Any Shakespeare enthusiast has a passing familiarity with the groundless hypothesis that aristocrat Edward de Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford, wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. As the story goes, only a university-educated noble close to the Elizabethan court would have been capable of such genius. But in order to swallow Oxfordian “history,” we must also imagine that the guy squirreled away modern cultural treasures such as King Lear, Macbeth as well as The Tempest and other romances, which did not surface onstage or in print until after Oxford’s death in 1604.
To buy the gospel of Oxfordians, we must also imagine that myriad publishers who printed Shakespeare’s plays saw fit to engage in purposeless conspiracy; and that Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Dekker, and others kept Oxford’s pseudonym a secret (in spite of Jonson’s own famous homage to the “Sweet Swan of Avon” in the 1623 First Folio).
In Anonymous, director Roland Emmerich and writer John Orloff do more than re-hash a 91-year-old conspiracy theory set forth by J.T. Looney in Shakespeare Identified. Instead they ask us to dwell in the lunatic realm of Oxfordian lore espoused in the Prince Tudor Theory, Part II. Anyone wanting a detailed version of this hypothesis should check out James Shapiro’s Contested Will, but here’s a nutshell version: The earl of Oxford hid his identity as a playhouse poet because he and Queen Elizabeth had a secret love affair that produced Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southhampton. Prince Tudor aficionados believe Oxford himself was the bastard son of the queen, who committed incest when he bedded Elizabeth, but their illegitimate child came along after the birth of three other illegitimate progeny who rose to power – the Earl of Essex, Mary Sidney, and Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s powerful advisor and son of the equally powerful counselor, Lord Burghley.
In his muddled mess of a screenplay, Orloff appropriates from the Prince Tudor fiction, positing a cover-up that suggests, without basis in the historical record, that the bastard Essex fomented his 1601 rebellion to take the throne simply because it was his birthright. Emmerich’s raffish vision of London court intrigue and the Bankside theatre milieu under Elizabeth I has about as much resemblance to history as the vision of Empress Nympho (remember Madeline Kahn?) as Nero’s wife in Mel Brooks’s 1981 comedy, The History of the World, Part I.
But Anonymous is no comedy, and Emmerich has none of Brooks’s sense of zany irony. In his hype and public relations campaign aimed at students, Emmerich wants us to regard his dark melodrama as historical truth. Anonymous develops two tales of political intrigue through a series of poorly telegraphed flashbacks that confuse more than elucidate. One is the tale of the tortured poet Oxford who becomes a pawn of the powerful Cecil and a randy queen. The second probes the clash between Jonson and Shakespeare as the latter grabs the credit for the greatest plays the world has ever seen.
In this deranged rendition of history, the queen (a black-toothed Vanessa Redgrave) is portrayed as a whore and bearer of bastards. Oxford (Rhys Ifans) is an ashen-faced, profligate noble, whose secretly penned master works such as Henry V and Richard III are meant to be deeply political and satiric. (The groundlings associate King Richard’s hunchback with Cecil’s deformity.) Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), a perpetually scowling young hack who has yet to find his dramatic voice, is imagined as moral compass amid corrupt courtiers and arrogant thespians like Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) and Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle). After Jonson is jailed in the Tower for writing The Isle of Dogs, he refuses to lend his name to Oxford’s manuscripts because the latter’s voice is too different from his own. (The poets in Anonymous either adopt the Romantic pose of an Edgar Allan Poe, or they exhibit self-awareness about their craft and voice that doesn’t fit the era.)
Shakespeare is an ego-driven actor adored by groundlings at the Rose and Globe playhouses. He is rendered as a strutting, illiterate clown who greedily extorts money from Oxford in exchange for the priceless pseudonym, “William Shakespeare.” Repeatedly, the camera offers a medium shot of Marlowe and Jonson, seated in the mid-tier benches with dramatists Dekker (Robert Emms) and Nashe (Tony Way) in Philip Henslowe’s playhouse. (Henslowe is played by John Keogh.) Marlowe is predictably arrogant and skeptical of the brilliance of Henry V, whose provenance remains anonymous at this point.
The film also features plenty of famous scenes from Shakespeare that are mildly entertaining, but when Mark Rylance plays actor Henry Condell performing Hamlet and Richard III, he appears insipid and is often overshadowed by unruly spectators. The deepest flaw in the film’s idea of theater history is that Marlowe is still alive around 1598 when the evidence clearly shows that he died in 1593. Such flouting of the facts is flagrant in Anonymous, and other instances like these are too numerous to mention.
Unless viewers of Anonymous are steeped in the lore of Oxfordianism, the film’s plot twists are difficult to follow. It aspires to none of the historical authenticity of Marc Norman’s and Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love, which embraces fiction within a plausible historical context. Emmerich’s does manage to plausibly render the rowdy atmosphere of playgoers clamoring to be entertained, but time and time again the screenplay reveals an ignorance of historical nuance that is downright silly. Through imperious cursing of the theatre’s blasphemy by Anne Cecil and her family, the writers give the impression that the queen’s love of plays was a forbidden indulgence. Wrong again. The Bankside commercial playhouses thrived because of the patronage of the queen and her nobles, not in spite of it. Moreover, we see Oxford blithely whipping out finished manuscripts that are instantly added to the repertoire of the Admiral’s Men and Lord Chamberlain’s Men, with no thought given to evidence that these scripts became commodities of the impresarios, subject to changes and re-iterations by scribes, theatre managers, and rehearsing actors before they were subjected to the scrutiny of playgoers.
What may be most disturbing to conspiracy theorists is the film’s hollow, callow image of Oxford, the alienated genius who squanders the fortune of his earldom for the sake of his poetry. The real-life De Vere was no such person, and could count numerous published poems to his credit by this time. During the 1580s, he was the patron of two theatre companies, Oxford’s Boys and Oxford’s Men. As a recognized court poet and established theatre patron, why would he feel the need to tiptoe into the theater and hide his identity?
What has severely weakened all facets of Oxfordian lore is the ever-emerging and incontrovertible evidence that Shakespeare and other successful London dramatists collaborated on numerous plays. Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, for example, first produced in 1613 (nine years after Oxford’s death), was co-written by John Fletcher. Facts and new research by Shakespearean textual scholars give the lie to preposterous fantasies about Oxford, and Oxfordians are struggling to revise their own “evidence.” Why would an aristocrat like De Vere consort with a lowly playwright like Fletcher, or venture to collaborate with the middle-class Thomas Middleton, as we know Shakespeare did when he wrote Timon of Athens?
As Shapiro contends in Contested Will, the conspiracy theorists have grown increasingly quiet when asked to put forth evidence of Oxford’s engagement in co-authorship. Perhaps the ineffectual Anonymous will encourage them to maintain that silence.