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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.


tfhr said...

I took a film study course that was attended by a number of students that were truly amazed how Hollywood readily "adapts" novels to fit the screen and willingly sacrifices authenticity, accuracy and integrity to do so. Being a history major, I was very familiar with the practice but appalled by the apparent revelation to so many others that late in their lives.

Regardless of why it is done, we must all realize that adaptations are seldom accurate whether the work in question is fiction, non-fiction, or some form of fiction drawing on non-fiction characters or events. I think composite characters inserted in historical situations give directors and screen writers the most dangerous "license" to alter the context of actual events by insinuating current standards, interpretations, language, etc, into a time or event when they did not exist thereby advancing revisionist agendas with greater subtlety. Then there are the obvious ham handed "docu-dramas" and porcine Michael Moooore that succeed only in the complete absence of critical thought.

I always thought Forest Gump took a good poke at Hollywood's penchant for revising history. Maybe that should be the standard given that it actually won best picture but Hollywood takes itself too seriously most of the time. Compsite or fictional characters worked well in Saving Private Ryan but the message didn't fare well with the Academy when up against Shakespeare in Love (there's that Shakespeare thing again)!

As long as there are screen writers and directors in Hollywood, there will be a glaring need for history education everywhere else. Good luck, Betsy!

PatD said...

The movie obscures some real questions about the authorship.

"Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem (Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies)" by Diana Price passed peer review. It dissects Shakespeare's biography and finds that, compared to his lesser known contemporaries, Shakespeare left no contemporaneous personal evidence to support the claim that he wrote for a living. There is no record of him being paid for something he wrote. There is no manuscript in his hand. No one ever wrote to him or received letters from him. The list goes on, yet Shakespeare never appears. He is well documented by the standards of the era. His career as a money-lender, theatrical entrepreneur, property-owner and family man is easily documented. Price conjectures, based on strong contemporaneous evidence, that Shakespeare was a play-broker who had access to a corpus created by a person of rank.

"The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels" by Richard Paul Roe examines Shakespeare's Italian plays and finds convincing evidence that Shakespeare was intimate with Italian geography and locales. For example, Roe uses Romeo and Juliet as a travel guide, and identifies the sycamore grove and St. Peter's Church, that Shakespeare alone mentions in his retelling of the Romeo and Juliet legend. Both locations still exist in Verona, although the Church is no longer a church.

"Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from the city's side,"

Roe's genius was to go to Verona and see if there was a sycamore grove outside the western wall of Verona, and to see if there was a St. Peter's Church within easy reach of Juliet's family home. Shakespeare was right in these two instance and scores more.

Nobody can put William Shakespeare of Stratford in Italy, yet the author of the Italian plays reveals an intimate knowledge of Italy. It is not that he throws around book-knowledge, as Ben Jonson did, but rather, that he slips in references that only make sense if had been there.

Price can be found at Amazon. Roe is due to be published shortly and can be pre-ordered at Amazon.

Disclosure: I am married to Diana Price and we knew the late Richard Roe.