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Anonymous

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anonymous-movie-2011Anonymous takes as its basic premise the so-called Oxfordian theory regarding the authorship of the plays and poems of William Shakespeare.

According to this idea, Shakespeare himself did not actually write the works usually attributed to him. Instead, they were written by the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, who was compelled to remain secretive concerning his authorship. Anonymous posits a scenario wherein de Vere was not only the author of the complete works of “Shakespeare,” but also the bastard son of Elizabeth I, and William Cecil’s choice for Elizabeth’s successor. No wonder Ben Jonson, one of the few confidantes to de Vere’s secret literary life, tells him, “you are the soul of the age.”

The film begins with Derek Jacobi, as prologue, introducing the basic outline of the Oxfordian theory. In essence, Shakespeare could not have written the plays attributed to him because he was the barely literate son of a glove maker. The story then jumps forwards and backwards in time, showing de Vere’s precocious childhood at court, his marriage to Cecil’s daughter (thus securing Cecil’s grandson as a future King), and his deathbed bequest of a folio of manuscripts to Jonson with a plea to ensure that his authorship of the works will always remain secret.

We see the first productions of many of “Shakespeare’s” works, and the film does succeed in bringing to life the sort of rowdy, yet rapt, reception that audiences at The Globe would likely have given.

The London of Anonymous is a dark and squalid looking place, but its architecture attests to the high culture it was capable of expressing. Admittedly, this scenery is mostly computer generated, but it is a potent evocation nonetheless. The costumes and mannerisms of all of the characters similarly signify the fact that this period of English history was a cultural high-water mark.

A constant thread running through the film concerns the political machinations of William Cecil. Cecil was an influential advisor to Elizabeth and he is portrayed in the film as an expert puppet master. By turns Machiavellian and pious, Cecil is shown to be the real power behind the throne. Cecil’s influence is counterbalanced by that of de Vere who seeks to sever Cecil from Elizabeth by arousing the anger of the mob through his plays. Thus, we see that the works of “Shakespeare” are primarily vehicles for anti-Cecil propaganda.

And this begins to bring us towards the heart of the problem with this film. Whilst it certainly works as an entertaining slice of Elizabethan intrigue it is utterly hamstrung by the mendacious lie of the Oxfordian pseudo-thesis. For example, one of the difficulties with the Oxfordian argument is that it requires de Vere to have written A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the age of twelve.

This is no problem for the film. The pre-adolescent child prodigy is shown acting in its première before the young Elizabeth. Elizabeth shows some incredulity that a twelve year old could have written it and challenges young Edward to extemporize something. When he does so, effortlessly, this seems to stand as evidence that de Vere really was an unbelievably precocious genius. Such circular logic is endemic to those who doubt Shakespeare’s authorship but the film presents their case with no hint of its implausibility.

In fact, the film suggests that the very idea of Shakespeare writing the plays is itself laughably ludicrous. The Shakespeare of Anonymous is an illiterate, narcissistic, drunken, venal chancer. Whilst he is able to read (as he is an actor, the film can’t really get around this necessity), we are told that he is unable to write. This portrayal is very much in keeping with that proposed by the Oxfordian fallacy. But why does it matter that this theory has been popularized in Anonymous? 

The obvious objection to the Oxfordian theory is that it is not true. The only real evidence that Shakespeare did not write the plays and poems attributed to him is that there are some lacunae in his surviving biography. This is also true for every other Elizabethan writer. On the other hand, Oxfordians must believe that de Vere began his play writing career at the age of twelve, despite there being no evidence for this, and despite its apparent absurdity. Everything else is speculative. And it’s the nature of this speculation that reveals the secret motivations of the Oxfordians.

Shakespeare, they tell us, could not possibly have written the plays because he was the son of an illiterate glove maker from Stratford, whilst the plays could only have been written by someone of a superior education and with an inside knowledge of the ways of the nobility. In fact, there is nothing in the plays that could not have been learned by any gifted Elizabethan writer. The idea that they could only have been written by an aristocrat is extraordinarily naïve. All of the Oxfordians’ claims are debunked on the excellent Shakespeare Authorship Page. But what is interesting is the class-based stereotyping of the Oxfordians’ assumptions. Their notion that it would be impossible for someone of humble beginnings to become an artistic genius is the stupidest sort of snobbery.

But the idea of Shakespeare’s humble beginnings is itself only a half-truth. Whilst it is true that his father was a glove maker, his mother, Mary Arden, was of aristocratic stock. The Ardens of Warwickshire were one of the few families able to trace their lineage back to the Anglo Saxon aristocracy. Nonetheless, it is true that Mary married beneath her station and that William would have been regarded as a commoner. Even so, it is interesting to highlight the assumption that high art can only arise from high standing. Why would Roland Emmerich, the director of such fare as Godzilla, Independence Day, and Eight Legged Freaks, wish to adopt a position of such cultural elitism?

