Much Ado About Very Little in Anonymous

The Shakespeare exposé no one has been waiting for

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is the close-second candidate to be attributed authorship of the 37 plays of William Shakespeare, the glover’s son-turned-actor from Stratford-upon-Avon—who, due to the troublesome existence of evidence, remains the general favorite.

De Vere is the protagonist of Anonymous, a work of speculative fiction that assumes the Earl’s secret authorship as fact. The film, written by devout “Oxfordian” John Orloff, begins with a modern-day prologue in which Sir Derek Jacobi lays out the scenario, casting doubt on the signature of “Shake-speare.” Next, to the burning of the Globe Theatre—ahistorically staged in 1603—where playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) attempts to save the First Folio from agents of destruction. Why the fuss? The flashbacks within flashbacks continue, hopping back another five years to 1598, telling the story of de Vere’s clandestine authorship, intercut with backstory from his life, the earliest being a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the nine-year-old prodigy de Vere plays Puck before the court, the beginning of a long dalliance with Queen Elizabeth I (played in dotage by Vanessa Redgrave, in youth by Redgrave’s daughter, Joely Richardson).

The conspiracy starts when de Vere (Rhys Ifans), a member of the peerage, witnesses a performance of Jonson’s work being shut down as seditious and hatches a plan to use the power of theater to sway public opinion in support of his young friend, the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), in his bid to succeed the aging Elizabeth. They are opposed in this by Elizabeth’s advisers William and Robert Cecil (David Thewlis and Edward Hogg), father and son black-clad courtiers who wish to see James of Scotland on the throne—and are, inconveniently, de Vere’s in-laws. De Vere, having sworn to his wife’s family that he would set down his pen, first chooses Jonson as the public face to take credit for his verse—but the credit is usurped by a drunken, whoremongering actor named, you guessed it, Bill Shakespeare (Rafe Spall).


Directed by Roland Emmerich
Columbia Pictures
Opens October 28

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As Oxfordians and Stratfordians clash over Anonymous—the Wikipedia entry is a battleground—one line has been much discussed, in which the “inventor of the human,” per Harold Bloom, Shakespeare/de Vere pronounces that “all art is political, otherwise it is just decoration.” In terms of the film, this means that the corpus attributed to Shakespeare is merely pretext for political cartooning: Hamlet’s Polonius becomes a burlesque of William Cecil; Richard III is a parody of humpbacked Robert, meant to stir up sentiment against the pro–James I element. This would be an appalling simplification of these works, but Anonymous is generally so muddled as to de Vere’s artistic aims, it’s hard to take seriously—especially in comparison to the recent The Mill and the Cross, which situated Pieter Bruegel’s political protest within an entire philosophical and aesthetic cosmology.

The tagline to Anonymous asks, “Was Shakespeare a Fraud?” Possibly, but the film’s director, Roland Emmerich, is definitely a hack, albeit an occasionally lively one. The auteur of 2012 and Independence Day—which, incidentally, featured Bill Pullman doing a knockoff of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in Henry V—only indulges his appetite for the spectacular in a few aerials of an impressively revived Elizabethan London, including the striking-if-absurd image of the queen’s funeral cortège being led along a frozen Thames.

If Anonymous weren’t such a self-serious faux exposé, the fact that the queen actually died in the thaw of March would little matter. But though Shakespeare was known to turn out some rather juiced-up histories himself, it is the particular idiocy of our time that the past is apparently only marketable via Da Vinci Code conspiratorial jabbering, here degrading the canon to the level of the potboiler. (For good measure, Anonymous spices up de Vere’s story with an element of incest.)

Emmerich’s movie is sporadically enjoyable trash with better performances than it has any right to: Hogg’s verminous villain leaves a trail of cold, oozing hisses. As an unnamed player, former Globe director Mark Rylance gives rousing readings from Shake . . . sorry, de Vere. And Ifans, under arched brows and eyeshade, offers de Vere as a figure of grand, regal isolation, anxiously rubbing his ink-stained fingers from the box seats. The late arrival of a swishy, lisping James I, however, gives the final reassurance: This is high camp, nothing more.

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Without Shakespeare Stratford Upon Avon would be just another small English town by a river, which would only be stumbled across if you got lost on the way to Warwick.Warwick,the resting place of one Fulke Greville 1st Baron Brooke who also wrote tragedies and sonnets, another spanner in Shakespears' spokes,Warwick upon Avon has a nice ring to it,now where to build the RGC theatre.

Matthew Scarsbrook
Matthew Scarsbrook

Whatever you think of the authorship question, this is a well-made and well-acted film set in one of the most intriguing periods of English history - an era with so many stories to tell. The filmmakers should be commended for that.

- M. G. Scarsbrook, author of THE MARLOWE CONSPIRACY, an historical novel featuring Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare teaming up to expose a high-level government conspiracy.

Roger Stritmatter
Roger Stritmatter

These are good seminar questions, Ed. Perhaps one of our local satirists will answer one of them. Or will it be more convenient to simply continue the barrage of insults? Only time will tell.

