‘Anonymous’: The smearing of William Shakespeare, done quickly, not well

Rhys Ifans in Anonymous. ()
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The poster for Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous demands excitedly, “Was Shakespeare a fraud?” That breathlessness sets the tone for the entire movie.

Emmerich, director of 2012 and Independence Day, and not known for subtlety, presents Anonymous as not only a political thriller and literary whodunit, but a portrait of a country on the verge of civil war, with CGI troops gathering outside CGI London, long-haired scheming Earls (who all look alike) playing racquetball, and an angry mob charging the Tower.

None of this is even remotely understandable as it is presented, even if you know the history of the period and the main players.

The thesis is as follows: The Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), wanting to engineer political change in England in a time of great upheaval, while shielding himself from exposure, cooks up a scheme with young playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to produce the Earl of Oxford’s voluminous plays (all of which have been sitting on the shelf gathering dust just waiting for this moment, apparently) under Ben Jonson's name.

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But then that illiterate whoring actor Will Shakespeare stole the credit and now the Earl of Oxford has been robbed of his rightful place in history.

Pardon me if I don’t shed any tears for Rhys Ifans’ Earl of Oxford, who comes off as a melancholic, solitary drip who writes plays expressly to bring about political change. Oh yes, and because his head is “full of voices,” and if he doesn’t share them he will just about die. But as Anonymous unfolds, it’s really the political process the Earl wants to affect.

If you want to send a warning about insurrection, writing a play like Julius Caesar would certainly be effective (I’ll get right on that), but you could never convince me in a million years that that brooding guy who spends his afternoons fencing, and his evenings writing in his study, ever wrote such hilarious rollicks as Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Measure for Measure, Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, or anything as divinely inspired as The Tempest. Screenwriter John Orloff doesn’t seem interested in the comedies at all. They barely get a mention (they don’t fit his thesis). Whoever William Shakespeare actually was, the plays really are the thing. But not in Anonymous. In Anonymous, politics is the thing.

What a boring explanation for genius.

This brings us to a deeper criticism, which is a criticism of the author controversy itself: Shakespeare's family was illiterate. He grew up in humble circumstances and had had very little schooling himself. Worst of all, he was an actor. And so the snobby thought process goes: These plays could not have been written by someone of Shakespeare’s class; it had to be someone of noble birth. People have been arguing about the authorship of Shakespeare’s 37 plays and 154 sonnets for centuries, and the Earl of Oxford theory is the one with the most traction. They find inexplicable the possibility that he was simply a genius. Conspiracy theories abound.

Orloff’s script is overwrought to the point of hysteria. This tone bleeds into every performance: characters seethe, squint their eyes conspiratorially, pulse with passion, and randomly begin to shout with rage.

Vanessa Redgrave, as the aging Queen Elizabeth, brings a loopy spontaneity to the film, and even moments of quiet and stillness. She is, at times, heartbreaking. Turns out that Queen Elizabeth was quite a tart when she was young, bearing illegitimate children left and right, and one of her conquests was the young Earl of Oxford. The plot thickens. It thickens to the point of mud. By the time the two disgruntled Earls charge into London, it’s too late to care about any of it.

In my humble opinion, it makes far more sense that the plays were written by an actor and man of the theatre than some dude in velvet doublets and hose, scratching with his quill pen in his gorgeous study, voices in his head or no. Emmerich and Orloff never sufficiently convince that the Earl of Oxford was actually writing those famous plays, and the script is peppered with casual references to Shakespeare’s lines, which come off as simple-minded and manipulative. For example, The Earl of Oxford, in the middle of one of his innumerable political plots, murmurs to his colleague, “If this were to be done, it must be done carefully.” “Carefully,” “quickly.” What’s the difference.

Rafe Spall plays William Shakespeare as a feral, ambitious alcoholic who charges onto the stage claiming authorship, as the Earl of Oxford and Ben Jonson look on from the galleries, seething, conniving, despairing. So much seething.

Shakespeare may have been a drunk. He may have whored around. He may have been blinded by ambition. It’s hard to say. We can surmise his thoughts on love, sex, politics and monarchy through his plays, but even that is a guessing game. We know that he could be stingy: In his will, he left his wife his “second-best bed.” Scholars have agonized over the meaning of that line-item in the will for centuries. What does it mean that he left her his second best bed? Was it the ultimate dismissal of her? My thought is: Maybe she adored that bed in particular. Maybe he knew she liked it best.

Who knows? Based on zero information, who can say?