To those of us for whom the Shakespearean authorship question has been answered by a myriad of biographical details that define the life of Edward de Vere (the 17th Earl of Oxford), the liberties which director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff take in Anonymous are amusing speculation; but, to those for whom these issues are new, Emmerich's and Orloff's poetic license in service to large-scale box-office requirements may undermine the case. These concerns aside, the production team has done a bang up job bringing home a compelling story that hits many of the key events and arguments that comprise the Oxfordian case. To his credit, Emmerich says his approach stems from worry over similarities with Amadeus, which precipitated his decision to recast it as a film on the politics of succession and the monarchy, a tragedy about kings, queens and princes, with broad plot lines including murder, illegitimacy, and incest—"all the elements of a Shakespeare play."
Bookending the late 16th and early 17th Century action is a pair of speeches by Derek Jacobi, the reknowned British actor, who serves as a 21st Century chorus, setting the scene. In addition to his own Oxfordian views, Jacobi is a stand-in for all the other notable writers, actors, jurists, et al., that question the dogma of the Stratford man, Will Shaksper (take your choice on how you spell his last name; there are six extant signatures, only a couple of which use the same letters in the same order), including Walt Whitman, Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles, Leslie Howard, John Geilgud, Mark Rylance, Michael York, Kenneth Branaugh, Keanu Reaves, and Justices John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun.
|Rhys Ifans as the Earl of Oxford|
The generally chronological storyline (with a few flashbacks for elucidation) covers events from de Vere's boyhood until his death and a short time beyond, cleverly blending a mixture of fact (mostly), interpolation (actual conversations), and speculation (who slept with whom and begat which progeny).
Given only a couple of hours to cover the rich life of one of the most educated men of the Renaissance, screenwriter John Orloff does a solid job bringing out a decent assortment of facts in the course of the story's conversations. For example, after de Vere's father dies and the young Earl becomes the ward of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (who oversaw the affairs of state for Queen Elizabeth for almost her entire reign, and was chiefly responsible for her ascension to the throne and that of King James who [with the help of his son Robert taking over as CEO and spymaster] succeeded her), we are introduced to his tutors. What the movie doesn't have time for is the evolution of de Vere's education that brought erudition in more than a half dozen languages, history, geography, cosmology, astronomy, herbology, fencing, horsemanship, law, dance, and, of course, drama and poetry.
|Edward Hogg as Robert Cecil|
Nor does Emmerich have time to show how Ovid's Metamorphoses became the second most quoted reference in the canon (after the Christian bible): Arthur Golding (who did the first translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis into English [all 15 books are referenced in the canon]) taught his younger nephew, de Vere, for two hours a day during one period at Cecil House. The eminent literary critic Sir Sidney Lee once wrote, "The phraseology of Golding's translation so frequently reappears in Shakespeare's page ... as almost to compel conviction that Shakespeare knew much of Golding's translation by heart." Golding dedicated 28 of his own books to his nephew, giving us a thumbnail glimpse of that aspect of "Shake-speare's" education. Selections from this content are found in Henry VI, Part I, Titus Andronicus, the Taming of the Shrew, Henry V, and The Winter's Tale.
|The Welbeck portrait|
of Edward de Vere
as a young man
Then there is the matter of de Vere's anonymity and the subterfuge by which his work found its way to the public stage. Up until the age of 26, de Vere was known by various accounts as the foremost poet at court, after which time his name suddenly disappeared. To be sure, most of the plays, many under different names than we now know them, were performed at court before they ever made it to the public theatre. In Anonymous, de Vere (Rhys Ifans) explains to Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) that as a nobleman he cannot write for attribution. What the film does not have time for is to tell us that de Vere was an admirer of Baldessare Catiglione's book of court etiquette, The Courtier, which was quite clear on the limits of the nobility's public discourse, and says, in part, that a nobleman who is also a writer must "Take care to keep them (his literary works) under cover ... and let him show them only to a friend who can be trusted." These were no idle words to de Vere, who visited Castiglione's grave in Mantua, Italy, during his fourteen-month tour of the continent. (It's worth noting that the memorial at the gravesite, of a risen Christ, was sculpted by Castiglione's friend Julio Romano. Stratfordians often use the reference to Romano as a sculptor [in The Winter's Tale, Hermione's likeness is compared to Romano's statue] as showing the ignorance of their man toward Italian art, since Romano is known for his painting; but, in reality, it shows us that the actual author saw this rare sculpture by Romano with his own eyes and that the reference is accurate. A similar argument is used by Stratfordians regarding the reference to the coast of Bohemia in Twelfth Night, which they claim never existed; however, historical research reveals that Bohemia did indeed once reach the Adriatic, for a period of 15 years, during which time de Vere visited.)
