I recently rewatched Shakespeare in Love, the 1998 historical fiction about Shakespeare’s love affair with the utterly fictional Viola De Lessups and subsequent crafting of Romeo and Juliet. The movie, while not exactly a faithful reconstruction of the historical figure, clearly has a genuine love for Shakespeare, his plays, and the difficulty of writing—no doubt due largely to the influence of co-scriptwriter Tom Stoppard, who was already famous for (among other things) the Shakespearean absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
Because this is often how things go, the rewatching of Shakespeare in Love reminded me of another historical fiction film that came out recently that does not have a genuine love for Shakespeare, his plays, or the difficulty of writing. Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s 2011 film about Edward de Vere, takes the “Oxfordian” view of Shakespeare (i.e. that de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays under a pseudonym) and gives it a “Tudors”-like entertainment value. It was panned by both critics and popular audiences for its campiness and lurid, overacted qualities, and has spawned legions of comments (read: arguments) on the Internet about the ‘debate’ that apparently rages in academic circles over the “Shakespeare Authorship Question.”
I have no interest in discussing the relative merits of “Oxfordian” versus “Stratfordian” or “orthodox” scholarship, nor in laying out the complex issues of exactly who is backing each claim on the Internet and with what authority. What does interest me is the fact that no positive discussion has come out of Anonymous. You can track any of the comment pages, forums, or blogs on the movie, and you’ll see that the majority of the ‘conversation’ is as vitriolic as anything else in these kinds of sections on the Internet.
Generally, I find the idea behind adaptations or “inspired by __” works to be a favorable one. Texts like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead take up the notion that even the most minor characters could have something meaningful to say in different hands. Texts like W;t, by Margaret Edson, deal with great tragedy through the intricacies of the English language (in this case, through a ‘lecture’ on the use of wit in John Donne’s metaphysical poems). Texts like E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel challenge our relationship to history and to national consciousness.
Even when we move outside of “traditional” adaptations and interpretations, we find similar moments. “A Very Potter Musical,” the viral hit from University of Michigan students and alums, combines most of J K Rowling’s books into a remarkably winning parody with catchy musical numbers. The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) is a highly popular show by the Reduced Shakespeare Company that combines all of Shakespeare's plays into an interactive theatrical experience that is adaptable to the venue in which it is performed, and requires constant improvisation. Toby Turner, a Youtube phenomenon known as "Tobuscus," creates what he calls "literal trailers"--a dubbed version of film trailers in which he draws attention to the idiosyncrasies of both the movies and the editing itself by narrating the literal images onscreen (See his recent version of The Hobbit, for instance, which currently has over 4 million views).
Unlike Anonymous, the texts in these examples have fostered the creation of humanistic communities by 1) drawing on existing work to inform and enhance their own, and 2) doing it positively. They are representations of what happens when we approach the humanities without the antagonism of something like Anonymous. While I am by no means arguing for an uncritical treatment of texts or humanistic work, the kinds of creations that emerge from an appreciative approach to literature, drama, film, and authorship—appreciative, that is, of the idea that a given work of art is part of the larger set of humanistic inquiry, and deserves fair treatment—are creations that generate meaningful and productive discussion.