We are a deeply troubled soul these days. We’ve just seen Roland Emmerich’s latest movie and we rather enjoyed it.
In “Anonymous,” the German-born director portrays the rise of Shakespeare parallel to the decline of Queen Elizabeth I, and the thriving of Shakespearean drama amidst the political intrigues in the Elizabethan court. Never have we been so taken by a movie about Shakespeare as now.
William Shakespeare stands at the summit of Western literature, along with Homer and the Bible (particularly the Old Testament, King James version). Like those two, his authorship is still debated. The authorship of the Shakespearean canon has long been a stuff of cultural anxiety.
This is where Emmerich’s highly speculative movie takes off. Conjectures, conspiracy theory, the stuff of political thrillers and science fiction—precisely things right up his alley.
So who really wrote those 38 plays (if we count “King Henry IV” as two plays and “King Henry VI” as three); 154 sonnets; four poetic narratives; and a cycle of 20 love poems?
We’ve been aware of this authorship question since as early as primary school, around the time we were into “Hamlet,” “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra” in the Classics Illustrated comic books; and been reading up on it through the years with mild amusement, our interest further stimulated by the whiff of scandal surrounding the identities of W.H., the rival poet, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets.
Among alternate authors offered are contemporary playwright Christopher Marlowe; philosopher and lawyer Francis Bacon; politician Henry Neville; Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford; Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke; even Elizabeth I herself.
All these can be easily demolished: Bacon is a prose writer and has never been reputed as a versifier. De Vere is a poetaster known for minor comedy and insipid poesy. The claim for the countess is merely wishful thinking. The claim for the queen borders on fantasia.
There is simply an obvious gap between the sheer wealth of word usage and dramatis personae, range of themes, and natural fusion of the comic and the tragic in Shakespeare’s plays and those of Marlowe. Just as obvious is Shakespeare’s unique understanding of human nature. One can see, for instance, how Shylock is more human than the Jew of Malta.
The Oxford theory, put forward in the 1920s, is the one that’s “aggressively promoted and more frequently debunked.” According to this theory, it would take a nobleman in Tudor times to be familiar with court life, legalese, ecclesiastical matters, aristocratic lifestyle and high culture, which would be, of course, beyond the grasp of the lowborn, let alone a glover’s son, “a petty-minded tradesman” from Stratford-upon-Avon.
What’s more, only the highly educated were likely to ransack Plutarch and Holinshed, the main sources of the plays. Thus, such magnum opus as “King Lear” could have been engendered only by the loins of someone like Lord Oxford. (This smacks of class snobbery, at which the class-conscious Brits are so good.)
Wellspring of genius
But conspiracy theory is always a double-aged sword. That is, it can be played both ways. One only has to turn the table on the nobility theory and the crux of its argument would be completely overturned.
Witness: What nobleman of that era would have acute knowledge of stagecraft and first-hand experience of backstage goings-on as revealed in “Hamlet”? What aristocrat would do an immersion among servants to discuss the price of oats and the behavior of fleas in “King Henry IV”; or go slumming among guild traders in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and innkeepers in “The Merry Wives of Windsor”?
Even the porter’s speech in “Macbeth” and his disquisition on the three effects of beer, or the catalogue of profanities and insults in “Troilus and Cressida,” we couldn’t imagine crossing the rarefied mind of Lord Oxford.
Says David Walsh of the World Socialist Web Site: “Shakespeare was intimately familiar with the language of the streets, with popular discourse… the lively collection of servants, ostlers, gravediggers, clowns, peasants, porters, landladies, nurses, constables, weavers, village friars, shepherdesses, sailors, simple soldiers—often the soul of wit or common sense—whose creation, of course, would have been utterly impossible for the Earl of Oxford.”
One blogger comments: “True, Shakespeare wasn’t a nobleman. But he also wasn’t a teenage girl, an ancient Roman or a fairy either, and that didn’t stop him from writing ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’”
As the Stratfordians insist, genius knows no boundaries from which to spring. And as can be gleaned from De Vere’s acknowledged published works, he is no genius.
In an interview with a film journal, Emmerich describes himself as “a firm anti-Stratfordian and a likely Oxfordian.” He says Shakespeare “would never have been able to read Greek, Latin, Italian and French, from which most of his source material was gleaned,” and, as a commoner, would have written about servants and lower castes, not the nobility. And he’s out to prove his premise in “Anonymous.”
Weaned on Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder at film school in Munich, Emmerich eschewed those influences after coming to Hollywood and launched his baroque idea of filmmaking with such movies as “Universal Soldier,” “Stargate,” “Independence Day,” “Godzilla,” “2012,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “The Patriot,” “10,000 BC.”
So people were loudly wondering why he would tackle the Shakespeare authorship as subject for his latest outing. Is he for real? Is he the right man for the job?
