On the Writer as Historian
by Edward Eaton
When I just started teaching, I remember arguing with my students after several of them saw Shakespeare in Love. They were convinced that now they understood Shakespeare’s life and motivations as well as how the theatre in Elizabethan times worked. I argued that Shakespeare in Love was not completely accurate and was hardly a source for really understanding Shakespeare and his art. I heard three main reactions. The first was: who was I to disagree with professional and experts? The second was: how could I think that such a good film was not accurate? The third was more disturbing; one student summed it up perfectly: “But I thought it was a good movie,” he said.
As far as the first response went, I had to admit that Shakespeare in Love most likely hired experts in the field. However, I was also something of an expert, with my freshly minted PhD. I certainly was more of an expert than my students were. As far as the second and third points went, it got more difficult to respond. They were convinced that I was commenting on the quality of the film. They did not understand that I could like the film but criticize it as well—especially since my criticism focused on the central story of the film.
I remembered, then, how much Braveheart had bothered me when it came out. My classmates and I had laughed and argued for weeks about the quality of the film based on the quality of the scholastic research (or, in this case, lack thereof) that went into it. The circle was now complete, I thought. I was seeing myself in my students. The big difference was, of course, that they were 18 or 19. When Braveheart came out, I was already 30. I should be able to approach the issue much more maturely.
Now I have students who tackle films and television regularly for their historical accuracy. Fifteen years ago, my students learned from television and films. Now, they learn from Wikipedia. And they believe what they read. After all, how could these professionals who write the articles be wrong?
I am often impressed when I read a book or watch a film that seems to be well researched. Often the film artists claim that it is well researched. The accuracy appears to be almost archeological in detail. I find myself believing that they must be right. From time to time, though, I am faced with a dilemma. Sometimes, I read or watch something that reflects areas that I have researched and know quite well. When I know they are wrong, should I like them less?
Much of my writing has an historical element to it. How accurate do I need to be, and how will/should that affect the audience’s enjoyment? One early reader of my recently published play, Hector and Achilles, was incensed when I described Patroclus as older than Achilles. She pointed out that all the painters and poets clearly showed him as younger. Patroclus’ youth was central to the conflict on Troy. She was a Classics major and knew the history. I found the passage in Homer that said Patroclus was older and thought the issue was over. She then started pointing out all the anachronisms and asked if I were going to change them. I said that I was not going to. Indeed, some of the anachronisms central to the work. I know they are inaccurate and want them that way. However, for one reader, the value of the work was diminished.
I often wonder how accurate writers and other artists are supposed to be. The trend is that we are expected to be completely right. Our audience now has access to so much information, much of which is fairly good. They will catch us out if and when we are wrong. Modern audiences sometimes also take shots at the classics for their inaccuracies. It is trendy to attack the renaissance painters because all the Biblical figures look so…so European. It is quite possible that Michelangelo had no idea what a Palestinian looked like. Does that somehow diminish his art?
Shakespeare is a good target for historians. Shakespeare was a remarkably bad historian. Richard III may have been ruthless, but he was hardly the misshapen ogre from the play. Throughout Shakespeare’s histories, time is stretched and condensed, historical figures are either ignored or made up, and motivations and attitudes from the 16th century are slapped onto periods from a few decades to well over a thousand years earlier. Indeed, a fairly competent history student could do more research on Richard III, in a couple of hours online than Shakespeare probably did before he wrote his play (ironically, Shakespeare’s Richard is still the dominant image).
Much of my YA series, Rosi’s Doors, takes place in Revolutionary America. Several of the reviewers have praised my research and accuracy. I appreciate that, as I tried to get it right. However, I tried to get it right by not putting machine guns in the hands of my characters. I made up the battles and the historical figures. I explored certain issues by trying to look at them from a modern perspective compared to the historical perspective. However, I also had characters act completely inappropriately. For example, no group of colonial rebels in 1780 would make a fifteen-year-old girl their military commander. It does make sense in the story, but not in history.
What many people forget is that Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and I are not historians (well, to be honest, I sort of am). Few artists really are. Nor do we try to be. Michelangelo was trying to paint pictures that would resonate with a 15th-century Roman audience. Shakespeare was not trying to educate anyone. He was trying to write popular plays that reflected what his target audience believed. Modern artists are supposed to educate—or at least, to be more correct. Therein lies another problem: history changes so quickly. At least our understanding of history changes. A Western film from the 1940s that was considered realistic when it was made, would look and sound nothing like Deadwood. We want to West to be filthy and profane, so we insist that that it was. Perhaps we need to hear the ‘F-word’ so frequently so that our own language does not sound so bad. David Milch, the creator of Deadwood insists that the language is accurate. Others have suggested that the popularity of the ‘F-word’ has changed over time. I am with them. When I was younger, the ‘F-word’ was used as an exclamation point. Now it is barely a comma. I still like Deadwood. I still like Shakespeare in Love, and Richard III. I still enjoyed directing Julius Caesar, even if Caesar did not speak English (iambic pentameter or otherwise). I hope people will still like Rosi’s Doors, for all the liberties I have taken.
Film has a certain luxury. It has a lot of money and other resources. It can spend the time to make sure the trees are blooming right or that the right style of shoe is being worn. If done right, accuracy will not call attention to itself but will infuse itself into the overall emotional reaction the audience experiences. It becomes accurate because it feels right. Literature does not work the same way. Writers can hint at accuracy and correctness, but to fill in the holes and expand on the details would involve expensive footnotes or remarkably awkward exposition.
In any case, we tend to forgive Shakespeare in Love for its problems. The Bard gets a pass. Gone with the Wind is a beautiful book, even if it is naïve. There’s an old saying: “God is in the details.” However, that is simply not true. We are happy to overlook the details if we like the overall picture. I have spent hours picking away at the details of the Star Trek series, but I still love them. Does Braveheart fail miserably then because I have found a smattering of questionable history? Am I being a hypocrite? I think not. I simply did not like the film Braveheart. Everyone else liked it, though—it did win five Oscars. The history has become my easy way out. Instead of developing an argument that it was not good and facing hordes of people who think I am being ridiculous (which was pretty much the attitude I ran into when the film was in the theatres), I can fall back on nitpicky points that I will win but that do not really address the quality of the film as a work of art. After all, if Braveheart fails, so does Lawrence of Arabia, which is one of my favorites.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the young reporter says, after he has learned the ‘true story’ of how Doniphon and not Stoddard shot Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Certainly, writers who dwell in history should have some sense of history and some familiarity with the times they are visiting. Of course, there is a difference between being not entirely right and being downright wrong. Readers cannot expect writers to be historians unless they are willing for writers to write like historians, and, as many people are aware, historians and scholars, with few exceptions, are simply not good writers. Being right is when writers and other artists try to remain true to the atmosphere and spirit of the times without losing themselves in minutia. Being wrong is sacrificing story telling in favor of getting the details just right. Braveheart was a rousing movie that probably had more of an impact on modern Scottish politics than William Wallace did. Michelangelo might not have known what ancient Rome looked like, but he helped to drag Europe out of the Middle Ages. And Shakespeare is arguably the most influential mind of the last thousand years.
Edward Eaton is a writer, poet, stage director, fight choreographer, and college instructor living and working in the Boston area. He is the award-winning author of the YA series, Rosi’s Doors, and the dramatic poems, Orpheus and Eurydice and Hector and Achilles, which have been published by Dragonfly Publishing, Inc. He lives in the Boston area with his wife, Silviya (a hospital administrator), and his son, Christopher (a little man).
For more information about Edward Eaton and his work, follow the links.