If you think about it, the extreme snobbery of this stance actually corresponds very closely with a perspective based on Marxist materialism. For both positions, individuals are merely expressions of their particular class. The material and cultural capital available to a person is strictly determinative of his ability to achieve anything in life, they both believe. From both perspectives someone like Shakespeare is an embarrassing anomaly. High cultural creations are not supposed to burst forth out of nowhere like a meteor, changing the face of art forever. They are supposed to be products of a system. Whether the creators of such art are regarded as rightful heirs to the canon or exploitative beneficiaries of class inequality does not matter; both views are deterministic and reductionist. The vile beauty of the Oxfordian pseudo-thesis is that it can utilize this unholy alliance of cultural snobbery and Marxist materialism to puncture the magic of Shakepeare’s genius and to sow seeds of doubt about the validity of our cultural inheritance.

Another, more subliminal, motivation for Shakespeare revisionism comes from the fact, already mentioned, that Shakespeare was descended from Anglo Saxon nobility. When Shakespeare’s authorship was first questioned in Victorian times there was a widespread assumption that the Norman Conquest represented the beginning of the British story, the destiny of which was to be fulfilled with the Empire. The defeat of the barbarous Anglo Saxons was an essential prerequisite for civilisation to emerge. For the Victorians, and for some remnants of the British aristocracy today, nobility is measured with reference to Norman blood. So it is easy to see why de Vere is such an appealing candidate. Whilst it would be stretching things to suggest that this is an explicit reason for Shakespeare denial, it is a remarkable truth that Shakespeare was born, and died, on St George’s Day. He is just too immoderately English.

Anonymous is something of a missed opportunity. David Thewlis’ portrayal of William Cecil is strong enough to have been the central performance in a drama concerning Elizabethan court life. The film has an excellent visual sensibility and a feel for the mannerisms of the time. But instead it squanders its promise on a risible conspiracy theory whose only merit, in the eyes of Hollywood, is that it serves to undermine an incomparable English hero.

 

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10 Comments

  1. David
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    (Just a small mistake in the article: in listing some of Roland Emmerich’s credits, he noted as the director of ‘Eight Legged Freaks’. He actually just produced that movie. But he has plenty of other schlock in his directorial catalog that can be cited to illustrate the point.)

  2. Posted January 7, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Surely everyone knows that Shakespeare’s plays were not written by Shakespeare but by another man of the same name?

    The old joke about Homer does make a point, which this article slides over: De Vere is only one candidate, albeit the most popular one, and among the rest– including, for example, Marlowe — is “Honestly don’t know.” The latter happens to be my own view of most of the “conspiracies” floating around since JFK: I don’t know who did it, but I know it’s not who the government says did it.

    And speaking of JFK: I realize that Anonymous is promoting the Oxford theory, but this article makes claims about anti-Stratfordianism that simply can’t be based on Oxfordism alone. It’s rather as if someone watched Oliver Stone’s JFK, decided Garrison’s theory was hooey [as it is, though I do like the idea of aristocratic gay hit men roaming the country promoting the Right], and announced “Now we can be sure, Oswald acted alone!”

    One thing that particularly irks me is the absence of any list, or even a single name, of one of these anti-Stratfordians. This makes it easier for the author to insinuate that they’re a bunch of whack jobs and auto-didacts, titled and untitled snobs, and olde tyme Marxists. Sort of like the Lone Gunmen of the X Files.

    A look at the actual list of Anti-Stratfordians, available throughout the internets, shows that while author may view himself as sexy, skeptical Scully, the antis include not just Fox Mulder but Skinner, the Cigarette Smoking Man, Well-Manicured Man, and the Vice President.

    In other words, the author does not want you to wonder whether Coleridge, Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Henry James might know a bit more about being an author, or that Orson Welles and John Geilgud might know more about being a dramatist or actor, than either the reader or himself.

    It also enables the author to put forward his theory of motive without having to confront the people it supposedly explains. I suppose the idea is that everyone is either a leveling Marxist — Twain, let’s say –or an aristocratic snob — James, I guess. But really, haven’t we entered the “this theory explains everything” world of the true conspiracy theorist?

    As for the appealing notion of the Common Man; I think this arises from a misapprehension of the role of Tradition [as in “questioning our heritage.” ] In a traditional society, an ignorant peasant may be able to avail himself of any number of means to obtain a spiritual level as advanced as any religious scholar. However, if his writings — assuming him to be literate — give evidence of chapter and verse knowledge of obscure scholarly works — I might begin to suspect that The Little Peasant is a pseudonym.

