Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The unbearable darkness of Anonymous

Tanya Anderson

When I went to a local high school to speak with a group of students last year, they expressed some interest in a medieval program I had started.  One of them asked me if I were excited about the movie Anonymous (PG-13, Dir. Roland Emmerich, Starring Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis). Those of us interested in medieval and Renaissance history have already noted a glaring error – Shakespeare falls under, and indeed is the English Renaissance – but for that moment, in an art teacher’s room, I had about two minutes to explain why I was not excited about the movie, even prior to its release.  Shakespeare scholars are understandably edgy about Emmerich’s film as it promotes the Oxfordian theory of the plays we attribute to William Shakespeare, that a nobleman named Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford was the true author of the plays and poetry we attribute to Shakespeare.

I did promise myself that I would try to be objective about reviewing this movie, but I knew it was pro-Oxfordian. I hoped it would present the events as an alternate/parallel/science-fiction tale so that I could watch it, knowing that its writer and director had presented their film to the audience with a wink and a nod.  From the opening and closing bookend technique – set in the modern day – Emmerich attempts to lend veracity to his story, however; and therein lies my greatest concern about the film: it knowingly promotes and authorizes a theory that Shakespearean scholars debunked in the 1980s. 

Portrait of Edward de Vere

Why, then, would the Oxfordian theory even surface as a credible idea almost 35 years after its disintegration? In brief: intellectual and artistic laziness. Screenwriter John Orloff conceived of his script after watching a documentary on Oxford in 1988, at the tail end of any credibility the Oxfordian movement may have had. After the success of Shakespeare in Love (1998), the script for Anonymous was set aside even longer as Hollywood executives worried audiences would not want to see two Shakespeare films in close succession. In other words, producers, the director, and the screenwriter chose to ignore nearly thirty years of Shakespeare scholarship.

Emmerich clung to his motive, one that Sony Pictures watered down in its promotional materials for the film: “The objective for our Anonymous program, as stated in the classroom literature, is to encourage critical thinking by challenging students to examine the theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works and to formulate their own opinions.” While there is nothing wrong with critical debate, I question the ability of the average high schooler – who may, as my daughter did, have an English teacher who mistakenly referred to Elizabethan English as “Old English” – to watch Emmerich’s film and successfully reject the historical inaccuracies (and they are legion) that he presents. 

For his part, Emmerich wholeheartedly embraces his vision, arguing that the “arrogance of the literary establishment” is concealing the truth, even going to far as to call one Shakespearean scholar an outright “liar” for writing that Shakespeare did, indeed, write the plays attributed to him. 

In addition to his disdain for scholars who use a wealth of irrefutable evidence of Shakespeare's authorship from the period, Emmerich allows his derision for Shakespeare to ooze over his film. Shakespeare is made out to be a boorish, drunken, illiterate oaf who seizes the opportunity to pass off Oxford’s plays as his own. While we should make fun of our sacred cows as it is healthy in the spirit of intellectual play, Emmerich doesn’t stop with the Bard. For a writer who immersed himself in the Elizabethan age, Emmerich seems disgusted by its major figures and invents imaginary personas for them. His Elizabeth is  a flighty old bag who commits incest with her own grandson. Kit Marlowe fares little better, coming across as a sulking, bitter soul, displaying none of the wit we read in his plays. Thomas Dekker also receives lashes under Emmerich’s guard; his character weeps during a presentation of Hamlet and then laughs like a ninny during the comedies.  Did I mention that Shakespeare crowd-surfs after a presentation of Hamlet?

A shrewd ruler, Elizabeth is depicted
as insecure and flighty in Anonymous

Curiously, Emmerich’s film does not become so much an Oxfordian promotion as a Ben Jonson apologist movie. Jonson – who murdered a man but was acquitted because he could read some lines of Latin – was, by many contemporary accounts, a bitter writer who did not celebrate the success of his peers. In Anonymous, Emmerich's Jonson preserves Oxford’s plays and poesy because Oxford is “the soul of the age.” This line, delivered tearfully as the Earl is on his deathbed, is perhaps the most appalling moment in a film riddled with appalling moments; Ben Jonson famously wrote of Shakespeare in the 1623 Folio that Will was “not of an age, but for all time.” Emmerich, using a biased revisionist history here for his film, hopes to counter what he sees is the prevailing attitude of academia: “We know it, we teach it, so shut the fuck up.” His film is a narcissistic, ahistorical, untimely mess.

