My Shakespeare's Better Than Yours

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In the Los Angeles Times, a Shakespeare scholar and a screenwriter have come to literary fisticuffs over a new movie about the Bard of Avon. The movie is Anonymous, Roland Emmerich's new film (likely to be somewhat less special-effects heavy than his last). It deals with the popular debate over the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. James Shapiro, Columbia English professor and author of Who Wrote Shakespeare? thinks the debate is rubbish, and that promoting theories about alternative authorship devalue what is most important about Shakespeare. Here's his argument, and screenwriter John Orloff's slightly huffy response:

  • What Made Shakespeare Greatest: His Imagination  Shapiro says the "conspiracy theories" the film endorses rely on a uniquely modern misconception: that "most writing--of the past no less than the present--is confessional or at least experiential, and that you had to live it to describe it." Those who think the Earl of Oxford is a more likely author of Twelfth Night than William Shakespeare are buying into this shallow view of human literary capacity, formed through the recent saturation of the book market with memoirs. Shapiro argues that even "a quarter-century ago all this was unimaginable" and points to a number of former Supreme Court justices' opinions favoring Shakespeare. Our "comfort level with conspiracy" has gone up, he concludes, and no one should delude themselves about the damage of Emmerich's film:
Encouraging audiences to believe that the plays are little more than the recycled story of a disgruntled aristocrat's life and times devalues the very thing that makes Shakespeare so remarkable: his imagination.
  • Shakespeare (Whoever He Was) Will Remain Great  John Orloff contests Shapiro's assertion that the debate is ridiculous, and points out that, though the Earl of Oxford did die before Shakespeare's last plays were published, "in fact, historians do not know the precise dating of any of the plays; they only make best guesses." He objects to Shapiro disparaging the film before having seen it, and offers the following rebuttal to the charge of "do[ing] a disservice to Shakespeare's legacy":
I would ask Shapiro the following: Does he really think so little of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets -- and the genius who wrote them -- that he believes one film could possibly destroy their 400-year-old legacy?

I would respectfully suggest no. That legacy is quite safe, whoever wrote the plays.
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