Monday, October 24, 2011

History in movies

I was enjoying this essay in the NYT by Stephen Marche, a writer for Esquire, debunking those people who seem to love the idea that there is some conspiracy behind who wrote Shakespeare's plays and bemoaning that now a new generation will think it was the Earl of Oxford because there is a movie out about this.
Shakespeare is finally getting the Oliver Stone/“Da Vinci Code” treatment, with a lurid conspiratorial melodrama involving incest in royal bedchambers, a vapidly simplistic version of court intrigue, nifty costumes and historically inaccurate nonsense. First they came for the Kennedy scholars, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Kennedy scholar. Then they came for Opus Dei, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Catholic scholar.
But now they've come for Shakespeare and the conspiracy-minded appropriation of history ticks him off.

I even appreciated his connecting those who want to question Shakespeare's authorship to the birthers and truthers out there who search for there to be some conspiracy to explain Obama's citizenship or Bush's guilt for 9/11. He lost me with the gratuitous hit on those who deny anthropogenic global warming. There are plenty of reputable scientists who accept global warming, but question the extent to which the blame lies with mankind.

However, Mr. Marche's main point is valid: experts should speak out when a movie appropriates history and then twists it around to suit its dramatic needs. A little bit of dramatic license is permissible, but sometimes the whole story is altered and then history teachers witness generation upon generation who believe the movie version. Every year, I have to unteach what my students learned about Jamestown from Disney.

I imagine that English teachers will be doing the same thing now with Shakespeare's authorship. If such discussions teach students a bit about how to analyze historical evidence, the importance of chronology, and an appreciation of Shakespeare's genius then perhaps it will be all to the good.