• From the man who brought you Independence Day, The Day after Tomorrow, 10,000 BC and Godzilla comes Anonymous (Emmerich, 2011), a film whose central premise shares much with its predecessors’ speculative nature (and sheer far-fetchedness), but which presents itself as a serious, historical response to the question that the film’s poster screams at us, “Was Shakespeare a fraud?”

    • No, the problem with Anonymous does not in fact lie in the film itself, but in its after-life, in the interviews and claims made by director Roland Emmerich and screen writer John Orloff who have been spruiking their film as a bold and courageous telling of the real history of Elizabeth I, Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford) and Shakespeare, that should, and must, be told.

    • But, to the film itself. The central conceit of the film reads like a Victorian “penny-dreadful” with a series of scandalous revelations, including a series of illegitimate children of the aristocracy (Elizabeth I was particularly active in this regard)

    • The film would have us believe that Edward de Vere (played by Rhys Ifans) wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare and, what’s more, had been writing them since he was eight years old and had already performed many of the plays for Elizabeth  I (Joely Richardson/Vanessa Redgrave ) in court (at one point in the play Elizabeth meets the child de Vere and thanks him for both his acting and performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). A teenage de Vere enters the household of the Queen’s secretary William Cecil (David Thewlis), a puritan, and he is forbidden from the filthy and seditious habit of writing.

    • The film does have its good points. It is visually splendid, the recreation of early modern England is lavish and, at times, spectacular. It tells an exciting story and, if we didn’t know better (and we  most certainly do), it could be plausible. If you knew nothing of the period, of Elizabeth I and Marlowe and Jonson and Shakespeare, or really didn’t care either way, then it is an entertaining couple of hours in the cinema. When viewed simply as a film, it works.

    • However, this is a film which poses as something else – a popular film, deliberately sensationalised for commercial profits, masquerading as factual, researched, accurate history – the real story that “Stratfordians” have been suppressing for centuries to shore up their jobs and reputations.

    • Emmerich and Orloff need to either admit Anonymous is an artful piece of story-telling and nothing has to be defended, or maintain the “well-researched historical fact that is being suppressed by self-interested academics and Shakespeare ‘industry’” argument and withstand (and expect) whatever is thrown at them. The more they persist with their claims of authenticity and scholarship, the more attention and scathing attacks they will attract from the academic community. Put simply, they can’t have it both ways. As Syme points out, “Emmerich and Orloff … go out of their way to lecture people, so they’re asking for the pedant’s probe.” And there are plenty of pedants out there ready to start probing!

    • One of the film’s chief critics, Shakespearean scholar and biographer James Shapiro (see Glen Jennings review of Shapiro’s “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” in  Steep Stairs, Vol.5 Oct 2011), argues that Anonymous is in fact a film of, and for, our time, “in which claims based on conviction are as valid as those based on hard evidence,”

    • While this is mildly irritating, what is more distressing is that the focus is shifted once again from the work to the man. Although questioning the authorship of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare is valid, as his claim is not irrefutable, this should be done in a measured, scholarly way.

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