Special to The History Place
Of the 45 reviews I’ve contributed to this space, this one may well have been the toughest for me to write. On one hand, the plot, the cast of characters, and the jumbled chronology of this film scream for explication. On the other, to tell you more than the basics of the story is to sprinkle this piece with a string of spoilers.
So, suffice to say that Edward, Earl of Oxford, has been cursed throughout his life by voices in his head. As he tells his frustrated spouse, who has watched helplessly as the earldom’s great estates inexorably declined, “If I hadn’t written them down, I would have gone mad.” Mozart-like, he has served as scribe to his muse. Now, as the story opens, it’s time to have the plays produced for the political upheaval they have the potential to make. For Edward favors the Earl of Essex, one of Queen Elizabeth’s several bastard sons, over James of Scotland, a Catholic, to succeed the Virgin Queen. Works such as Henry V and Richard III resonate with the mob to the detriment of James and his powerful supporters in Elizabeth’s court, notably William and Robert Cecil.
Oxford recruits playwright Ben Johnson to put his name to the works. Johnson demurs, proposing to present the works anonymously. But when the crowd demands to know the author of Romeo and Juliet, an ignorant-but-ambitious actor, Will Shakespeare, leaps from behind the curtains and into the breach. A con artist of consummate skill and brashness, Shakespeare is soon blackmailing Oxford in order to capitalize construction of the Globe Theater.
If all this sounds fairly straightforward, be advised that in the film’s first half hour we viewers were shunted back first five, and then forty, years. We meet the young Elizabeth, infatuated with the youthful Oxford. We see their bastard son at ages seven and twenty-seven. All in all, it’s hard to tell the nobles without a scorecard.
However, if you are prepared to stay with the story and pay close attention during the first half hour or forty-five minutes, the remainder of the movie is its own reward. By twists and turns, a tale of court intrigue and layered betrayals, of national politics and artistic rivalries, of lust, incest and the odd touch of torture, unfolds. In the end, those left standing are not necessarily the winners, and those gone to their graves are not necessarily coming out on the short end.
On balance, Anonymous is a clever rehashing of the centuries-old debate about who actually wrote the Bard’s masterpieces. As you probably are aware, little is known of William Shakespeare, and what is confirmed hardly signifies the resume of the greatest writer in the English language. Sprung from commoners in the English countryside, come to London to become an actor, then having made his fortune, returned to Strafford-on-Avon to deal in real estate and grain, he ends by bequeathing his “second best bed” to his widow. This is hardly the stuff of artistic genius.
The dozens of books and hundreds of articles on the subject nominate a wide variety of playwrights and princes as the “real” William Shakespeare. In addition to Oxford, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and the 6th Earl of Darby have all enjoyed their acolytes. The very name “Shakespeare” has struck some scholars as a dead give-away, a transparent pseudonym. The only portrait of Shakespeare is so badly drawn that it too seems to some a fabrication or composite. The handful of extant signatures offer multiple spellings of the name and seem to have been written by different hands.
Conversely, many a fine writer has risen from humble roots. Just as on a given November day in Dallas, a third-rate shot with a mail-order rifle just may have hit the president of the United States with two bullets, likewise a country bumpkin just may have been bright and talented enough to absorb the lore of the royal court, the nuances of politics and warfare, and the foibles of men and women in love and lust – and penned 37 immortal plays that captured all that and more.
The wonder is that we’ll never know for sure. Consequently, I will predict that Anonymous won’t be the last we see or hear of “who really wrote Shakespeare.” The film is beautifully produced, with a satisfying authenticity, and the yarn, once it finds its footing, is fascinating. Bottom line, despite its weaknesses, I say go see it.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content.
Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia freelance journalist and lawyer. His website is https://jamescastagnera.wordpress.com/