Home > Multimedia Essays > “We’ve All Been Played?” – Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous” (2011) and the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy

“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.


Anonymous (2011) Film Poster.

“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.”


Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare in Anonymous (2011).

“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.


Media Sources:

 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.

  1. ericabianca24
    December 4, 2015 at 11:17 am

    The film receiving mostly negative comments from critics and being panned for its inaccuracy gives me the impression that majority of Shakespeare enthusiasts (or at least this group of critics) believes that a man named Shakespeare did exist.

    But yes like you’ve already mentioned, the authenticity question is essentially a proof of how Shakespeare and not only his works are getting bigger and bigger audiences throughout the years. He has become a worldwide icon transformed, commercialized, translated, appropriated, adapted, and now questioned. I’m not certain if it’s only me, but I think that it will really take an absolutely solid theory (and there have been many theories I’ve read) to discredit Shakespeare. If it does happen (which I personally think it won’t), Shakespeare is already far too established a name for it to change how people see him and his works. Shakespeare is already Shakespeare

  2. kwinterfell
    December 4, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    I actually wanted to watch this film when it came out, but didn’t get the chance to. I’m actually relieved because I knew very little about Shakespeare myself at the time about it’s release, and I would have bought into the conspiracy (or not, who knows). Though I very much agree with most of the critics that gave negative reviews — that it was far-fetched and just an unnecessary propaganda against Shakespeare — it does make you wonder. Shakespeare is highly mythicised, and his image has been built up through the centuries since his works existence, and it makes you wonder if these master pieces were just the work of one man. There are such things as ghost writers, and they would have surely thrived in Shakespeare’s time, and their very purpose is just that — to write and stay silent while another man enjoys the success of their work. Ghost writers remain as ghost. They cannot turn around and claim back the rights of their work because they sign a contract to stay silent, and to think about it, get away with murder was so easy in that age, so I think many ghost writers would have stuck to their words.
    As I said earlier, I refuse to believe the conspiracy of the movie as it would need more evidence to prove its claim, and respect Shakespeare greatly and love his works. But again, maybe we need movies like “Anonymous” to disillusion us from the glamour of his fame, and find out the truth for ourselves.

    • kwinterfell
      December 4, 2015 at 5:25 pm

      *getting away with murder

  3. December 27, 2015 at 11:17 am

    Anonymous is a fictional film and was never advertised as a documentary. Even with this understanding, however, the film contains a very plausible theory that is supported by a great deal of evidence described in detail in such books as “Shakespeare By Another Name” by Mark Anderson, “The Mysterious |William Shakespeare” by Charlton Ogburn, and others.

    Those who are willing to approach this subject with an open mind and examine the evidence cannot but come to the conclusion that the true author was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The truth in this case is undoubtedly less appealing than the myth of the untutored genius from Stratford but I think truth is always preferable.

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