This is a period in which some people proclaim themselves to be sick to death of politics, while other people are ready to punch noses - if not worse - when others don't agree with them.
It isn't surprising that the major elements of today's politics are argued passionately on the world's stages, as well as our street corners. What might be surprising to some is that the politics of 400 years ago are also being argued often and passionately on the world's stages and the world's film screens.
Probably no writings have changed more lives or influenced more people, throughout the past 400 years, than those which are attributed to one William Shakespeare. There is even a major battle being fought over which plays deserve to be counted among those which he wrote, and even whether Shakespeare actually wrote them, or whether he was something of a ''beard,'' hiding the identity of the true writer.
In the film ”Anonymous,” Welsh actor Rhys Ifans portrays the Earl of Oxford, who the film claims wrote the plays which are usually attributed to Shakespeare.
In recent weeks, I have encountered a newly released feature film, which argues that Shakespeare didn't write his plays, and a recently published book which claims that he did write them, but not to sell tickets and entertain the crowd, but as passionate propaganda, commenting on the politics and religion of 16th- and 17th-century England.
Let me share some thoughts with you about the film ''Anonymous,'' which claims that Shakespeare was a self-serving opportunist who put his name on the popular plays because their true author couldn't claim them, because of their political nature, and then on the literary history book ''Shadowplay,'' which puts the quill pen back into the hands of the Bard of Avon, but which finds many hundreds of political and religious illusions in every play attributed to Shakespeare - in a period of history in which those who wrote things displeasing to the government often had their hands chopped off with an axe.
That is, if something even more significant wasn't being chopped off, instead.
The film ''Anonymous'' had its first showing in September of last year, at the Toronto Film Festival. It was directed by Roland Emerich and written by John Orloff.
The film was financially unsuccessful, according to a computer website which I consulted. It claimed that the film earned back only about one half of its $30 million budget. Audience ratings have been consistently high. Columbia Pictures claims they have averaged a rating of ''A-,'' while critics' responses have been approximately 50 percent positive and a similar percentage negative.
One of the wonderful things about history is its fluid quality. Obviously, I haven't counted any ticket money in any of the hundreds of movie theaters in the world, so while it seems that the information above is true, it could be either an accidental or a deliberate misinterpretation. Anyone who wishes to have a possibility of being right, in today's world, needs to be prepared for that possibility in virtually every issue.
On one of the posters advertising ''Anonymous,'' it says, ''Was Shakespeare a fraud?'' Obviously, the film claims that he was.
The central theme of the film is that Edward DeVere, the Earl of Oxford, actually wrote the majority of the plays which have traditionally been attributed to Shakespeare. Because the Earl was a nobleman, with close ties to the English monarchy, he would have been severely criticized, if not punished, had he admitted publicly that he had written plays.
The film says DeVere summoned Ben Jonson, who was a popular playwright of the day, and tried to convince Jonson to claim authorship, but Jonson was afraid that he might be accused of trying to control public opinion with some of the livelier themes of the plays, so he arranged for them to be performed in public with no author's name attached. When the plays proved successful, one of the actors in the company, named William Shakespeare, wrote his own name in the stage manager's script and began to claim that they were his creation.
Since Jonson wouldn't help him, the Earl decided to allow the rowdy impostor to claim the plays.
The cast is talented and attractive. Welsh actor Rhys Ifans is dynamic and very watchable as the Earl of Oxford, and the casting of Vanessa Redgrave as the aged Elizabeth I, and her real life daughter, Joely Richardson as the younger Elizabeth is a stroke of genius.
The film opens with well-known classical actor Derek Jacoby arriving at a contemporary theater in a taxi, and striding onto the stage to recount a prologue to the film, much like those the Bard appended to a number of his plays, made us all feel a little bit more sophisticated. Most of the roles are played by actors of both genders who are attractive and well-trained, but not yet famous or associated with other films or stage roles.
Many people, including such bright literary lights as Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw, found it impossible to believe that Shakespeare had written the magnificent body of writing which is attributed to him. There were approximately 38 full-length plays, 154 sonnets, and two poems long enough to be published as books by themselves.
We are relatively sure that Shakespeare was born to lower middle class parents in a small town. His father signed legal documents with an ''X.'' There is no record that he attended school beyond grammar school, and no evidence that he ever left England, although the plays often demonstrate an accurate understanding of the geography and the lifestyles of places as diverse as Italy, Cyprus and Bermuda.
At the early age of 49, Shakespeare gave up the stage and moved back to his hometown, where he lived without any more writing or producing of theater, to the best of anyone's knowledge. Upon his death, there were no scripts among his possessions, nor stage props, nor any other indication that he had written the plays. His will left his widow his ''second-best bed,'' and provided a curse to be placed over his grave, in the chancel of the medieval church in his hometown, in a successful attempt to prohibit the moving of his remains. It didn't even mention plays, poems, manuscripts or any other sign that he had ever written anything.
The film is beautifully filmed, with extensive use of computer-generated techniques to show the interior of Renaissance palaces, fierce, huge battlefields, the streets and alleyways of 17th-century London, and the like. Indeed costume design is the only category in which the film has been nominated for an Academy Award.
