Over the weekend I saw Anonymous (Roland Emmerich, 2011), the movie currently pissing off (some) scholars because it asserts that William Shakespeare, arguably the greatest English author of all time, did not write his own plays, sonnets, or poems. Specifically, the film advocates the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship, which attributes Shakespeare’s works to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a well-educated poet, playwright, patron of the arts, and all-around dapper-looking dude (left).
Anonymous also promotes the related Prince Tudor theory, which contends that Queen Elizabeth I, the supposed “Virgin Queen,” and a young Edward de Vere, seventeen years her junior (cougar!), were lovers who conceived a child, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (that smooth, pale fellow on the right). From your college Shakespeare course, you’ll recall that several of Shakespeare’s sonnets including the famous #18, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day,” were purportedly written for and about Mr. Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. So if we’re off and running with these theories, then Daddy (de Vere) penned many of his sonnets including the “procreation ones” for his son (the Earl of Southampton).
Some spoilers ahead…
After the credits for Anonymous rolled, I walked out of the theatre, got into my car, grabbed the cell phone, and before leaving the parking lot, tweeted my reactions: the bad, the good, and a short message to the scholars whose briefs are in a bind over this middle-of-the-road conspiracy film:
I’ll expound briefly. First, as both a movie fan and a media studies professor, I give Anonymous a grade of C. It’s passable as entertainment, not horrible but not great either. For instance, in places, the characterization works. We feel for playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) whom Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans) has handpicked to push his plays to the stage. Through Armesto’s sad eyes and dour countenance along with de Vere’s claim that Jonson “has no voice,” we sense Jonson’s failure, that no matter how many times he tries to write “a play entirely in iambic pentameter,” his works will never live up to de Vere’s/Shakespeare’s (still true today). At times, the viewer also sympathizes with de Vere who’s sequentially banished from Elizabeth’s bed, stuck in a loveless marriage, and forbidden by his guardian (and later, wife) to create art, the only thing that will “keep him from going mad.”
In other places, however, the film’s characterization is shaky and confusing, much of which is owed to the director’s insistence on flashbacks to relay the story/stories. This Slate reviewer gets it right: “Anonymous‘s middle section is a blur of doublets and double-crosses, so overstuffed with character and incident that it soon becomes impossible to keep up with the multiple time frames. (We see De Vere played at three separate ages by different actors.)” Agreed. In parts, there are so many characters and confusing nonlinear devices that it’s difficult to distinguish which person is a part of the conspiracy and which is not.
What is outstanding in Anonymous, however, is the mise-en-scene (i.e., setting, props, costume/makeup, actors/blocking, lighting). Granted, some CGI scenes are poorly constructed; so obviously fake are an overhead shot of downtown London after de Vere’s/Shakespeare’s Richard III is performed and a similar angle of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. But overall, the mise-en-scene is lovely, the low-key lighting especially. And just LOOK at those costumes. Shiny maroons, oranges, and golds. Rich black and gray leather. Lavish sleeves, bodices, and ruffs (i.e., that accordian-like collar men wear). Also enjoyable are the film’s onstage productions of Henry V and Hamlet, which, Hokahey points out, are “staged with compelling authenticity” and are “full of rich atmosphere and energy.”
But it’s my last tweet on which I’d like to ruminate further: “Scholars should NOT be up in arms over this; the narrative framing (with Derek Jacobi) suggests it’s fabricated.”
Borrowing heavily from Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989), which begins with well-known Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi delivering his lines on a modern sound stage, Anonymous opens in the present day with a bird’s-eye view of Manhattan and then closes in on the Broadway district. A black towncar drives quickly down a rainy side street and stops in front of a theatre marquee blazoned with the title Anonymous. A well-dressed man (Derek Jacobi) exits the car, rushes into the theatre, and takes his mark onstage. The curtain opens and the actor begins to speak about “our Shakespeare,” that brilliant English author who “penned 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and 2 long poems.” But then he offers to the theatre audience “a different story,” one in which the playwright is “a cipher, a ghost.” He submits to the hushed crowd, “What would you think if I told you that Shakespeare never wrote a single word?”
While Jacobi delivers these “heretical lines,” the cinema viewer lingers either onstage or backstage (above). Specifically, she watches the play’s director giving cues, the stage hands turning on the rain machine, and the prop guy lighting candles and soldiers’ flaming helmets. In short, from the moment Emmerich’s Anonymous begins, cinema audiences are immersed in notions of artificiality, contrivance, and behind-the-scenes manipulation. The film concludes in this manner as well. After witnessing de Vere’s death and exiting sixteenth-century London, cinema audiences return to Jacobi’s Broadway stage. The red curtain closes, and as the credits roll, we watch the theatre audience exit their seats from the orchestra section, mezzanine, and balcony.
In case you haven’t heard, several scholars, well-known and not-as-well-known, are up in arms over Anonymous. For example, they’ve tweeted its ridiculousness. They’ve devoted lectures and a rather cool blogging project/conference to the film’s outrageous claims. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust even protested the film by taping over Shakespeare’s name on nine local road signs (right), covering up his name on pub signs, and draping a sheet over a Shakespeare memorial in Stratford-upon-Avon. Finally, leading Shakespeare scholars Stanley Wells (an absolute delight on Twitter, btw) and Paul Edmonson have written a free e-book to set the record straight, Shakespeare Bites Back: Not So Anonymous.*
However, what scholars are not bandying about all that much — but perchance should — is Anonymous‘s deliberate and effective framing device as well as the fact that the film is presented clearly as a work of fiction. Regarding the latter, unlike some Hollywood biopics or non-fiction film adaptations for example, no qualifications are made before Anonymous begins. In other words, there is no “Based on a true story” or “Based on actual events” or “Based on the findings of scholars” title card preceding the film. Even the film’s creators have stated outright that they did not “make a documentary. We made a movie, and we can’t say it more clearly than the opening moments where we have an actor on a theatre stage introducing the movie, saying it’s a piece of theatre.”
Yes, from the start, Anonymous is a piece of theatre, a Shakespearean play-within-a-play, you might say, in which audiences are instructed to sit back, enjoy, and suspend their disbelief. To borrow from The Telegraph, thanks to Emmerich’s framing device “Anonymous can be legitimately described as a tale told by Derek Jacobi, full of sound and fury and signifying not much – but it’s a great deal of fun nevertheless.” Hmm, a great deal of fun? Now let’s have a debate about that.
*I recognize that some Stratfordian scholars interpret the presence of Derek Jacobi, who publicly advocates the Oxfordian theory, as yet another slap in the face. But again, I wish said critics would also focus on the overall structure of the film and what his role signifies.