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Film Review: "Behind the Name SHAKESPEARE: Power, Lust, Scorn & Scandal"

Filmmaker and narrator, Robin Phillips crafts Behind the Name Shakespeare: Power, Lust, Scorn, & Scandal. The documentary outlines two opposing viewpoints on the true identity of William Shakespeare. Strafordian theory denotes a young tradesman Will Shakspere as Shakespeare. Oxfordian theory claims Shakespeare was a pseudonym for Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Phillips structures her documentary with a quick setup of Shakspere for the first fifteen minutes. For the majority, however, she explores Edward De Vere, quickly positing he, a properly educated Earl, as the one true bard. Her argument relies heavily on the lack of information for Shakspere and her wealth of information on Edward de Vere.

According to Phillips, De Vere was Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth. With the queen he had a close, complex relationship which she allegedly manipulated for the sake of England. Before the ultimate power struggle, though, De Vere traveled Europe, the same places featured in Shakespeare’s plays. De Vere’s life experiences and the people in his life supposedly bear great resemblance to Shakespearean works. Notably for example in Hamlet, De Vere’s own cousin, Horatio, shares the same name as Hamlet’s confidant.

The most believable evidence comes in the form of a document from Queen Elizabeth. In 1586, she apparently offered a privy seal warrant of 1,000 pounds to De Vere to lead England’s first Department of Propaganda. During the Anglo-Spanish war, Oxford could have potentially written plays like Julius Caesar and Coriolanus as part of a propaganda campaign for the sake of England . Moreover, Queen Elizabeth asked that De Vere’s activities be kept secret which confirms why Oxford would use a pseudonym.

Besides the secret propaganda assignment, there were apparently risks associated with engaging in commerce as a nobleman, such as the Dérogeance law which inhibits nobility to engage in commerce. The consequences according to Phillips are severe and include loss of title.

The claims made by Phillips, both compelling and enticing, do not lack in plausibility. They lack in presentation. Sources are not clearly cited throughout, no talking heads are featured, only Phillips and Di Marlo’s words. Phillips features herself heavily in the documentary. Her challenging, cavalier tone toward Stratfordian theory appears to demonstrate bias toward Oxfordians. In that way, the documentary is more a debate in favor of Oxfordian theory rather than an exploratory one.

There are quotes cited from authors, Oxfordians of note, but the text doesn’t always show clearly where the quotes are pulled from. Other text also scrolls on the screen in an unreadable way. The visual powerpoint style feels reminiscent of Ken Burns, but unlike Ken Burns, it was very tongue-and-cheek. From an educational powerpoint, the documentary jumps to Phillips in various Renaissance costumes doing impressions. Each time she made a salient point her response was to literally ring a bell. Perhaps it’s a way to keep audiences paying attention, but also it became tiresome to hear.

Implicitly, in the end, this documentary brings up an interesting question regarding our reservations on historical records. Do we believe what we believe because it confirms our own assumptions or do we choose to follow the hard evidence and primary sources we have at our disposal?


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