Reviewed by Martha P. Nochimson
Directed and produced by Roland Emmerich; written by John Orloff; edited by Peter R. Adam; cinematography by Anna Foerster; music by Harold Kloser and Thomas Wander; Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, Rhys Ifans, Sebastian Arnesto, Edward Hodd, and Derek Jacobi (cameo appearance). Color, 130 min. A Sony Pictures Release.
The Oxfordians behind Anonymous are too obsessed to let credible history get in the way of their certainty that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was the real author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare; and too good at the craft of drama to let their obsessions get in the way of making a rip-roaring movie. Anonymous, which has been widely publicized as a film about who really wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare, is not really about that question, which the writer and director, as good dramatists, know will not raise the blood pressure of a mass audience. Rather, its main plot invents a far-fetched version of the power struggle between those who aspired to succeed Elizabeth I as monarch of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the main contenders being the ultimately victorious Scottish King James and the ultimately defeated English Earl of Essex. The authorship controversy is just the maguffin, Hitchcock’s famous name for the irrelevant object to which a storyteller can hitch his/her saga of human passions.
Without the cameo appearances by Derek Jacobi in oddly detached scenes at the beginning and end of the film, in which he addresses a strangely passive audience about the authorship question, filmgoers might not have thought much about it. Although Anonymous tries its hand at fortifying the Oxfordian position by demonstrating its political importance, the link is tenuous to say the least. Even by the logic of this film, it makes no sense that William Cecil and his son Robert—in this potboiler the patriarchs of a mighty noble Puritan family that aspires to make James I of Scotland king—would force son-in-law de Vere to hide his un-Protestant penchant for “scribling,”, as part of their royal scheming. It makes even less sense that the opposing faction supporting the Earl of Essex would resort to torturing Ben Jonson to release the secret of de Vere’s authorship in order to combat the Cecils. There is as little dramatic rhyme or reason that the plays figures into this political dogfight as there is historical evidence that they did.
Ultimately, Anonymous is a work of sleight of hand in every way that counts. Striving toward the goal of justifying a classist position that only a member of the nobility could possibly have had the education, not to mention the refined sensibility, to write Shakespeare’s great plays, the movie says as little as possible about the facts of the situation, blowing up a sandstorm of obfuscating melodrama to hide the lack of substance in what it purports to be history. Those who are actually interested in the authorship question would do much better to read a good book about the Orly Taitz-like contentions of various kinds of Anti-Strafordians: they will be served well by either Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare or James Shapiro’s Contested Will, both of which carefully sift evidence and ponder issues. Anonymous does neither.
Rather it bombards the audience with a hodgepodge of crypto Freudian/Marxist/Darwinian ideas that motivate the apocryphal shenanigans of the rich and noble. Deeply dyed in the Oedipalism of Sigmund Freud and embellished by touches of Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, the main story of Anonymous anachronistically purports to reveal the Machiavellian reality behind the sixteenth- century belief in a moral universe in which punishment is meted out for crimes committed, by giving us Cecilist conspirators who win the succession fight by means of a philosophy of survival of the fittest. And what makes them so fit? They are able to foment class warfare by using their knowledge of the danger to society posed by female sexuality, Elizabeth’s to be exact. Combining Darwin, Marx, and Freud, the big three of the nineteenth century, in ways that were not meant to apply to the sixteenth century, Anonymous marshals cultural adaptability and class to lead the spectator toward the big juicy Oedipal secret—incest. The political plot complications culminate in a Sophoclean moment of revelation that, unbeknownst to both of them, de Vere is Elizabeth’s bastard son as well as her lover. That the Cecils know this secret accounts substantially for their power, according to this film. Try to document that! Document, schmockument. All that is necessary to these Oxfordians is that their lurid claptrap buys de Vere what is apparently in their eyes the only possible pedigree for literary greatness: noble blood and a secret history with a wife/mother.
There are perversions of reality in this film to offend almost every one of its possible target audiences. The impossible dream of Anonymous is that, while we are being discombobulated by all the sex and violence, perhaps we won’t wonder whether the mighty Cecils could possibly belong to the same group that even grade-school children know experienced such marginality at the time during which Anonymous is set that many of them felt it necessary to leave England for Plymouth Rock and religious freedom. And, indeed, the Cecils were Anglicans. The film also bets on the long shot that Shakespeare scholars will be so bedazzled by its lurid plot complications that they will accept the cavalier way the filmmakers insist that de Vere made sure that Richard III, a play about an evil hunchback, was performed just before the Essex rebellion against Elizabeth to rally the great unwashed against the “evil” hunchback Robert Cecil, as the film characterizes him.
Good luck. The authorship question aside, there is no historical evidence that Robert Cecil was a hunchback. Moreover, there is some evidence that when the Essex faction asked Shakespeare to put on a performance in support of their rebellion, if extant records are correct, it was Richard II that they asked for, to remind England of the justification for removing a monarch. Then, there are the feminists. More fundamental in all ways to the narrative of Anonymous than the Oxfordian debate is the film’s sexist vision of Elizabeth I, who in this account is decidedly not a Virgin Queen, and, more to the point, is a woman who litters the story with her illegitimate children as she irradiates England with her out-of-control desires, a fault which the Cecils exploit to their heart’s content. Although history provides ample evidence that Elizabeth I was a formidable queen, and never a mother, in this portrait of her she is unfit for rule because of her gender, and can be made to do and think anything if her weak, feminine jealousy and yearning can be aroused.