|The Marcus Gheeraedts portrait|
of an elderly Edward de Vere,
the 17th Earl of Oxford
Orloff (script) also proposes that the Earl of Southhampton was the son of Queen Elizabeth I and de Vere. Although it is possible that the young de Vere (age: 23) and the intellectual and still comely Elizabeth (age: 39) were lovers, given their long-standing, and up until a few years hence, sympatico relationship, one must wonder why William Cecil (whom the movie proposes was familiar with all of Elizabeth's out-of-wedlock progeny and "placed" the babes among the noble households) would try to marry Southhampton to de Vere's oldest daughter, Elizabeth, since they would have been half-brother, half-sister to each other. (Yes, we know the aristocracy's penchant for interbreeding, to keep money and lands within the family, not to mention their pretentious lineages, but Cecil and de Vere understood the consequences of such a degree of incest [first cousins were generally the limit of acceptability at that time] and were unlikely to encourage a match, if indeed Southhampton was Elizabeth and de Vere's issue.)
|Joely Richardson as Young Queen Elizabeth I|
and Jamie Campbell Bower as Young Earl of Oxford
One of the criticisms from the reviewers chosen by The New York Times to perform hack jobs on this film is that the movie proposes that de Vere wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream as a boy, based on a prototypical performance of a faery scene that contains some lines from the classic as we know it today. Essentially, these critics are imposing the anachronistic assumption that the plays, once performed, were never refined by the playwright. This may be the tendency today, when very few plays receive revivals, but de Vere rewrote sections of his plays up until his death, the final versions of which ended up in the hands of his youngest daughter (Susan), who, along with her husband, the Earl of Montgomery, published the First Folio ("according to the true and original copies") under her father's most famous pen name. (De Vere used three pen names that we know of, with "William Shake-speare" also found on a number of politically sensitive anti-Catholic tracts from which de Vere and his family strategically distanced themselves during his life, given the fickle winds of political loyalties. The family re-released these razor sharp arguments after de Vere's death, thus necessitating the continued ruse involving the pseudonym.)
It's odd that Stratfordians would attack this fictional scene, which the movie uses to demonstrate de Vere's intellectual prowess as a youth (as a result of the rigorous training referenced earlier in the movie and in this review), without mentioning what de Vere says in the scene—"Truth is truth, though never so old, and time cannot make that false which was once true."—which is found both in a letter written by de Vere and in Measure for Measure.
If Stratfordians are so concerned with dates—and we find among The New York Times screeds the old saw which posits that since some of the plays were not performed until after de Vere's death (in 1604), he could not be the author—they would do well to come up with an explanation for the fact that the canon is filled with references to public events (including political, geophysical, and astronomical), but not one of these citations references an event after 1604. That some of the plays might have been performed at court under a different names or that some of the plays (e.g., Macbeth was written after de Vere took part in the Star Chamber proceedings that resulted in the beheading of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots—a traumatic experience for someone with such a strong commitment to the nobility) were criticisms of the sitting monarch, and thus could not be performed, never occurs to Stratfordians whose frame of reference seems devoid of one of the most basic conditions of playwrighting—that the product is more often than not subject to censorship and/or censure. Just ask Molière or Corneille under Richelieu, or Giraudoux, Ionesco, and Anouilh under the Nazis.
Another sequence of events to which Orloff and Emmerich apply their poetic license is the presence of de Vere's first wife, Anne Cecil, in his later years. This serves the movie's plot by having Anne observe a dying de Vere giving his manuscripts to Ben Jonson, who saves them from Robert Cecil's witch hunt, and who later publishes them, writing the preface to the First Folio. The problem with this plot device is that Anne was already dead and de Vere later remarried, to Elizabeth Trentham, who played an instrumental role in reconsolidating some of de Vere's ancestral properties (among which was Castle Heddingham, which the Queen once forced de Vere to sell and distribute the proceeds to his three daughters [the personal inspiration for King Lear]).
|Sebastian Armesto as Ben Jonson|
Instead, as we disussed earlier, the manuscripts stayed in the family and were published by his youngest daughter, Susan. It's only fitting that she would execute the greatest literary beheast, since (like Cordelia) she received little material wealth from her father. As historical documents show, when she was sixteen, she performed in a masque at court with a group of other young, noble ladies, each of whom was given a gift accompanied by a couplet. Susan's read:
Nothing's your lot. That's more than can be told.
For Nothing is more precious than gold.
Compare this to King Lear's dowerless child:
Lear. What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Lear. Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.
