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Review: Anonymous

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Methought to write this review in iambic pentameter and sign it “William Shakespeare,” but didn’t for fear of attribution to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. After all, neither Billy nor I have English titles, so obviously we couldn’t have written blank verse. (Also, I can’t actually write blank verse.)

Anonymous, directed (so we’ve been told) by Roland Emmerich, is a real doozy. His past films (mostly science fiction­ with a heavy emphasis on fiction) provide interesting background for someone trying to challenge a widely accepted historical fact: that Shakespeare wrote his own plays and poems. The science never quite makes it into Anonymous, but the fantastic certainly does; it contains enough absurdities to make Emmerich’s 10,000 BC, comparatively, seem as reliable as an algebra textbook.

The plot, briefly: Shakespeare is a greedy, illiterate, alcoholic, and untalented actor used to broadcast the politically subversive literature of Edward de Vere, who looks to undermine the power of his rivals, William and Robert Cecil, privy counselors to Queen Elizabeth I. Oh, and the queen had sex with William Cecil when she was sixteen, secretly giving birth to de Vere, with whom she later has sex and another secret and illegitimate child, the Earl of Southampton. Et cetera.

The historical inaccuracies in the film would literally (and satanically) overleap the bounds of this article, but suffice it to say that many of them are quite significant. Even the ones that in a historical account would seem trivial are essential to the flimsy conceit of the film, particularly because Oxfordians (those who credit authorship to de Vere), like many conspiracy theorists, link together a tenuous web of otherwise explicable facts to relate to their obsession. To argue, as have some of the Anonymous crew, that the minor facts matter less than the “general mood,” and yet to rage against the countless scholars who don’t take them seriously, is ludicrous. The extraordinary contention that Shakespeare did not write his plays would, in Carl Sagan’s words, “require extraordinary evidence,” but instead, we get a movie that does not allow itself to be taken seriously.
One tack would be to brush Anonymous off as preposterous but entertaining. Shakespeare, after all, was a businessman, and changed some historical facts to avoid censorship or entertain audiences; why can’t Emmerich throw up a cloud of dust to rake in a little cash?

And the dust is sometimes alluring: The costumes, by Lisy Christl, are exquisite, the fight scenes occasionally thrilling, and Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle) has a few witty lines—although again, Marlowe should have been dead before most of the film’s action takes place. So maybe I should just commend Emmerich’s attempt at spectacle, ignore the majority of lines, which are poorly written, and overlook the film’s stated conceit of serious scholarship—which echoes Emmerich’s own determination to advance his brand of the Oxfordian theory with a documentary that teachers can use in the classroom. (Texas Republicans revising American textbooks: Consider hiring him.)

But as de Vere asserts, “All plays are political.” Unfortunately for Emmerich, that line invites us to see the political consequences of the Oxfordian theory, which while preposterous, is so pervasive in society as to be subscribed to by members of, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court.

As George M. Bodman Professor of English David Scott Kastan, Yale’s resident Shakespeare lecturer, writes, “The argument against Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays is an argument grounded in snobbery. The plays could not have been written by a commoner, they argue, but this ignores the fact that most of the commercial playwrights of the period were of the same social class as Shakespeare (e.g. Dekker, Chapman, Middleton, Webster, none of whom, by the way, received a university degree).” In disregarding the historical context in which Shakespeare did just that, Emmerich is reviving an aristocratic attack with its basis not in facts but in an inability to believe that an uneducated man could express humanity better than a nobleman.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf offers a far more interesting counterfactual to William Shakespeare’s life—a female Shakespeare—and points out that this woman has existed many times over the centuries but has always been deprived of the necessary resources to write. Woolf does not have to change history; she and any honest reader know that the voices of women (and other groups) have long been silenced. Emmerich, in contrast, must concoct an elaborate plot to explain why one of the elite would have been silenced. His counterfactual fantasy is not mere ahistoricism, but also politically reactionary revisionism. Emmerich attempts to reconstruct the very basis upon which nobility rests: a counterfeit claim to that which it never owned.

Yet as he shifts the cult of personality, with all of its attendant hyperbolic exclamations, from the commoner to the nobleman, Emmerich reveals a profoundly—even if subconsciously aristocratic—agenda. Advocates for nobility have long questioned the cultural pieces produced by the non-elite, but Anonymous is particularly insidious in the context of an era in which the elite (albeit in different guise) has once again been granted the right to ride roughshod over the middle classes. Pleasant costumes aside, Emmerich’s film reiterates centuries of noble larceny. So climbs this grand thief into the Muses’ fold.