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'Anonymous,' a Bold Denial of the Bard, Captures Spirit of Shakespearean Tragedy

Rhys Ifans stars as Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, in Roland Emmerich's Anonymous.

Who was William Shakespeare? Was he the Bard of Avon, the poet and playwright of humble beginnings whose command of the language gave us Hamlet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Or was he a drunk, a fraud and a shameless opportunist?
 
Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s sure-to-be controversial (at least in academic circles) historical epic, espouses the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship, attributing all those masterworks to Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the 17th Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), functionally illiterate and fulfilled more by gold and mead than the joy of artistic expression, is seem as a contemptible fool.
 
Whether or not you’re inclined to dismiss Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff’s radical revisionism – a task best left to scholars, methinks, though the pair’s version of events is incredible enough to strain any imagination – should hardly discourage appreciation of the movie, which is the director’s most ambitious and satisfying.
 
Emmerich has spent years (and untold millions) dealing with alien invasions and natural disasters, in apocalyptic tales including Independence Day, 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow. These days, he’s more intent on destroying Shakespeare’s credibility than the planet, and while his evidence is strenuously manipulated, the resulting drama is at once overwrought, salacious and compelling.
 
Would you believe, for instance, that Queen Elizabeth – played as a young woman by Joely Richardson, and as an elderly monarch byRichardson’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave – birthed so many illegitimate children that she actually managed to lose track? And that Shakespeare – or, at least, the man responsible for the writings he is credited with – might have been one of them?
 
Take that as a spoiler if you will, but the various rumors still swirling around the Bard and the so-called Virgin Queen have been publicized well enough that they’re not so much shocking as they are painstakingly assembled to fit a creative timeline. The kind of conspiracy Orloff imagines would require unprecedented complicity among court insiders and those who chronicled their movements.
 
But who cares? Much as his movie baits Shakespeare loyalists, Emmerich is no Michael Moore, and Anonymous is less a provocation than bold, larger-than-life entertainment, with Ifans its hero. Ousted from court after a falling out with Elizabeth and reluctant to cross her theater-hating confidante William Cecil (David Thewlis), the Oxford earl resolves to release his plays through a middle man, fellow playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto).
 
Jonson isn’t comfortable claiming authorship of de Vere’s writings, which he assumes to be the work of a self-satisfied amateur, but Shakespeare, who moonlights as an actor when he’s not busy carousing, has no such misgivings. He takes the credit, and soon becomes the toast of Elizabethan London; Jonson, who knows his secret but dares not spill it, simmers with the rage of a man who senses he has been reduced to a historical footnote.
 
Most problematic to scholars will be Orloff’s attempts to intertwine de Vere’s quest to see his plays staged and the political uprisings of the day, including the Essex Rebellion of 1601 – which, it turns out, was all just a big misunderstanding that Cecil’s son Robert (Edward Hogg, the spit-and-image of Christopher Guest’s Count Rugen from The Princess Bride) manipulated to his own ends.
 
The Cecils are the villains here, steering Elizabeth down a treacherous path that leads her away from de Vere, once her most trusted friend and bedfellow. Their shrewd maneuvering ensures that the earl’s story will ultimately prove tragic, though Anonymous isn’t lacking for humor, some of it provided by Shakespeare’s brazen idiocy.
 
Critics will doubtless interpret the movie as Emmerich’s long-overdue bid for artistic credibility, but while the director’s choice of material seems out of character, his style remains the same. This is an everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink production, a lurid, gripping account of cover-ups, betrayals and beheadings, and even a passionate love affair snuffed out before its time – echoed, of course, in Romeo and Juliet.
 
Whether it will be afforded the same respect as Shakespeare in Love – another bit of Bard-obsessed fan fiction – is anyone’s guess, though Anonymous is the more substantial achievement. In rendering de Vere a hero worthy of the canon, it reminds us that, all questions of authorship aside, the play's still the thing.