Audiences may sometimes divide themselves when it comes to historical fiction. There is the faction who appreciates a fictional story assigned to a true historical figure to create an engrossing book or movie. Conversely, there arises a vocal minority who deride the story as an affront to what actually happened in history; they worry the uninformed masses will be swayed by the fiction and falsely believe the fiction to be true. Such is the case with Anonymous.
In this story, which furthers the case of a scholarly minority who do not believe William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) authored all of those plays, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), was the true genius behind the words. As an Earl, his station was superior to writing and associating with the rabble in a place such as the Globe Theatre. However, his gift required an outlet. He heard the voices of his characters and felt the physical need to commit those voices to paper.
Left at this level, the film would have been more scholarly and actually about the canon itself, but director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) appears to have desired a more suspenseful thriller. In this era, Queen Elizabeth 1 (Vanessa Redgrave) is at the end of her Golden Age and the issue of royal succession is on the English court’s mind. Most expect the title to fall to James I of Scotland including the Queen’s most trusted advisor Edward Cecil (David Thewlis). There are those though who would like the crown to stay closer to home, one such person is Edward de Vere.
Edward recognizes the power of words. When words successfully capture an enraptured audience, they can move them to weep, poke them with laughter, or even stoke their anger and morph that audience from mere observers into a mob. To ensure he remains as the man behind the curtain, Edward de Vere hires Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to be his cover. Jonson is already a moderately successful playwright and is loathe to sell out his proud signature on works which are not his own. Mistakenly, he relays the situation to one William Shakespeare.
In Anonymous, Shakespeare is a buffoon. He drinks too much, spends too much time and money with whores, and is even illiterate. Since he is an actor, he can read; however, he is unable to even scribble his own name on parchment. The remainder of the film involves different factions scheming to ensure their man is in line for the throne, the resentment of Ben Jonson over Shakespeare’s fraudulent fame, and mostly stuffed into the background are the plays themselves.
Sections of the most famous scenes of Henry V, Romeo & Juliet, Richard III, and Macbeth are briefly staged in the theatre, but they are not the focus. The faces of a stunned crowd, the roving eyes of Ben Jonson and Edward de Vere are in close-up, but the words are overshadowed. The suggestion that a glove-maker’s son with a grade school education from an out of the way village named Stratford-upon-Avon did not author all of those plays is intriguing. A figure such as the Earl of Oxford with his first rate classical education and firsthand knowledge of the world outside England makes for a plausible argument against Shakespeare. However, Anonymous truly is historical fiction.
Just as Shakespeare doubters gleefully point out the striking lack of evidence missing from his authorship such as original editions, lack of fame in his lifetime, no mention of the plays in his will, etc… there is also scant evidence Edward de Vere authored them either. Furthermore, the political intrigue in Anonymous is also severely stretched in the credibility department. I will not belabor the details, but if you are already aware of who becomes king after Elizabeth, the tone will be a bit less suspenseful for you than those of you who do not know about the succession.
I recommend Anonymous mainly due to its wonderful production value. The streets are covered in garbage and mud; one must skillfully walk on strategically placed boards placed on top of the mess to avoid sinking into its depth. The reconstruction of the Globe Theatre is done with care and accuracy. Furthermore, in a time when films are routinely shoveled out for the masses to blindly consume based on the bottom line and more frequently their ignorance, Anonymous at least concerns the worlds’ greatest ever author. Whoever wrote those lines, be it Shakespeare or Edward de Vere, at least somebody did.