Note: contains spoilers (sorry!)
Was William Shakespeare the author a role played by William Shakespeare the actor? The question is posed by “Anonymous,” an earnest and occasionally entertaining historical drama directed by Roland Emmerich. The film’s answer, that the plays, poems and sonnets of Shakespeare were in fact the creation of Edward DeVere, Earl of Oxford, is a popular but utterly improbable theory embraced by those who cannot believe that a man of only modest education, and little social standing, could have created one of the pillars of the English language. “Anonymous” will persuade many conspiracy theorists but few who understand that genius does not require membership in the upper class.
The William Shakespeare depicted in the film is an actor who can read but cannot actually write — not just in the literary sense but literally: he cannot form letters on paper. But he is money-hungry and keeps an eye out for the main chance, and he sees it when DeVere begins to stage his plays through Ben Jonson, also a notable literary figure in 16th century London. Jonson is reluctant to lend his name, so the plays are produced without a designated author; when the enthusiastic audience cries, “Author! Author!” Shakespeare steps forth, much to Jonson’s chagrin. Thus begins a spectacular run of successful plays which Jonson and Shakespeare obtain from DeVere, who has spent his life writing plays which he feels it would be too déclassé to produce.
If that was all there was to it, the obvious questions would be overwhelming, such as, how could such a fraud be kept secret in the hothouse atmosphere of Elizabethan London? If DeVere was so reluctant to let his literary abilities be known, why did he in fact publish (or allow to be circulated) some poems that bear his name? And why are those poems so lacking in grace, style, wit, and other literary characteristics? Why would be publish the junk under his own name and let Shakespeare have the good stuff?
The filmmakers (and “Oxfordian” theorists) need something to distract attention from these simple but deadly questions. They need a maguffin, so they invent one in the majestic personage of Queen Elizabeth the First.
The mature Elizabeth is played quite wonderfully by Vanessa Redgrave, and in a film full of flashbacks, the younger Elizabeth is played by Redgrave’s real-life daughter, Joely Richardson. They portray Elizabeth not as the reserved, parsimonious Virgin Queen of history but a frisky, fun-loving theater fan who retains her romantic spark into old age. DeVere is one of her several lovers who, in a rather icky plot twist, also turns out to be her son. This appears to be an attempt to inject some Greek tragedy (“Oedipus,” anyone?) into what is otherwise an historical drama. Elizabeth’s need to protect the secrecy of her love life is the impetus for the long-term cover-up of the authorship of the plays.
The film comes to life when Shakespeare, played by Rafe Spall, stages the plays that he did not write. It grinds almost to a halt when Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) and DeVere (Rhys Ifans) play court politics, which actually is actually the bulk of the film. The politics of the day include the aristocracy’s sensitivity to the political jabs in the plays, but the overwhelming factor is the looming question of succession to the unmarried and aging queen. British audiences might eat this up, but most Americans will be left wondering what the hell is going on. Anyone who thought they would see something like “Shakespeare in Love” will be quite disappointed.
Ultimately, the Oxfordians just cannot accept that a man without much of an education or any social status could have been the real William Shakespeare. They cannot wrap their minds around the thought that a streak of genius surfaced in an otherwise modest man who lived at just the right time in history, when the modern English language was struggling to be born, and that he made the most of his opportunities without benefit of high birth or learned schooling.
In the opening to the film, set in the present day, the actor Derek Jacobi describes William Shakespeare as “a cipher, a ghost” because he neglected to be modern enough to leave more visible tracks. It is the revenge of the ghost that many people will go to see a movie about William Shakespeare, but few people will bother to see a film about Edward DeVere.