William Shakespeare was remarkably intelligent and possessed great wit. He wrote of foreign lands like he’d been there first hand. And he wrote like he was a longtime member of the Queen’s court, with a deep knowledge for the ins and outs of royal life.
But Shakespeare wasn’t born into the 1%. His father was a glove maker, not necessarily a profession that comes with a crown full of jewels.
Could a commoner really be so in tune with the politics and foreign affairs of the day? Or did somebody on the inside write Shakespeare's works? Somebody who couldn’t afford to put their name on them, because they would face severe consequences? Or to take matters even further, were the “Shakespeare” plays penned to create an uprising that could have changed the face of Elizabethan England?
The fact that I’m even putting Shakespeare’s name in quotes speaks to the effectiveness of Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous.” The always-provocative director uses the Oxfordian Shakespeare authorship conspiracy as the backbone of his latest drama. The theory alleges that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author of Shakespeare’s legendary plays and poems.
Why would the Earl of Oxford want to give credit to somebody else? The film alleges that de Vere was a young boy warded to Queen Elizabeth, raised by her close adviser Sir William Cecil. De Vere loves to write, but he’s told that spending time on written works is like worshipping false gods. He should focus on other things, like fencing.
Without revealing too much, de Vere ends up married, with shelves full of plays and poems that have never seen the light of day. He finds an aspiring playwright named Ben Jonson and convinces him to take credit for his works and get them on stage. At first, Jonson is hesitant. These are politically charged works that could get him in trouble.
So Jonson brings his colleague, an actor named William Shakespeare, into the mix. Together they put the first de Vere show into the theater. As the crowd goes wild, Shakespeare charges onto center stage and takes claim as the author of the piece, stealing the credit that de Vere intended to award to Jonson.
“Anonymous” reminded me of “Amadeus,” one man’s nearly effortless genius leads to another’s hard-working jealousy, all set amongst the royal politics of the era. That’s only a small part of it, though. As the film cleverly bounces through time periods, we learn more about de Vere’s past and his relationship with the Queen, and the real reason he needs his words to be performed in public.
I loved this movie, even if it didn’t fully sell me on the theory. It got me scanning through as much Elizabethan history as I could find, digging to see if some of Emmerich’s more eyebrow raising (and kinda “ewwwwwww” inducing) plot twists could have been true. From what I’ve read, that’s probably a big NO.
I will say that I found the film a bit hard to follow at first, because, as you might imagine, I’m not much of a Shakespeare scholar. As the film moves along, though, things become much more clear. It’s kind of like picking up a Shakespeare play for the first time – the language can be really hard to understand, but with the right teacher….
“Anonymous” features some great performances. Rhys ifans really stands out as the Earl of Oxford. There are some marvelous sequences as de Vere watches his words acted out on stage, as some bloviating actor takes credit for them. Without saying one word, Ifans conveys extreme joy and then utter disgust. Great stuff.
Emmerich has been efforting this film for almost a decade, along with screenwriter John Orloff. The director is no stranger to the preposterous – aliens took over the earth in “Independence Day,” global warming led to our downfall in “The Day After Tomorrow,” and most recently, the Mayan calendar coming to an end wiped everybody out in “2012.”
Each of those films had a grander scale, but “Anonymous” is Emmerich’s most compelling piece of work. Shakespeare scholars will most likely scoff at the film’s ruthless depiction of the literary hero as a boob of an actor who accidentally stumbled into fortune and fame. They even make the accusation that he never even learned to write a word of English.
The real shame is that Shakespeare isn’t around to see the movie. It would probably give him a good laugh.
“Anonymous” earns a Leshock Value of $9 out of a possible $10.