Al does Anonymous

“In my world, people like me do not write plays. People like you do.”

The Scoop: 2011, PG, directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Rhys Ifans, Sebastian Armesto, Vanessa Redgrave and Rafe Spall

Tagline: We’ve all been played.

Summary Capsule:  Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare.  It’s probably a lot more mind blowing if you’re high.

Al’s Rating: Not to be.  There is no question.

Al’s Review: Disclaimer – In the real world, I’m an English teacher. This means I reserve the right to be long-winded, pretentious, and stuffy for the duration of this review.

I love William Shakespeare. I know that’s something that teachers are kind of required to say, but–lucky for me–it also happens to be true. He can be brilliantly subtle even within the broadest humor and I think his words can offer real insight into the wispy, nebulous, indefinable things that make us human. He’s written some of the greatest characters and speeches in the English language and I think it’s sad that so few students get to read him or see his plays the way they were intended. Generally speaking, I believe that anything encouraging discussion or awareness of his works is something worth the public’s time.

So, with that said: I have a serious, serious beef with the premise of Anonymous. I knew this going into the movie and I knew it would color any other feelings I might have towards it.  The theory it posits, circulated by people known as Anti-Stratfordians, is this: William Shakespeare didn’t write what we say he wrote. He was the son of illiterate parents from a poor, rural area of England, yet his plays deal extensively with classes and countries he would have had no particular interaction with or knowledge of. Therefore, Shakespeare must have been a frontman for some lord or lady or other famous playwright who did not want to be acknowledged.

I HATE this theory. Hate it, hate it, hate it. At its core, “Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare” is really all about this: a guy from That Area with Those Parents can’t have done something that was this good. It’s insulting, elitist garbage propagated by overeducated academics who won’t allow themselves to believe that they could have spent all that time and money on higher education and still not be as talented as someone who was the son of a glovemaker. It must have been someone more like themselves. I saw that attitude in high school and in college, stopping kids who were deemed too poor or too girly or too brown from thinking of themselves as too smart. I don’t want to see that agenda furthered at my movie theater, whether it was the filmmaker’s intention or not.

Despite knowing all of this, I still felt compelled to see Anonymous. I figured if I’m going to die on this hill, I should at least know what I’m talking about. The story centers on the life of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford and leading candidate for the “real Shakespeare” among Anti-Stratfordians. Edward (Jamie Campbell Bower) has an extraordinary gift for words. After being orphaned at a young age, he is raised by William Cecil (David Thewlis), the closest advisor to Queen Elizabeth I (Joely Richardson). William provides Edward with the best education money can buy, but abhors the “sinful nature” of plays and poems. For years, Edward writes in secret as he develops a rivalry with Robert, William’s brainy but dour son, and is forced into marriage with Anne, William’s uptight daughter, all while having a torrid but doomed love affair with Elizabeth.

As an adult (now played by Rhys Ifans), Edward possesses volumes of plays, poems, and sonnets that he keeps hidden from the world. He recognizes that a man of his station cannot contribute to something as “base” as the theater, so he enlists the service of playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), offering him money to put his name on what Edward has written. Ben agrees to stage one of Edward’s plays but instead chooses to leave it’s authorship as “Anonymous.” When the play is enthusiastically received, however, Ben’s oafish, opportunistic friend Will (Rafe Spall) claims all the credit and writes himself into history.

The rest of the film deals with the rise to fame of de Vere/Shakespeare amidst the political intrigue surrounding the successor to the now elderly Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). It’s all sort of interesting, though never quite as interesting as it thinks it is, and the whole “Game of Thrones” thing is peppered with enough actiony bits to keep the narrative moving forward at a decent clip, but Anonymous can never really escape the trappings of its premise. The low-class, illiterate Shakespeare is greedy, gluttonous, and amoral (y’know, just like people with Those Parents from That Area tend to be).  Queen Elizabeth isn’t a fearless, savvy political leader; she’s a lovesick, overemotional, easily manipulated chess piece for the men in her life (after all, she’s missing some important equipment down there, if you know what I mean, heh heh heh).  It permeated every second of this film for me. Even the best scenes couldn’t quite escape it.

