To be or not to be Shakespeare

Rhys Ifans as Earl of Oxford in Anonymous:

Every fan of fantasy literature (or cinema) owes it to him- or herself to become familiar with Diana Wynne Jones’s ersatz travel handbook, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which takes a wickedly funny scalpel to many of the most familiar tropes of the genre. Under M, you’ll discover that “Missing Heirs occur with great frequency. At any given time, half the Countries in Fantasyland will have mislaid their Crown Princess/Prince, but the Rule is that only one Missing Heir can join your Tour at a time.”

Apparently, despite his long track record of making special-effects-heavy science fiction, alien/monster and disaster movies like Independence Day, The Day after Tomorrow and 2012, Roland Emmerich has missed this important directive. By the third act of his latest project, Anonymous, the producer/director has served up one secretly fostered royal bastard too many and pushed the whole enterprise over the precipice of preposterousness – even if you did come into the theatre prepared at least to entertain the hypothesis that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, actually may have written the works of Shakespeare.

It’s a pity, because one does like to keep an open mind about the things that we think we know. The consensus of scholars remains to this day heavily weighted in favor of William Shakespeare being the true author of the canon that bears his name (with the possible exception of a couple of inferior later works, notably Henry VIII, being collaborations). But there have always been rival hypotheses (remember the “Shakespeare Eats Bacon” buttons of the ‘60s?), and the documentary evidence about people who lived over four centuries ago is necessarily scanty enough to allow for plenty of argument.

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Oxfordians – people whose favored candidate for the authorship of Shakespeare’s works is the aforementioned Oxford – like to point out, for instance, that there are no extant records that a William Shakespeare ever attended the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Bard’s defenders, known as Stratfordians, like to remind them that there are no extant 16th-century records that anybody at all attended the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon. What one chooses to believe in this debate may hinge on one’s basic familiarity with the accepted rules of logic and rhetoric as to where the burden of proof lies: with those who say that something is, or those who say that it is not. (Believers in God and atheists have fun with this stuff all the time.) There is also a lot of heat, but not much light, generated around the contention that the Oxfordians are elitists who just can’t accept the possibility that a glovemaker’s son like Will Shakespeare could possibly grasp the nuances of life among the English aristocracy.

In any case, the Oxfordian theory has been around since 1920, when a fellow with the unfortunate surname of Looney published a book called Shakespeare Identified. It has attracted some notable adherents, including Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud. Among the interpretations of history posited by the Oxfordians is that this Earl of Oxford was the lover of Queen Elizabeth I and fathered a child on her, identifed as Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton: the Shakespeare patron widely believed to be the “fair youth” of his sonnets. Another group of Shakespeare doubters came up with the “Prince Tudor theory,” in which Oxford is himself the illegitimate offspring of the so-called Virgin Queen. Making a movie about either hypothesis might fly, especially in this era of the Conspiracy-Theory-of-the-Month; but in this reviewer’s humble opinion, Emmerich ought to have taken Wynne Jones’s advice and limited himself to just one.

Before Anonymous reached that particular crescendo of absurdity, I was perfectly happy to sit there and soak in all the flawless art direction and excellent acting by a cast of some of Britain’s best. After all, if the multiverse hypothesis advanced by some modern astrophysicists is true, then there really is at least one alternate universe somewhere in which Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays. It’s okay in my book for someone to make a move about that place. And I’m a sucker for a good costume epic, as long as it doesn’t play too fast and loose with the anachronisms (the punkish costumes and execrable rock music interludes of A Knight’s Tale come to mind as the sort of “creativity” that I can’t stand in this genre). I could even suspend disbelief long enough entertain the notion – utterly contradicted by historical evidence – that Shakespeare personally slit Christopher Marlowe’s throat. But eventually I did reach a point in viewing Anonymous where I had to “facepalm,” as the youngsters like to text nowadays. You’ll know it when you get there.

All of that being said, I liked this movie and would even watch it again. It’s utterly splendid to look at; the new VFX CG technology used in scenes like a panoramic shot of a ship under full sail leaving a completely historically authentic-looking city harbor seems so real that I found myself wondering where they ever found a location like that. The script by John Orloff, however wacky in concept, is packed with juicy dialogue that never sounds a false note and occasionally rises to the level of poetry.

Rhys Ifans is wonderfully restrained throughout as the genius playwright who must forever disguise his beloved work for political reasons. Vanessa Redgrave is luminous as always, alternately tender, coquettish, dignified and raging as the old queen, and her real-life daughter Joely Richardson acquits herself very well as the young Elizabeth. It bears mentioning that the film’s flashbacks and flash-forwards in time are sometimes confusing, especially since there are enough actors in the cast who look somewhat alike that we don’t always immediately know when we are, so to speak.

In the supporting roles, Rafe Spall is a wee tad over-the-top as the crass, crude, barely literate and thoroughly unscrupulous William Shakespeare. Both David Thewlis (whom I utterly failed to recognize under his beard and heavy makeup) and Edward Hogg are convincingly conniving as the Queen’s most trusted advisors, father and son William and Robert Cecil. And although he somewhat irritatingly fails to age while those around him do, Sebastian Armesto does an excellent job with the pivotal role of Ben Jonson – depicted here as the Salieri to Oxford’s Amadeus, eaten up inside by envy and driven to desperate measures by his own (relative) mediocrity. And the always-reliable Derek Jacobi, reportedly an Oxfordian himself, bookends the tale in classic Shakespearean form as the Narrator.

The political intrigues of Anonymous bear only scant resemblance to what is known regarding who was really on whose side back in Tudor times, but don’t let that get in the way of your fun; this is an alternate universe, remember? Just lose yourself in the opulent spectacle, don’t take it too seriously as scholarship or history – and do pay close attention to details, lest you lose count of all those pesky Missing Heirs.

 

There is one comment

  1. William Ray

    The first review on Anonymous that I liked. Yes, the film is a schmaltzy botch. It has its moments, too far in to save it. But the integrity it took to contest the Stratford Shakespeare fable is more admirable than its cinematic failure. Contrary to the reasonable but misinformed statement by the reviewer that with four hundred years distance, it is anybody’s guess–this was an authentic genius who worked at his craft all his life. Oxford wrote a long poem called Romeus and Juliet when he was twelve. He wrote the germ of Macbeth when he was seventeen. Two Noble Kinsmen began as his college play Arcite and Palomon, a very derivative version of a Chaucer story. His Horestes was an early revenge play before Hamlet. After returning from Italy he brought forth the English Renaissance with a succession of court plays that later have become known as the Italian Plays. He knew Italy well, as you will see by reading ‘Shakespeare in Italy’ by Richard P. Roe. He was intimate with Elizabeth I at one time and she was wise enough to protect his genius so that the plays deal with themes others would have been executed for producing. In the end he was the artist who thought he could change the nature of man by knowledge, and he ended up just another dreamer eaten alive by the politics of his time. So to preserve the works, the powers that be/were saw to it that his name-alike Shakspere became ‘Shakespeare’, after both men were in the grave. It isn’t a fantasy. It is too true for fiction and more tragic.

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