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First Folio Pictures Inc. (2012)
DVD format. Color. Stereo. 85 minutes.
Films on the Shakespeare Authorship controversy are such a new genre that there might be considerable question as to how they are properly judged on their merits. Getting Sir Derek Jacobi, Vanessa Redgrave and Mark Rylance on board can only be considered a notable accomplishment. High quality in each aspect of cinematography, in Last Will and Testament, is another measure which sets this documentary apart from most of the competition.
While this movie clearly favors Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the author of the poems and plays of William Shakespeare (as do I), it still chooses to give the opposition its say. Professor Stanley Wells, Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, in Stratford, England, provides considerable stolid footage of no particular inherent value to the film or controversy. His entire contribution is simultaneously to provide gravitas and a foil (yes, documentaries have them). His is a stock character (yes, documentaries have them), making rebellion appear highly attractive to viewers who otherwise would be bored 15 minutes in.
Prof. Jonathan Bate, of Oxford University, is openly and wittily insulting throughout. Professor Bate uses his witty denunciations to cover the ridiculous nature of his quote-unquote serious assertions. We learn from the good professor that “Historical facts happen. People denying them: that’s dangerous.” (The relationship of this 2012 assertion to a recent tendency to compare Oxfordians to Holocaust deniers is not clear.) Of course, he is saying as much in a film entirely undertaken in order to ask the question: Just what are the historical facts? Bate asserts an insuperable knowledge as to what are the facts of history within his area of expertise. Challenging his understanding, it turns out, is dangerous.
The seemingly unwarranted warning left me stunned. In my shock, I almost feared for the survival of the planet should Oxford be declared author of the works of Shakespeare. A quick dip into the Biblical Book of Revelations seemed to support his thesis. Surely, denying that William Shaksper of Stratford on Avon was the author of the works of Shakespeare is prophesied as a sign of the final days. Was it Oxfordian theory, perhaps, that drove the Unibomber to isolation and horrifying criminal acts?
When Bate followed up with the assertion that he “could have easily mapped the life of Elvis Presley onto a work by Shakespeare as [he] could map the life of Lord Burghley or the Earl of Oxford”, I could only believe that he was channeling the pop star’s tacky rhinestone agent Colonel Parker. Why the director of the film didn’t call it a wrap and hurriedly seek funding for an Elvis Presley was William Shakespeare film documentary with accompanying Graceland theme park, I cannot imagine.
In a more scholarly vein (and priggish demeanor), Bate also informs the viewer that
There are so many other dramatists that you can produce: the argument that Chapman didn’t write the plays of Chapman or Webster didn’t write the plays of Webster because there’s far less evidence about their lives and their links to the plays than there is with Shakespeare.
This is followed by a very meaningful look, eyebrows raised, head slightly tipped to the side in attitude of implication.
But nobody seems interested in doing that for some reason.
But what does this say about the film Last Will and Testament? It says that, regardless of a certain lack of scholarly integrity, this is a highly entertaining piece of work. It also makes clear the limitations that can only come along with this medium. To attempt to collate a series of finely argued scholarly points would make it a boring and a failed film.
Between the clips of interviews with a dozen or so experts, period recreations of London and Stratford keep the visual aspect of the film engaging. Visuals of the tiny number of period documents relating to the Stratford man drive home points of the Oxfordian argument. One by one, the Oxfordians present not a compelling scholarly case but a compelling film presentation. No one point is irrefutable. The weight of the evidence makes the case.
As might be expected, personal presentation is more compelling than fact. The always personable Derek Jacobi knows audiences supremely well and is the film’s most convincing Oxfordian quite apart from the fact that he offers no facts to speak of. He is so personable that he can get away with saying “Over the years we’ve been duped in a sense.” If any other Oxfordian says this line a clown pops out of a cake.
Or at least he would be most convincing if Vanesa Redgrave weren’t so delightfully mischievous in her presentation of intriguing generalizations. While the two present passing evidence already shown to be weak (or worse) decades ago, it is impossible not to feel encouraged by their spirited support.
Among the tweedy Oxfordian sorts, Diana Price presents her fine analysis of the biographical information on various period playwrights to some effect. There is some question if it isn’t a bit too tame for a popular film audience. The presentation was, however, well-crafted for the genre. The visuals may not have been compelling (especially in the wake of Redgrave) but they were clear and simple. It was she, as well, who was elected to present the compelling fact that “For the record, William Shaksper of Stratford-on-Avon is a man of no recorded education.” Traditional scholarship struggles mightily with this fact while declaring that it is not struggling in the least.
The most effective representative of the Oxfordian tweed, however, is easily Charles Beauclerk. I smell a style consultant somewhere in his preparation, and a damned effective one. Beauclerk is more than a casual clothes horse with his boyish hair-style parted in the middle, though. The most effective Oxfordian talking points are put in his mouth: “…when Shakespeare dies in 1616, absolute silence. No one says our greatest writer’s died. There isn’t a single eulogy, elegy, anything.” While Ben Jonson was considered far and away the greatest writer at the time — and George Chapman might have been considered next behind him — Shakespeare was definitely of sufficient stature that the theater world might have been expected to gather at a public memoriam of some sort and to publish eulogies/elegies to follow. Still, Beauclerk’s point remains valid.
