What do you do when you want to make a controversial movie based on some of the most beautiful, intelligent, and complex plays in the English language?
So here’s the deal about Anonymous: it’s a very lush, rather dark and dramatic film detailing the infamous Oxfordian theory. This is a very controversial yet fiercely-defended idea, which suggests that the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and poems was not that daft and dirty son of a glovemaker from Stratford, Will Shakespeare, but rather the refined, well-traveled and ultra-educated Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Therefore, the plays were not just plays, but actually Oxford’s calculated attempts to subtly manipulate common people of England into supporting his politics.
Now, for those who are unaware, Shakespearean authorship has actually been in question for centuries; however, in academia most of these questioners are treated in the same way that the average American treats a “birther,” or a 9-11 conspiracy theorist. Cases have also been made for Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth, and dozens of others as the true Bard, but the reason that these are all considered to be merely pipe dreams is that no proof has ever been offered for any of these theories, save speculation and opinion.
Despite its complete lack of real validation, the Oxfordian theory has picked up a lot of steam in recent years (with de Vere supplanting Bacon as the most popular candidate). Theorists rely heavily on lack of evidence in order to prove their points, a sort of “guilty until proven innocent” tack that is pretty specious, if you actually think about it (which I strongly suspect they haven’t). Shakespeare never attended school, they say, because there are no class records for any students in the late 16th century! We haven’t found documents where he talks about being a writer, so he wasn’t! Shakespeare wasn’t actually involved in the theater at all, because his reputation as an actor was fabricated later as a cover!
In other words, it’s true because we can’t prove it isn’t. Never mind that we can’t prove it is true, either. We haven’t found that many personal documents for any of the middle-class writers in that era, and many other playwrights also didn’t have their works published in real volumes until years after they were performed. Why is this dearth of information only significant in Shakespeare’s case?
Arguing this way is just like saying that dinosaurs definitely and without question wore hats, because we can’t prove they didn’t. Occam’s razor would suggest that the simplest explanation is likely the true one, but no, that’s boring; baseless conspiracies are where it’s at!
But anyway, that’s not even what I wanted to talk about. Many reviewers have been focusing on their problems with the Oxfordian theory instead of the actual movie, and that’s not what a reviewer should do. A reviewer should discuss whether or not the film is effective, not whether or not she agrees with the underlying ideas. So, is the film effective?
No, no, and hellz no. Here’s one reason why: it can’t be divorced from the Oxfordians. Director Roland Emmerich made this film a part of the academic argument by bookending it with a current-day academic lecture. A random suit opens the film with a dry, smug monologue listing “facts,” such as “Shakespeare was illiterate” and “Shakespeare only went to grammar school” and “none of Shakespeare’s manuscripts are written in his own hand.”
So it’s only five minutes in, and I’m twitching in my seat. None of his manuscripts were written in his hand? That’s because the folios were all retroactively collected and published by other people—and p.s., Emmerich, if Shakespeare couldn’t write, then how does your nameless academic know what his handwriting looks like?
(Confession: this prologue character might have had a name. I don’t know. I went into this screening pretty drunk. I thought it would help. It didn’t.)
Which brings me to Shakespeare being illiterate. Never explained. If you’re going to make a claim like that—a claim which, by the way, is relied upon hugely in the film to illustrate Shakespeare’s incompetence as a writer—then fucking back it up. Also, don’t make that argument right after you just said that he had a standard grammar school education, which would certainly have taught him how to write. In verse. In English and Latin. This isn’t present-day American fifth grade we’re talking about here. He wasn’t sitting in that classroom making dioramas and salt-dough 3D maps of England.
Emmerich has made no secret of the fact that he thinks accuracy in this film is not important. “I have done a lot of non-fiction-based movies,” he says, “and there is a point where you have to go with the emotional truth, not the literal truth, because the drama is the primary concern.” And okay, fair enough, but there is a difference between extrapolating a pure fantasy story loosely based on historical events (like Shakespeare in Love, for instance, which doesn’t need to be historically accurate because WHO CARES) and using a serious and pseudo-historical drama to ride the wave of controversy generated by conspiracy theory. If you’re going to tackle the latter, one would hope that you would at least try to make your case in a rational and informed way, rather than relying on dogma and misinformation. Emmerich designed this movie to raise questions about authorship, from the sober academic framing device to the unreasonably unsympathetic portrayal of Shakespeare himself (I personally don’t care that good old Will is portrayed as a moronic and licentious drunkard; I just find it to be really, really lazy storytelling. Never mind that at the very least, an Elizabethan actor would have to have been smart enough to memorize a 5-act play in a matter of weeks.)
If this movie had simply been about Oxford, his relationship to Queen Elizabeth, his tension with the royal advisors William and Robert Cecil, and his collaboration with the Earls of Essex and Southampton in their coup against Spanish succession, it might have been enjoyable. This movie’s Elizabeth, played at different ages by Joely Richardson and the legendary Vanessa Redgrave, is quite fascinating; she’s a bit too childish, but at least that makes the portrayal unique. Jamie Campbell Bower and Rhys Ifans create an engaging Oxford; both actors are talented enough to give impressive performances, even though his story would not be out of place in a daytime soap opera. The Cecils are delightfully Machiavellian and hilariously moustache-twirling, proving once again that Roland is the ABSOLUTE MASTER OF SUBTLETY. Seriously though, the imagined romances and melodramas and shocking (like, seriously shocking) family secrets that get explored here are the real meat of the film, and Emmerich should have just made them the focus.
Instead, his focus is theater, a subject he clearly knows little about. The characters harp on and on about the beauty of Shakespeare’s (well, Oxford’s) verse, yet not one line reading in the whole film shows any understanding of what makes his verse so special. Playwrights Ben Jonson and Kitt Marlowe are portrayed gushing in slack-jawed astonishment over the brilliance of an entire tragedy written in iambic pentameter, when both of them wrote primarily in strict blank verse themselves (as did pretty much every dramatist). The plays that are performed are meant to be deft political mechanizations by Oxford, but despite the wealth of political commentary in the Shakespearean canon, Emmerich went for the the most superficial comparisons possible: Hamlet, because Polonius kind of looks like Lord High Treasurer Henry Cecil, and Richard III, because he and Robert Cecil are both hunchbacks. Brilliant! That is some Jon Stewart level satire right there.
No matter what Emmerich intended, his chosen topic and tone ensure that Anonymous is going to be seen as an argument for the Oxfordian camp. Because of this, the gaps in fact and logic and actual understanding of Shakespeare can’t just be handwaved away, because in this context they are especially distracting and often infuriating. If Emmerich wanted to be able to sacrifice accuracy for drama, he really should have stayed away from the authorship argument—one of the most passionate searches for literal truth in the history of literary studies—and just picked an original story to tell.