Conspiracy theories are epidemic. Depending on whom you believe, Pearl Harbor was part of FDR’s plot to draw us into World War II; Truman Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird; Castro killed Kennedy; and the Bush administration blew up the Twin towers. From Obama’s birth to Stieg Larsson’s death there seems to be a need to find some nefarious hand at work behind almost everything these days.
So it should come as no surprise that Sony Pictures’ newest release, Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, falls into this category. Emmerich, whose previous films include such digital apocalyptic spectacles as Independence Day and 2012, here proposes to blowup history, literary and otherwise, by claiming that the plays of William Shakespeare were actually written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Before reading further, allow me to dispel any fears. What you are about to read could not possibly spoil the film by giving away key facts. For in Anonymous, the filmmakers have gone to extraordinary lengths to make certain facts play no significant part.
Historically, this is not the first challenge to Shakespeare’s authorship, nor is it likely to be the last. In Shakespeare’s lifetime and for the next 169 years, no one suggested that anyone other than the Bard, himself, wrote the plays. Then in 1785, a scholar named James Wilmot made the case for Sir Francis Bacon. And over the 226 years since, roughly 5,000 books and articles have been written on the subject claiming everyone from Christopher Marlowe to Queen Elizabeth I, herself, as the true author.
The Earl of Oxford was first suggested in 1920 by a man with the unfortunate name of J.T. Looney, who argued that de Vere was a man of wit and letters, widely traveled, and familiar with court etiquette – in Looney’s view, the perfect candidate. Among those subscribing to his theory was none other than Sigmund Freud, who felt that the son of a glover from tiny Stratford-upon-Avon, a man with no more than a grade school education, could not possibly have been so knowledgeable or have had such a command of the language.
In truth, I have always been intrigued with the rich welter of Elizabethan England. And through the magic of green-screen, Emmerich gives this period its dramatic due. Handsomely recreated, wonderfully cast (with Derek Jacobi as the Prologue plus the inspired casting of Vanessa Redgrave as old Elizabeth and her daughter Joely Richardson shown in flashback as the young queen), the film unfortunately chooses to play fast and loose with dates and events. Emmerich and his screenwriter, John Orloff, have contrived to rewrite history to suit their outrageous plot. The result is depressing. I say this primarily because there will doubtlessly be those who will see this film and mistake fiction for fact.
At the film’s core is an alleged conspiracy between Oxford and the playwright Ben Jonson to stage plays purportedly written by Oxford “anonymously” (hence the title) with Shakespeare, a drunken but ambitious bumpkin, merely serving as his front. In this version, Oxford has already written all the plays but can’t use his own name because of his noble station. All this is possible, of course, because none of Shakespeare’s own papers have survived (most likely lost between the Puritan demolition of the theatres in 1647 and the Great Fire of 1666). By contrast, de Vere’s life is well documented. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, the documents do not support their story. Not that that stops them.
Ignoring the historical record, Emmerich and Orloff shuffle and rearrange the events between the first recorded performances of Shakespeare’s plays (roughly 1590) and Oxford’s death (1604) without regard for chronology or fact. Using flashbacks to fill in their convoluted backstory, the filmmakers make their case: Elizabeth at 16 had a liaison with Oxford’s father, John, resulting in Edward de Vere being the Queen’s illegitimate son; 23 years later, Elizabeth, now age 40, has an incestuous fling with her own son producing the Earl of Southhampton. What a round-heeled trollop…! Who knew? How convenient that in a society in which Elizabeth was constantly surrounded by prying eyes and was known as the “Virgin Queen” no one noticed or remarked about either pregnancy. And forget about the death of Oxford’s first wife, Anne, or his marriage to his second. Details, details.
At the preview screening I attended, John Orloff did a Q&A. His claim is that no real evidence exists to prove Shakespeare wrote anything. According to Orloff, he was all but illiterate and everyone, most prominently Ben Jonson, knew it. Yet, just for the record, in 1630, Jonson wrote the following in a prose account titled Timber, or Discoveries: “…[Shakespeare] redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.” Strange words coming from a man who supposedly detested Shakespeare.
Even stranger is the film’s conclusion. As Oxford lies dying, he entrusts Ben Jonson with a parcel containing presumably all his plays, his gift to posterity. Then he elicits a promise from Jonson never to reveal their true authorship. Why? Why would a dying man, who wants to preserve his writings for the ages, who believes himself to be the literary lion of his or any age, a man with nothing left to lose, not demand Jonson put out the plays and proclaim the truth? And why does Jonson agree? Sadly, the answer would seem to be that the filmmakers need this to be so for the convenience of their plot.
But take it a step further. Assume, for the sake of argument, that some version of what Emmerich and Orloff are suggesting is correct. Oxford died in 1604. Shakespeare lived until 1616. Serious scholarship has established that during this period, Shakespeare authored a dozen plays including King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Pericles, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, A Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. Let us therefore also assume that these are the plays entrusted by de Vere to Jonson. With Oxford dead and no longer in danger of having his reputation sullied by being revealed to be a playwright, what prevents the historical Ben Jonson from using these new, heretofore unproduced plays to expose and humiliate Shakespeare as a fraud? Only one answer seems plausible: Edward de Vere simply did not write them.
Less than a century after these events, the writer John Aubrey spent nearly three decades compiling short biographical sketches of many notable men of the period including Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare. Nowhere in these sketches, published as Brief Lives several years after his death in 1697, does Aubrey ever suggest that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. However, Aubrey does write the following about Edward de Vere: “This Earl of Oxford, making his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to travel seven years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home, and said, ‘My lord, I had quite forgot the fart.’” Apocryphal…? Perhaps. But then it may be closer to the truth than anything found in this film. Maybe instead of calling it Anonymous, the filmmakers should have titled it Preposterous.
Image: Director Roland Emmerich on the set of Anonymous.