Occam's Opposite: ‘Anonymous’ and the authorship of Shakespeare

For a bit of a laugh, I decided to watch Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous, half-expecting to turn it off in the first ten minutes. But as the film progressed and the end credits rolled, I found myself enjoying it tremendously. From its cleverly staged time-shift to its impressive recreation of Elizabethan London, the viewer cannot help but be drawn into its cesspit of intrigue, danger, romance, politics, and theatre. As you may have gathered by now, I am a Bardolator, a staunch Stratfordian, and I don’t think for a minute that anyone other than the William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon wrote those thirty-seven plays, one-hundred-and-fifty-four sonnets and five narrative poems that are often cited as being the first modern works of literature in the Western canon. I’m not going to spend much time or space here on the illogicality and implausibility of Emmerich’s film or the scholarship that informed it, nor do I want to stand on my soap-box and wax lyrical about the genius of Shakespeare, because it is boring and has been done before, and it’s not what this is about. All I want to do here – all I aim to do, as with everything else on this blog – is to write about my thoughts on the film.

For the uninitiated, the authorship debate goes something like this: how could one William Shakespeare – the son of a glove-maker, merchant, and once-Mayor-of-Stratford – a man who was illiterate, whose name is spelt in twenty-four different ways at least, and who’d probably never left England, how could this man have been the author of the cornerstone of Western literature? The conspirators therefore conclude that someone of noble birth or standing must’ve been their logical author, because otherwise it wouldn’t make sense. I have no problem with this. Some of the proposed authors of ‘Shakespeare’ are John Donne (poet), Francis Bacon (scholar and lawyer; the Baconians), Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh; playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, John Fletcher, Robert Greene, John Fletcher, and Ben Johnson; and nobles like Edward de Vere (17th Earl of Oxford, and the basis for Emmerich’s film). (A full list of the seventy-nine proposed authors of Shakespeare can be found here, and it really is quite an entertaining list.) The only thing from stopping me believe these claims – even if I wanted to – is a little thing called historicity, a useful thing called checking the dates, seeing whether it all adds up or not. Like Christopher Marlowe: fatally stabbed in the eye in a pub in Deptford in 1592, his death predates Shakespeare’s earliest work, and we know for a fact that Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Richard III (among others) are direct homages to Marlowe. Or Robert Greene (famous for slandering Shakespeare, calling him an “upstart crow”), who died in 1592; or de Vere, who died in 1604, and thus could not have written Shakespeare’s later plays. Emmerich, along with writer John Orloff, cleverly suggests a way around this problem with de Vere: he had an accomplice, in this case Ben Johnson, who ‘released’ the manuscripts over the next twelve years. I don’t have a problem with any or all of these theories, nor of people passionately believing them. What I do take issue against is people who, like Emmerich, claim it is the truth, the most logical explanation and conclusion to the debate. (The title – ‘Occam's Opposite’ – stems from this seeming illogicality; The Book Report with Azkatzen describes it as being “like [the] Oxfordians [who] apply the opposite of Occam’s Razor, [proposing] the most complex and least likely solution as the correct one.”) My belief, and the belief that seems most suitable to the idea of Shakespeare as a human, as a person, as a writer, as someone who so brilliantly captured the zeitgeist of the past four-hundred years and counting, is that there’s a little thing called imagination, a thing called inspiration and artistic license, a thing called eavesdropping and creative collaboration: Shakespeare may have had a basic grammar school education in Stratford (thus learning his basic Ovid, Plutarch, Greek and Latin) but he also knew how to assemble ideas and draw inspiration from the people and the city, from what was happening around him; he was, in short, a magpie. (Robert Winder in The final act of Mr Shakespeare proposes one method by which Shakespeare could have written his plays, one I imagine rather suits the plays’ multifaceted nature. Christopher Rush in Will also proposes another equally fascinating method.)
But I digress: this is not about the ‘how’ or the ‘if,’ but about Anonymous.