Ed Boswell
Ed Boswell

I wonder how Edward de Vere's in-laws received the dedication to the First Folio? I wonder why De Vere's family are ,models for Polonius and Ophelia in Hamlet? I wonder why the sonnets did not have a dedication by the author, when de Vere was dead, and Shaksper was alive? I wonder why the publisher's dedication referred to Shake-speare as "the ever-living poet" when the Stratford man was alive? I wonder how the most erudite writer in our language's history has no proof of even attending grammar school?


The trouble with the rather pompously-styled "Oxfordians" is they prefer conspiracy to history - a very modern trait, fuelled by perhaps too much time on the internet. Combine this with snobbery - be it English or American - that the plays could only have been penned by an aristo and not a tradesman's son (who benefitted from a grammar school education, incidentally, every bit as good as the posh schools) and this nonsense gains common currency.

No evidence? Hardly surprising given it was not the age of "evidence" - unless of course you were very rich, and the "evidence" states you died years before MacBeth came out, but that was all a cunning plan too I suppose. Where is the evidence for Socrates? Oh, only the say-so of another philosopher, as was Shakespeare of Johnson, so it's probably a Greek Conspiracy... I look forward to the director's follow-up, this the German director incidentally who made that other historical hocum the Patriot that had Redcoats burning villagers alive in a barn, thereby implying that the crimes of his countrymen 150 years later were really nothing new or exceptional... right history does actually matter and should not be meddled with.

William Ray
William Ray

In terms of your film review, I have no criticism. You did what you supposed to do. In terms of your premises about what is true and not, you haven't got a leg to stand on. You assume Shakspere of Stratford (that's different from the pseudonym Shakespeare/Shake-speare) is being favored by "the troublesome existence of evidence". Wrong. There isn't a speck of evidence anywhere in the extant record confirming that Shakspere was a writer, much less the archetypal rhetorical and poetical giant of the modern era. I mean not a speck. There are six inept signatures and plenty of indication this was the apex of Shakspere's writing experience. He was useful, and took advantage of that use, because his name Shakspere resembled the pseudonym the author plied since 1593 to mask his identity and station, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. This allonymous utility ramped up when time came to eclipse any record of Oxford--an extremely troublesome high noble in the Elizabethan era--and it was deemed necessary to switch the literary identity permanently to a cipher, Shakspere became the expedient choice. Since he had been dead for seven years he was unlikely to blab. Shakspere became 'Shakespeare'. Such is your imbibed hoax, passed to you generation upon generation despite all the contradictions. With your wrong premise, it is impossible for you to get any fact right. While the film may not be 'Children of Paradise' or 'The World of Apu', it attempted to correct an atrocious but prevailing version of important cultural history, and for that it is wholly admirable.

Howard Schumann
Howard Schumann

Anonymous has the courage to tell the truth and does so in a very entertaining manner. Though some critics seem to think that the film signals the end of the world as we know it (even before 2012), it seems as if the film is having the opposite effect, opening the subject to a new generation, not wedded to the Stratford mythology that has been spoon fed to us since day one.

The evidence for Oxford's authorship is strong but it takes a little research plus an open mind to discover that. In Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," Jubal said we're prisoners of our early indoctrinations, "for it is hard, very nearly impossible, to shake off one's earliest training." If my intuition is correct, the prison gates will soon be swinging wide open, and the shaking will begin in earnest. As Victor Hugo said, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” and neither short-sighted film critics, the academic establishment, or the Stratford tourist industry can stand in the way.

Howard Schumann
Howard Schumann

Hardly the age of evidence? Boy, that's a new one. What will the Stratfordians come up with next? I'm glad it wasn't the age of evidence because there is none that shows the man from Stratford was a writer.

The film "Anonymous" is only for people who have an open mind, who do not believe everything that is told to them by authority figures, and who are willing to investigate to get at the truth, whether it turns out to be consoling or distressing, orthodox or unorthodox.

Roland Emmerich has clearly stated that the film is only a possible explanation for the mystery of why we know next to nothing about the greatest writer in the English language, not the only explanation.

All this talk about all the so-called evidence for the man from Stratford is pure bunkum. While he was alive, no one ever claimed to have met the man, period. The name on a title page does not reveal the man behind the name (Mark Twain was Samuel Clemens). We all agree that Shakespeare wrote the plays. The question is who was Shakespeare? Here, the evidence strongly points to Edward de Vere for those willing to take the time to do the old fashioned stuff like read books and think for themselves, not parrot the latest Stratfordian pronouncements, all designed to stifle discussion.


What is interesting is how you seek some kind of equivalence for your absurd idea with the truth - calling people "Stratfordians" as if this was just another theory. You are one with the folk who believe the government fired missiles at the WTC and the moon landings took place in a Hollywood studio - I mean, where is the "evidence" they didn't?

As I said above, clearly it is easier to find evidence of an aristocrat than a playwriting hack, whose actual existence is beyond dispute. What motivates this effort to undermine the legacy of the man says far more about our own times than his own.


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