Whether a man named William Shakespeare actually authored the plays attributed to him is a question that has been raised by many observers since at least the nineteenth century. Notable figures, such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud, all found persuasive the theory that someone else wrote the plays. Group theories of authorship—that gave credit to Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and Ben Johnson, among others— have been proposed since the early 1800s, though the theory that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford was the sole author of Shakespeare’s work did not emerge until J. Thomas Looney’s 1920 publication, Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Following earlier anti-Stratfordians, the “Oxfordian theory” argued that the known facts of Shakespeare’s life do not fit the personality of the author of his plays, leading to the conclusion of alternative authorship.
The 2011 film, Anonymous, directed by Roland Emmerich, advances this alternative theory of Shakespearean authorship, focusing on the political schemings, illicit romances, and power-hungry nobles of the court of Elizabeth I. The film presents Edward de Vere (Oxford) as a literary genius as having more of a taste for writing his plays than for managing his estates. He is also Elizabeth I’s sometime lover, with whom she has a son, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, only to discover that he himself might be the son of the Queen from an earlier liaison.
Centered on the succession of Elizabeth I, a tragedy about kings, queens and princes, Anonymous exhibits broad plot lines from murder to illegitimacy to incest, all good characteristics of a Shakespearean play. Oxford’s Richard III is used as a thinly veiled attack on the hunchbacked advisor of Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Cecil in order to incite a mob to march against him and weaken his position in court. Known as the Essex Rebellion, this mob would give Southampton, the son of the Earl and Elizabeth I, the advantage in pressing his suit for succession. Meanwhile, Edward de Vere writes Venus and Adonis for the Queen, inviting her to reminisce about their old love. He hopes to see her again and persuade her to dismiss Cecil. Despite his best-laid plans, the rebellion is gunned down, and Southampton is imprisoned for treason. De Vere convinces Elizabeth I to save their son from prison at the price of his continued anonymity regarding the authorship of his plays.
Director Emmerich describes the film as “a mix of a lot of things: it’s an historical thriller because it’s about who will succeed Queen Elizabeth and the struggle of the people who want to have a hand in it. It is the Tudors on one side and the Cecils on the other, and in between [the two] is the Queen.” The narrative is comprised of tremendous jumps across time, scenes from five to forty years in the past are mixed with others from a distant time in the future when de Vere lies on his deathbed.
In the film, eventually a bumbling William Shakespeare, a lowly actor looking for extra cash, is given credit for the plays. Mr. Emmerich’s film presents one possible solution to the authorship controversy in front of brilliant Tudor sets and employing a truly inspiring cast. Vanessa Redgrave is as enchanting as ever as Elizabeth I, and Rhys Evans believable as the tortured artist de Vere, who, even on his deathbed, merely wants the accolades and respect of his literary peers.
Putting aside the question of Shakespearean authorship, however, the film is rife with historical inaccuracies, re-dating poems and plays to fit the timeline of the 1601 Essex Rebellion. For instance, the film suggests that a brand-new Richard III was performed on the verge of the uprising when in reality the performance was of Richard II, the former having been printed in 1597. Edward de Vere is shown to have written Venus and Adonis as a love poem for the aging Queen Elizabeth in order to win her good opinion during the rebellion, when it was actually published years earlier in 1593. The emergence of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) in the history of English drama is also altered to champion the Earl of Oxford as its groundbreaker. Although the greatest achievements of Elizabethan drama written in blank verse were undoubtedly in Shakespeare’s plays, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey introduced the meter to England in the early sixteenth century, and Christopher Marlowe developed its musical qualities and emotional power.
When pressed about the historical inaccuracies in the film, both Mr. Emmerich and John Orloff, the screenwriter, cite the author of Shakespeare’s plays as their inspiration. Shakespeare’s histories are notorious for inventing characters and for historical anachronisms that further the story that the playwright wished to tell. Mr. Emmerich and Mr. Orloff cite Amadeus as an example of another movie that departs from fact to tell its story for the sake of the silver screen. Some critics consider these inaccuracies as the tipping point for their disliking the film, while others see the film as simply a fictional romp that should be enjoyed as such.
The present critic found the film hard to enjoy, despite its lavish settings and costumes, its good acting, and its taut drama, because the Oxfordian theory of authorship is so unconvincing as presented here, due to its blatant historical inaccuracies and its libelous depiction of the character of Shakespeare himself
The proponents of the Shakespearean authorship controversy run the danger of overshadowing the actual plays and poems in the search to attribute them to an exact historical figure. The film’s Oxford is referred to as the “soul of the age,” a literary voice that far outstripped the other playwrights of the period. Though it may be true that the genius of a Shakespeare was unlikely to manifest itself in lowly actors from Stratford-upon-Avon, it is demonstrably true that genius is not only found among the rich and well educated. Talent does not discriminate against its targets nor their upbringing. Who are we to judge whom it visits?
Despite the controversy, the monument of the Bard is ever living, not carved in stone but written in verse. It will be remembered long after all our theories have died, for that is the mystery of great writing: It transcends even its own author. The words that were written fly free from the page animating a history that never stops moving forward, connecting generations that will never meet, and inspiring the newest masterpieces of the age. One perhaps cannot fault those who question the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, though one can remain unconvinced of the importance of the inquiry, for you see, the fault, dear reader, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
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