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At the Heart of This Conspiracy

Columbia Pictures (2011)
Directed by Roland Emmerich. with Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Edward Hogg, Joely Richardson.

Just when Shakespeare scholars and fans were fretting mightily about the new movie Anonymous promoting the case for Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as the true writer of the Shakespeare canon comes a most mighty smackdown of the whole Oxfordian theory: the new movie Anonymous.

Rather than being an Oxfordian advocate himself, director Roland Emmerich, the man who brought us Independence Day, The Day after Tomorrow, 2012, 10,000 BC, and Godzilla, is, in fact, presenting the Oxfordian theory as monstrous hoo-ey. Proof is in the clues that abound throughout the film.

Even the promotion trailer of Emmerich's “10 Reasons Why Shakespeare Is a Fraud” is part of the joke. Interspersed with a cartoon resembling those 1950s USDA film strips we Baby Boomers sat through in school, the director lays out the same hackneyed evidence propounded by so many others who claim Shakespeare couldn’t have written Hamlet and the rest. Evidence such as Shakespeare left no documents in his handwriting (wrong), that his daughters were illiterate (atypical in what way?), that Shakespeare didn’t behave like normal geniuses would (“normal geniuses” being the person espousing that opinion) and, my favorite, that Shakespeare portrayed Italy “so vividly” that he had to have traveled there (Shakespeare didn’t even consult a map). Then, of course, there’s Emmerich starting one point off with “I don’t mean to sound like a snob, but…” which, in all instances, translates as “I mean to sound like a snob, so…” Note, however, that the first moment Emmerich’s cartoon self appears in this trailer, he winks.

If Emmerich has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek in this trailer, with the film itself, his tongue almost pokes through his cheek like Terry Francona’s chaw. Even if we accept that Queen Elizabeth littered England with more bastard children than a sow births piglets—among them de Vere and, in an unwitting act of incest, his son—Anonymous stacks one glaring historical inaccuracy onto another, way beyond the normal tactic of altering or compressing facts for dramatic purposes. A director of Emmerich’s intelligence (plus that of screenwriter John Orloff, who also penned the screenplays for A Mighty Heart and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole) would not go to such great lengths to undo facts handed down to us through both the official and public record without winking.

Thus, Anonymous gives us scenes even more fictional than any in Shakespeare in Love.

  • In the film, the Globe Theater is torched by troops chasing Ben Jonson, not by a prop cannon setting fire to the thatch roof during a 1613 opening performance of Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s Henry VIII (Emmerich’s image: hooded authoritative figures destroying the theater, not artistic excess or, specifically, special effects).
  • In the film, Edward de Vere clips a Tudor rose—the heraldic kind, since no actual Tudor rose plant exists—from a bush in his garden (Emmerich’s image: De Vere producing a fraudulent work).
  • In the film, De Vere hands Romeo and Juliet to Jonson (his go-between), claiming the “whole thing” is written in iambic pentameter, something unheard of before. Never mind this historical inaccuracy; even in the film, this is not true as we’ve already seen plays performed in iambic pentameter. More tellingly, one of the minor characters points out (and is ignored by the others) that portions of Romeo and Juliet are, in fact, in prose (Emmerich’s point: de Vere is lying). Historically, Shakespeare did write one “whole thing” in iambic pentameter, Richard II.
  • Which brings us to the film’s most glaring historical hopscotch moment, as the Essex rebellion against Queen Elizabeth kicks off with a performance of Richard III, not Richard II. What’s a Roman numeral, right? Well, you see, in the film, Robert Cecil, de Vere’s lifelong enemy, has a hunchback. So, bowing to the Richard III Society’s sensitivities more than Oxfordian needs, the film’s playwright gives the historical King Richard a hunchback to make it clear he’s portraying Cecil in order to incite the theater audience into a mob. The movie thereby skirts past the one clear historical link the true playwright (and de Vere, even) had with the Essex conspirators, who paid Shakespeare's company to play Richard II and its incendiary deposition scene on the eve of the rebellion. That II also has a readily dramatic connection with Queen Elizabeth, who is said to have likened herself to Richard II as he was played “40 times in open streets and houses.” Here was a golden opportunity to tie real history to the Oxfordian theory, but Emmerich and Orloff add a Roman numeral to the play portrayaed and a hump to the movie's arch-antagonist instead. This supports my hunch that their purpose was to divorce the movie's storyline from the historical record as much as possible.