When I first heard about the film and saw it was directed by Emmerich – who had previously given us such intellectual gems as Stargate, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000BC (where mammoths helped the Egyptians build the pyramids) and 2012 – I thought it was going to be something along the lines of the diabolical Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, or J.L. Carell’s The Shakespeare Secret, perhaps where a modern-day team of academics try to uncover the true identity of Shakespeare with lots of running around London’s libraries and museums and theatres and so on. What we got instead, was a slickly produced and beautifully filmed evocation of a time in which no one thought twice about betraying colleagues if there was a handsome reward involved, where incest and intrigue and deception went hand in hand, and where history’s written records were stretched beyond incredulity.
Points must be given to Sebastian T. Krawinkel’s production design and Lisy Chritl’s costumes for their representations of Elizabethan London. Not only did it look and feel real, but it had the requisite layers of mud and shit and damp and filth that the period requires. The theatres – first the Burbage’s Theatre and then the Globe – were stunningly recreated in a mixture of physical sets and CG-extensions (in fact, much of the film was shot on green-screen) and despite a few minor quibbles about the staging and setting of the plays as they were depicted in the film, it really was a handsome-looking production. The cast too, led by Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave (with Jamie Campbell-Bower and Joely Richardson playing their younger respective selves), were splendid, as was Rafe Spall’s slightly immature and bumbling Shakespeare, a quill-for-hire. Perhaps it’s not the wisest move to cast Jamie Campbell-Bower and Xavier Samuel in the same film, with next-to-identical wigs and costumes; I spent most of the film trying to get my head around this seeming gaping plot-hole until I realised. Despite massive loopholes in the implications of the script – like de Vere dedicating the first one-hundred-and-twenty-six sonnets and Venus and Adonis (both overtly homoerotic pieces of literature) to the Earl of Southhampton who, if we are to believe the film, was his illegitimate child by Elizabeth I, an act which seems even stranger than anything Shakespeare or Sophocles’ Oedipus plays could ever imagine – it seemed at time that John Orloff, the writer, was paying homage to John Madden’s Shakespeare In Love, which may or may not have been the smartest thing to do.
Perhaps the most subtly beautiful (and perhaps unintentionally so) moments in the film for me, were the beginning and end, and not because they were just that. Set inside a theatre, we open with Derek Jacobi as Prologue (a character he played in Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film of Henry V) telling us that ‘things may not be what they seem,’ before a rain machine in the flies begins to precipitate, and he opens an umbrella. Behind him, figures wait in the wings, dressed in Elizabethan clothing – a young man carrying a squarish bundle wrapped in a blanket, and a troop of guards – and as Jacobi opens his umbrella, the young man runs on stage, and we follow him, and suddenly we are in London, c. 1598, as the man (who is Ben Johnson) runs from the guards, hiding inside the Globe theatre, before the guards burn it down (something that didn’t historically happen until 1613, and not in that manner). At the end of the film, Jacobi’s Prologue walks out of the scene back onto the stage, effectively out of the story, and delivers the Epilogue. We are left wondering if perhaps we are meant to have been seeing the story as he was telling it to us, but it doesn’t matter. In Prologue’s words, “though our story is at an end, our poet’s is not; for his monument is ever-living, not of stone but of verse. And it shall be remembered, as long as words are made of breath, and breath of life,” words which recall the final couplet of Sonnet 18: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”
In the end though, Anonymous is just a film, a work of fiction, and people will believe what they want to believe, however much scholarly research or misguided information forms the basis of their belief. Nothing will change that, and this is perfectly fine. What I do find amusing though, is that underneath the authorship debate – once you strip aside the quibbling façade of who wrote what when – each team essentially believes the same thing: that a man called William Shakespeare or who called himself William Shakespeare wrote the works he is credited with. Ultimately, Emmerich’s film celebrates the very works whose authorship he sets out to challenge, and no matter who or what you believe, you still celebrate the person who was William Shakespeare. And that is a beautiful thing.

1. My favourite of all the potential authors of Shakespeare are Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote), Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s wife), and Sir Thomas More (1478–1535, who, if he was the author of Shakespeare, would’ve written a play about himself fifty-seven years after he’d died.) Watertight.
2. Perhaps one of the best inaccuracies in the film is when the Earl of Oxford cuts a Tudor Rose off a rosebush. The Tudor Rose is simply a heraldic device, a combination of the Houses (and Roses) of Lancaster and York, a visual representation of the Tudor lineage. It never has nor can it ever be a physical rose.

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