Last weekend, I had the dubious pleasure of attending the world premiere of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous at the invitation of a German TV journalist who wanted to interview me about the film. His painstakingly neutral report aired yesterday; thanks to artful editing, I can be seen and heard being far too nice about the film; thanks to myself, I take my place in an august line of English professors looking slightly silly on camera (tip of the hat to Emrys Jones).
The film is completely preposterous, as one would expect. It is, after all, a Roland Emmerich product: the work of a director more capable than most of taking any premise, ludicrous or not, to such extremes that even its proponents are turned off. Witness The Day after Tomorrow, which probably did more damage to the public understanding of climate change than all Republican politicians and talk-radio blowhards combined. So in Anonymous, too, the notion that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays turns out to be the most reasonable proposition among a wealth of bizarre plot points and strange distortions and inventions. I wonder what the Oxfordian faction will have to say about it.
It’s not easy to talk about this sort of film as an academic without coming across as a total pedant: who cares that the film gets a few dates wrong if it’s still a good yarn? And normally, I wouldn’t. I rather liked Shekhar Kapur’s first Elizabeth, despite all the historical inaccuracies. I didn’t mind Shakespeare in Love one bit. I enjoy The Tudors, by and large (though I wish Henry had got fatter). And I thought the long lists of infelicities classics scholars issued when Gladiator came out were more than a little daft.
The problem with Anonymous isn’t primarily that it gets so many things wrong. It’s that it’s a boring story, first and foremost; and it’s that its makers are posturing as “courageous,” iconoclastic heroes of intellectual honesty, holding the Shakespeare establishment to task for its persistent lies, or at least its devastating simple-mindedness. In the Deutsche Welle interview, we’re told that “no-one dared to make a movie about” the authorship “controversy” until now, and Emmerich has been retailing that same line in press conferences as well, claiming that “only somebody like me, who’s … a bit of an outsider in Hollywood, … but also a person who’s very courageous, could have done this. I could not see an English director doing it, because they would be afraid.” Elsewhere, Emmerich argued that his film is just another “invention,” since it’s impossible in any case to make a “historical movie” that’s not in some sense made up; and yet, he claims that Anonymous is a more authentic “celebration of the writer William Shakespeare” than anything academics have to offer.
Now, Emmerich’s historiography — or really screenwriter John Orloff’s, since Emmerich’s “research” by his own admission seems to have been restricted to Google searches and a few DVDs — could be cast as radically skeptical: since Elizabethan England was a proto-Stalinist state (as Emmerich informed us during a debate at the English Speaking Union in June), no documents whatsoever, nothing in print or in manuscript, can be trusted; no-one, after all, could safely speak or write truthfully about anything in this environment, least of all about playwrights. Once you accept that premise, of course, absolutely any narrative can make sense, since all stories about early modern England then have equal validity (or lack all validity equally). Emmerich and Orloff certainly take the licence their philosophy of history gives them to impressive extremes, ignoring, basically, the entire archive of documented evidence for just about anything that happened in the sixteenth century.
Here is the story they want to tell — a story they present as more credible than that marketed, to allegedly great financial, political, and cultural profit, by the “Stratfordians.”
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the first of many bastard children of Elizabeth I (who was 16 when she gave birth to him); he was also the father of Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, another bastard son, in this case incestuously, of the Queen’s (and given that she was 40 years old at the time, probably also her last one). In between those two Earls, a 32-year-old Elizabeth also appears to have given birth to Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, who in the film is being promoted by Oxford as Elizabeth’s successor.
At age 8, the young Oxford wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream and played Puck in a performance for Elizabeth; the child wrote other plays now falsely attributed to Shakespeare as well, but I can’t recall which ones. Poor Oxford is then forced to live in the cold, austere, brutally Puritan household of William Cecil, where he kills one of Cecil’s servants who’s hiding behind an arras in his study (“a rat!”) and is discouraged in his artistic endeavours. A trip to the continent and an unhappy marriage to Cecil’s daughter follow; then he becomes the Queen’s lover in the early 1570s, demands to be sent to fight in the Netherlands ten years before anyone else, gets the Queen pregnant (unbeknownst to him), is dispatched from court, and that, for a while, is that.
