Anonymous may be garnering praise for its meticulous CGI recreation of Elizabethan London, but few critics can bring themselves to laud it as a film. As Roger Stritmatter (recipient of the first PhD in Shakespeare/Oxford studies) noted on his blog, many film critics – the bulk of whom are surely not Shakespearean scholars themselves – apparently feel compelled to decry the film for its Oxfordian thesis, rather than limiting themselves to critiquing it as a film. Even those who do praise Anonymous as a movie nonetheless must affirm for their readers that they believe it to be hokum. Roger Ebert, for example, wrote, “this [is a] marvelous historical film, which I believe to be profoundly mistaken.”
Yes, the film does take substantial liberties with certain historical events, compressing and reordering them for the sake of entertaining drama. For instance, the murder of Christopher Marlowe and the publication of Venus and Adonis are depicted as occurring a good ten years later than they actually did. Yet Anonymous is hardly alone on this score: the 1984 film Amadeus won great acclaim and dozens of awards -- including the Best Picture Oscar -- for its fanciful “what if” treatment of the life and death of Mozart.
Like Shakespeare, Mozart is a pillar of Western culture, but critics of the time didn’t fall over themselves to condemn it for its inaccuracies. And the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love was of course completely fictional yet was well-received by audience and critics alike, also winning the Academy Award for Best Picture.
What we are dealing with here though is not really a concern over historical fidelity. Rather, what we have in the Shakespeare Authorship Question are clashing epistemological ideologies, such that entire world views are at stake. It is therefore not surprising that we should see this consistency in the response to Anonymous on the part of the majority of critics, punditry and experts cited in the major media.
A colleague of mine, having recently started reading about Oxford, remarked that it seemed to him like a conspiracy that the Oxfordian theory would be so routinely belittled. I replied, a conspiracy, no: but a pattern, yes. And one for which we have a ready model and explanation.
In 1988, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky published their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. The book examines the sympathetic portrayal of American foreign policy in the major media through the lens of what they called a Propaganda Model of News, which consists of “five filters” through which information must pass before it is deemed “fit to print.”
1. Size, ownership and profit orientation of Mass Media
2. Advertising as a major Funding source
5. Anti-communist ideology as a control mechanism.
While Herman and Chomsky specifically considered how the filters informed reportage and commentary concerning American foreign policy during the Cold War, the filters are equally potent in restraining newspapers and network television from championing any number of perspectives that are deemed “fringe." The authorship debate is not an exception.
That mass media have structural ties to corporations and are dependent on advertising makes them naturally averse to controversy, and hesitant to challenge dominant narratives that would run counter to the interests of these pillars. When we consider Shakespeare as cultural industry, replete as it is with many thousands of books, films, and consumer paraphernalia of all kinds, it is immediately apparent that a wholesale rejection of the Stratford mythology would be unwelcome for more than the hotels and restaurants in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Furthermore, in an era of ever-greater concentration of ownership and integration between media platforms, the same corporations that run newspapers, TV and radio also own publishing houses. While scarcely on the scale of, say, the oil and gas industries, the commercial interests that might be collectively (and only somewhat facetiously) referred to as “Big Shakespeare” are nonetheless highly influential and naturally unenthusiastic about the upheaval a new Oxfordian reality would mean for their investments.
Therefore the Oxfordian theory is by definition unthinkable; there is no perceived advantage to be gained by it, and reputations in the balance. Ridicule, by contrast, is entertaining to read and sells more newspapers.
The third filter, sourcing, is readily observable in the response to Anonymous. Reporters and editors, under the rubric of objectivity, depend upon expert commentary to inform their customers, rather than taking and defending positions themselves. But as Herman and Chomsky point out, these are, by and large, establishment actors representing a very narrow range of orthodox opinion, as opposed to alternative social actors challenging dominant narratives. Accordingly, media outlets have been quick to call in conventional Shakespeare experts to criticize the film and affirm the traditional view.
Championing unorthodox views in the mass media -- whatever those may be -- carries with it the threat of flak, which is the fourth filter. Flak is the negative response to news stories or opinion pieces on the part of mass media’s constituencies, be they citizens groups, “watchdog” agencies, institutions, or individuals. Letter-writing campaigns or boycotts can result from hostile consumer reaction. In the case of so beloved and foundational a figure as Shakespeare, there would be a much greater probability of a negative response from adherents to the established view, than from those arguing for Oxford.
