(Directed by Roland Emmerich, written by John Orloff)

Reviewed by David Kathman

If Anonymous were presented as a purely fictional story having nothing to do with actual English history, a la the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Game of Thrones, it might pass muster as an over-the-top melodramatic potboiler, for those who like that sort of thing. The sets and costumes are nice to look at, and the computer-generated aerial shots of Elizabethan London, as though seen from a helicopter, are impressive. But this movie's main characters have the same names as real historical figures from sixteenth-century England -- Edward de Vere, Queen Elizabeth I, Robert and William Cecil, the earls of Essex and Southampton -- and the filmmakers have made it clear that it's meant to be seen as historically "true" in some sense, allowing for a certain amount of dramatic license. Unfortunately, this movie's version of history is laughably bad (literally; I couldn't suppress my laughter at several points), and anyone who looks to it for historical "truth" is liable to be badly misled -- not just about names, dates, and places, but about the nature of literature, the Elizabethan theater, and historical evidence.

The central claim of Anonymous is that the plays and poems of Shakespeare were actually written by Edward de Vere, seventeenth earl of Oxford, who was forced to keep his authorship secret and watch the drunken, illiterate actor William Shakespeare take credit. But in the movie's funhouse-mirror version of Elizabethan history, this conspiracy is just one part of a larger web of intrigue, in which (SPOILER ALERT!) Queen Elizabeth had at least three bastard sons, and the queen was a rather flightly, lovestruck woman being manipulated throughout her reign by the machiavellian super-villain William Cecil and his evil son Robert. Anyone with a solid knowledge of actual Elizabethan political and/or literary history is likely to be confused by the movie's version of events, but I'm pretty familiar with the alternate fantasy history constructed by Oxfordians, so I was able to follow the convoluted plot reasonably well. (Even so, it's entirely possible that I've missed some things in the following summary.)

The movie starts with Sir Derek Jacobi walking down a New York City street and into a theater (apparently the Broadhurst) with Anonymous on the marquee. He is hustled onto a stage, and the curtain opens to reveal a waiting audience, to whom Jacobi starts talking about how great the works of Shakespeare are. He then asks us to imagine "that William Shakespeare never wrote a word," and begins reciting standard antistratfordian talking points about William Shakespeare of Stratford -- how none of his manuscripts survive (true, but totally unremarkable), how he left no books or manuscripts in his will (also true but unremarkable), how both his daughters were "irrefutably illiterate" (blatantly false -- Susanna could sign her name and had a reputation for intelligence), how he retired to Stratford in 1604 to be a "grain merchant" (also false). Jacobi asks us to imagine a different, darker story; a film projector starts, and we segue into Elizabethan London.

We see a man running through the streets in the rain at night clutching a large bundle of papers, and from the shouts of the men following him, we discover that this is Ben Jonson. He runs into a playhouse (apparently the Globe) and hides in a compartment under the stage, but the men find him, pull him out (without the bundle), set fire to the playhouse, and bring Jonson to Robert Cecil, who threatens him with torture and demands to know where the plays are. Jonson refuses to say, and we segue once again, into the first of the film's many flashbacks.

A title says "Five years earlier," and since we later learn that the previous events with Jonson took place just after the death of Edward de Vere, which happened in 1604, we must be in 1599. We are at the Rose playhouse, where the earls of Oxford and Southampton sit together in a private box watching the play, while Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe (yes, he's still alive), Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Nashe sit in the audience commenting on the action and trash-talking each other. We are also introduced to one of the actors, William Shakespeare, who is depicted as drunk and rather dim. The groundlings get very excited by the play, which is openly mocking one of the politicians who is present in a private box. Finally a censor barges in, demands to know who wrote this play, is told that Ben Jonson wrote it, and hauls Jonson off to jail. All this gives Oxford an idea. Back home, he writes up a play, which turns out to be Shakespeare's Henry V. He springs Jonson from jail and offers him a lot of money to pretend to be the author of this play and others to come, because it would be too dangerous for him (Oxford) to be known as the author. Jonson is hesitant, but agrees to bring the play to the Lord Chamberlain's Men to stage. (Yes, the Lord Chamberlain's Men are at the Rose under Phillip Henslowe in 1599 -- don't ask.)

