Simon Schama’s latest Newsweek contribution blasts the new film “Anonymous” for perpetuating the notion that William Shakespeare didn’t really write the plays historically attributed to him.
How could Shakespeare have known all about kings and queens and courtiers? By writing for them and playing before them over and over again—nearly a hundred performances before Elizabeth and James, almost 20 times a year in the latter case. His plays were published in quarto from 1598 with his name on the page. The notion that the monarchs would have been gulled into thinking he was the true author, when in fact he wasn’t, beggars belief.
The real problem is not all this idiotic misunderstanding of history and the world of the theater but a fatal lack of imagination on the subject of the imagination. The greatness of Shakespeare is precisely that he did not conform to social type—that he was, in the words of the critic William Hazlitt, “no one and everyone.” He didn’t need to go to Italy because Rome had come to him at school and came again in the travels of his roaming mind. His capacity for imaginative extension was socially limitless too: reaching into the speech of tavern tarts as well as archbishops and kings. It is precisely this quicksilver, protean quality that of course stirs the craving in our flat-footed celeb culture for some more fully fleshed-out Author. That’s what, thank heavens, the shape-shifting Shakespeare denies us. But he gives us everything and everyone else.
The discussion reminds me of a 2007 John Locke Foundation Shaftesbury Society presentation, during which N.C. State English professor R.V. Young decried efforts to politicize Shakespeare’s work.