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'Anonymous' Commentary: Shakespeare's One Of Us

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Norman Allen

The educational materials used as a marketing device for Anonymous are shocking. Lesson plans, distributed by Sony Pictures’ affiliate Young Minds Inspired, claim to be a catalyst for debate and critical thinking but - like the film itself - are built on the premise that a lack of education and noble upbringing make it impossible for middle-class Shakespeare to have created the profound works that carry his name.

I can understand making a movie in which such a skewed perspective leads to box office appeal. I can understand flaming a controversy that might expand Shakespeare’s audience. Honestly, I would see anything that has Vanessa Redgrave and daughter Joely Richardson pairing up to portray Elizabeth I.

But I could never stand before a class of high school students and tell them that great writing, and a deep understanding of humanity can only be achieved by the educated elite.

I had the good luck to teach at Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School in D.C. for five years. My students were performing well below grade level and came from households as far from the aristocracy of Georgetown as a kid can get. They also had an understanding of life’s complexities beyond their years. Just as Falstaff holds a wisdom greater than Prince Hal’s and King Lear’s Fool sees the world more clearly than his master, my students knew a side of life that I did not. To suggest that my privileged worldview held greater value or depth would have been criminal. And yet that’s what the folks at Young Minds Inspired are doing. 

Shakespeare is great because he sees into every corner of life, from privileged to pauper. His own life moved in overlapping circles of palace, law courts and an English village. The film Anonymous and the theorists who support its central premise would have us - and our young people - believe the man was a fraud and his plays penned by an aristocratic ghostwriter. I say Shakespeare’s one of us. Like my students, like the thousands who grow up reading and attending his plays, like the actors who continue to bring his work to life, Shakespeare is the 99 percent.

Norman Allen is a playwright, educator, and author of a history of The Shakespeare Theatre Company called "An American Classic."

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