They do stage Henry V, with Oxford in the audience, and it's a great success. The audience goes into such a frenzy that they run up on stage to fight the actors playing French solidiers, and when the play is over they chant, "Playwright! Playwright! Playwright!" Oxford looks at Jonson, who stays in his seat, whereupon the oafish William Shakespeare strides to the front of the stage and claims credit, taking a bow to wild applause and making a semi-coherent little speech. Oxford is not happy at this bumbling rustic taking credit for his plays, but he later brings Jonson back to his estate and gives him a pile of new plays, which Oxford has apparently written years earlier and had sitting on his shelf -- Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and others. Jonson doles out the manuscripts one by one to Shakespeare, who becomes the toast of the London theater world but has no idea who is "really" writing these plays. The fact that these plays are written in iambic pentameter is depicted as a shocking and revolutionary new innovation (yes, in 1599, decades after iambic pentameter became the standard meter for English drama).

Eventually Shakespeare follows Jonson and discovers the source of the plays, whereupon he blackmails Oxford into paying him £400 a year for not revealing the secret. Later he shows up in the tavern with a coat of arms he has bought with his new wealth, but is barely able to read the motto, and refuses to write his name when challenged by Marlowe. Unlike in many Oxfordian scenarios where Oxford's authorship is an open secret, in Anonymous Ben Jonson is the only one who knows, but Marlowe clearly suspects something, and goes around telling people that Shakespeare "never learned to form his letters." This is one of numerous examples where plausibility is sacrificed in favor of Oxfordian disdain for William Shakespeare of Stratford. If Shakespeare was really the semi-literate doofus depicted in this movie, how could he have convinced everybody for decades that he was a great poet and playwright?

Amidst all this, Oxford reminisces about his life in a series of flashbacks. Forty years ago (thus in 1559) the nine-year-old Oxford stars in A Midsummer Night's Dream before the young Queen Elizabeth, who praises the boy for writing such a nice play. After his father's death, the teenage Oxford goes to live with William Cecil, the queen's top advisor, where he gets the best tutors but clashes with Cecil's young son Robert. Oxford kills a servant by stabbing him through an arras (as in Hamlet, but totally unlike how the real Oxford killed a servant), and in exchange for saving him from the gallows, William Cecil forces Oxford to marry his daughter Anne, who is depicted as a humorless Puritan shrew. After returning from a European tour, Oxford seduces Queen Elizabeth (who acts like a giddy schoolgirl in his presence), and is initially not told when she becomes pregnant with his child, though he eventually finds out. Several years later, Oxford impregnates his mistress Anne Vavasour (at least I assume that's who it was supposed to be) and is thrown in the Tower of London. The evil hunchback Robert Cecil visits him there, saying that he's free to go, but he is banished from the Court and can never see the queen again. Oxford begs Cecil to at least tell him the name of the son he had with the queen, and Cecil tells him that it's the earl of Southampton. Upon being released from the Tower, Oxford goes and introduces himself to the eight-year-old Southampton, saying "we can be earls together."

Meanwhile, back in 1599, Oxford is using his plays to try to influence state policy and get back into the graces of the doddering old queen. In one particularly ham-handed sequence, we cut between the same Shakespeare plays being performed in the Rose (or maybe the Globe) and before Elizabeth at Court, with both audiences roaring their approval, and Shakespeare crowd-surfing at the Rose like a modern rock star. The audiences particularly like the depiction of Polonius in Hamlet as a caricature of William Cecil, who in this alternate reality is still alive. (The real William Cecil died in 1598.) Christopher Marlowe, who is depicted as a mustache-twirling villain, goes to the authorities to tell them how "Shakespeare" has been satirizing the court. For his pains he turns up murdered in the street, apparently by William Shakespeare; at least, Jonson makes that accusation, and Shakespeare does not deny it. (The real Marlowe was murdered in Deptford six years earlier, in 1593, under very well-documented circumstances.)

There is much talk of who will succeed the aged Queen Elizabeth, and the earl of Essex is often mentioned in that context, as he really was in 1599. (In the alternate fantasy world of Anonymous, this is because Essex is widely rumored to be the queen's son.) Essex is constantly hanging out with Oxford and Southampton, even though in real life there is no evidence that Oxford and Southampton even knew each other personally. The evil Robert Cecil is determined to put King James of Scotland on the throne instead of Essex, so he manipulates the queen into sending Essex and Southampton to quell a revolt in Ireland, darkly hinting that they will never return. We later see Essex and Southampton in a tent in Ireland plotting strategy with their entourage. With Essex's back turned, Southampton sees a member of the entourage starting to draw a gun, so he draws his own gun and shoots down the would-be assassin, Dirty Harry-style. Cecil also decides that Oxford needs to be eliminated, so he sends an assassin disguised as a fencing instructor, but when the man stabs Oxford in the leg, Oxford runs him through with his sword.

