CINEMA: by Colin H. JoryNews Weekly
A Blackadder parody of Tudor history
, November 26, 2011
Anonymous (rated M), directed by Roland Emmerich, written by John Orloff and starring Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave. Reviewed by Colin H. Jory.
Everyone has heard of the “anti-Stratfordians” — those who hold that Shakespeare’s plays were written by someone else for whom he fronted.
The most famous, and the first, anti-Stratfordian theory was that the real author of the plays was Sir Francis Bacon. Anyone of my generation will remember Wayne and Schuster’s brilliant parody of Julius Caesar, “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga”, with its opening line, “This play is presented with apologies to William Shakespeare — and Sir Francis Bacon just in case!”
Since then, there has been a litany of candidates: the Earl of Pembroke, the Earl of Derby, Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth, Anne Hathaway, Anne Whately (who didn’t even exist!), and — the most popular contender of all — Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.
Vanessa Redgrave as the older Elizabeth I.
All of the theories have two basic premises: that Shakespeare could not have known all the things known to the writer of the plays, and that the favoured candidate of the theorist knew these things and wrote, or might have written, plays.
Frankly, all the theories are silly; and yet a vast amount of painstaking research and ingenious argumentation has gone into them. Furthermore, I have either known personally, or know of, many undoubtedly intelligent people who have espoused one or other of the theories, usually the Oxfordian one.
I can only assume that these individuals encountered their pet theory before they knew much about Shakespeare or the Elizabethan age. They were taken for a ride on and by the theory, with the ride being a guided tour of Elizabethan politics and the Elizabethan theatre. They saw only what the theory deemed to be significant, and interpreted it in the way prescribed by the theory. And so they become captive to the theory.
Now we have a big-screen movie, Anonymous, which supports the Earl of Oxford theory.
I went to see it expecting that it would present an intellectually challenging or at least intellectually titillating case for that theory. To my surprise, I found that it does not present a case at all.
Instead, its starting premise — the unquestioned, unargued “given” on which everything else is based — is that de Vere wrote Shakespeare’s plays: no other possibility, and no grounds for doubt, are acknowledged.
The young Earl is supposed to have written the scripts for two reasons — an irresistible urge to exercise his creative literary talents, and a desire to use the theatre for subtle rabble-rousing propaganda against the Queen’s foremost advisers, Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and his son Robert Cecil.
This does not mean, however that the movie dabbles seriously in historical theories — far from it. The history in Anonymous is Blackadder history, except played with straight faces. If you enjoyed the Blackadder historical comedies, and if you watch the movie in the same spirit, you will enjoy it also — which is to say, you will enjoy it precisely because it distorts history so outrageously as to amuse rather than offend.
Do you remember when Blackadder’s shenanigans with a time-machine resulted in Shakespeare becoming known to history not as a playwright but as the inventor of the ball-point pen? Well, the history in Anonymous is as fanciful as that.
Because I have done much depth-research on Shakespeare and on the Elizabethan age over the years, there was no figure, event or setting in the movie about whom or which I did not know something. This made the show all the more enjoyable for me — again in the way Blackadder is enjoyable — because it meant I could see how absurdly at odds with historical reality is virtually every event touched upon.
I’ll mention just a few:
• In the movie the Globe Theatre burns down in 1604, whereas in fact this happened in 1613.
• Shakespeare murders Christopher Marlowe in London in 1599, whereas in reality Marlowe was killed by Ingrim Frizer in Deptford in 1593.
• Shakespeare’s long poem Venus and Adonis is published in 1601, whereas it was actually published in 1593.
• Shakespeare himself is represented as a semi-literate dullard actor who can read but has never learned to write.
The film claims that de Vere is Elizabeth’s illegitimate son by William Cecil, while the young Earl of Southampton turns out to be her illegitimate son by de Vere. Of course, only a trusted few knew of either birth — nobody else had noticed that the “Virgin Queen” was pregnant! Since de Vere’s wife is Anne Cecil, that means he is married to his half-sister. All pretty “gross”, as my children would say — and gratuitously so.
The physical setting, late-Elizabethan London, is eminently realistic; and the costumes are not only in the right style but they appear to be in the authentic materials (heavy fabrics) and in the right dyes (generally dullish). Lighting and photography are also splendid.
The more you know about Shakespeare or the late Elizabethan age, the more I would urge you to see Anonymous. If you don’t know much about either, it would be worthwhile swatting up just so you can appreciate the movie better — appreciate, that is, how hilariously it makes merry with history.
What I dread, however, is that many who see it might know nothing about Shakespeare or the Elizabethan Age, and so might think that they are witnessing what really happened.
How long will it be, I wonder, before facetious falsehoods from the movie begin appearing as assumed truths in school English essays and exams? And how many English teachers will notice?
Dr Colin Jory did his master’s degree on Australian Catholic history — the Campion Society — and his doctorate on Hamlet.