Roland Emmerich’s new film Anonymous is keen on showing that William Shakespeare was a fraud and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, the true author of his plays. The film is part of a broader campaign to unseat Shakespeare, one that includes a documentary by First Folio Pictures (of which Emmerich is president), along with instructional guides Sony Pictures has been distributing to teachers in America declaring that Anonymous “presents a compelling portrait of Edward de Vere as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays”.
The claim that only a worldly aristocrat could have created such great plays might sound plausible in a blog or a book, where you can ignore nagging facts (for instance, not a shred of documentary evidence connects De Vere to the plays, and he died in 1604 before 10 or so of Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays were written). But once you have to show on film how plays were written and performed at a particular place and time, then published under another writer’s name, all within well-documented cultural and historical contexts, it’s no longer so easy to make a persuasive case for De Vere.
The film-makers must have realised at some point that the story they wanted to tell about De Vere couldn’t accommodate what is known about Elizabethan theatrical and political culture. They had to choose: scale back claims for De Vere or defy received history and assert that the truth has been suppressed through an elaborate conspiracy. The German director and his American scriptwriter, John Orloff, both on-the-record believers in the De Vere story, went with the latter, flippantly rewriting the English past. The politics behind their faith-based rather than fact-based choice make for a fascinating and troubling film.
Thanks to the miracle of computer-generated imagery, Anonymous does a stunning job of capturing the architectural details of Tudor London. The pretence of historical realism ends there. An Elizabethan England that never had a standing army is recast as a police state, the Tower of London serving as a kind of Stalinist prison where dramatists go to betray each other to the authorities. There is no room for civil liberties or a political counterweight in the film.
Until De Vere comes along, Elizabethan public theatres are depicted as places where low-class actors perform silly plays. Ben Jonson is a lightweight, De Vere dismissively telling him, writer to writer: “You have no voice!” Shakespeare is an illiterate, murderous, money-hungry actor and social climber.
Most of the film’s action is concentrated in the five years from 1598 to 1603, when England’s succession crisis was most intense. It is not until this time that De Vere truly finds his calling after finally entering a public theatre for the first time in his life. He sees at once how easily thousands of playgoers at a time could be manipulated by his words. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is that the author of the great plays is reduced to a political propagandist, his plays vehicles to advance his faction’s cause.