Film Review – Anonymous
Anonymous works on the premise that the son of the Stratford glover, who is generally accepted as the genius who penned 37 plays and 154 sonnets, is not the authentic creator of the body of work attributed to William Shakespeare. The origin of these plays has been fuel for conspiracy theorists for several hundred years: Christopher Marlowe, Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere have been nominated in turn as the anonymous scribbler who turned Elizabethan love of drama into plays with universal appeal and the immortalisation of the humanity in Man.
Basically the film runs two parallel plotlines: one is the tortuous schemes of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who brings his plays to the stage anonymously because, as an aristocrat and close to the Queen, it would be unseemly and demeaning for him to promote his love of literature for the entertainment of the Elizabethan rabble and the groundlings in London theatres like The Globe and The Rose.
Anonymous does not have the levity and fun of Shakespeare in Love, in which, despite the muddy London streets and insanitary rutted ditches in the middle of the streets, the characters generally disported a Hollywood glow and squeaky American cleanliness. This film is quite dark, in theme and setting. The other storyline focuses on the decline of Queen Elizabeth 1 (Redgrave), whose failing mental and physical faculties have but barely doused her adventurous spirit or her confidence to move political opponents round the chessboard of life. Physically, Elizabeth is raddled, wrinkled and outrageous; at one level here is a monarch whose thinking processes barely move beyond her own gratification; at another, she is aware of the need to protect the succession and she opposes the King of Scotland, James VI, son of a fierce political opponent – Mary Queen of Scots, whom she ordered to be beheaded.
The streets of London are filthy and in this film the dirt, mud and dust bedaubs the characters too, particularly the heaving mass of humanity which fills the narrow streets with physical activity and noise. These are the people who filled the floor area of The Globe and The Rose, having paid their pennies to be the ‘groundlings’. The iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s poetry may have passed them by but they could always appreciate a good argument or sword fight. Palace furnishings are also sombre, distinguished by size and grandeur rather than luxury or signs of great wealth.
A host of popularly-known fellow thespians appear in this play. Ben Jonson, who established a reputation of his own, appears as a young playwright, lacking confidence and the self-discipline needed for guaranteed success. Christopher Marlowe, another contemporary of Shakespeare’s, wafts in and out of the action, uttering cynical insights, until the film exhibits his untimely murder in a London tavern. Marlowe was a possibility as an amanuensis for a while, although any scholar who has studied the plays of the respective playwrights would know immediately that Marlowe indulged in grandiose themes in mediocre rhyme, compared to Shakespeare.
So, who was Shakespeare? The film offers a hypothesis that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was really the genius behind the plays. De Vere’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth, according to this film, has a chequered past; in younger times, they had an affair, but then it would appear that in her youth Elizabeth had been capable of great passion and had borne at least three illegitimate children.
An accident of Fate brings the William Shakespeare, illiterate actor and braggart, into the picture. If Queen Elizabeth is not depicted as The Virgin Queen, a popular image for her which has endured through the ages, then the film does not paint a flattering picture of William Shakespeare either. This Shakespeare is a street-wise opportunist, practical and pedestrian, rather than an artistic and creative genius. Originally, Ben Jonson was supposed to be the frontman for de Vere’s artistry but William, one of Jonson’s actors, muscled in on the act and had his signature affixed to the first play and then all others thereafter. Stalking through both stories like Goliaths are the Cecils, father and son, the real powers behind the throne. These political giants can spring Jonson from jail, support and install James Vi as Elizabeth’s successor, and ensure that the Earl of Essex goes to the gallows.
De Vere’s decline and fall is poignant and moving. The film suggests that the rebel, Earl of Essex, is the illegitimate son of Elizabeth and de Vere; after his injudicious insurrection, he is captured and sentenced to death. His execution affects de Vere far more than Elizabeth. A final meeting with Elizabeth is demeaning for him as Elizabeth rebukes him and cynically notes that “None of your plays will ever carry your name.” Ben Jonson is kindlier. In a final meeting with Jonson, de Vere consigns a large leather binder to him, bursting with the parchments of the plays. Jonson enthuses in a burst of juvenile passion,” I find your words the most wondrous…you are the soul of an age.” De Vere responds with an affirmation of trust:” You may have betrayed me but you will never betray my works.”
The acting of this host of British actors, mainly, is muted and underwhelming. It is befitting for two stories which seem larger than life. In true Shakespearean fashion, the story of Shakespeare is a play-within-a-play as the film ends as it began – on a modern stage with actor Derek Jacobi, an academic supporter of Oxfordianism, a ninety-one-year-old movement supporting a thesis by J. Thomas Looney, who advocated similarities between the personality and writings of Edward de Vere with those of Shakespeare. This film offers interesting possibilities, which the viewer can choose to accept or dismiss. It does, however, clearly demonstrate some of Shakespeare’s enduring lines – such as “All the world’s a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players…”