Anonymous (Columbia Pictures, 2011)

As Derek Jacobi, the narrator or “chorus” of Roland Emmerich’s new film Anonymous, tells us, little evidence remains of the life of the playwright called William Shakespeare. The film begins with Jacobi addressing a contemporary audience in a Broadway theater about this issue, and then shifts to London at the turn of the seventeenth century, where his imaginative tale plays out. Jacobi/Emmerich’s tale is not history, but an imagined story based on some historical facts which, as my colleague Constance commented, might best be considered a kind of “fan fiction” regarding the theatrical world of early modern England.

Emmerich is clearly of the “Oxfordian” school, which posits that the works of “William Shakespeare” may have actually been penned by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, an Elizabethan courtier—while “Stratfordians” maintain that the actor and theater shareholder named William Shakespeare, originally from Stratford-Upon-Avon, did indeed pen the works which bear his name. William Shakespeare was the son of a glover, and one claim Oxfordians make is that a man from a middle-class background would not have the erudition to create the wondrous works of “Shakespeare.” However, humanist education in English grammar schools of the late 16th-century provided boys from the middle class with a curriculum based on Latin classics, read in the original language—those works upon which the plays and narrative poems of Shakespeare are largely based. Furthermore, the plays of Shakespeare, while artistically brilliant, are not particularly “erudite,” when compared to those of his contemporary Ben Jonson, who throws around classical allusions like nobody’s business…and who was, incidentally, the son of a bricklayer, who famously teased that William Shakespeare had “little Latin and less Greek.”

Interestingly, Ben Jonson is the central character of Emmerich’s film, to whom the “Shakespeare secret” is entrusted. This would help to explain why Jonson wrote the dedicatory poem in the 1623 Folio collection of Shakespeare’s plays, which maintains that William Shakespeare was indeed the author of these works—helping perpetuate the big coverup. While Jonson himself was quite a colorful character, it’s a shame that his personality is not at all developed by Emmerich; in the film, he is simply a frustrated playwright put into a tough position, about whom we really know very little.

Other characters in the film are more colorful and more developed, but some, like Vanessa Redgrave’s rather dithering elderly Elizabeth, are somewhat annoying; others, like the Queen’s advisor Robert Cecil, remain charicatures with uncomplicated motivations. The fact that William Shakespeare is played to be, not only a simple actor and no playwright at all, but also an absolute lowlife, is regrettable. No spoilers here, but the plot also becomes so convoluted by the end that it’s ludicrous. Overall, the film’s dialogue is not strong, but it does improve from the beginning to the end.

Overall, this is an entertaining story which, with all its gorgeous clothing and dashing young courtiers, is visually appealing. Don’t take it too seriously, and you’ll have fun.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Rachel

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