Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

« Previous Post | Opinion L.A. Home | Next Post »

Shakespeare whodunit

November 1, 2011 |  5:33 pm

If I may borrow from the Bard, it's "much ado about nothing."

The movie "Anonymous" has stirred the simmering pot of those who find reasons, and adequate spare time, to question whether William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the most remarkable works in the English language, or whether Shakespeare was a man used as a "front" by others who didn't want their names attached to the works.

The renowned entertainment lawyer Bert Fields, who's written lawyerly books about English history, talked at length to me about the matter, in which he pronounces himself agnostic.

Most of the readers who emailed me were not. They were impatient with the questions about something that wasn't even an issue for more than 200 years after Shakespeare's death, until an American writer named Delia Bacon, who thought of Shakespeare's works not as the Tudor box-office popular theater that they were but as exalted, hieratic writ, began looking for hidden codes and ciphers to reveal the "real" author -- to her mind, Francis Bacon (no relation). From then on, myriad people have argued on behalf of many candidates for authorship, and most recently, the Earl of Oxford has taken the lead.

Over the weekend, a group of students even protested outside the ArcLight in Pasadena, defending Shakespeare's honor -- and authorship.

We live in age in which people see conspiracies everywhere, even when there are none. Just because there have been conspiracies and cover-ups does not mean everything is a conspiracy. Carl Sagan said we are pattern-seeking creatures. There is no man in the moon, except in our heads. He also said absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Some readers were offended by the snobbery that concluded a man from Stratford couldn't have had the imagination or the genius to write those plays. (In the fashion that almost everyone who claims to be reincarnated was originally Cleopatra or Napoleon, I don't hear people claiming that the works of lesser poets or playwrights than Shakespeare were penned secretly by other hands.)

Our era has swung so far the other way in its contempt for expertise as to devalue it completely, which is at least as perilous as the opposite extreme. As one reader emailed me sardonically, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the experts," paraphrasing Shakespeare's line about lawyers. Thanks in part to the bilious stew of political venom, we've strayed way, way off course from Daniel Patrick Moynihan's reasonable notion that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.

The New Yorker recently ran a cartoon of "Doc Palin," the former Alaska governor. Wearing a white coat and flexing a saw, she declares, "I'm not one of those phony-baloney 'insiders' who went to 'medical school.' I just go by my God-given sense of right and wrong!"

We heard more in this vein from the film's director, Roland Emmerich, who declared, "There's just this arrogance of the literary establishment."

Right on! Why stop there? What about the arrogance of the plumbers' establishment, or the chefs' or auto mechanics' or accountants' or carpenters'? The neurosurgeons' establishment? The astrophysicists' establishment? Who does that Stephen Hawking think he is, anyway? What about the screenwriters' establishment, and the larger writers' establishment? Just because you can type doesn't mean you can write. And, Mr. Emmerich, what about the arrogance of the directors' establishment that thinks it can make films that are better than anything from a 22-year-old who can run Final Cut Pro editing software?

I've read that the makers of "Anonymous" are distributing "educational materials" to schools because, as Emmerich was quoted as saying, we shouldn’t teach children "a lie." This is a Hollywood version of creationism: creating a "controversy"  and then demanding that we "teach the controversy."

As for conspiracy thinking, it has the disadvantage of being so cumbersome and layered as to defy credibility. The standard rejoinder to every fact, every piece of evidence that shows the conspiracy theory to be wrong, is that the evidence was fabricated or forged, that the "real evidence" was destroyed, and even that the person putting forth the information is in on the conspiracy. Perhaps the wackiest version of this I ever heard was after Popular Mechanics did all the metallurgy and engineering and physics -- all the scientific heavy lifting -- to show once and for all that the World Trade Center towers collapsed because, just as the world saw, two commercial planes loaded with jet fuel flew into them. The conspiracy theorists' rejoinder? Popular Mechanics was part of the conspiracy.

Conspiracy thinking about government paradoxically holds that the government is simultaneously incompetent and yet so deviously capable as to pull off some hugely complex event in secret, fabricate or destroy evidence, and persuade or force multiple hundreds of people to keep massive secrets for years. It was supposedly Ben Franklin, or maybe someone hiding behind his name and pen, who wrote, "Three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead."

The sheer volume of these ginned-up conspiracies also discredits and dilutes the legitimate pursuit of real conspiracies by "crying wolf" with the silly and bogus ones.

It's a shame that there are no royalties at stake for Shakespeare's plays; if there were money in this, it would be settled in court in no time.

The best device for everyone's logical tool belt is an old but a reliable one: Occam's Razor. Here's a better definition, but extremely simply put, it says the simplest theory about something is preferable to more complex theories.

In other words, to use a phrase attributed to Sigmund Freud but not conclusively proved to be (Freud believed Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare): "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."


Patt Morrison Asks: New master Ed Ruscha

Patt Morrison Asks: George Regas, keeping faith

Patt Morrison Asks: The pill's author Carl Djerassi

Patt Morrison Asks: Benefit buster Lanny Ebenstein

Patt Morrison Asks: The brain, Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa

 -- Patt Morrison

Photo: Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy English literature students gather Friday in front of ArcLight Cinemas in Pasadena to protest the release of "Anonymous," a movie that attempts to discredit Shakespeare. Credit: Tim Berger / Pasadena Sun

Comments ()