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Man Is But an Ass

by John Rodat on November 10, 2011

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Director Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous is about as successful an argument that Edward de Vere is the true writer of Shakespeare’s plays as his earlier film Godzilla is a successful argument that . . . Edward de Vere is the true writer of Shakespeare’s plays.

The marketing of Anonymous, however, might lead you to believe that Emmerich were ready to present a convincing, or at least compelling, scholarly and well-researched final takedown of the Stratfordians (as supporters of the traditional notion of Shakespearian authorship are known).

Of course, anyone familiar with Emmerich’s track record regarding historical source material would start skeptical; but, it must be said that as an argument Anonymous is a shoddy attempt even by his fast-and-loose standards of factuality.

I’m no Shakespearian scholar, just a fan, but even I noticed at least one alarming error of fact in Anonymous; an error that cannot be explained away with juicy conspiracy theories. The scene features a small audience of noted Elizabethan playwrights—including Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Thomas Nash—who are simply blown away (blown away!), by the fact that Romeo and Juliet is written entirely in blank verse: 1) It’s not, 2) A tragedy in iambic pentameter had been written some 30 years prior to Shakespeare’s, and, 3) Every one of the playwrights shown had, themselves, worked in blank verse.

It may seem an overly fastidious quibble. But the breathless way in which Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff want us to regard the accomplishments of their proposed true author of the works, nobleman Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, illustrates their lack of scholarly dispassion, their willingness to just make stuff up. (There are other more-or-less inarguable inaccuracies that would themselves seriously damage the movie as a dramatization of real research. If you care to look them up. It’s fun.)

But this isn’t a documentary, dude!

Fair enough. Still, even as a conspiracy, never mind an argument, the film makers overreach. They posit a bafflingly convoluted tale of courtly intrigue, romantic contortions—including incest!—and political machinations as if the true author of such works as Hamlet and Macbeth must necessarily be larger than life.  From Shakespeare’s work—which, clearly, perversely, they hold in quite high regard—they have reverse engineered a hero who simply could not be a mere rural tradesman’s son, who must have been as impressive biographically as his works are dramatically and bent history to fit.

The resultant plot is a mess. But, it must be said, it is an absolutely great-looking mess. The re-creations of Elizabethan England are delightful: grand and dank in equal measures. The acting is largely only serviceable (though I enjoyed Rafe Spall’s portrayal of Shakespeare as an opportunistic conniver and Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave as hot, young Elizabeth I and dotty, freaky Elizabeth I, respectively). But together with the impressive effects and set design, it’s an enjoyable evocation of the time for fans.

Pity Emmerich’s technical skills, and those of the actors, couldn’t have been applied to a script as rich as one by, say, Shakespeare or, you know, whomever.