Roger Stritmatter also shows up well on celluloid. His 2001 graduate thesis on the relationship between the works of Shakespeare and the hand-written notes in Edward de Vere’s copy of the Geneva Bible instantly made him a major name in authorship studies. The topic is a bit too abstruse for documentary film, however, while Stritmatter’s confidence is not. He gets to offer a choice bit of evidence: “Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays,” he informs us, “were set in a Court and he is fascinated by the complex inner workings of power.” Elsewhere, his choices are less effective.
A rather more seedy Daniel Wright gets to make perhaps the most powerful observation on the Authorship controversy as a whole. “There is a strong emotional component to keeping Shakespeare the man that he has become because he’s been shaped into an icon. That to some extent makes him almost a religious figure and one can’t touch him without creating schisms and sects, and the authorship inquiry risks that kind of response because it wishes to challenge orthodoxy.” Nothing ever argues with more effect against the Oxfordian theory. Traditional scholars uniformly depend upon and assiduously nourish this unscholarly religious quality in order to direct attention away from the considerable gaps in their theories.
But the weakness of the Oxfordian position soon floods in from behind these well-chosen materials carefully built into a rampart against the religious assaults of traditional Stratfordian scholars. As the film approaches its final third it proves necessary to forward the more peripheral Oxfordian theories. Hints as to Oxfordian authorship are discerned covertly scattered throughout the literature of the time. They “would have been clear to all educated persons of the time.” Many of these hints may well prove to be true after the Oxford authorship itself has been generally acknowledged, but they undermine the effort, in the meantime, to present the Oxfordian case to the public. Secret ciphers (or the like) fairly shout out “lunatic fringe!”
But still these theories are forwarded by much-beloved figures and must be credited in order to prevent the Oxfordian movement from flying apart. In the final third of Last Will and Testament they and their adherents receive their 15 minutes of film glory. Not only is Oxford the true author of Shakespeare but he is Queen Elizabeth’s bastard son and her lover and the two conceive the Earl of Southampton. An attempt is made to be reportorial in order to distance the film from certain of the theories it is about to describe with impressionistic brush strokes:
With only a thin trail of evidence, a small number of Oxfordians have suggested that Elizabeth and Oxford were the parents of Southampton. This hypothesis is known as the Prince Tudor theory. And an even more controversial theory is that Oxford was Elizabeth’s son.
Elsewhere it embraces other theories only slightly less unbelievable. Rather than draw a line at the suggestion that a 12 year old Edward de Vere might have lent a hand on a few passages of his uncle’s classic translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it cannot resist the suggestion that the young Earl may have written the entire work. Shakespeare, we are informed, would surely have ended up in prison for his plays, the Royal Court being intimately aware of every detail of the theater world, if he hadn’t been an Earl. Somehow, for all these plays deserve prison, by this theory, it is also widely believed among Oxfordians that they were simultaneously being paid for under-the-table by the Queen.
While in the world of dusty tomes one admires and appreciates the effort and the information that has often been gleaned as part of the research into these peripheral theories, the public can hardly be expected to credit such distinctions. Even Jacobi gingerly suggesting that Prince Tudor theories are “a leap too far” for his taste does not begin to staunch the hemorrhaging.
Another reason for this scholarly misjudgment lies in the nature of film. It should not be missed that none of this reduces the quality of the documentary. It needs to be well produced, entertaining and attract the largest possible audience, in order to be successful. Prince Tudor theory makes for compelling narrative. That, in the end, perhaps only diehard Oxfordians and UFO enthusiasts are left to credit the authorship of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is far less important than the fact that some meaningful number of viewers — of whatever stripe — have been satisfied on some level, have been entertained.
That said, Last Will and Testament does end on a strong note. Some excellent observations are made on Queen Elizabeth’s death and Shakespeare’s poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle”. Again, the day is saved by an observation put in the mouth of Beaucerk.
It’s interesting that the only volumes of Shakespeare to bear dedications – Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, the Sonnets and also the First Folio volume were dedicated to men who were all either married to the Earl of Oxford’s daughters or had been engaged to them at one time.
“Academia feels that it has the authority,” the viewer is informed, by the Oxfordian William Leahy, “to say what is legitimate to say about Shakespeare and what is not legitimate…. Millions of people are interested in the Shakespeare Authorship question. Academia isn’t. So what happens? Those millions of people bypass academia altogether.” Among the means of persisting outside of academia is the occasional film documentary on the subject. This is easily the best such film on the subject to date.
More from Virtual Grub Street on Shake-speare and Edward de Vere:
- Shake-speare and the Influence of Ronsard
- Shake-speare's Greek
- Check out the English Renaissance Article Index for many more articles and reviews about this fascinating time and about the Shakespeare Authorship Question.