Realizing what is going on, Oxford decides to turn the populace against the evil hunchback Cecil by writing a play about another evil hunchback, Richard III. (Just in case anybody in the audience doesn't get the connection, it is hammered home several times.) By now it is 1601, and the new play will be the first production at the new Globe playhouse, which William Shakespeare has built with the money he extorted from Oxford. (In our reality, Shakespeare's Richard III was first printed four years earlier in 1597, and the Globe opened in 1599.) While the play is inciting the public against Cecil, Oxford will seek an audience with the queen, for the first time since his banishment twenty years earlier, to convince her to banish Cecil and name Essex (or maybe Southampton) as her successor. To win her over, he will bring her not a play, but "a book" -- which turns out to be Venus and Adonis, apparently newly published in 1601, even though in our reality that poem was first printed in 1593. Meanwhile, Essex and Southampton will ride with their entourages to the queen's presence, accompanied by the now anti-Cecil public, to be formally anointed as heir (or heirs) apparent. Unbeknownst to all of the earls, Ben Jonson (at least I think it was him) has tipped off Cecil, who has heavy artillery lying in wait.

Back at the Globe, Richard III whips the crowd into such a frenzy that they form a lynch mob and set out through the streets of Southwark and over London Bridge in search of Robert Cecil, joining forces with Essex and his confederates. But Cecil's cannons are waiting on the other side of the bridge, and they mow down the crowd without mercy. As Oxford is waiting to see the queen, he looks out the window to see Essex and Southampton being arrested, and realizes that his plan has gone disastrously awry. Robert Cecil then appears out of the shadows and begins explaining why this had to be done. Yes, Essex is the queen's son, and so is Southampton, as Oxford already knows. Then Cecil drops the bombshell -- DRUMROLL -- Oxford is the queen's son too! (I think he also suggested that William Cecil was Oxford's biological father, making them half-brothers.) The queen didn't know that Oxford was her son, so neither of them knew that they were committing incest. Cecil berates Oxford at length for writing his stupid plays instead of living up to his potential and making something of himself.

Just as in our reality, the earl of Essex is beheaded on February 25, 1601 (one of the few concrete dates given in Anonymous), with Southampton scheduled to follow a week later. Oxford finally gets his audience with the queen in order to plead for the life of their son, Southampton. After some reminiscing, she agrees to spare Southampton, but on the condition that Oxford's name never be placed on any of the Shakespeare plays or poems. (I guess she must know Oxford's secret in addition to Ben Jonson, but the movie is never very clear on that.) We see Robert Cecil trying to get the queen to sign an order naming James of Scotland as her successor, but she tosses it aside in a rage. Nevertheless, when she dies two years later (with an ahistorical but nicely-shot funeral procession on the frozen Thames), James becomes king, and we are told in voice-over that Robert Cecil became one of his top advisors, as he did in real life.

Oxford spends his remaining few years quietly writing plays over his shrewish wife's objections. (The real-life Anne Cecil died in 1588, and Oxford was married to his second wife at the time of his death.) On his deathbed, Oxford summons Ben Jonson and hands over a big stack of plays, including King Lear, The Tempest, and the other plays written after 1604, with instructions to issue them to the actors at regular intervals. When Oxford asks for Ben's opinion of him as a playwright, Ben chokes back tears while calling Oxford "the soul of the age," presaging his tribute to Shakespeare in the First Folio. While leaving with the tottering stack of manuscripts, Jonson is berated by Oxford's wife, but he gives her an emotional speech about how, years from now, these wonderful plays will be her husband's legacy to the world. Leaving the building, he reads aloud from one of the manuscripts he has just been given: It is part of Shakespeare's dedicaton of The Rape of Lucrece to the earl of Southampton -- this despite the fact that in our reality, Lucrece was published in 1594, a decade before Oxford's death, and the dedication is manifestly written to a social superior, which Southampton was not to Oxford.