Loathe as I am to admit it, there was one thing in Anonymous that I really liked. The film does a great job showing off the power that Shakespeare’s words can wield. I loved watching the crowd burst into cheers during Henry V and swoon during Romeo and Juliet. So many of the words Shakespeare created have become ingrained in our language and culture to the point that they have almost lost the power to move us. Seeing people react for the first time to an amazing speech or a perfect turn of phrase is a genuine joy for me, and I really appreciated the way it was done here.

Of course, there’s a much better way to experience what Shakespeare can do to you. You don’t need revisionist drivel like Anonymous (or, to a lesser extent, Shakespeare in Love). Go see a play. Or pick up a book. And none of that paraphrased crap either—you want to go right to the source. You haven’t experienced Shakespeare until you’ve read him in the original Klingon.

Sadly, Shakespeare was quickly devoured by the zombie horde.


  • As much as this film irritated me, the “backstage” opening is a pretty clever way of saying ‘chill out, this is just a movie.’ It’s very JC Superstar.
  • The opening monologue is delivered by Derk Jacobi, a noted English stage actor and outspoken supporter of the “de Vere-was-Shakepseare” theory
  • The two unnamed playwrights watching in the stands are supposed to be Thomas Dekker and Thomas Nashe, contemporaries of Shakespeare, Johnson, and Marlowe.
  • Rennaisance Raquetball!
  • Edward’s “practice signatures” as William Shakespeare mirror some of the curiously dissimilar Shakespeare signatures that have survived into modern day
  • I really try not to nitpick historical accuracy, but nobody in 1597 would be crowing over Romeo and Juliet being written “entirely in iambic pentameter.” By the time that play was released, it had been standard practice for almost thirty years.
  • Did Shakespeare remind anybody else of Quark from Deep Space Nine?  I know it’s weird, but I can’t shake the comparison.

Groovy Quotes

Edward de Vere: Ten thousand souls all listening to the words one man–the IDEAS of one man! That’s power, Robert!

William Cecil: Plays are the work of the Devil, born from a plague of cesspool and heresy.

Edward de Vere: In my world, people like me do not write plays. People like you do.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Amadeus
  • Elizabeth
  • A Knight’s Tale


      • Another group similar to RSC is the Shakespeare Skum. Among their more memorable acts are Leave It To Hamlet (his most famous play done as a sitcom) and Richard III: Just Misunderstood, which has the titular deformed monarch with a Dr. Horrible-like inability to belt out a good evil laugh. One bit from the latter which I particularly recall is when Richard states, “The readiest way to make the wench amends,Is to become her husband, and her father.” He them pauses and adds, “You know, even I’m uncomfortable with that.”

  1. I’m no expert on the subject or anything, but what exactly is ‘revisionist drivel’ about Shakespeare in Love? I LIKED Shakespeare in Love – it may not have been strictly accurate, but it certainly wasn’t a bad movie.

    • I’m going to invoke my right to be pretentious and stuffy, and say that the historical accuracy in SiL really, really bothered me.

      It’s silly, I know, and that kind of thing is not generally something that I pay much mind (if I can accept the changes in Braveheart, I should be able to accept just about anything), but this is just not a movie I’m rational about.

  2. Look at the filmography of director Roland Emmerich, which includes tripe such as The Patriot and Day After Tomorrow. It should be no surprise that he would do a film based on the premise that Edward de Vere was the real Shakespeare. It’s the sort of thing that’s up his alley.

    Rereading the above mentioned Smithsonian article, I get a chuckle out of the assessment of one scholar that the stuff which was definitely written by de Vere ranged in quality from mediocre to Gawdawful.

    • I’m actually a fan of most of Emmerich’s other stuff. It’s loud and dumb, but I enjoy it. I had hoped that maybe I was misreading the intent of Anonymous and that it might involve aliens blowing up the White House, but alas.

      And, yes, I also noticed and smirked at the acknowledgement of de Vere’s crummy poetry. 🙂

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