The resultant movie is something that has earned the scorn of numerous Shakespearean scholars, plus the ire of Dame Judi Dench. Some critics see the director as a schlock merchant intent on proving his credentials as a serious filmmaker.
Is Emmerich a fraud? We’d say “Anonymous” is just an offshoot of his mega-filmmaking, with the characteristic bombast and wild scenarios.
Brit thesps of the first order have been involved in the production: Vanessa Redgrave (playing a dotty Queen Elizabeth, four decades after portraying a radiant Mary Stuart to Glenda Jackson’s severe Elizabeth R); David Thewlis (as William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley); Derek Jacobi (a known Oxfordian, as the Prologue). Rather like Tinto Brass netting John Gielgud, Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren and Peter O’Toole to star in “Caligula.”
The movie has a surface realism that’s extraordinary: the Elizabethan costumes (nominated for the Academy Awards this week); the exterior period backgrounds of London ca. 1550-1604; even the quasi-Elizabethan music. It boasts of outstanding performances and excellent visual effects. Using VFX CGI technology, this is the first movie to be shot with Arriflex’s new Alexa digital camera.
One critic waxes poetic: “Its best scenes are those of the candlelit interiors caught by the camera on a lovely copper-and-honey-toned palette.” After a week, what remained in this critic’s memory was not the authorship controversy but “the way Redgrave gazes out a window, her reign near the end, her eyes full of regret but also of fiery defiance of the balderdash lapping at her feet.”
What particularly stirs us up is the staging of highlights of the plays. Here we’re made to feel right smack in the Globe Theatre among the groundlings. Spectacular performance meets marvelous language.
Many of those who enjoy the movie, however, still can’t keep from harboring reservations, with appraisals ranging from “glorious fun” to “historical rubbish,” from “irresistible camp” to “profoundly mistaken.”
The negative reactions are mainly due to the lunatic extremes Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff have taken in dealing with Tudor history and Shakespeare’s biography. Critics decry their deliberate distortion of facts, the willful illogic of events, the irresponsible scholarship or sheer ignorance of the filmmakers.
Using the devious method of alternative narrative, a technique dear to the heart of many a postmodernist, the movie has come out as a venomous portrait. It doesn’t even pretend to be a fantasy (like “Inglorious Basterds”) or a comic take (like “Shakespeare in Love”), despite the disclaimer that it’s a work of fiction, but obviously intends to be taken seriously.
Based on the movie, experts calculate De Vere would have written “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when he was about eight, and “The Tempest” seven years after his death.
At the premiere of “Romeo and Juliet,” Ben Jonson was astounded at the use of iambic pentameter throughout the play when, in fact, the blank verse had long become a standard of the theater since “Gorbudoc,” the first English tragedy, nearly half a century earlier.
The compression of time and space, or the conflation of characters and events, is not a problem, as it’s been a theater convention since as far back as Aeschylus (see the “Agamemnon”). But to exhibit this as hard evidence is silly.
There are some things in this movie that we were completely unaware of. For instance, we didn’t know Marlowe was murdered by Shakespeare for fear of exposure that he was not the real author of the plays. And this was supposed to have occurred six years after Marlowe was knifed in a barroom brawl.
Good Queen Bess was no Virgin Queen at all but one as randy as her father, birthing a litter of bastards, to one of whom she played Jocasta (mon Dieu!).
Most confounding is the movie’s nasty portrayal of Shakespeare as a conniving, blackmailing, greedy, duplicitous ne’er-do-well, the blackest piece of villainy this side of Iago. And what do you know, the man we’ve long known as the author of these plays—the summit of the English language—was a ninny who could hardly write his name. (This is as far as “honest fiction” can go. We draw the line.)
In an interview with Robert Levin in The Atlantic, Orloff defends their movie by conjuring to their side such notables as Whitman, James Joyce, Dickens, Freud, Orson Welles, Emerson, Mark Twain, Henry James, citing them as among the doubters of Shakespeare’s authorship.
He buttresses his premise: “Mark Twain said he could never have written about the Mississippi had he not been a Mississippi riverboat pilot.”
To which someone replies: “Who then was the true author of ‘The Prince and the Pauper’?”
And another: “So, when was Mark Twain in King Arthur’s court? It’s called imagination.”
And still another: “Just because Orloff has been unable to educate himself on the Elizabethan era, he should not assume Shakespeare was unable to educate himself.”
Tellingly, there is no contextualizing of Orloff’s claim, whether the statement of Twain, a humorist, could have been said with tongue in cheek; or for dramatic purposes, as when Joyce’s dissent is expressed in a dialogue of characters in a novel. More obviously, Orloff cites only a handful of notable doubters but not the dozens, probably hundreds, of notable believers.
He also lambastes the scholars, saying the movie gets their goat only because it is threatening to the Shakespearean-scholarship industry and English tourism. This sounds gratuitous, if not downright ungrateful.
