It used to seem vulgar that something like Shakespeare in Love (1998) could win the Best Picture Oscar. It didn’t have anything to do with Shakespeare, really, and was essentially just another romantic comedy, with a bit of polish from the classics. But the literary travesties of that film are nothing compared to those perpetrated by the most famous Shakespearean film actor of our time in his latest movie; Kenneth Branagh’s All is True is all sentimental ugliness and no Shakespeare.
The story is a feminist revenge-fantasy with some queer theory thrown in and, of course, the mythology of liberal emancipation. No, the movie doesn’t say Shakespeare’s plays and poems were written by a woman, or that some aristocrat or the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote them. Here the fantasy is that Shakespeare’s daughter, Judith—jealous of her father’s love for her twin brother, Hamnet—threatens to reveal to their father that poems he believed to have been written by his son were in fact her work. The young Hamnet then kills himself rather than have the truth revealed, terrified of disappointing his brilliant father.
Most of the movie is jealous Judith—who wanted an education instead of kitchen work—and the bitter wife, Anne, played by Judi Dench, complaining about Shakespeare. He was never at home, he didn’t care about their welfare, he thinks women are only good for making children, he only wanted glory for himself.
At one point, he erupts into anger because Judith suggests he may be a homosexual. The movie strongly suggests the same thing—that he had a desperate love for an aristocrat, the Earl of Southhampton (played by Ian McKellan), who didn’t reciprocate his feelings, unless perhaps he did (apparently the love that dares not speak its name dares recite Sonnet 29). Anne abuses him for ruining her—their—reputation by allowing his sonnets to be published and subjecting her to the gossips of Stratford-upon-Avon.
His elder daughter, Susanna, who inherited most of his estate after Shakespeare’s death, is married to a terrible Puritan who’s awfully moralistic, as are all the characters who talk about God. Except Anne, whose theological genius is: “If you don’t forgive yourself, how do you expect God to forgive you?” What therapist in our age would disagree!
One expects that academics and intellectuals will concoct endless stupid theories about Shakespeare. They’re compelled, if they study English, to deal with him, but they are incapable of understanding him and become bitter and corrupt in their thinking. It is disappointing, however, that Kenneth Branagh would fall for this madness; his career is nothing without the greatness of Shakespeare. But it’s academic pieties first—feminism, queer theory, etc.—and Shakespeare second.
Unlike Shakespeare in Love, All is True is not intended to a blockbuster. It’s a prestige project for Branagh, with some hope for awards, perhaps. But it has all the ugliness of a mad suicide. If this is what elites can do with Shakespeare, it’s time to trust the people with his memory, since they at least do not share these vengeful fantasies. Most of us can admire Shakespeare, however much or little we understand of him, and so do not feel the need to spit on his memory.
Maybe it’s time to pry Shakespeare from the deadly embrace of latter-day liberalism. In the age of intersectionality, we’re way past complaining about dead, white males; only an in-depth understanding of Shakespeare’s thinking can save him from ideological mutilations. For at least two generations we’ve had stellar scholarship on Shakespeare from conservative thinkers—books written by thoughtful authors who admired Shakespeare and sought to learn from him.
If we can bear to let gossip about Shakespeare’s home-life go, we can instead learn from him about our own troubles with love, honor, and politics. Any number of things that are not obvious in our world were obvious in his—what the tyrannic soul is, what noble ambition is, what men and women look for in erotic love, as well as what our political nature is and why it is so full of troubles. If we can learn about ourselves, we are far less likely to say insane things about him.
So let’s spend time on great interpretations instead of the bad stuff: Allan Bloom’s fine book Shakespeare’s Politics, with Harry Jaffa, as well as Giants and Dwarfs and Love and Friendship; John Alvis’ Shakespeare’s Understanding of Honor, and the book he edited with Thomas G. West, Shakespeare as Political Thinker; Paul Cantor’s recent Shakespeare’s Roman Trilogy and his Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In fact, you can watch Cantor’s lectures online—they are full of the poet’s wit, and free from the silly prejudices of contemporary liberalism.
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