It also helps that I'm a philosopher rather than a literary critic. Because this is a movie that, at its heart, is about philosophy. Or rather, that is philosophy. For those who haven't seen the previews, the movie is built on the premise that William Shakespeare did not write any of the plays attributed to him. He was, after all, educated only at the grammar level (how precisely did he know about Pyramus and Thisbe?), and at least according to the movie functionally illiterate. The movie is based on one of the great "conspiracy theories" of Shakespearean studies, that Shakespeare's plays were in fact written by the earl of Oxford, who as a nobleman with Puritan connections could not publish them under his own name. Instead, he bribes Ben Jonson to publish the plays, and Jonson passes them off to the actor Shakespeare.
One of the movie's main themes is the worth of art. The play takes place at a time when literature, and play-writing in particular, were seen as at best low-class, at worst a sin. Oxford's foster-father and father-in-law, along with his wife by extension, are of the latter persuasion - they are Puritans, and they view it as idolatry. They're not all wrong, because as Oxford proves he can be quite obsessive about it. He kills a man who he thinks has been looking through his papers, and he marries his foster-father's daughter in order to cover it up - ruling out the possibility of marrying the queen (Elizabeth I), who he loves. He also neglects his estates to the point of dying in poverty, and he is so taken with the power of words that he sets up a chain of events leading to his illegitimate son by Elizabeth being charged with treason. (The son escapes, but just barely, and it means the man will never be able to take the crown.)
But in the end, the movie recognizes that it is Oxford's genius that will define the age and that words - allowed to run their course - truly can alter history. More than that, for an artist to not write because it is unacceptable is the most untrue thing he or she can do. I was reminded of a line in one of my own stories:
What do you think science is, at its root, but the pursuit of the spark that birthed the cosmos? We would be heretics, each and every one, were there room for heresy in truth.
The movie is an ego-shoot for humanities types, the equivalent of science geeks seeing Scotty save the Enterprise week after week. But it's less about the political factors at play than it is about Oxford's deveotion to his art, and the movie's final message that that is a life well-lived was ultimately affirming of the human spirit, I found. The image of Oxford with his fingers perpetually stained with ink called to mind that phrase, blood on his hands, and given the other characters that truly did have blood on their hands, it was a nice comparison.
Another thing I found quite interesting was the way the movie used the plays as part of its own narrative. Midsummer Night's Dream is like a dream itself from Elizabeth's past and Oxford's childhood when he could properly claim credit for his work. Richard III has a prominent part in the treason mentioned above, as does Venus and Adonis (a collection of "Shakespeare's" poems, this time framed as a series of love poems from Oxford to Elizabeth. And Shakespeare himself is nothing but the spitting image of Falstaff. There are even moments of self-awareness of the play being the thing, like when oxford's wife says that his son is about to be beheaded at his own mother's orders, and that Oxford is himself Elizabeth's bastard as well, though neither of them knew it - a situation worthy of one of those cursed tales!
As for the movie itself, one of its great moments of genius is at the beginning where it is framed as part of a talk given and presented not as literal truth, but as "another story." That allowed me to approach it almost as a play, with its themes and pathos and drama even where it did not square with history. So with that in mind, I will end with the Bard's own words:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
Except to say: give it a shot, and judge it for yourself. For me, it was well worth the time and ticket's price.
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