The prospect of backlash from readers and institutions such as universities might be a factor in a media outlet choosing to marginalize Oxfordian theorizing. Journalists and critics are also likely leery of being ridiculed by their peers, so steer clear of advocating for beliefs marginalized by others.
The fifth filter explicitly identifies ideological marginalization. Manufacturing Consent examined how anti-Communism was a control mechanism that readily helped media categorize acceptable and deplorable views, which in turn rendered official policies and foreign regimes palatable to the American public, while vilifying those associated with the Soviet Union.
In the post-Cold War era this filter has morphed into an “anti-terror” ideology, and, more generally, an “anti-ideology” filter that conveniently allows pundits to equate the views of their opponents with other belief systems deemed to be beyond the pale. For example, J. Kelly Nestruck – theatre critic for Canada’s newspaper of record the Globe and Mail, responded to the film this way:
It has become clear to me that contemporary Shakespeare denial is part and parcel of a dangerous, anti-rational mode of thinking that is on the rise in our society. Such thinking is a gateway drug for Truthers, Birthers (who deny that Barack Obama was born on U.S. soil) and believing in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion…we must insult and belittle the Shakespeare deniers until they get embarrassed and shut the hell up.
Curiously, the LA Times’ Charles McNulty frames the SAQ in remarkably similar terms:
like those who deny global warming, President Obama's birth certificate and the basic tenets of Darwinian evolution, the Oxfordians prefer shadowy doubts to irrefutable data. That De Vere died in 1604, years before a few of Shakespeare's prodigious masterpieces were completed, is of little consequence to their conspiratorial parlor game.
This conflation of what is seen as unacceptable dissent with other belief systems held to be abhorrent (like anti-Semitism) is a form of intellectual laziness, of course, in that it allows the author to avoid actually addressing the contentions of their opponents in a constructive way. More significantly however the anti-ideology filter is a form of fallacious rhetoric that condemns through association. The term “denial” here is particularly potent, as it immediately conjures up in the mind of the reader Holocaust denial, a connection made more explicit by Nestruck’s reference to the Protocols.
What is curious however is that these authors essentially treat Stratfordian skepticism as if it were some kind of recent phenomenon, a symptom of post-modern relativism perhaps, when it is a literary and historical problem that has occupied researchers for over a century and a half.
Such efforts to cast issues as either black-or-white is part of another powerful filter: that rendering complex issues into simple ones. In their book Exploring Mass Media for a Changing World, authors Ray Hiebert and Sheila Gibbons describe the pronounced tendency of mass media to drastically simplify information for its audiences’ presumed reading and comprehension level, with the effect that specialized information is rarely conveyed adequately.
This makes it easier for media to repeat expert opinion ruling out Oxford’s candidacy because he died in 1604 – years before standard chronologies date the performance and publishing of Shakespeare’s plays – rather than to explain the conjectural, conflicting and controversial nature of those chronologies, and the extent to which they were shoehorned to adhere to the life of William Shaksper of Stratford.
While it is true that the media environment has been dramatically transformed by the World Wide Web since the end of the Cold War, the imperatives of the filter are still present, and even within the bold new world of social media: Wikipedia editors are also vigilant gatekeepers of established views on controversial subjects, ensuring that certain information is confined only to pages specifically about those controversies, rather than allowing them to be “mainstreamed.”
As Herman and Chomsky demonstrated, the exercise of media filters has very real socio-political consequences, as it contributes to an environment in which certain lines of inquiry are considered forbidden, thereby undermining democracy. In the case of the authorship debate, we should see that the marginalization of the Oxfordian view is just one example of a larger structural problem. Social, cultural and intellectual transformations of all kinds have been long frustrated and delayed as a result of such narrow ideological “framing” on the part of the mass media; as such, media reform aimed at diminishing the influence of these filters would benefit not just Oxfordians but any new and emerging paradigm challenging the status quo.
By Michael Dudley. His review of James Shapiro's Contested Will for the Winnipeg Free Press may be read here.