Though it markets itself as having something fresh and startling to say, Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous is only a crude sensationalist rendition of a century-old dispute: who was William Shakespeare, “really”?
In this rendition an actor, Will Shakespeare, lends his name to Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford. De Vere’s social standing forbids him to appear in public as an author of popular plays but he is the “real” author of what we know as “Shakespeare”. In this crude and vicious “alternative history” the actor Will Shakespeare is a dim-wit, blackmailing cockney fly-boy who murders at least two of his literary rivals, Marlowe and Kid. But that’s not the half of it.
This De Vere is an illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I. Ignorant of that fact, he fathers a child with her. Their son is the Earl of Southampton. Southampton is himself believed by one “who-was-Shakespeare-really” school of thought to have been “the real Shakespeare”. The Earl of Essex is another of Elizabeth’s secret sons. He too is her lover. She has him beheaded.
Essex probably was her lover; and he was beheaded after a feeble attempt at rebellion. Adding the detail that he was also her son is typical of this film’s witless sensationalism.
At the time of the Essex “rebellion”, in 1601, a play by Shakespeare was performed for some of the conspirators, and taken to bear a contemporary political message, that the Queen should abdicate. It was Richard II, in which the king is forced to abdicate, and then murdered. Elizabeth herself is supposed to have said of it: “Know you that I am Richard?”
In Anonymous, the play performed is Richard III, and it carries a political message. What message? Richard III is depicted as a hunchback; Elizabeth’s chief minister, Robert Cecil, is depicted as also a hunchback. This is another measure of the crude witlessness of the makers of this film.
But they take themselves seriously. To go with the film Sony Pictures has distributed study notes to teachers in the USA proclaiming that Anonymous “presents a compelling portrait of Edward de Vere as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays”. It does nothing of the sort.
On one level, of course, it doesn’t matter. Shakespeare was the author of Shakespeare’s plays; the plays are what defines Shakespeare, of whom little else is known. The rest is waffle and speculation. Unprovable speculation. Poisonous waffle.
As many came to believe in the alternative history of early Christianity in The Da Vinci Code, so this awful film will win believers for its vicious fantasies.