Scholars have been duking it out over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays for 400 years. And to date, Shakespeare’s ranking as the world’s greatest playwright remains undefeated. But a controversial new movie is dusting off the gloves like never before. And “Anonymous” goes for the knockout.
Not only does the film make the case that Shakespeare did not write one word that has been attributed to the world’s greatest playwright. He’s also portrayed as a fraud, a drunk, an extortionist, a blackmailer and, oh yeah — quite probably the murderer of his contemporary, Christopher Marlowe.
Director Roland Emmerich presents Shakespeare as the
barely literate front for “the real” author of Shakespeare’s sonnets and 37 plays, the scandalous nobleman Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who couldn’t claim authorship in life because playwriting was considered an unseemly and seditious pursuit.
As an excoriation of Shakespeare, the movie pulls no punches. But Stratfordians, as Shakespeare’s defenders are known, are hardly throwing in the towel. Experts are calling “Anonymous” a heavyweight film that packs a lightweight punch.
“It’s kind of entertaining rubbish,” said Murray Ross, veteran artistic director of Colorado Springs’ TheatreWorks. “If I worked hard enough at it, I could probably make the case that Shakespeare was actually written by a cross-dressing Peruvian dwarf.”
To Ross, the issue of authorship is dead, even if the film does bring Shakespeare’s era to thrilling cinematic life. The far more enduring mystery to him isn’t who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. “It’s how did anyone write these plays?” he said. “They are just that good.”
Colorado Shakespeare Festival producing artistic director Philip Sneed has a vested interest in the issue of authorship — as would anyone with “Shakespeare” in his job title. In assessing the new film, Sneed barely got out the words, “I do think it’s possible that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays . . .” before Ross admonished him with, “You’re out of your mind!” to the laughter of an invited Denver Post panel that watched the film together last week, including Denver Center Theatre Company actor Drew Cortese, Shakespeare youth teacher Rebecca Mason Salomonsson and Colorado Shakes costumer Clare Henkel.
Sneed revels in the debate, and the interest it will surely spark in his favorite writer. That Shakespeare is finally getting the Oliver Stone treatment can only add to his coolness. “But in the end, I’m not sure that it matters who wrote the plays, any more than it mattered who Homer was,” Sneed
said, and Cortese agrees.
“The important thing is that we still have the plays,” said Cortese. “The academics can debate who wrote what, when and why, but practitioners need to concern themselves most with telling 400-year-old stories and making them relevant for today’s audiences. That’s on us.”
But it matters to Ross, because if De Vere were empirically proven to be the author of Shakespeare’s plays, he said, it would force a reinterpretation of every line ever written, through De Vere’s rather sordid biography.
And it matters deeply to Salomonsson, who runs the Arvada Center’s teen Shakespeare summer camp. “I tell my students every day that, yes, it matters,” she said.
Shakespeare was the uneducated son of illiterate parents, and the film claims it would take a writer of “educated genius” to compose plays of such depth of intellect, comedy and philosophy. It’s a theory first posited decades ago by a schoolteacher named J. Thomas Looney, and it drives our schoolteacher named Salomonsson, well, loony.
“That implies that anyone who is not powerful enough and not wealthy enough can’t possibly achieve genius,” she said.
But neither Ross nor Sneed think this film is a game-changer or that it will legitimize De Vere’s backers, also known as “Oxfordians.”
“It’s possible that the movie plays so loose with the historical record that the Oxfordians might feel that it actually hurts their case,” said Sneed.
So much so, Ross added, that the film at times seems like a put-on. After all, the film suggests De Vere wrote “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as an amusement for Queen Elizabeth — his mother and the future mother of his own child — when he was 9!
Emmerich, best known for “Independence Day,” “2012” and “Godzilla,” has said he’s a filmmaker, not a scientist — and that his sole goal is to provide entertainment.
But “Anonymous” isn’t a yarn about fake aliens and monsters. He’s toying with sacrosanct English culture and history (as did Shakespeare, ironically). And Emmerich has powerful players with clout aboard. His cast includes knighted English actor Derek Jacobi, 2011 Tony winner Mark Rylance, and Vanessa Redgrave (as the incestuous queen).
In 2007, Jacobi and Rylance signed “The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt,” which says the question of authorship is uncertain enough that it should be regarded as a legitimate subject for academic research. Redgrave told the BBC last week there’s as much evidence that De Vere wrote the plays as did Shakespeare. Both she and Cortese doubt Shakespeare could have written all those plays while also working full time as an actor.
But in the film, authorship is but the subtext for the larger political thriller at play — who will be the next king? It contends that De Vere wrote “Richard III” as a hunchback as both a humiliation of his courtly nemesis, Robert Cecil, and as a means for inciting the masses to rise up against him.
And here’s where Sneed finds real value in the film: “Ten thousand men listening to one man’s words,” De Vere says in it. “That’s power.” In one scene, we see a crowd so riled up by Rylance as Henry V, they’re ready to take up arms against the French then and there.
“The takeaway from this movie is the power of words to change things,” Sneed said.
And as a film, it is undeniably fun — “pulpy,” Ross calls it. And the more she enjoyed it, the more trouble Salomonsson knew she was in for,
“I was watching it, thinking, ‘This is a really good movie.’ And now I am really scared because I think it is going to sway my impressionable young teenagers. I do hope they see it. I just don’t want them to take it as the truth.”
Complicating that issue is that the filmmakers are producing a package of lessons for American high schools, to further their theory as academic fact. Pop culture has a long record of supplanting the historical record dating back to, well, Shakespeare’s twiddling with English history.
“Isn’t Richard III forever sullied by Shakespeare’s depiction of him?” Sneed asked. And on that point, Ross said, Sneed is not out of his mind.
“People learn their English history from Shakespeare just as we learn our Civil War history from ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ” Ross said.
Even if it muddies the waters, Sneed encourages people to see the film. And if they do, Ross is sure of one thing:
“This movie will do nothing to derail the Shakespeare express,” he said. “This thing has been running strong for 400 years.”