Emmerich’s "Anonymous" Shakespeare is witless tosh!

Submitted by Matthew on 15 February, 2012 - 11:14

Though it markets itself as having something fresh and startling to say, Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous is only a crude sensationalist rendition of a century-old dispute: who was William Shakespeare, “really”?

In this rendition an actor, Will Shakespeare, lends his name to Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford. De Vere’s social standing forbids him to appear in public as an author of popular plays but he is the “real” author of what we know as “Shakespeare”. In this crude and vicious “alternative history” the actor Will Shakespeare is a dim-wit, blackmailing cockney fly-boy who murders at least two of his literary rivals, Marlowe and Kid. But that’s not the half of it.

This De Vere is an illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I. Ignorant of that fact, he fathers a child with her. Their son is the Earl of Southampton. Southampton is himself believed by one “who-was-Shakespeare-really” school of thought to have been “the real Shakespeare”. The Earl of Essex is another of Elizabeth’s secret sons. He too is her lover. She has him beheaded.

Essex probably was her lover; and he was beheaded after a feeble attempt at rebellion. Adding the detail that he was also her son is typical of this film’s witless sensationalism.

At the time of the Essex “rebellion”, in 1601, a play by Shakespeare was performed for some of the conspirators, and taken to bear a contemporary political message, that the Queen should abdicate. It was Richard II, in which the king is forced to abdicate, and then murdered. Elizabeth herself is supposed to have said of it: “Know you that I am Richard?”

In Anonymous, the play performed is Richard III, and it carries a political message. What message? Richard III is depicted as a hunchback; Elizabeth’s chief minister, Robert Cecil, is depicted as also a hunchback. This is another measure of the crude witlessness of the makers of this film.

But they take themselves seriously. To go with the film Sony Pictures has distributed study notes to teachers in the USA proclaiming that Anonymous “presents a compelling portrait of Edward de Vere as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays”. It does nothing of the sort.

On one level, of course, it doesn’t matter. Shakespeare was the author of Shakespeare’s plays; the plays are what defines Shakespeare, of whom little else is known. The rest is waffle and speculation. Unprovable speculation. Poisonous waffle.

As many came to believe in the alternative history of early Christianity in The Da Vinci Code, so this awful film will win believers for its vicious fantasies.


Submitted by Matthew on Thu, 16/02/2012 - 21:22

"the evidence clearly points to Edward de Vere as the true author."

So what is your evidence for that claim?

Shakespeare was "uneducated"? Really? As the son of a well to do tradesman, he received an education in Latin and the classics at a grammar school.

Even it it could be shown that Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him, it would not follow that those who have doubted his authorship in the last two centuries were not motivated by snobbery, a snobbery that has now developed into a conspiracy theory, albeit a relatively harmless one compared to say the 9/11 "Truth" movement.

Submitted by Clive on Fri, 17/02/2012 - 00:04

Yeah but it's an awful film, which starts off with the entirely revolting idea (presented by Derek Jabobi, not his finest moment) that *obviously* Shakespeare couldn't have written his own plays, because he was too lowly and thick.

I think all this drivel has been seen off, anyway, by James Shapiro.

Submitted by Clive on Fri, 17/02/2012 - 10:49

Sorry, but these refutations of 'lies' aren't very impressive. The first one, for instance, is just silly. Shapiro writes in the NYT that Sony are distributing lesson plans "in the hope of convincing students that Shakespeare was a fraud"; Ms Gordon responds that actually Sony just want students to "think for themselves." Oh please. The point is that *Sony*, in promoting their film - *in order to promote their film* - are giving teachers hand outs.

What on earth is the point? Why on earth is the question of whether Shakespeare wrote his own plays so important that it merits including it as part of the syllabus in (presumably) high school English and History classes?

The second 'lie' is just a different assessment of the character of this J Thomas Looney - with Ms Gordon rather preposterously referring to Shapiro's assessment (of a man long dead) as an 'ad hominem' attack.

And so on. In any case, Shapiro has written a whole book on the subject (two if you count 1599 which partly deals with the issue), not just an article for the NYT.

On one level I don't much care, and if it turns out someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays, or some of them, or even the best ones, I don't see what difference it would make - to the plays, or to anything else.

That there has been for so long such a desire in some quarters to say he didn't is quite odd, though. You don't get people running around insisting, you know, 'Just because Oedipus Tyrranus has Sophocles' name on it doesn't prove anything! How do we know Sophocles even existed!'. They don't even do it about, say, Marlowe or Webster.

When you have a film which starts with the contention that it couldn't possibly have been an oik actor who wrote these plays and must have been a clever aristocrat - well, you start to feel that this must be why.

