Monday, July 6, 2015

Fictional Biography at Stratford Festival in 2016

By Richard Joyrich

As part of the coming hoopla surrounding the purported 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario has arranged for the North American premiere of a play version of the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love as part of the upcoming 2016 season.

The play, adapted by Lee Hall, from the 1998 screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, opened in July, 2014 in London’s West End and closed last April. Declan Donneley, who directed the play in London, will be directing the play again for the Stratford Festival.

The 1998 film, of course, presents a completely fictional look at William Shakespeare and some of the people involved in the Elizabethan Theater. It got great critical acclaim and won several Academy Awards. I am unaware of any theater awards the 2014 play version has received.

Of course, the 1998 film was completely historically inaccurate, perhaps deliberately so. One memorable “gaffe” occurs during the opening moments of the film when Joseph Fiennes, as William Shakespeare, is practicing writing his name (none of his signatures contains the second “e” of “Shakespeare” by the way) and the camera pans up to show a souvenir mug from the gift shop at Stratford-Upon-Avon!

It is therefore interesting that there was no “hue and cry” from Shakespeare scholars about all the historic inaccuracy in the film, as there was when the movie Anonymous came out in 2011.

Of course, this is because that movie took as its premise that the plays of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere. The Stratfordian “establishment” couldn’t have that! No way! Oh, but the film is historically inaccurate. Well, that’s all right then.

But, Shakespeare in Love? Well, it shows the “correct” playwright, so we can ignore the historical inaccuracy, say the “scholars”.

As has been reported widely, including in the Oberon blog, Roland Emmerich was not trying to do a documentary when he directed Anonymous. He was doing what Shakespeare himself did: historical drama.  It was not intended to be completely historically accurate.

Yet, in my opinion (and laying aside for now the question of who actually wrote the plays) Anonymous was more historically accurate in its portrayal of Elizabeth London and its theater than was Shakespeare in Love.

I think one of the most telling things is that, when Paul Edmonson and Stanley Wells decided to “put an end” to all this nonsense (as they saw it) of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays in their 2011 book Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy, they (or maybe their publishers) decided to put a picture of Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare from Shakespeare in Love on the cover of the book. Is Shakespeare REALLY “beyond doubt”? Time will tell.

All of this just shows how scholars (and people in general) want SO much to be able to find anything, ANYTHING AT ALL, in the biography of Shakespeare to match with what we find in the plays, that they are forced to “make it up”. We just can’t stand a total blank. We have to have a “flesh and blood author”.

As readers of this blog will of course know, this problem of matching the author’s biography with his works can be made simple by just realizing who the author really was, but that is not allowed in “traditional” circles.

So, we resort to “fictional biography”. This is very easy, since there is ABSOLUTELY NO REAL LITERARY BIOGRAPHY AT ALL for the Stratford man, so that anything said can “very well be true”. We don’t have any evidence that it isn’t true, so we have no problem is saying it.

So, by all means, come to Stratford, Ontario in 2016 and see Shakespeare in Love (the play) and get your “flesh and blood author”. MAYBE!

This isn’t the first time that the Stratford Festival has put on plays with the idea of “learning who Shakespeare was”. In 2007 and (in revival in 2011) there was Shakespeare’s Will, by Vern Thiessen, where Seana McKenna did a great acting job as Anne Hathaway, reminiscing about her life with her husband William Shakespeare (and wondering about that “second best bed” thing). Completely fictional throughout, of course, but satisfying.

(By the way, I wrote a letter to the Festival complaining about how they made no effort to say in the theater program that this play was fictional. How many theatergoers, I wonder, came away thinking that they now knew William Shakespeare better?)

In 2000, there was Elizabeth Rex, by Timothy Findley. Although this play is more about gender relations and identities, it does show a fictional meeting of Queen Elizabeth and William Shakespeare on the evening before the execution of the Earl of Essex after his rebellion as Elizabeth agonizes over whether to sign the final death warrant. Powerful stuff, to be sure, but a way to understand the “real” Shakespeare? Sadly, no.

Perhaps, someday, the Stratford Festival could put on a play that would allow the audience to get an accurate picture of who Shakespeare was.


Oh, wait, they have already been doing that for 63 years. It’s called the Shakespeare Canon. It is in these plays that the “true” Shakespeare can be found.