Who wrote the plays of Shakespeare?
To most people the answer is obvious — Shakespeare wrote the plays of Shakespeare. A little-hearlded young man went to London, became an actor and the playwright of the age, then returned to Stratford Upon Avon, having conquered all the literary worlds there were to conquer, and took up a life of simple domesticity.
There are some who believe that Shakespeare did not write the plays of Shakespeare, and their arguments stem from that brief biography I’ve laid out for the Stratford man. How, they ask, could a man who was born a nobody and died a nobody have written so much and so beautifully of kings and dukes, of history and myth? It takes a learned nobleman to write learnedly of nobles, the argument goes, and thus the plays of Shakespeare must have been written by another.
One of the leading contenders today for alternative authorship is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and Roland Emmerich (Stargate, Godzilla) tells Oxford’s story is his film Anonymous, which arrived on DVD this week following a brief, limited, and financially unsuccessful theatrical run.
The history first. It’s utter madness. The idea that Queen Elizabeth not only had a succession of lovers but that she bore a string of bastard sons who were then given to minor nobility to be raised as the heirs to extant Earldoms is preposterous. Equally ludicrous is the idea that Oxford began writing his plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry V, as a teenager (circa 1565) so that when the plays began to emerge as the work of the drunken illiterate lout Shakespeare there was a massive stockpile ready for Henslow’s acting company to draw upon. Then there is the simply plain wrong, like the idea that it was only lucky chance that saved the plays for posterity when agents of Robert Cecil torched the theatre, ignoring the plain fact that by that time (after James’ ascension and Oxford’s death, so late 1604) a number of the plays had already been published in the Quarto editions, and so there was no need to “save” them for posterity as they had already been saved.
The history of Anonymous, then, is about as accurate as The Tudors or Doctor Who’s “The Shakespeare Code.” Oh, there are things the film gets right, like Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, as an impetuous fuck-up who accomplished absolutely nothing during his military campaign in Ireland, but overall the historical accuracy is quite low. It’s not history, merely a film with the veneer of historical events.
As a film, as a story, however, Anonymous is remarkably compelling.
The production design is nothing short of fantastic. The London of the 1590s looks and feels like a real place of grime. By comparison The Tudors was downright antiseptic in its presentation of the past. Yet there’s also a certain unreality to Anonymous, with some scenes possessing the kind of stylization one would find in a stage play — and there’s a very clever reason for that.
Anonymous’ conceit is that it’s an Elizabethan play itself, telling Oxford’s story and the associated political machinations, questions of identity, star-crossed and forbidden love, and thwarted desires for the throne, for power, and for love in the way that Shakespeare himself might have done. The film’s opening has Sir Derek Jacobi taking a stage and, like the chorus in Henry V, introducing the story and setting the stage. Then we have brief shots of actors preparing to take the stage, including Sebastian Armesto, and then as manufactured rain begins to fall on Jacobi the scene changes and we are no longer in a modern-day theater and Armesto is no longer an actor. Instead, it is London in 1604 and Armesto is Ben Jonson, fleeing from the agents of Cecil.
The performances are solid, the direction is visually arresting. My favorite performance may be Rafe Spall’s Shakespeare because there’s such an energy and a comic sensibility to it that simply shines in contrast to the somberness of the rest of the film. However, the character as the heart of the film, Rhys Ifans’ Oxford, cannot be ignored; he portrays a man more complicated than he appears to be, a man of thwarted passions and sacrificed ambitions who, in the twilight of a wasted life, finally finds at a remove the validation he craved all his life.
The story may be nonsense but, on its own terms, Anonymous is compelling nonsense that hangs together. Within the film’s view of history, the Oxfordian theory, despite the ludicrous lengths to which it goes in the final act which push it into “batshit insane” territory, makes sense. It’s as much an alternate history of Shakespeare as Harry Turtledove’s novel Ruled Britannia (and the two stories share the same climax). This isn’t a film I would show to John Rilling, my professor of Tudor and Stuart history at the University of Richmond over a decade ago, but for someone with an open mind, who enjoyed The Tudors in spite of its historical lunacy, and who can suspend disbelief enough to accept its history for two hours, Anonymous is a stunningly enjoyable romp in the past.