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).
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.