Is 'Anonymous' the Final Word on the Shakespeare Authorship Debate?

The new film "Anonymous" embraces one of literature's most enduring questions - did William Shakespeare actually write the plays, sonnets and poems which secured his spot as the greatest English-language writer?

W. Scott Howard, an associate professor at the University of Denver's English Department, contends "Anonymous" only scratches the surface of the mystery, but it might just make a few ticket holders brush up on their Shakespeare as a result. (Warning: Spoilers ahead)



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Big Hollywood: What was your overall impression of "Anonymous?" What impact do you think the movie will have on the subject matter? Could the film move the needle one way or the other on popular opinions regarding Shakespeare?



W. Scott Howard: I think that "Anonymous" will most likely do more to support idealized notions about Shakespeare’s authorial genius rather than to subvert those views. Most Shakes-screen fans will measure director Roland Emmerich’s zealous and muscular, noir-conspiracy-thriller against "Shakespeare in Love," for example, finding this latest production far too Will-full for anonymity’s sake.

BH: How much creative license did they take with the historical record?

WS: Either too much, or not nearly enough, as William Blake might say.

"Anonymous" dramatizes the so-called Prince Tudor I and Prince Tudor II versions of the Oxfordian theory concerning the Shakespeare authorship debate, which has been circulating in various communities since the 19th century. The Prince Tudor I theory (also known as the Tudor Rose theory) holds that Edward de Vere (the 17th Earl of Oxford) wrote the plays that we attribute to William Shakespeare; further, that Oxford and Queen Elizabeth I were lovers and had a child who was raised as Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. (The Prince Tudor II theory holds that Oxford himself was a bastard son of Elizabeth). Emmerich’s film merges those two theories, heightening the shock value for audiences when it is revealed, late in the film, by Robert Cecil that Edward is among Elizabeth’s bastard sons: thus, de Vere committed unintended incest with his mother, begetting a son (the Earl of Southampton).

But, with so many interesting conspiracy theories available, why stop there? Why limit "Anonymous" to just the Oxfordian camp? For example, yet another theory holds that Francis Bacon was also among the bastards of Elizabeth I, and that Bacon was himself the author of Shakespeare’s plays.

Since the 19th century, when the vexed topic of Shakespeare’s authorship was first seriously challenged, the debate has generated a sub-field of dubious research and publication revolving around a long list of alternates, most notably: Francis Bacon; William Stanley, the 6th Earl of Derby; Christopher Marlowe; and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. (A few years ago, I participated in a panel discussion on this
topic with Stephen Greenblatt and Robin P. Williams. The radio broadcast of that conversation is available at my DU Portfolio site:

"Anonymous" would have been a real roller-coaster thriller if the film had only dared to engage with even more of those controversial theories. The notions of hyper-authorship or heteronymic creativity could have been seriously entertained. Those meta-narratives worked well for "Being John Malkovich" and, more recently, for "Inception," so why not for "Anonymous?"

BH: Does the film enhance the argument that Shakespeare was not, in fact, the author behind those iconic plays?

WS: If the plot had been more imaginative, as I’ve suggested, then I would have said yes to this question, but the film limns a monomaniacal interpretation, at times so forcefully orchestrated that most viewers, I think, will want to return to the comforting notion that a very different Shakespeare—certainly not the illiterate pretender portrayed by Rafe Spall—wrote the plays and thus deserves the laurel wreath for universal genius.

BH: Were there any particularly egregious moments that clashed with what we know for a fact about that era or the plays themselves?

WS: I was especially irritated by Emmerich’s choice to use Shakespeare’s "Richard III" to frame the story of the infamous Essex rebellion.

"Anonymous" uses an exaggerated public portrayal of Shakespeare’s character, Richard III, to deliver a thinly veiled attack on Robert Cecil (who was actually a hunchback) which then incites a mob to attempt to oust Cecil from his position of influence in the Court (thus weakening his efforts to promote the Scottish James VI as heir to the English throne). Richard III was, of course, not a hunchback in real life, but depictions of him often appear as such (thanks, in part, to Sir Thomas More’s monstrous representation of Richard III) which leads us to yet another complicated and fascinating tale of analogical historiography, political allegory, and egregious acting styles (most brilliantly and delightfully satirized by Richard Dreyfuss in "The Goodbye Girl").

In "Anonymous," I must say, the hackneyed hump device is really a cheap trick. There was even a moment when I heard others around me in the theater say: “Oh, so that explains it. Richard and Cecil both have humps.” "Anonymous" would have been so much more exciting, daring, and interesting if the film had engaged with a more historically-accurate version of the Essex rebellion in which Shakespeare’s Richard II (and the marvelous deposition scene in particular) played a discrete and dynamic role.

Supporters of the Earl of Essex’s planned revolt sponsored a performance of "Richard II" on February 7, 1601 at the Globe Theatre. That performance included the deposition scene (sometimes called the "mirror scene") in which Richard "un-kings" himself by giving away his crown, sceptre, and the sacred balm that is used to anoint a monarch to the throne. His famous breaking of the mirror “in an hundred shivers” shatters the King’s Two Bodies theory of the monarch’s Divine Right of Rule, thus initiating the problematic rise of Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV (Elizabeth’s almost great-great-great grandfather) first King of England from the Lancaster branch of the Plantagenets, one of the two family branches that were protagonists in the War of the Roses.

The spectacular fall of Richard II—the breaking of the spell of the monarch’s divine right—could have served as a more accurate, deft, and powerful metaphor, in "Anonymous," for the film’s deconstruction of Shakespeare’s reputed authorship.

I think that U.S. film audiences are capable of handling that sort of historical and artistic complexity, and I wish that more directors and producers would raise the bar at least one level higher. "Anonymous" seems to have been shaped quite strongly by the LCD factory and that’s predictable (if rather disappointing).

BH: Put on your Roger Ebert glasses—was it a good film, and why or why not?

WS: Thumbs down, except for the film’s mise-en-scène (especially costume and set designs) which are arguably the most interesting elements. The CGI recreations of London, for example, are often stunning.

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