He and Emmerich practically cannibalized the works of Shakespearean experts, made a spin, and, when reprimanded, complain against the “arrogance of the literary establishment.” While the scholars spend a lifetime of research, the two took only a few years of reading these experts’ studies and are now exclaiming “Eureka!” ‘It makes one wonder how many Shakespeare plays this duo has actually read.
They demand as proof a work in Shakespeare’s handwriting when, as one scholar points out, any manuscript of the Authorized King James Bible itself—the most popular literature at that time, written by the hands of numerous translators—can hardly be found. And equally popular contemporary playwrights such as Marlowe, Fletcher and Webster left even less handwritten documents and biographical data. (There goes another shallow argument of the Oxfordians.)
Jonson, who edited the First Folio of the plays published barely seven years after Shakespeare’s death, prefaced it with an apostrophe to “Sweet Swan of Avon!… Soul of the age! The applause, delight and wonder of our stage, my Shakespeare, rise!”
In this extraordinary homage, any reasonably warm human being could sense Jonson’s heartfelt sincerity, beyond the pale of duplicity and cynicism shown in the movie. That dedication “To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare” should be enough documentary evidence to settle the authorship controversy once and for all.
He should know, he lived closer to Shakespeare’s time than any of those doubters. And, as tradition would have it, Shakespeare stood godfather to one of his sons.
But, of course, Emmerich and Orloff would put forward another thick-headed argument. They justify their movie as not after historiographical truth but the political function of history as drama.
Emmerich insists their movie is not really arguing Shakespeare’s authorship but is after a higher truth, such as: Is the pen mightier than the sword?
“First and foremost, it’s a drama,” says Orloff, “and just like Shakespeare we’re creating drama.” He asserts they’ve actually made a Shakespeare play, or, “more accurately, an Elizabethan play, in the sense that we have a large cast of characters and we’re dealing with Shakespeare’s own themes: an unknown prince not getting his throne; betrayal, incest, power; who will be the next king.”
Such pseudo-postmodernist argument bedevils critics of the movie, so its opponents find it hard to put across their own arguments.
Lois Potter of the University of Delaware blames “cultural materialism, which wants to know all it can about those fields of everyday business; and the postmodern taste for indeterminacy, which has readmitted legendary and anecdotal evidence in order to play with alternative life stories.”
Fictionalizing Shakespeare can be traced to at least as early as half a century after his death, when he appeared as the Prologue in Dryden’s “Troilus and Cressida.” One is continually amazed that thousands of plays, novels and screenplays have since been written based on so scant a biography.
It now turns out “Anonymous” has cribbed its plot from two plays. The De Vere-frontman premise is from Amy Freed’s 2001 parody “The Beard of Avon,” which dispenses with accurate chronology and biographical data.
William Leigh’s 1930 “Clipt Wings”—a lurid tale of duplicity, murder and bastardry—puts forward Sir Francis Bacon (instead of Oxford) as the rightful author of the oeuvre. He is the son of Elizabeth I. She is murdered by Robert Cecil as she won’t name him heir; while Shakespeare is murdered by Jonson to keep the Bacon authorship a secret.
(Tom Stoppard’s “Shakespeare in Love” can be traced to an 1804 French play, “Shakespeare Amoureaux,” by Alexandre Duval.)
If we follow the logic of Samuel Schoenbaum’s observation that “biography tends towards oblique self-portrait,” then this movie’s portrayal of an oafish, venal, semiliterate Shakespeare could be a self-portrait of Orloff or Emmerich.
Or why would they deliberately twist known facts and documentary evidence to fit their theory? Mental laziness? Bitter jealousy? Self-justification? Or plain mediocrity? Walsh of the World Socialist Web Site suggests the aid of a psychologist.
Peter Holland of the University of Notre Dame says Shakespeare’s mythified life is quite malleable into dramatic structure, resulting in some of the looniest plays ever produced. He traces this to the absence of evidence, the lack of material historical facts, thus people are writing across the space of the biography, merrily filling in the blanks.
In an interview with Walsh, veteran actor and director John Bell explicates: “Actually we know a good deal more about his life than most of the playwrights of the period. We know nothing about John Webster, for instance, at all. He was up there with Shakespeare in terms of popularity. It’s remarkable we know as much about Shakespeare as we do. But because he remains enigmatic as a personality, and his character is so hard to pin down, people want to create their own Shakespeare, someone they would like to see as the author of those plays.
“Gay people will say he must have been gay, Catholics say he must have been a Catholic, atheists insist he must obviously have been an atheist, we all want to create a Shakespeare who appeals to us. That’s why people have this romantic notion of some English nobleman, rather than someone they find too shadowy to connect with.”
Borges understood long ago: “No one was ever so many men as that man.”
And, with the “unanswerable authoritative power of self-quotation,” the Bard himself would have agreed: He is an enigma because he is real.