Decades later, in 1598, he wants to use his old plays, and a bunch of new ones, to arouse popular support for Essex and against the Cecils, whom everyone apparently loathes; so he seeks out Ben Jonson, who’s just been arrested for “Everyman,” and gives him one of his plays to stage under Jonson’s own name — Henry V. When Jonson hesitates to claim the play as his own, the illiterate drunkard, notorious fool, and bit-player William Shakespeare (not, judging by his accent, from Warwickshire at all) steps forward and takes full credit. Oxford continues to hand over plays; Shakespeare starts extorting the Earl to the tune of £400 a year and kills Christopher Marlowe outside the Rose Theatre when the playwright discovers the secret of dumb Will’s success. Eventually, in order to stir up popular discontent against Robert Cecil (a dwarfish hunchback), Oxford writes the brand new and never-before staged play of Richard III and has it performed on the eve of Essex’s uprising in 1601.
The plan is to get Londoners so riled up that they will march with Essex to the palace, where they will then peacefully persuade Elizabeth to name her bastard son (which one, you ask? Have you lost count?) as her successor. Oxford will await them at her majesty’s side. Accordingly, to curry favour with his old lover and to make her more pliable, he publishes a poem for her that same week in February of 1601: Venus and Adonis. It sells like hot cakes and is devoured by the Queen, too. Sadly, Jonson blows it. He tips off “the Tower” that everyone on the Bankside is aquiver with excitement about this new Richard III play, so “the Tower” blocks London bridge and shoots the rallying citizens to bits. Essex and his friends ride to Westminster on their own, where they are kettled in the palace courtyard and likewise shot to bits. Oxford falls into a deep depression (subtly symbolized by a sudden, three-year long winter); the Queen dies; he dies, too, but not before handing over King Lear to a tearful Jonson on his deathbed. Cecil has Jonson hunted down by a battalion of Tower goons who burn down the Globe (or is it the Rose?), but fail to destroy the manuscripts in the process. James VI comes down from Scotland and turns out to be a lover of plays; Robert Cecil is dismayed; end of story.
A Feast for Pedants
Now, I will admit that this is clearly not just a more compelling, but also a much more plausible story than the received account. I felt my livelihood slipping away as I was watching. “And yet,” as Derek Jacobi so eloquently pontificates in the film’s opening sequence. “And yet.” I’m not going to question Orloff and Emmerich’s grasp of Tudor history, since I find their vision of an English nobility dominated by Elizabeth’s secret bastards ghoulishly attractive. But I have a few highly pedantic objections to their version of literary and theatre history (imagine them delivered in the sort of panic-stricken shriek you’d expect from us harried Stratfordians).
Let’s start with a minor one. Our first glimpse of London’s playwrights in 1598 shows them as a catty bunch taking up a generous section of the Rose’s second gallery (consequently, a pretty well-to-do bunch): Dekker, Jonson, and a guy with a gut representing, as the IMDB informs me, Thomas Nashe. And Christopher Marlowe. In 1598. Marlowe makes fun of Dekker for the failure of Shoemaker’s Holiday and claims preeminence among historical playwrights. Which is funny, since Marlowe hadn’t written a history play in five years at that point, largely because he was murdered in 1593. And Dekker’s play wasn’t written until 1599 (a fact recorded in that famous and fraudulent monument to government conspiracy otherwise known as Henslowe’s Diary). But Marlowe’s ghost probably knows that and is just messing with Dekker’s head. Nashe also kind of hangs around for the rest of the film, even after his death in 1601, but Marlowe eventually has his throat slit, as you heard — though in Southwark rather than in Deptford. Why anyone would exchange as wonderfully vicious a plot point as a knife in the eye for a slit throat is beyond me, but that’s probably why I’m not a screenwriter.
Then there’s the question of venue. We see lots of playbills advertising performances of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, staging new Shakespeare plays at the Rose: Henry V, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth (that one, as a gruff voice informs us, is “about Scotland,” and hence a piece of anti-James propaganda, never mind the whole Banquo thing). Which rather raises the question of where the poor Admiral’s Men had wandered off to, and who was paying Henslowe’s bills. Thankfully, Shakespeare eventually decides to build the Globe, putting my theatre historian’s heart at ease. Of course, one of the two theatres then burns down a few years later, ten years before the Globe really caught fire (and in an entirely unrecorded disaster if it’s the Rose that’s going up in flames).