My suspicion is that a great many people leave showings of ''Anonymous'' with admiration for its beauty, but only a vague understanding that the film doesn't think Shakespeare wrote the plays. People I've asked, who have seen the film, seemed largely uncertain about large portions of the central narrative.
It was unclear, but I believe the film claims that the Earl wrote the play ''A Midsummer Night's Dream'' and acted the role of Puck in it, before the newly crowned Elizabeth I, when he was 9 years old, although historians are relatively certain that the play wasn't written until approximately 40 years later.
The film claims that DeVere himself was an illegitimate son of Elizabeth I's, despite which, it claims that he fathered the Earl of Southampton by the queen. I know that the period wasn't one with accurate records and DNA on file, but I also know that even in our own period, when people want to believe something to be true, they can convince themselves that it is true, with all the scientific evidence in the world to the contrary.
We all can stand in awe of the wonderful humanity of Shakespeare's plays, whoever wrote them. I hope most people don't get their understanding of history from popular movies, because if they do, they're going to be sadly misinformed by this one, but it's an entertaining and interesting conjecture, and should be enjoyable to most viewers.
''Anonymous'' is no longer in the first run theaters, but you can catch it in situations which show recent popular films, or see it on DVD. The catalog of the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library system shows two copies available for borrowing. One is at the library in Machias and the other at the James Prendergast Library in Jamestown.
Going from films to books, and from deniers of the Stratford Bard to deniers of the traditional understandings of the playwright and his works, we come to ''Shadowplay,'' a 2005 publication by Clare, the Countess of Oxford and Asquith. Ironically, she holds the female version of the precise title which was held by Edward DeVere in ''Anonymous.''
The full title of the book is ''Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.'' The author says that she was inspired to write the book while attending a performance of a play in Soviet Russia, where she felt she was encountering a long series of hidden messages of anti-government protest, embedded in an outwardly innocent plot.
Shakespeare lived and wrote in a period of time in which pretty much all the people of Europe had convinced themselves that it was their duty to persecute anyone whose views of Christianity, differed from their own. In Spain, the famed Spanish Inquisition was busy pulling limbs out of sockets and lighting bonfires under Muslims and Jews.
In France, the Roman Catholic royal family launched the famous St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, killing between 5,000 and 30,000 Protestants, in a five-day blood fest.
In Germany, most of the city states in the north, which were largely converts to the teachings of Martin Luther joined with the Scandinavian countries, which had similar religious views, to make war and to be made war upon the city states in the south and their allies, who were largely Catholic, in Thirty Years of War which went back and forth, killing many directly and many more in the spread of disease and as a result of rape, starvation, and other products of war. Estimates of the death rate focus around one third of the entire population.
England, which was originally entirely Catholic, was forced into Protestantism by King Henry VIII, then made fiercely more protestant by the government of Henry's son, Edward VI, then reversed entirely and forced on point of death to be Catholic, by Henry's daughter, Mary I, only to end up with secret Catholics, compromise Protestants who rejected the political influence of the Pope but accepted essentially the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church, and Puritans, who felt that anything Catholic was bad and had to be stamped out, if they had to kill everyone on earth. That was under Henry's second daughter, Elizabeth I.
Now, each of those three groups had positive things about them, as well as the negative, but author Asquith can't move further than to suggest that while 273 English people were burned to death in public, during Mary's six-year reign, people fail to give credit for the artistic and intellectual advancements of the Counter-Reformation, which came to England with the temporarily restored church.
It is known that a number of Shakespeare's relatives and companions were secret adherents to the Roman Catholic faith. Ms. Asquith herself is a Roman Catholic, and clearly wants the playwright's involvement in this situation to be the truth. While she gives so very persuasive arguments at times, she rather stretches credulity at others.
It could be believed that Shakespeare made Richard III, certainly one of his least humane villains into a hunchback, in order to associate the long-dead king with the hunchbacked Robert Cecil, a strongly-Protestant force in Elizabeth's government.
It's less likely that the Forest of Arden, where much of ''As You Like It'' was set was a secret pointing out of the Forest of Ardennes in France, where the French government set much of their plans for re-converting England to Catholicism. Shakespeare's mother's maiden name was Arden and the real Forest of Arden is located very near his home town of Stratford-Upon-Avon.
England, in Shakespeare's time, was an absolute government, which killed and tortured readily. Ms. Asquith never successfully demonstrates that such a government would allow a popular and influential writer such as Shakespeare to put onto the public stage messages as overt and only slightly disguised, at best, as she claims did happen.
Nonetheless, she has an interesting concept; she takes you through the Bard's plays and points out things you might never have noticed or realized, and it makes for interesting reading, if you can convince yourself to keep a pinch of salt between your fingers, for occasional sprinkling over your shoulder.
''Shadowplay'' was published in paperbound edition in 2005 by Public Affairs Publishing in New York City. It has 283 pages, plus numerous indices and appendices. It is marked for sale at $14.95, and can be found with ISBN number 1-58648-387-0. I couldn't find any copies in the on line catalog of the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Public Library System.