“We’ve All Been Played?” – Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous” (2011) and the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy
By: Angelieh Therese J. del Rio, B.A. English Studies: Literature
University of the Philippines – Diliman
Disclaimer: All photos and video are not mine, they belong to their respective owners.
“We all know William Shakespeare, the most famous author of all time. What if I told you that he never wrote a single word?” – What if William Shakespeare, the Bard of England, was not the one who wrote the plays and the poems that we venerate him for? This controversial premise was the hooking statement of the international trailer for Roland Emmerich’s 2011 film Anonymous. Almost anyone in the world knows, watches, reads, or at least has heard about Shakespeare and the immensity of his reputation as one of greatest writers of all time, immortalized through the acclaimed brilliance of the body of his literature. So much so, that even to suggest such a devastating opposition to his fame as a writer would seem to be nothing but fraud, folly and ridicule and yet, Emmerich and screen writer, John Orloff, in their collaborated film Anonymous dares to build on one such transgression.
Although the film advertises Shakespeare, fans who would have watched the movie hoping for more of the Bard would be disappointed as Anonymous centers more on the life and times of the alleged real “voice”, talent or “soul” behind Shakespeare and his plays, the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. Illustrated in the film as a handsome, intellectual and multi-talented blue-blood, Edward de Vere played by Rhys Ifans, would have seem to fit the image of the ideal writer than the drunken, lecherous, greedy, farcical and illiterate Will Shakespeare portrayed by Rafe Spall. Anonymous also features important historical figures who have been altered to suit the expository and propagandist nature of the movie: a jealous Ben Jonson brought to life by Sebastian Armesto, a heavily Puritanical and hunchbacked Robert Cecil by Edward Hogg, and veteran Shakespearean actress, Vanessa Redgrave as a promiscuous Queen Elizabeth I who bore many illegitimate children by several lovers.
Emmerich and Orloff developed Anonymous along the lines of the “Shakespeare Authorship” controversy, specifically on the theory that Earl of Oxford was indeed, authentically, the brains and the pen behind the nom de plume “Shakespeare”. According to the theory, a “country bumpkin” (Jamieson) from Stratford-upon-Avon who could not possibly been illiterate let alone be a literary man. Edward de Vere, with the support from the facts of biographical evidence along with his Renaissance education background, in the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship controversy, is the real man who wrote the literature that the world praises and revels in. These historical and biographical facts on de Vere is heavily emphasized and played up in the film such as the similarity of the Earl’s life with the events in the tragedy of Hamlet.
Anonymous received many negative reviews with regards to its leanings towards the said authorship controversy. Many of the film’s critics regarded Emmerich and Orloff’s production as a fantastic parody in reference to its manipulation of historical figures and events to fit its narrative of exposing the Shakespeare conspiracy. Some of the critics who reviewed the movie in a positive light applauded the CGI effects of the film in the beautifully made portrayal of Renaissance London and the work of the excellent cast who made the fiction of the film seem convincing and realistic, but still many of them concluded that the director and the writer would be better off working on other blockbuster projects instead. Most of the reviewers valued the film for its entertainment factor but not for its accuracy: “the less you know about Shakespeare, the more you’re likely to enjoy Anonymous.” Still, more conservative critics said that Anonymous is “a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination.”
“We’ve been played?” – the ending line of Anonymous’s trailer alludes to the film and its goal to make the audience question the legitimacy of Shakespeare and the pedestal that several centuries of academics, actors, playwrights, enthusiasts and fans have put him in, immortalizing the uncertainty of the identity of the man named or carried the nom de plume “William Shakespeare”. Although, in spite of this controversial take on the Bard’s life, it is most interesting to notice that a lot more people remained on the conservative side, refusing to tarnish the good name and fame of Shakespeare. Yes, they are able to enjoy entertainment provided by a “preposterous fantasia”, but when fiction ends and reality must take over, more and more people still cling to the legend of Shakespeare and the renown of seemingly eternalized works of literature.
In conclusion, it could not be denied that the reverence of the Bard is really on a different level that: firstly, not just his works but his life or the question of his life and authenticity crosses the boundaries of transmediality; and second, despite efforts to unseat him from his perpetual place in the world’s hall of fame, such as that of films like Anonymous, it could not be denied that even these determinations on ‘irreverence’ still ended up owing to the permanence of William Shakespeare’s testament of admiration and veneration by the people of the world, even at the sight of uncertainty.
Anonymous (2011) International Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4j9OebzwVlw
Anonymous (2011) Poster – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1521197/
Edward de Vere Portrait – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_de_Vere,_17th_Earl_of_Oxford#/media/File:Edward-de-Vere-1575.jpg
Shakespeare Portrait – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Droeshout_portrait#/media/File:William_Shakespeare_1609.jpg
Rafe Spall as Shakespeare – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/oct/27/shakespeare-scholars-authorship-plays-anonymous
Shakespeare Banner – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/william-shakespeare/10372964/Shakespeare-read-in-Elizabethan-accent-reveals-puns-jokes-and-rhymes.html
“Anonymous (2011).” Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster, Inc, n.d. Web.
“Anonymous.” Metacritic. CBS Interactive, n.d. Web.
“Anonymous (film).” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, 8 Sept 2015. Web.
Jamieson, Lee. “Shakespeare Authorship Controversy.” Shakespeare.about.com. About.com. n.d. Web.
“Shakespeare Authorship 101.” Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship. Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship. n.d. Web.
Shapiro, James. “Shakespeare – a fraud? Anonymous is ridiculous.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 4 Nov 2011. Web.