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 The foggy boundaries between fact and fiction

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phaecilia

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PostSubject: The foggy boundaries between fact and fiction   Thu May 01, 2014 1:57 pm

Has anyone heard the radio series Shakespeare's Restless World; a portrait of an era in twenty objects?  I've only been able to read the book.  Here are some thoughts I've had about it:

Shakespeare's so-called history plays have created a lot of fog on the boundaries between fiction and fact.  Shakespeare's Restless World shows how and why that happened (and continues to happen).  The 6 comments about Richard III clearly refer to Shakespeare's caracature of a scheming loner, who claims he can "change shapes with Proteus for advantages."  Nothing in this book confuses this caracature with the real Richard III.  It does, however say a lot about the interactions between public events, widespread beliefs, and their Protean shape changes in Shakespeare's plays.

Shakespeare was a successful businessman who had to please government censors as well as audiences.  Shakespeare's caracature--which had far more in common with Henry Tudor than Richard, duke of Gloucester--conformed to his contemporaries' beliefs.  As time passed, the caracature was intensified and popularized onstage.  Public opinion accepted the caracature as an accurate portrait of Richard.  Good evidence for returning this caracature to the theater and keeping it there is given in Shakespeare's Restless World.  Although the author's purpose is not to clear Richard's reputation, his presentation of events, event-makers, and interpretors supports the view that theatrical and political priorities overrode facts in Shakespeare's history plays.

One example of the interaction between accepted beliefs and a Shakespearean play begins Chapter 18.  Shakespeare and his contemporaries believed that Julius Caesar, not William the Conqueror, built the Tower of London.  So Shakespeare has Prince Edward ask the Duke of Buckingham if Julius Caesar's association with the Tower was documented.  After Buckingham answers that it was, Prince Edward affirms his belief that: "the truth should live from age to age/As 'twere retailed to all posterity,/ Even to the general all-ending day."  Twenty-first century readers and audiences--especially Ricardians--might find ironies unintended by Shakespeare or the author of Shakespeare's Restless World in this scene.

Chapter 18's main theme is Londoners' belief that they were the heirs of ancient Rome.  James I's ceremonial entry into London on March 15, 1604 expressed this theme.  Several of Chapter 18's  illustrations associate London or James I with imperial Rome:  two are engravings reproduced from Stephen Harrison's The Arches of Triumph, London, 1604; one is a coronation medal of James I portrayed as a Roman emperor.  This chapter's last paragraph says:  "Like James' procession, Shakespeare's Roman plays are an intoxicating mixture of ancient and modern, Roman and British.  And so in its way was the Globe Theatre itself.  The very idea of a theatre is a classical one, and the shape of the new London theatres was derived from surviving Roman models in France and Italy."

It's my opinion that Shakespeare's plays about English history are also "an intoxicating mixture."  They enact beliefs that would pass censorship, packaged to fit the time limits set by authorities who needed to get audiences off the streets before dark.  In these plays, Shakespeare's wizardry turns Cleo, muse of history, into Proteus, the shape-shifting god.  Will Truth, the Daughter of Time, restore Cleo to her proper form?  Will 21st century Ricardians be able to send Shakespeare's caracature of Richard back to the theatre where it belongs--and keep it there?  We live in interesting times.

phaecilia
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whitehound
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PostSubject: Re: The foggy boundaries between fact and fiction   Thu May 01, 2014 7:42 pm

We see the same sort of thing happening now with Hollywood. The makers of Titanic, for example, took a Scottish officer who had been one of the great heroes of the evacuation of the Titanic and wilfully and knowingly portrayed him as a coward and a villain, just because it made a better story like that - and never mind that the man has living relatives who were devastated by the slander against his good name. In Scotland it may be remembered that he was a hero, just as Yorkshire kept Richard's name green - but the rest of the worlkd will remember him as a villain, because he was portrayed as a villain in a memorable film.

Shakespeare may well have been being consciously ironic when he said that "the truth should live from age to age" with reference to his play about Richard. His works are full of sly jokes and puns.
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phaecilia

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PostSubject: Re: The foggy boundaries between fact and fiction   Sun May 04, 2014 6:09 pm

whitehound wrote:
We see the same sort of thing happening now with Hollywood.  The makers of Titanic, for example, took a Scottish officer who had been one of the great heroes of the evacuation of the Titanic and wilfully and knowingly portrayed him as a coward and a villain, just because it made a better story like that - and never mind that the man has living relatives who were devastated by the slander against his good name.  In Scotland it may be remembered that he was a hero, just as Yorkshire kept Richard's name green - but the rest of the worlkd will remember him as a villain, because he was portrayed as a villain in a memorable film.

Shakespeare may well have been being consciously ironic when he said that "the truth should live from age to age" with reference to his play about Richard.  His works are full of sly jokes and puns.


Apparently Shakespeare did something similar to Macbeth.  Historic vs Shakespeare's Macbeth

I'm sorry to hear about what the Titanic screenwriters did the the Scottish officer and his family.  Isn't there anything his family can do to set it right?  Are the laws written so they can't sue them for slander?  Or is litigation just too expensive and exhausting?

phaecilia
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whitehound
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PostSubject: Re: The foggy boundaries between fact and fiction   Sun May 04, 2014 6:39 pm

I think they got a public apology in the end - but the film is still out there. Unless somebody makes a better film which sets the record straight, that's what will be remembered.
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Thibault

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PostSubject: Re: The foggy boundaries between fact and fiction   Mon May 05, 2014 12:28 am

Hollywood does it all the time. They made a film which showed an American submarine capturing the Enigma machine, when in fact, it was a British submarine which got it.

Unfortunately, as we know from the response to series like The Tudors. The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen, people in general tend to believe what they see in a dramatic production - it's much easier to take in than to wade through a variety of history books, sifting out the truth.
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PostSubject: Re: The foggy boundaries between fact and fiction   Mon May 05, 2014 2:53 am

Braveheart is perhaps the worst offender in terms of historical accuracy, although at least it doesn't libel the characters, aside from crediting them with imaginary love-affairs.

And yes, Macbeth is another libellous play. In fact, shortly after Richard was found, when there was a lot in the press about the inaccuracy of Shakespeare's Richard III, there was a group formed here to rehabilitate the real Macbeth as well. I haven't heard any more of it since.
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