Rhys Ifans, for his part, does an adequate job in a caricature of a role, schlumping around gloomily, wearing more makeup than Elizabeth. The actor has a heavy burden; after all, ten of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays were written after Oxford’s death in 1604. Orloff and Emmerich casually ignore this problem, depicting the Earl penning Macbeth, written a year after the Earl’s death.

The Earl of Southampton is depicted as Elizabeth's
illegitimate son in Emmerich's film

The film also suggests layers of secrecy regarding the lineage of the Earl of Southampton, where Elizabeth is his mother and grandmother at the same time, Oxford his father. The poems in the sonnet sequence, then, are in Emmerich’s fantasy poems written from father to son. We do, by chance, have some of Oxford’s poetry – and contrary to Emmerich’s theory that the gentleman could and would not have been able to publicly reveal himself as a poet or playwright, Oxford’s reputation as a patron and creator of the arts was well known. One short poem, from a 1589 publication lacks every ounce of wit and the sublime we find in any of Shakespeare’s poems:

When wert thou borne, desire?

In pompe and prime of May,
By whom sweete boy wert thou begot?
By good conceit men say,
Tell me who was thy nurse?
Fresh youth in sugred joy.
What was thy meate and dayly food?
Sad sighes with great annoy.
What hadst thou then to drinke?
Unfayned lovers tears.
What cradle wert thou rocked in?
In hope devoyd of feares.

I once spoke too rapidly in a Shakespeare course in which I served as a teaching assistant, committing a spoonerism by saying something was “like trying to fit a square pig in a round hole.” This mistake of mine accurately serves to sum up what Emmerich has done with Anonymous. In the opening scene, set in the modern age, Derek Jacobi – who has himself has an illustrious career in Shakespearean theater and film – lays out four “problems” that suggest Shakespeare could not have penned his works: that Shakespeare was uneducated, that his father was an illiterate glovemaker, that his will makes no mention of a book collection, that no manuscript survives in his hand. All four of these objections are easily refuted.  Shakespeare attended a notable grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon, where students memorized Latin from Ovid under a schoolmaster’s whip.  Additionally, there are theories that during Shakespeare’s “lost years,” prior to his arrival in London, he served as a schoolmaster himself. Marlowe seems to escape this same "uneducated" charge, yet he was a butcher's son.

Elizabethan hornbook, the type
Shakespeare would have used
in grammar school

Although John Shakespeare was illiterate, he must have sought better for his son by encouraging him to attend school rather than enter the glovemaking craft, though by glovemaking, I will stress that this career was lucrative.

Elizabethan gloves, the sort
John Shakespeare would have crafted

Shakespeare’s will has been the subject of debate for decades, but notably for its inclusion of a detail that his “second-best bed” go to his wife Anne while failing to mention the sort of library we would expect the author of Shakespeare's plays to have. The exclusion of mentioning books may mean Shakespeare had sold them when he left London -- and why not, since he appears to have written and elaborated upon many stories he encountered in his storied career and carting them back to Stratford may have proved less profitable than selling them to any one of the many bookdealers near St. Paul’s. Additionally, if he did take his books back with him to Stratford, there may never have been a question about who would inherit them since the majority of his estate went to his eldest daughter Susanna, to be passed on to her first-born son. 

1623 Folio title page

Finally, on the matter of Shakespeare’s play-texts: these were not typically something that were preserved. In fact, they were constantly evolving in the theater, and the advent of the printing press meant that copies of plays – either authoritative or not – were readily available. The most compelling evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship is in the 1623 Folio, or authorized, version of his works. Compiled by his fellow actors and friends John Heminge and Henry Condell, who preserved and categorized the plays that survived, the Folio is strong evidence – irrefutable, in my mind – that Shakespeare existed and wrote these plays. Additionally, Ben Jonson wrote a brief epilogue for Shakespeare in the Folio, which also lends a great deal of credibility to its contents. 

Bad Shakespeare gives Emmerich’s confused revision of history 2/10 laurels.  You can skip this one and watch the less-promoted version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (2011).

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