The dizzying vortex of fractured fairytale politics and sexism does not stop there; Anonymous also brings into play a “bromance” fabricated for the occasion between de Vere and Ben Jonson, as they scheme, for the never-identified good of the country, to make everyone believe that Shakespeare is the author of “de Vere’s great plays.” And for the homophobes among us, it provides a way around the critical conjecture that because the sonnets were dedicated to the young, beautiful Earl of Southhampton, Shakespeare must have been gay, or at least bisexual. In this film, the Earl of Southhampton is de Vere’s and Elizabeth’s bastard son (Yes, de Vere is not only Southhampton’s father but also his brother.) Hence the dedication celebrates the love of a father for a son he could never publicly acknowledge in any other way, not the love that dare not speak its name.
The film is only made palatable by the brilliantly accomplished actors: Vanessa Redgrave, as the aged Elizabeth; Joely Richardson, her daughter, as the gorgeous young Queen Elizabeth; the less-known Rhys Ifans in a superb turn as the Earl of Oxford, a tortured genius; the wonderfully bumptious con-man Shakespeare created by Rafe Spall; and Edward Hogg as a demonically dark Robert Cecil, who only lacks the moustache to twirl as he accomplishes his dastardly deeds. As they light up the screen with their charisma, we almost don’t notice that de Vere is arguably less upset by the realization that he has slept and procreated with his own mother than by the Puritan animus against art that has purportedly deprived him of the reputation he “deserves” as the greatest playwright in the history of English literature.
Director Roland Emmerich, who has big-time credentials as a purveyor of sensationalistic gimmickry, as displayed in Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998), is the right choice for a film with intellectual pretensions that is actually a mindless blood-and-guts action saga. John Orloff, whose previous screenwriting experience is limited to two films and a couple of television series episodes, was probably chosen as a competent newcomer willing to do what was asked of him. Vanessa Redgrave and Derek Jacobi actually believe this stuff, she because, as she says, Shakespeare was an actor and actors have no time to write (if you want to see an actor laugh, quote Redgrave to him/her); and he on the basis of the tired snobbery that holds that a tradesman’s son could not have been such a great artist.
It should surprise no one that those responsible for bringing Anonymous to zombie life, besotted by their adoration of nobility, have played fast and loose with inconvenient evidence culled by other anti-Stratfordians that other (nonaristocratic) playwrights were responsible for the plays we attribute to Shakespeare. Some of these candidates for the Shakespeare derby are not mentioned; others are shoehorned into the de Vere theory. If you want to know something more credible about the credentials of other writers, Jonathan Bate, mentioned above, serves it up hot and steaming (as he defends Shakespeare’s title) in Chapter 3, “The Authorship Controversy.” It might surprise Derek Jacobi and Company, however, that their “melodramatization” of the authorship question in Anonymous renders their enterprise a somewhat zany footnote to the discussion of authorship conducted by James Shapiro in his brilliant book.
In Contested Will, Shapiro painstakingly traces the history of the Shakespeare debate back to 1785, when the Earl of Wilmot, upon failing to find any written documentation that Shakespeare had been an author, came to the conclusion that he hadn’t written the plays attributed to him. The lessons Shapiro gleans from this history go beyond his belief that Shakespeare was indeed The Man, to why the idea that he couldn’t have been has taken hold so strongly. One of his conclusions is that the war over Shakespeare reveals profound problems in the way we read. Ultimately, he believes, the Anti-Stratfordians received a boost strong enough to carry them into the present from a misuse of the romantic tradition of literature as confession as a model for understanding all literature, regardless of historical period. Shapiro suggests that the wholesale teaching of fiction as disguised biography, instead of as a product of the imagination that transcends the confines of life experience, has unwittingly or wittingly encouraged the classist rejection of Shakespeare as the author of his plays. After all, the protagonists of Shakespeare’s plays are aristocrats. Anonymous disingenuously reflects that logic. However, since Shakespeare in Love melodramatically rendered Twelfth Night as a reflection of Shakespeare’s life but asserted his authorship of the plays, we can’t say that Shapiro has completely nailed it either.
No one may ever have an irrefutable answer to the question, but Shapiro and Bate are among those who can lay claim to integrity in their struggles with the difficult, necessary, but perhaps impossible task of trying to know history. Dishonesty and manipulation or erasures of facts do not count as trying. The Tennessee Tea Party wants to opt out of dealing with the historical facts of slavery. Dick Cheney’s recent, historically distorted travesty of a book wants to rewrite the Bush Presidency. Anonymous is of a piece with these, one more pathetic lurch into what George Orwell in 1984 dubbed the memory hole.
Martha P. Nochimson is the author of five books, most recently World on Film: An Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.