Soon we are back in the room where Robert Cecil was threatening to torture Jonson at the beginning of the movie, and we realize that it was the unpublished "Shakespeare" manuscripts that Ben was hiding from Cecil's goons. When Cecil asks him again where the plays are, Jonson replies, "You burned them! They were in the theatre that your men just burned down!" Cecil seems satified and lets Jonson go. The next day, a melancholy Ben goes back to the charred remains of the Globe and finds the lockbox under the stage where he hid the manuscripts. Prying it open, he sees the manuscript of King Lear, charred but still readable. Shakespeare's/Oxford's legacy is saved! We return to Derek Jacobi in the present day, who makes some closing remarks, and then the audience on screen files out of the theater as the credits roll and we, the real audience, also file out of the theater.

Needless to say, from a historical perspective this is all completely ludicrous, unsupported by anything resembling evidence. The central idea that the earl of Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare is not something that Shakespeare scholars take seriously, for reasons that we explain at length here on the Shakespeare Authorship Page. A wealth of documentary evidence indicates that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the works published under his name, and Oxfordian claims that Shakespeare could not have had the education or experience to write the plays are based on distortions and historical ignorance. The alleged "evidence" for Oxford's authorship is similarly based on ignorance, factual distortions, and double standards, and arbitrarily tosses aside the methods used by real historians.

Moreover, Anonymous subscribes to an extreme version of the "Prince Tudor" strain of Oxfordianism, in which Queen Elizabeth had numerous secret bastard sons, including the earls of Oxford, Essex, and Southampton, with Oxford being the incestuous father of Southampton. Under this scenario Elizabeth went through multiple pregnancies, including one in 1573-74 when she was heavy in marriage negotiations with the French duc d'Alençon, and the resulting children were secretly placed in aristocratic households, all with no trace appearing in the documentary record, either public or private. This idea is so bizarre that even many Oxfordians recognize that it makes them look more ridiculous than they already appear, and it has caused a schism within Oxfordianism and the larger antistratfordian subculture. Explicit refutations of the Prince Tudor silliness have all come from within the antistratfordian camp; Gary Goldstein, former editor of the (Oxfordian-sympathizing) Elizabethan Review, discusses some of them on this page, including articles by Diana Price and Christopher Paul. (Both of these are pdf files.)

On a more granular level, Anonymous makes a complete hash of Elizabethan history, both theatrical and political. The historical inaccuracies are almost too numerous to count; I have mentioned many of them above in passing, and others have also made partial lists. In an October 29 article in the Wall Street Journal, the screenwriter John Orloff actually claimed that he tried to make the movie "as factually accurate as possible," but defended some of the discrepancies as necessary to make the movie more accessible and dramatically exciting. For example, in reality the Lord Chamberlain's Men were hired to perform Richard II in order to rile up the populace on the eve of the Essex Rebellion, but the movie depicts Richard III being performed instead. Orloff says he was well aware that the play was actually Richard II, but says that it would take too long to explain why that play would have incited a rebellion in 1601; he changed the play to Richard III so that audiences could immediately make the connection between the hunchbacked villain of the play and the huchbacked villain Robert Cecil. Though he doesn't say so, I'm guessing that dramatic license is also why Orloff had Christopher Marlowe survive until 1599, and why he crammed so much Elizabethan theater history into a two-year period.

To a certain extent, such dramatic license is totally fine, and is commonly used in historical fiction. Shakespeare in Love (which I very much enjoyed) is one example that has sometimes been compared to Anonymous, and Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett, is another movie that frequently telescopes events from the same historical period and moves them around for dramatic effect. The big difference is that Orloff has an agenda, one that his distortions of history are designed to support. In his Wall Street Journal article, Orloff says that in addition to making the story more exciting, he was also trying to express "a deeper truth" about the power of words over brute force. In fact, many of the historical inaccuracies in Anonymous serve to promote broader ideas that are central to the Oxfordian way of looking at Elizabethan drama, but which are anachronistic and contradicted by the historical evidence.

