According to this idea, Shakespeare himself did not actually write the works usually attributed to him. Instead, they were written by the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, who was compelled to remain secretive concerning his authorship. Anonymous posits a scenario wherein de Vere was not only the author of the complete works of “Shakespeare,” but also the bastard son of Elizabeth I, and William Cecil’s choice for Elizabeth’s successor. No wonder Ben Jonson, one of the few confidantes to de Vere’s secret literary life, tells him, “you are the soul of the age.”
The film begins with Derek Jacobi, as prologue, introducing the basic outline of the Oxfordian theory. In essence, Shakespeare could not have written the plays attributed to him because he was the barely literate son of a glove maker. The story then jumps forwards and backwards in time, showing de Vere’s precocious childhood at court, his marriage to Cecil’s daughter (thus securing Cecil’s grandson as a future King), and his deathbed bequest of a folio of manuscripts to Jonson with a plea to ensure that his authorship of the works will always remain secret.
We see the first productions of many of “Shakespeare’s” works, and the film does succeed in bringing to life the sort of rowdy, yet rapt, reception that audiences at The Globe would likely have given.
The London of Anonymous is a dark and squalid looking place, but its architecture attests to the high culture it was capable of expressing. Admittedly, this scenery is mostly computer generated, but it is a potent evocation nonetheless. The costumes and mannerisms of all of the characters similarly signify the fact that this period of English history was a cultural high-water mark.
A constant thread running through the film concerns the political machinations of William Cecil. Cecil was an influential advisor to Elizabeth and he is portrayed in the film as an expert puppet master. By turns Machiavellian and pious, Cecil is shown to be the real power behind the throne. Cecil’s influence is counterbalanced by that of de Vere who seeks to sever Cecil from Elizabeth by arousing the anger of the mob through his plays. Thus, we see that the works of “Shakespeare” are primarily vehicles for anti-Cecil propaganda.
And this begins to bring us towards the heart of the problem with this film. Whilst it certainly works as an entertaining slice of Elizabethan intrigue, it is utterly hamstrung by the mendacious lie of the Oxfordian pseudo-thesis. For example, one of the difficulties with the Oxfordian argument is that it requires de Vere to have written A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the age of twelve.
This is no problem for the film. The pre-adolescent child prodigy is shown acting in its première before the young Elizabeth. Elizabeth shows some incredulity that a twelve year old could have written it and challenges young Edward to extemporize something. When he does so, effortlessly, this seems to stand as evidence that de Vere really was an unbelievably precocious genius. Such circular logic is endemic to those who doubt Shakespeare’s authorship but the film presents their case with no hint of its implausibility.
In fact, the film suggests that the very idea of Shakespeare writing the plays is itself laughably ludicrous. The Shakespeare of Anonymous is an illiterate, narcissistic, drunken, venal chancer. Whilst he is able to read (as he is an actor, the film can’t really get around this necessity), we are told that he is unable to write. This portrayal is very much in keeping with that proposed by the Oxfordian fallacy. But why does it matter that this theory has been popularized in Anonymous?
The obvious objection to the Oxfordian theory is that it is not true. The only real evidence that Shakespeare did not write the plays and poems attributed to him is that there are some lacunae in his surviving biography. This is also true for every other Elizabethan writer. On the other hand, Oxfordians must believe that de Vere began his playwriting career at the age of twelve, despite there being no evidence for this, and despite its apparent absurdity. Everything else is speculative. And it’s the nature of this speculation that reveals the secret motivations of the Oxfordians.
Shakespeare, they tell us, could not possibly have written the plays because he was the son of an illiterate glove maker from Stratford, whilst the plays could only have been written by someone of a superior education and with an inside knowledge of the ways of the nobility. In fact, there is nothing in the plays that could not have been learned by any gifted Elizabethan writer. The idea that they could only have been written by an aristocrat is extraordinarily naïve. All of the Oxfordians’ claims are debunked on the excellent Shakespeare Authorship Page. But what is interesting is the class-based stereotyping of the Oxfordians’ assumptions. Their notion that it would be impossible for someone of humble beginnings to become an artistic genius is the stupidest sort of snobbery.
But the idea of Shakespeare’s humble beginnings is itself only a half-truth. Whilst it is true that his father was a glove maker, his mother, Mary Arden, was of aristocratic stock. The Ardens of Warwickshire were one of the few families able to trace their lineage back to the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. Nonetheless, it is true that Mary married beneath her station and that William would have been regarded as a commoner. Even so, it is interesting to highlight the assumption that high art can only arise from high standing. Why would Roland Emmerich, the director of such fare as Godzilla, Independence Day, and Eight Legged Freaks, wish to adopt a position of such cultural elitism?
If you think about it, the extreme snobbery of this stance actually corresponds very closely with a perspective based on Marxist materialism. For both positions, individuals are merely expressions of their particular class. The material and cultural capital available to a person is strictly determinative of his ability to achieve anything in life, they both believe. From both perspectives someone like Shakespeare is an embarrassing anomaly. High cultural creations are not supposed to burst forth out of nowhere like a meteor, changing the face of art forever. They are supposed to be products of a system. Whether the creators of such art are regarded as rightful heirs to the canon or exploitative beneficiaries of class inequality does not matter; both views are deterministic and reductionist. The vile beauty of the Oxfordian pseudo-thesis is that it can utilize this unholy alliance of cultural snobbery and Marxist materialism to puncture the magic of Shakepeare’s genius and to sow seeds of doubt about the validity of our cultural inheritance.
Another, more subliminal, motivation for Shakespeare revisionism comes from the fact, already mentioned, that Shakespeare was descended from Anglo-Saxon nobility. When Shakespeare’s authorship was first questioned in Victorian times there was a widespread assumption that the Norman Conquest represented the beginning of the British story, the destiny of which was to be fulfilled with the Empire. The defeat of the barbarous Anglo-Saxons was an essential prerequisite for civilisation to emerge. For the Victorians, and for some remnants of the British aristocracy today, nobility is measured with reference to Norman blood. So it is easy to see why de Vere is such an appealing candidate. Whilst it would be stretching things to suggest that this is an explicit reason for Shakespeare denial, it is a remarkable truth that Shakespeare was born, and died, on St George’s Day. He is just too immoderately English.
Anonymous is something of a missed opportunity. David Thewlis’ portrayal of William Cecil is strong enough to have been the central performance in a drama concerning Elizabethan court life. The film has an excellent visual sensibility and a feel for the mannerisms of the time. But instead it squanders its promise on a risible conspiracy theory whose only merit, in the eyes of Hollywood, is that it serves to undermine an incomparable English hero.