteus) are in love with her. Often treated as a light piece because of the incomprehensible tolerance of these rivals for each other; but with the right playwright it becomes a hologram of Oxford’s love for his Queen. How clever to have two women this time, Gwyneth and Judi, as two embodiments of the love of one man, here represented (long before Godot) by two actors “presenting” the playwright’s two sides. After all, both of them were of “Vere-ona”; get it?

Valentine (heart) and Proteus (look it up, I had to) along with Sylvia could be the film’s closet hedge to the future. There is little question that the next Elizabethan blockbuster will be the full Oxfordian monte. Was there a mole on the set already writing the trailers? Or an apostate Stratfordian desperately flashing comprehension to more intelligent forms of literary life on the outside, counting the hours to O-day?

And finally there is Shaxper-his-signatures —lots of them! If in the (today smokeless) conference room among the styrofoam cups and stale bagels the production team worked over this tidbit, was the decision made to include it as a dig at Oxfordians who see in these six indecipherable happenings proof of congenital illiteracy (Stratford never even owned a book). Good fun we admit, but whatever the intent, the film really does not lie.

A final note to Hollywood: keep up the good work. You have made a start by de-mystifying the Bard with a handsome, young, occasionally articulate, and appropriately amorous young man who could pass for the Earl; certainly not for the standard android. Only you can tell us whether the film was conceived as a tribute to Shake-speare’s real genius: the ability to draw the curtain across his true identity, while chain-sawing the air with screaming clues.

If you run out of ideas, or want to make some real money, punch in at www.shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org.

Joe Eldredge (March 1999)
PO Box 1833
Vineyard Haven MA 02568

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