How about a few dates? A 1558 Midsummer Night’s Dream has a certain charm, to be sure, but a Richard III, “winter of our discontent” and all, advertised as excitingly new in 1601 might have upset the handful of theatregoers who had already bought the printed text in 1597. Or the second edition of 1598. There is, of course, the additional slight problem that multiple witnesses spoke of a performance of Richard II, sadly lacking a hunchback, on the eve of Essex’s uprising, and the fact that this performance was used as evidence against the Earl and his conspirators at multiple trials in 1601. I suspect a transcription error. I also don’t quite understand how Venus and Adonis, a poem first published in 1593, and then again in 1594, 1595, 1596, and twice in 1599, though not in 1601, could have been sold to the Queen as a new and hot-off-the-press bestseller written (and published in print) specifically for her in February 1601. I suppose old Queen Bess really was a little out of it in her dotage.
The state in all its evil struck me as quite interesting, too. Always at the ready to arrest playwrights for dangerous performances, “the Tower” all the same doesn’t bother to read plays before they’re staged (it appears that the Master of the Revels is another one of those figments of the Stratfordian imagination). And neither are “the Tower’s” ears open to what’s going on in that far-off part of the world, the Bankside, unless Ben Jonson tells them what people are talking about. Some repressive state, that.
Finally, I enjoyed Orloff and Emmerich’s take on literary history. Here’s what happens when Oxford hands over Romeo and Juliet to poor writing-blocked Jonson:
Oxford: “Romeo and Juliet. A romantic tragedy in iambic pentameter.”
Jonson: “ALL OF IT? Is it possible?”
Oxford: “Of course.”
Once that stunner hits the tiring house, the actors can’t get over it either: an entire play in blank verse? How can it be? What immortal genius could possibly pull off that kind of stunt? Shakespeare himself runs around London reciting those gobsmackingly pentametric lines in disbelief. Apparently none of them took notice when the play appeared in print the year before, in 1597.
Meanwhile, in a dark corner, Oxford’s fellow noble Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset (surprisingly not a son of Elizabeth’s), freshly ejected from the annals of literary history, quietly drowns his sorrow in whatever nobles drink to drown their sorrow. I don’t know if Thomas Norton is getting sloshed with him. History tells me he died in 1584, but that may be a lie.
All of my points are massively pedantic, to be sure. They really are. They also barely scratch the surface: I could go on being pedantic all day. Anonymous is a very giving film that way.
Instead, here’s a conclusion of sorts. On the one hand, the film and its ludicrous script clearly just don’t care about history at all. That’s a filmmaker’s prerogative. But why would Orloff and Emmerich then try to have it both ways? It rankles a bit to have to sit through egregious tripe like this only to be told that both author and director have a better understanding of Tudor England than the entire academic community of literary scholars and historians.
On the other hand, the film also stakes a claim for the particular nature of Shakespeare’s literary genius — a genius here identified as in fact Edward de Vere’s. And that claim is where Anonymous flies off the rails most spectacularly. It’s not enough for the filmmakers to take Shakespeare’s works as they stand, with their various debts and sources, the traces of other authors’ influences and so on, and identify those works as the Earl of Oxford’s creations. Instead, de Vere has to be an unparalleled child prodigy, and he singlehandedly has to invent an entire art form, the blank verse play, in 1598. And amazingly, he does it in a text that is not all in verse. Perhaps someone else wrote those dirty Mercutio scenes.
I have no idea what the point of this episode is supposed to be: that all other playwrights were bungling hacks? (Jonson apparently didn’t choose to mix verse and prose in Every Man In, but simply didn’t have the wherewithal to write it all in “iambic pentameter.”) Never mind Gorboduc (1561). Never mind that those gallery-seat-rich dramatists at the Rose, Marlowe, Dekker, and Nashe, wouldn’t have found anything remarkable in a blank verse line, having expertly bombasted them out for years. Never mind that the innovation on stage wasn’t verse, but prose.
Am I getting hung up on a stupid point? Yes. But it’s a stupid detail that shines a bright light on the sheer stupidity of this whole film. I disagree with the entire “anti-Stratfordian” hypothesis — I find neither the evidence against Shakespeare nor that for any other candidates the least bit persuasive. But I don’t think all Oxfordians or Baconians, or even Marlovians or Sidneyans (sp?), are stupid. Anonymous, on the other hand, is. It’s a pompous, ignorant, ill-informed, and clumsy film. Worst, it’s a film that thinks it has an important story to tell. It doesn’t. But I would say that, I suppose. I do, after all, have a book to sell.
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- Young Chekhov (trans. David Hare; dir. Jonathan Kent) National Theatre, London; Aug. 2016 (and also some The Plough and the the Stars)
- Prose and Verse in the 1608 King Lear Quarto: An Alternative Explanation
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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