Cordelia. Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth. I love Your Majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less. ...
Lear. But goes thy heart with this?
Cor. Ay, my good lord.
Lear. So young and so untender?
Cor. So young, my lord, and true.
Lear. Let it be so. The truth then be thy dow'r!
De Vere translates as "of truth," and indeed, Susan's dowry was the truth (the complete works of her father).
But really, as we said at the top, who can quibble with the bio-pic liberties taken here, when they serve the art of the story? A bigger and more threatening issue is the mainstream corporate media's refusal to include Oxfordians among those weighing in on the authorship question and this movie. We must assume that either those who are choosing the panelists have no detailed understanding of the issue, in which case their omission shows a lack of journalistic substance for failing to properly investigate the topic, or they know that that the facts overwhelmingly support the Oxfordian position, in which case they see the disruption of their dogmatic myths as a threat to their masters and their career (this is particularly true among academics and festival producers). Scientific method and empiricism matter little in such circles, where the blind lead the blind. For example, take the Geneva bible from the Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, DC), an elaborately bound volume set off by de Vere's heraldic crests. In it are 1,028 underlined passages and marginalia in de Vere's hand. Fully one-quarter of the passages appear in the canon. This bible (one of many used by de Vere) was the subject of an exhaustive thesis that used mathematical analysis—comparing de Vere's multiple uses of key passages with those of his contemporaries, including Bacon, Spencer, and Marlowe—as well as stylistic and thematic analysis, and concluded that this bible belonged to "Shake-speare."
Anyone who saw the bio-pic of Cole Porter (De-lovely, 2004, starring Kevin Kline) will testify that a little poetic license adds immeasurably to artistic power of a bio-pic, a premise with which de Vere would completely agree, given the liberties he took in the histories which the Queen commissioned (and for which she paid him £1,000 a year), including liberties with the somewhat questionable or unsavory actions of his own ancestors. Less than 50 years after de Vere's death, a vicar from Stratford-upon-Avon recorded some legends regarding Shaksper (then widely regarded as the author), including his expenditures of £1,000 annually. The Stratford man's cash estate never exceeded £350. Yet, as Dromio of Syracuse says (in what is often seen as a non-sequitor by Stratfordians) in The Comedy of Errors, someone is bound by £1,000:
|Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth I|
I buy a thousand pound a year: I buy a rope.
(IV, i, 21)
Despite the multitude of factual evidence (of which only a small sample is covered here), Stratfordians arrogantly assume that all references to Shake-speare are a nod to the Stratford man, rather than one of the three pen names of the Earl. We do hope to hear soon that Stratfordians accept that the earth is round, not flat, and that it revolves around the sun, and not the other way around. Perhaps after that, they will be willing to apply empiricism and logic to the authorship question.
So, what is the payoff to seeing the canon written by de Vere? First, we learn the course of study of the master, which actually serves to counter the Stratfordian argument that Oxfordians are elitists for believing that a commoner, such as Will Shaksper, could not have written the canon. What ludicrous drivel! Any scholar of Shakespearean literature should be aware of the broad and deep knowledge contained therein. With de Vere, we know from whence it all came (not to mention the real-life basis for almost all the characters); from the Stratford man, we are at a loss to guess where and how a man who could barely write his own name, whose parents and children were illiterate, could have learned such a vast body of knowledge, especially without access to certain source documents that were readily available to de Vere. We would also argue that the knowledge of who taught de Vere allows us to envision the educational parameters that we should be providing our children. If we assume that the Stratford man wrote the canon without the proper education, we are condoning the poor quality of present-day education on the grounds that it is good enough to produce a "Shakespeare." Rubbish. Such a view only serves those who would keep us ignorant—an elitist view if there ever was one.
|Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare|
Second, from the de Vere biography we learn context, something that contributes mightily to the quality of productions, or, in it's absence, risks marginalizing the cornerstone of English language, literature, drama, and poetry. There is nothing worse than ill-conceived and poorly performed Shakespeare.
Finally, let us consider the dangers of allowing defensive academics and others, whose reputations rest on the Stratford dogma, to continue to bully us into maintaining their baseless franchise. This type of ignorant stonewalling is repeated in all disciplines; thus, breakthrough thinkers must risk their own lives and careers to drag the superstitious to higher ground. Without this willingness to seek the truth, we are slaves, whether it be artistic and philosophic, spiritual and religious, or political and economic.
Sony Picture's Anonymous is currently being shown in general release.
The author would like to acknowledge the valuable insights provided by Charlton Ogburn's The Mysterious William Shakespeare, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1984, and Mark Anderson's, Shakespeare By Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005.