Submitted by Clive on Sat, 18/02/2012 - 07:57

At least usually conspiracy theories make it reasonably clear who is supposed to benefit from the conspiracy. Who - really - benefits from the 'myth' about Shakespeare? In any case there isn't a 'myth' in this sense. If you ask most people what they know about Shakespeare, they know about his *work* and very little about his life. There certainly isn't a myth which somehow serves some evil interests, or aids in some way a nefarious purpose.

In science there is a concept, Okham's Razor, which is basically that the simplest explanation for something is probably right, and that if an explanation requires more and more dubious assumptions in order to be valid, it probably isn't. That principle seems to me to apply well in this case. Simply: there were plays which seem to have been written by someone called Shakespeare, so they probably were.

Of course I am in favour of the truth. I am also in favour of students hearing different sides of arguments. On one level, if students in schools, colleges, or later in life, want to spend some time looking into this controversy, that's up to them, and good luck to them. But that there is a record which needs to be 'set straight' (never mind the idea that Sony are merely generously trying to put it straight in the interests of high school education) is, shall we say, not yet proven. On the other hand, an enormous number of scholars do not accept this 'conspiracy theory' version of Shakespeare.

So I am not much more in favour of teaching - as in, putting on the syllabus - both sides of this controversy than I am both sides of the controversy on the theory of evolution. Rather better, I think - which is what happens in any case - teach the plays.

The bits of 'evidence' put forward in this debate, and the refutation of 'lies', etc, are extraordinarily unimpressive. I've mentioned two of Ms Gordon's, and didn't go on, because life is too short. (It's not, by the way, an 'ad hominem' attack to make an assessment of the psychology of someone who is long dead. It would be 'ad hominem' if you said 'he can't be right about Shakespeare because he was violent to children' - ie, if the personal detail is personally damning but irrelevant to the issue at hand. Here the psychological assessment - though it's not just that anyway - is entirely relevant).

I'll draw attention to one other 'fact' thrown in here, though. It's a small thing; maybe I'm picking up on a very weak part of the argument, and maybe that's unfair. But it seems to me to illustrate a general point. Someone above mentions that Shakespeare spelled his name differently on different occasions, as evidence for the doubtfulness of his identity and proof of his illiteracy.

But *everyone* used variations in spelling at this time, and not just in names! It proves only that he lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries!

If this is the level of your evidence, why should anyone take the rest of it seriously?

Submitted by Matthew on Sat, 18/02/2012 - 11:35

Who benefits from the Shakespeare myth? The pub and shop owners of Stratford of course! Wise up, Clive. They'll do anything to keep the hordes of gullible American tourists tramping through their town. I bet the council have bought up all the manuscripts of "Shakespeare" plays in the Earl of Oxford's handwriting and hid them in the crypt of the church where the phony bard is allegedly buried. We clearly need a Dan Brown-style detective to uncover the "truth".

Submitted by Clive on Sat, 18/02/2012 - 19:41

All right, I can't answer all your questions. If I could be bothered I would spend some time doing further reading around the issue.

Many of them, however, do not seem to me hard to answer. You wonder how Shakespeare could know things about which he had no personal experience. Well, I have written several police dramas and have never been in the police. The trick is to ask people who *are* in the police. I have written things set in eighteenth century London, and I can assure you I am not quite that old. The secret is to, you know, read stuff. And again, to ask people who know more about it than you do. It does not strike me as a stretch of the imagination that Shakespeare, working at the Globe, had a fairly extensive resource of, say, lawyers, etc, whom he knew personally and could ask. Indeed, as his fame grew they would be falling over each other offering story lines, titbits, etc etc. Someone who was present at the Gray's Inn Revels, for example, might have got drunk with Shakespeare one night and told him all about it. Has such a thing never happened to you? I know a rather shocking amount about how prostitutes operated in London in the 1750s. This is not the result of ever having paid for one.

How could he invent all these new words? Whoever invented them, well, invented them. The extraordinary thing is that they were very good inventions, which have stuck. At any given moment there are loads of new words being invented by - often uneducated - young people which become very commonly used. Some of them stick around.

How could he use over 24,000 words? Well, I imagine he was able to *speak* English, and this resulted in him having, you know, a vocabulary.

Why were his daughters illiterate? If this is true, the most simple and obvious answer is that he was a bad father who failed to ensure their education.

Etc. So no, I can't answer all your questions this Saturday evening. But the general tenor of them doesn't make me feel this is something worth taking time out of my life to do so. Sorry.

Submitted by Matthew on Sat, 18/02/2012 - 20:16

"most of them, however, are more rationalizations than answers, more he "could have", he "might have", "it is possible that," and the like."

This to me sums up the anti-Stratfordian approach. Rather than saying that it is possible that Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him, you confidently assert that someone else (in your case the Earl of Oxford) did, without any evidence for that claim but merely on the basis of speculation and clumsily trying to link facts about him with the plays.

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