November 6, 2011, by Peter Kirwan


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This is a reprint of my article "Much Ado about Anonymous", written for the University of Warwick Knowledge Centre and published here.

Shakespeare scholars have been outraged about Roland Emmerich’s new film since filming first began. Anonymous tells the story of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), who the film contends was the true author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. This highly vocal fringe theory has been the bane of Shakespeareans for decades, and the fear was that the film would bring the “Question” into the mainstream. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust co-ordinated a concerted counter-campaign, and the media lapped up the controversy as public debates were staged over Shakespeare’s true identity. Stephen Marche warns in his New York Times article that “Professors of Shakespeare . . . are blissfully unaware of the impending disaster that this film means for their professional lives”. Now that the film itself has arrived, however, it seems that academic fears may have been extremely premature.

Most importantly, the film theatricalises its own story. Derek Jacobi (a prominent “anti-Stratfordian”) arrives at a theatre by taxi, marches through the wings and stands before a curtain, which opens to reveal a hushed audience. As Jacobi explains that he is to tell them a new story, a story that undoes the myth of Shakespeare, the scene dissolves into a (finely-realised) period depiction of Elizabethan London, with Ben Jonson clutching an armful of manuscripts and running into the empty Globe theatre to escape a troupe of pursuing soldiers.

Academic outrage has stemmed from the impression that the film will strengthen the belief that Oxford genuinely wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Theatricalised in this way, however, it never feels as if the film is supposed to be “truthful”. Critics will point to the plethora of historical inaccuracies – Christopher Marlowe died in 1593, not 1599, and the Globe burned down in 1613, not 1604. Romeo and Juliet had been performed, and Venus and Adonis published, long before the events depicted here; and the play performed at the Globe prior to the Essex rebellion was Richard II, not Richard III. These are only the most obvious of many inaccuracies.

Gleeful scholars will doubtless read the sheer volume of historical “mistakes” as a sign of the film-makers’ ignorance, but this is beside the point. Quite simply, this isn’t a film that is interested in “fact” in the sense of historical accuracy, but “truth” in the manner employed by Shakespeare himself in writing his history plays. Emmerich and his team rewrite history freely in order to advance a specific agenda: the rehabilitation of Oxford’s character and a reading of Shakespeare’s plays as political and personal analogies for a courtly life.

In this sense, the film is not a threat to mainstream scholarship, as it doesn’t attempt to compete on scholarly grounds. It is also, despite studio publicity materials, not a polemic: the authorship question is one of the film’s several strands, and at times feels trivial compared to the more sensational court story.

The film is, however, designed to offend anyone who thinks William Shakespeare should only be treated with respect. Here, Will (Rafe Spall) is a drunken comic actor who seizes an opportunity when Jonson refuses Oxford’s commission to take credit for his plays. Shakespeare’s fame and ego inflate throughout the play, and he begins demanding more money and power. His only moment of uncertainty comes when Jonson attempts to prove Shakespeare’s illiteracy, thwarted only by a fortuitous lack of ink.

This is the real issue, implicit in response articles such as James Shapiro’s “Hollywood Dishonors the Bard”. The film irreverently sends up notions of dignity and shows Shakespeare falling over, struggling for words and crowd-surfing at the Globe, while his fellow dramatists – Thomas Dekker, Thomas Nashe, Kit Marlowe and Jonson – look on in disgust. It’s an ugly and comic portrait; but it is no more of a threat to Shakespeare’s reputation than Blackadder II was to Elizabeth I’s. The performance actually evokes the Shakespeare of John Manningham’s famous anecdote, which recalls Shakespeare racing Burbage to an assignation with a female audience member. The comic treatment of the character is self-consciously parodic, rather than a serious attempt at character assassination.

However, the fact that Anonymous isn’t a threat to scholarship doesn’t make it a good film. Emmerich’s plot construction is a mess, jumping across 40 years of history with little coherence. There is too much going on: Oxford’s romance with Elizabeth, his feud with the Cecil family, his relationship to Essex and Southampton and their rebellion, and the lives of the dramatists. Most damningly, the political and theatrical stories never quite marry up, apart from in performances where Polonius and Richard III become transparent representations of the Cecils. The power and influence of the theatre is too rarely seen. Instead, the real theatre comes from the climactic revelation delivered by Cecil to Oxford, the ludicrousness of which leaves an audience in no doubt of the film’s status as fiction.

There’s much to like here, regardless. Edward Hogg makes for a troubled (and hunchbacked) Robert Cecil; Vanessa Redgrave gives her all as a doting Elizabeth; and Trystan Gravelle practically twirls his moustache as the unscrupulous and flamboyantly gay Marlowe. The real standout, however, is Sebastian Armesto as Ben Jonson, whose story frames the action. As he watches his illiterate fellow achieve the literary celebrity he desires for himself, and is taken into Oxford’s confidence, Armesto finds a human story as the eternal runner-up, bitter yet maintaining something approaching integrity.

The film is flawed, but its flaws are also its charm. It is not an anti-Stratfordian tract but an anti-Stratfordian fantasy, and should be watched and interpreted as such. As with any blockbuster take on history, there is a responsibility on the part of educators to explain the inaccuracies (see also: King Arthur, Braveheart), but those in the mood for a more literary episode of The Tudors will be well served here. The more sober lesson to draw is that knee-jerk reactions to an unorthodox story are unprofessional and unnecessary, and rather serve to legitimise the object of scorn. The film as presented is a fiction, framed within Jacobi’s theatre, and as such harms the serious anti-Stratfordian cause far more than helps it.

Posted in Film review