'Tis true, 'tis pity, and pity 'tis, 'tis true. 'Tis total tosh

Howard Jacobson@Independent
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:38

Yes, yes, it's nice for everybody - nice for the British film industry, nice for the investors, nice for Dame Judi, nice for Marc, nice for Sir Tom, nice for Gwyneth (though maybe not so nice for all those genuinely British Violas who might have been up for the part had someone not been thinking Oscars from the very beginning) but still, yes, yes, nice. And God knows the last thing one wants to do is spoil a good party. But Shakespeare in Love, Best Film, in any company, in any year, judged by any standards - my masters, are you mad?

Let me be blunt, so that we need not waste time on preliminaries. The film is tosh. `Tis true, `tis pity, and pity `tis, `tis true - the film is tosh. Literate tosh, I grant you, but that somehow makes it worse. All those fine words and grand cadences - almost all of them Shakespeare's - thrown away on such piffling matter. All that erudition and understanding - almost all of it Shakespeare's - serving that single joke most calculated to please the plainest and most uninformed minds: the anachronism gag. You think wink-wink shots of souvenirs of Stratford are funny? You think an Elizabethan bargeman telling Shakespeare that he had that Christopher Marlowe in the back of the boat is funny? Best film funny? Then you are wrong.

Before a nudge from that same Christopher Marlowe and a decisive glimpse of Gwyneth's boyish bandaged nipples, Shakespeare was intending to call his new play Ethel the Pirate's Daughter. That strike you as funny? Piquant in some way? Trenchant? Allusive to some telling silliness in the Elizabethan imagination? Wrong again.

I watched the film in the company of somebody who is, as the saying goes, "in the industry". He was alive to all the jokes about producers and money- men. In making a film about putting on a play, the makers of Shakespeare in Love were really making a film about putting on a film. I begrudge no man the pleasure of an in joke. Didn't I, along with everyone else with a degree in English Literature, laugh at visual references to the ghoulish apprenticeship of John Webster? I did. But in the end an in joke is a species of flattery. And he does me double wrong, that wounds me with the flatteries of his tongue.

I am not going to contest the comedy. That Monty Python did it better 25 years will go without saying to anyone who was alive that long ago. That The Fast Show does it better now also seems to me unanswerable. So it was smart of the casting director to use members of The Fast Show in the film. For there is an inevitable Carry On factor at work. Put in comic actors from a funny television show and they will get laughs willy-nilly. That's the dangerous downside of laughter: it is Pavlovian. But it is not because Shakespeare in Love wishes us to laugh at what isn't in its own right funny that it's tosh. That would make it no more than a failure, something which, in other circumstances, might just have been a success. Shakespeare in Love could never have been a success. It has no foundations; it is a feeble construct on an ugly and baseless idea. Namely that Shakespeare was a dickhead with a Boyzone range of thoughts, suffering a soap star's depression in conjunction with a romantic novelist's writer's block.

I'll be round with you. It's not on Shakespeare's behalf that this bothers me. We must assume, by now, that Shakespeare can take care of himself. Even the best jokes against his tendency to blustering grandiloquence and pedantry - remember those incomparable take-offs of the History Plays in Beyond the Fringe? - have left his reputation unimpaired. No: for Shakespeare himself, who on an off-day could compose bombast to equal The Lakes and is therefore ripe for ridicule, I entertain no anxieties. It's us we should be worried for. Who is it out there who thinks this is the only Shakespeare we can take? How does it behove us as a species, how does it help us, to believe that art is made by a moron in love?

Unable to proceed with Ethel the Pirate's Daughter, not given to reading or thinking much, but forever mooning in regulation period Eastcheap or wherever it is that Elizabethans are deemed to have shouted a lot and bustled unnecessarily, considering that shops weren't open for as long as they are now (anachronism joke), Shakespeare encounters Gwyneth, falls in love with how her voice coach has taught her to pronounce English and how many lines she knows from plays he hasn't written yet, and subsequently spills out of her bed carrying pages of manuscript. Was it Rodin who said he sculpted with his penis? The message of Shakespeare in Love is that Shakespeare wrote with his. Gwyneth, bed, nipples, love, moan, morning, manuscript. Magic. No ink. No pen. Nothing. Just Gwyneth in his arms and that's Romeo and Juliet completed. Next? Well, next in the film's solipsistic romantic chronology is Twelfth Night and that's all to do with Gwyneth also. Steadfast in life, she must be the model for Sebastian's constant sister. For surely Shakespeare could never have imagined constancy?

We are out of the cinema long before we get to any problem plays (Shakespeare in a Bit of Tizz-Wozz?) let alone the tragedies (Shakespeare Upset?). Which is probably for the best.

Plucking out the heart of Shakespeare's mystery is the name of the game. Behind the offered good-naturedness of the film's determined anti-intellectualism lies a mean-minded academic conspiracy. The conspiracy of the historicists. You will find historicists in every university in the world, invariably the deliverers of the dullest lectures because they believe in dullness with a flameless passion. They are the ones who tell you that nothing is ever to be understood in any work of literature unless you know everything about the time in which it was written, and what precisely befell its writer. For this is the beginning and the end of their own expertise. Any interest in the writer's intelligence or imagination, the largeness of his mind, his power to infuse his particular experience with general thought, is considered uneducated, unacademic, fanciful and unreliable.

On the surface this is anti-populist because it gives primacy to scholarship and abstruse knowledge. No work is truly open to you, it says, because you don't know enough. But it meets the present preoccupation with finding a voice in which to please everyone - dumbing down, if you like - in this way: it makes us all equal before the accidents of experience. No one is exceptional. No one makes choices of a different order to the choices we all make. No one thinks otherwise. No one is serious. No one seeks to be unconfined by the common.

Odd, that a moment in the history of the obfuscation of literature should have found popular expression in a movie which flatters ignorance and incuriosity. But maybe everything is now tending to lightness. Fall in love, go on stage, take your pants off, have a laugh, be a sport. Live in your context.

In fact Shakespeare in Love tells us a lot more about us than about Shakespeare. The film would pluck out the heart of his mystery, but it doesn't sound him to the top of his compass. It merely sounds our own lowest notes.

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