Not this again! Over fourteen years ago, I reviewed the late Joe Sobran’s book Alias Shakespeare for the Washington Times and said all I had to say on the ridiculous “authorship controversy” over Shakespeare’s plays which pops up every few years to excite the media and believers in literary perpetual motion. That Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays is a fact about as well attested as any you can find from 400 years ago. There is simply no reason to doubt it, apart from wishful thinking on the part of ambitious historians who imagine they have uncovered a four-century old secret. But on Mr. Sobran’s behalf, one had at least to say that he made a serious if unavailing effort to fit his crazy theory to the known facts of Shakespeare’s life and times. Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous doesn’t even bother trying to make the theory look plausible. The screenplay, by John Orloff, is an unashamed fantasia on Elizabethan themes which adds to the rather boring mix of speculation as to the real authorship — his candidate is, as Sobran’s was, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford — a lot of lively but utterly fanciful stuff even more improbable and unevidenced than the Oxford-as-Shakespeare thesis.
Most prominently — and, indeed, taking up most of the film — this fantasy history includes a hitherto unsuspected drama of the royal succession as multiple bastard children (at least one conceived incestuously) of the first Queen Elizabeth (played by Vanessa Redgrave in age and by her daughter Joely Richardson in youth) appear as potential claimants to the throne. Before the old Queen’s death in 1603, however, all come to bad ends thanks to the machinations of Lord Burghley (David Thewlis) and his son Robert (Edward Hogg), later Earl of Salisbury, to ensure that the crown goes to James VI of Scotland (James Clyde). All that “Virgin Queen” stuff must have been ironic, I guess — and doubtless a great if very inside joke in the court and the playhouses of Shakespeare’s day. The part borne by the movie’s Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) in this drama, as in that of the mystery playwright of the Globe, is a central one. Like all good movie heroes, he has more than one iron in the fire of our interest, though you have to wonder how even a rich aristocrat managed to find the time for it all.
Even on its own terms, the movie does a pretty poor job of story-telling. A framing device has Derek Jacobi, one of several prominent thesps who have disgracefully lent their name to this enterprise, appearing unexplained on a stage before a modern audience to tell them of the mystery of Shakespearean authorship that the movie purports to solve. There then follows the leap backwards to Elizabethan times followed by so much jumping back and forth between the early days of the Queen’s reign and the late, and between the playhouses and streets of London and the court, that it is extremely difficult to keep track of what is going on, let alone what it all has to do with Shakespeare as we know him.
This turns out, not surprisingly, to be very little. A performance of Hamlet appears to end with the “To be” speech, which comes after the murder of Polonious, while the duel between Hamlet and Laertes appears to take place off stage altogether. Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) is supposed to be the one who puts Oxford in touch with the semi-literate bumpkin Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) and who acts as intermediary between them, but so many are apparently aware of Oxford’s scribbler’s itch and his loudly proclaimed unwillingness to be caught writing publicly that Jonson’s subsequent tribute to Shakespeare as Shakespeare in the First Folio must have been as big a joke to le tout London as the late Queen’s virginity. Funny that no contemporary hint of either has come down to us.
Even more gratingly, the picture is crammed with lines of dialogue that no 17th century person could ever have pronounced. “Oh, Marlowe, spot me a few pence, will you?” says someone, possibly Shakespeare. Marlowe, by the way, played by Trystan Gravelle, is murdered in the street rather than a tavern and seemingly by Shakespeare himself to protect his secret. “I am Edward, Earl of Oxford; I hear that you are an earl as well,” says de Vere to the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel), supposed to be his own illegitimate son by the Queen, who is also his own mother. “So we shall be earls together.” Those aristocrats! But Oxford must seek solace where he can find it, since “I have the dubious distinction of being married to [Burghley’s] only daughter.” Dubious distinction? Well, just listen to the woman (Helen Baxendale): “My God! You’re [pause] writing again. Writing! Why must you continue to humiliate my family?”
But such wretchedly banal and anachronistic dialogue is of a piece with the ahistorical events represented. On occasion over the past several years, I may have mentioned the corrupting influence that fantasy has on the movies, as on the other arts. If readers have been disposed to doubt me before this, I submit Anonymous to their consideration as a prime manifestation of that corruption. You can’t libel people who have been dead for centuries the way you can, at least if you are a movie writer or director, living people like Mark Zuckerberg or George W. Bush, but it seems to me that you can traduce a whole historical period and, with it, the idea of history itself by showing such contempt for historical knowledge. The movies have always and routinely been untrue to the letter of historical fact, but at their best they have tried to be true to the spirit. A sympathetic approach to the great men and women of the past may make the odd adjustment to the record in the interest of dramatic power and coherence while still giving us some idea of what it might have been like to be alive at the time and acquainted with them. Like so many other historical films today, Anonymous has no interest in such truths but only in the sensationalism of the fantasizing it has borrowed from the junk cinema of superheroes and other forms of childish wish-fulfillment. It’s all just entertainment, I know — which wouldn’t matter so much if it wasn’t also what most people’s only knowledge of the past consists of.