Another clue of Emmerich’s true take on the Oxfordian theory is in the movie’s framework device. The actor Derek Jacobi (an avowed Oxfordian in real life) rushes into a New York City theater to give a lecture on the authorship question, which then segues into the movie proper. It’s one thing to have Jacobi, appearing like a stuffy professor, speaking with the most affected tones of snobbery, and rushing in late to present his scholarship at the last moment without any proper preparation (get it?); it’s more revealing to have, at the end of the film, the curtain fall on an actor of Jacobi’s stature to total silence from the audience, not even a single clap: obviously unimpressed, the audience just gets up and leaves.

Anonymous is even amazing in how un-titular the titular character is. Everybody in the movie seems aware that de Vere is the real writer. Queen Elizabeth knows it (and thus the court, through gossip), the Cecils know it, the Oxford household knows it, even Shakespeare’s fellows in the tavern seem to be enlightened to the obvious evidence that “illiterate Will” could not be writing whole plays in iambic pentameter. And all this common knowledge just vanished more thoroughly than Shakespeare's own handwriting?

Even if I’m reading these clues wrong, there is an important line in the movie that stands out as most pertinent to the authorship question, and it’s spoken by de Vere to Jonson: “In my world, I don’t write plays. People like you do.” Amen! Then, if you stay to the end of the credits you’ll see the disclaimer that Anonymous is “a work of fiction” and “all characters are fictitious.” Case closed.

But is it a good film? Emmerich may be too clever for many moviegoers who don’t see through his joke (I mean to sound like a snob here) who then would become more and more agitated with every good-grief moment in the film. By the time Shakespeare is body surfing over the groundlings in the pit, you’re thinking Puss in Boots would have been a more true-to-life film to see on this night, and a lot more fun. The art direction and CGI palate is impressive, though the city comes across as a Disneyland version of 16th century London. While Emmerich doesn’t give us an overabundance of special effects, he does give us an overabundance of affectation. When Jonson weepingly tells the dying de Vere, “You are the soul of our age,” Emmerich is reaching for a 20-hanky moment, the explosion he hopes to trigger being so many people in the cinema blowing their noses (nary a sniffle in the crowd around us, however).

The acting for the most part is two-dimensional (London is the movie’s second most interesting character) anchored by the overly tortured Rhys Ifans as de Vere; the overly evil David Thewlis and Edward Hogg as William and Robert Cecil, respectively; the overly earnest Sebastian Armesto as Jonson; and the overly doddering Vanessa Redgrave as the aged Elizabeth. I did enjoy watching Redgrave’s daughter Joely Richardson as Young Queen Elizabeth; she played the part with a vivacity that eeked just beyond her banal lines.

The one character and performance that stood out for me was Rafe Spall as Shakespeare. All the reviews I’d read prior to seeing the film describe him as a drunken lout, so much so that I was prepared to present my review of Anonymous as a proposition that “lout” and “genius” are, contrary to Oxfordian arguments, two twains that often intersect. But what I saw instead was the film’s most multidimensional performance: a man who might be capable of killing Kit Marlowe (yes, Anonymous implicates Shakespeare in Marlowe’s murder), who is capable of blackmailing de Vere in his palatial home, who cleverly enriches himself (and the theater) by co-opting a scam begun by others, and who is equally comfortable in the presence of common whores and the noblest ranks. Except for that murderous streak, the one character in Anonymous who seemed most representative of the Shakespeare we know and read is Spall’s Shakespeare. So, here’s another clue for you all.

Anonymous does have one truly redeeming cinematique moment, and that is the staging of the plays in the Elizabethan theater. The play performances give us a taste, as Shakespeare in Love did for Romeo and Juliet, of what it might have been like to see some of these plays for the very first time. These scenes are also lessons in original practice for staging Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Particularly effective is Henry V giving his Crispin Day speech by wading out into the groundlings, and the following battle between the English and French encompassing the whole theater. When the DVD of Anonymous comes out, theater schools might do well to purchase it for that scene but discard the rest. Certainly, Anonymous is a sweeping indictment of those who believe Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare, but even the historical record is far more enthralling in the telling than this film.

Eric Minton
November 4, 2011

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