What The Anonymous Help Can Teach Us about Shakespeare

Posted By on October 28, 2011

Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) in The Help overhears the racially charged gossip of white housewives.

Like many moviegoers, I was thrilled this past summer to see The Help, a movie that — maybe not by intent — has a lot to say about Shakespeare.  This finely entertaining and socially provocative film, based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett (rejected in manuscript by 60 publishers before going on to become an international bestseller, now translated, says Wikipedia, into 3 languages ) has more of true insight about the bard than a whole self of self-absorbed biographies of the cut-out author from Stratford. It’s hard to find the necessary image online to make my point, but after much searching I finally did….
Watch through 1:27 and you’ll catch it.

In the film, when you see the book, The Help — a work compiled and written by Miss Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), based on numerous conversations with Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), her friend Minnie (Octavia Spencer), and other African American maidservants, and relating their own stories about the way they are treated by the white dominant culture in which they work and partly live it is quite explicitly written by “Anonymous,” not — as 100% of the online images show in the pictures of the original novel, Kathryn Stockett.

Unlike Stockett’s novel, the film’s book is marketed and received as a roman a cléf, written about real people and real circumstances. Of course, both the book and the movie also are also rooted in reality, but perhaps at a step once more removed and with a greater dose of cleverly appropriate imaginative reconstruction of some details.

This being the case, the anonymous character of the book is critical to the film’s plotline, which also makes clear that Skeeter and her co-conspirators have altered the book’s ostensible location to avoid the threat of libel suits from angry racists who are ridiculed for their intolerance and abusive manners.

Think Hamlet in Denmark actually satirizing events and personalities in England.

Both book and film also contain a “mousetrap” (I refuse to give it away; this is one case where you just have to see or read it for yourself, since it is so outrageously appropriate) — an accurate rendering of a real event so embarrassing that, as the women conclude, it will insure that the personalities ridiculed will never dare to step forward to sue, since in doing so they would have to claim their represented identities and suffer the appropriate schadenfreude. Being essentially cowards, they will suffer correction in silence.

This plot, of course, parallels a common occurrence in the dramatic devices of Shakespeare’s day, not only in the plays of the bard, but also in those of Ben Jonson and, doubtless, others.

The bottom line is that both The Help and Anonymous reveal how socially aware literature always involves politics — obscuring not just the locale of action, but the identity of the author(s), can be essential to the freedom of the human conscience and the independence of creative literature from the stifling dogmas and prejudices of a given historical moment (except, of course, as so many angry Stratfdordolators keep reminding us, our own….)

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, and renaissance literature, the latter a field in which he has published extensively

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