For example, early in Anonymous, before Oxford has decided to use a front man, the aged Queen Elizabeth is told that she will get to see a play, which turns out to be A Midsummer Night's Dream, "by Anonymous." She then says knowingly, "I enjoy his work." This scene seems to reflect the common Oxfordian belief that there was some huge mystery about Shakespeare's plays before his name started appearing on title pages in the late 1590s, and that Oxford was only forced to adopt a frontman when the pressure got too great. But this anachronistically assumes that everybody in Elizabethan London was as concerned with the authorship of plays as we are, which is just not true. It is true that the the earliest printed editions of Shakespeare's plays appeared without an author's name, starting with Titus Andronicus in 1594. But it was relatively uncommon for any author's name to appear on a printed play before the late 1590s, especially a play for the commercial theater; it was much more common to find the name of the company that performed the play, and/or whether it had been performed at court, because that's what people were interested in. (See Zachary Lesser and Alan B. Farmer. "Vile Arts: The Marketing of English Printed Drama, 1512-1660," Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 39 (2000): 77-165, and Lukas Erne's Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist.) The idea that someone would ostentatiously announce a play as being "by Anonymous" made me laugh out loud.

Later in Anonymous, after the triumphant debut of Henry V, the audience chants, "Playwright! Playwright! Playwright!," leading William Shakespeare to step forward and claim credit. This also struck me as laughably anachronistic, even apart from the fact that the word "playwright" is not attested until nearly a century after 1599. By the late 1590s a few playwrights, including Shakespeare, had become popular enough that their names became selling points, but the modern notion of a playwright as an artiste to be toasted and venerated was still far in the future. Most of the groundlings wouldn't know or care who wrote the play they were watching, and they certainly wouldn't demand a curtain call from a new and totally unknown playwright. And of course, it's only in the fantasy world of Anonymous that William Shakespeare was totally unknown in 1599. In the real world, he had signed the dedications to Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece in 1593 and 1594 respectively, and had been repeatedly praised in print as a poet and playwright after that. In the movie, Venus and Adonis is only published in 1601, and Lucrece still appears to be unpublished in 1604.

Still worse is Anonymous's depiction of the Essex Rebellion, and more broadly of the effect Shakespeare's plays had on the public. One of the central assumptions of Oxfordianism is that Shakespeare's plays were written primarily for political reasons, as thinly veiled satires of the Elizabethan court, and that they were seen as so dangerous that Oxford was forced to conceal his authorship. Now, it's undoubtedly true that Shakespeare's history plays, and other English history plays written around the same time, were trying to capitalize on patriotic feelings in the post-Armada 1590s. It's also true that there were jibes at contemporary figures in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, though it's always very dangerous for us to assume, 400 years later, that we know who (if anybody) was being satirized in the absence of contemporary evidence. But Anonymous assumes that the political content of Shakespeare's plays was much more direct and heavy-handed than anything supported by the historical record, and it hugely exaggerates the power of these plays as political tools, directly contradicting the historical evidence.

In the movie, Oxford uses his plays to manipulate the public like a puppet master. His Henry V whips the crowd into such a frenzy that they storm the stage, and later his Richard III whips its audience into an even bigger frenzy, such that they form a mob determined to capture Robert Cecil, and are only stopped by cannon fire. The latter case is screenwriter Orloff's prize example of the power of words, but the problem is that what he depicts is a pure Oxfordian fantasy, essentially the opposite of what actually happened. It's true that some of the Essex rebels paid the Lord Chamberlain's Men to perform Richard II on the day before the planned rebellion, thinking that watching a play about a monarch being deposed would prime the public for a real deposition. But their plan failed miserably; when the rebels came marching through London the next day, everybody stayed indoors, and the rebels, including Essex and Southampton, were swiftly captured.

I could go on at much greater length about the ways in which Anonymous distorts Elizabethan history in support of its Oxfordian agenda. When the young Oxford stabs a servant hiding behind an arras in his study, it is obviously meant to suggest Hamlet stabbing Polonius behind an arras, thus promoting the common Oxfordian idea that the plays of Shakespeare are transparent representations of Oxford's life story. But as I noted above, the real Oxford's killing of a servant was nothing like what the movie depicted. The alleged parallels between the plays and Oxford's life have been hugely exaggerated, and very similar "parallels" can be found for many other contemporary noblemen, including the earl of Essex and King James.

Some reviewers, while recognizing the questionable history behind Anonymous, were still able to enjoy it as a lushly shot Elizabethan costume drama (or melodrama). There's nothing wrong with that, since the cinematography, sets, and costumes were certainly impressive. It's hard for me to judge how comprehensible the plot was, since I spent much of the movie laughing at the anachronisms and watching to see which Oxfordian myths the filmmakers would include and which they would leave out. But anybody watching this movie should be aware that virtually none of what it depicts is historically accurate, and that it promotes many of the anachronistic and ahistorical assumptions that underlie the whole Oxfordian enterprise.

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