    For example, Shakespeare’s work demonstrates a level of familiarity with the law extremely unlikely is just some random actor; a point which has converted legal scholars from Holmes to John Paul Stevens today. I suggest that the author, faced with a legal proceeding, would likely agree, and prefer to hire a graduate of even the lowest school of law, than rely on some arbitrary Common Man.

    Again, I haven’t considered the whole issue myself, and just Don’t Know, but I do question whether this article gives me reason to think that it is the Official Version that is part of “our heritage” and questioned only by a bunch of Marxists and parlour pinks.

    • Sandy
      Posted January 7, 2013 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

      I haven’t considered the whole issue myself, either James but its a bit like the prodigious output of Counter-Currents on it’s shoe string budget and with only one editor and one web master. How do they do it? Most Shakespearean, if you ask me.

  3. fwood1
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    I believe the most recent work questioning Shakespeare’s authorship was by the late Joe Sobran, a man of the Old Right.

  4. Posted January 8, 2013 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    Thanks for an interesting article. Certainly, “Anonymous” sounds like a silly waste of time (rather like the equally ridiculous “Shakespeare in Love,” in which it was posited that the only way Shakespeare could have written “Rome and Juliet” was if he had lived through the play’s scenario), which is exactly what I thought when I saw the trailers for it and why I never bothered to see it. Personally, I’ve never understood why the question of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays is so important to some people. I’ve long loved Shakespeare, and to me, the mere fact that the plays and poems exist is enough in itself. If it turned out that they were written by an extraterrestrial that had crash-landed and was hiding out in Elizabethan England, it wouldn’t change the content of the plays by one jot. To me, the whole thing is just part of the modern obsession with biography, which is itself an outgrowth of the culture of celebrity-worship, where people seem to feel better knowing what their favorite actors and musicians eat for breakfast and whose shirts they wear. Does it really matter?

    As an aside, along the lines of what fwood1 wrote, it is definitely true that Rightist/traditionalist authors have questioned Shakespeare’s authorship. John Michell and Colin Wilson are two traditional Englishmen who wrote entire books on the subject.

  5. Jim Stark
    Posted January 8, 2013 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    I thought it was an open secret that Sir Francis Bacon wrote the “Shakespeare” plays. Someone needed to be well traveled and have a good “insider” knowledge of the politics of the day to be able to write like that.

    Orson Welles, who had a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare, used “rosebud” as a device in his most famous movie, Citizen Kane. I always thought that was an allusion to The Rosicrucian secret society that was founded by Bacon.

    • Posted January 8, 2013 at 6:39 am | Permalink

      Bacon is one of the popular contenders for having been Shakespeare, but it’s far from an “open secret.” The aforementioned de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, and even Queen Elizabeth herself have all been suggested by various theorists with varying degrees of plausibility. The fact is that we’ll never know for certain. Although I see no reason why a man like Shakespeare could not have done it. It’s rather like saying that someone as vulgar and proletarian as Mozart was in his personal life and background could not have been the composer of all that wonderful music.

      As for “Rosebud,” Welles used it as one of many weapons that he employed in an attempt to anger William Randolph Hearst in the film, since, allegedly, it was the nickname he had for his wife’s vagina.

      • Jim Stark
        Posted January 8, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        Bacon is a “possibility,” but you know what “rosebud” really means!!! Please, you make me think all Americans are clowns.

      • Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

        Dear Mr. Stark,

        To say that it is an “open secret” that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s works is a massive overstatement. It is an unproven hypothesis, nothing more, nothing less. Therefore, you misspoke, unless you have some sort of proof to which the rest of us, and the literary establishment as a whole, aren’t privy.

        As far as what I said about Welles, that claim is not original to me, but was made in Frank Brady’s biography, “Citizen Welles,” published in 1989. Although I misremembered it slightly: he actually said it was Heart’s nickname for the clitoris of his mistress, Marion Davies. If you knew anything about Welles and his wicked sense of humor and desire to piss off the powerful, this claim is far more in keeping with his personality than what you suggested. Gore Vidal repeats the claim in his review of the book here:

        http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1989/jun/01/remembering-orson-welles/

        And a response Vidal made to someone who challenged this claim here:

        http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1989/aug/17/rosebud/

        Please, you make me think that all Europeans are pretentious farts.

  6. EssEm
    Posted January 8, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    “…whose only merit, in the eyes of Hollywood, is that it serves to undermine an incomparable English hero.”

    For English you can substitute Western or American…in all cases White…and that describes very much of the output of the contemporary entertainment media. And academia as well.

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