Review of “Anonymous:” The Essex Rebellion Was an Inside Job

So, we finally saw Anonymous. To begin with, the traffic sucked, the popcorn was disappointing and the soda machines refused to give me an adequate diet Coke (machine 1 was a mix of diet Coke and some red Hi-C-like substance; machine 2 mostly just gave me carbonated water). I suppose I can’t blame Roland Emmerich and John Orloff for these problems, but I’m not feeling generous.

One of the previews was for “William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus,” directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes. Shakespeare is listed as a writer on the IMDB page. Edward de Vere, seventeenth earl of Oxford, is not.

Anonymous begins with Shakespeare-denier Sir Derek Jacobi entering a modern-day theater (that sports “Anonymous” on its sign) and beginning to recite one of Ben Jonson’s poems in praise of Shakespeare in big-time over-the-top fashion. Then he stops and questions Shakespeare’s identity. He first lists the works attributed to Shakespeare, including “thirty-seven plays.” Almost all scholars now count thirty-eight plays. Why no love for Two Noble Kinsmen? Perhaps because it was written long after Oxford’s death?

All these plays, sonnets and miscellaneous poems and “not a single manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand.” Except–quite possibly–Hand D of Sir Thomas More, of course (which, naturally, Sir Derek doesn’t mention). All we have, says Sir Derek, are six barely legible signatures, each one spelled differently. We’ve been over this one repeatedly. See the fourth reason that Roland Emmerich is an idiot.

Shakespeare was the son of a glove-maker and had a grammar school education. Sir Derek doesn’t draw any conclusions from this, but the snobby implication is that it is unlikely that such a person could write the works attributed to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s daughters were “irrefutably illiterate.” Emmerich mentions this in his ten reasons Shakespeare is a fraud. I had a niggling suspicion about this, but since Susanna and Judith’s literacy has nothing to do with the authorship of their father’s works, I lazily ignored it. In the comments, Fretful Porpentine pointed out Emmerich’s error. Here is the signature of Susanna Hall (née Shakespeare). So, Sir Derek was irrefutably spouting a lie. Oh, but little facts don’t stop Shakespeare deniers. Apparently her signature is “painfully formed,” and she uses three different versions of the letter “a.” Thus she, like her sister, was functionally illiterate. Now since, as Fretful Porpentine notes and even Anonymous admits, reading and writing were two separate skills in Tudor England, this is highly dubious. If Susanna could write her name, she could read. One website contrasts the handwriting of Susanna and her father with that of her husband, John Hall: “His signature is what one would expect from a man who wrote in a clear Italian hand. Would that his father-in-law’s signatures had had such clarity and consistency.” John Hall wrote in an italic hand. Clearly, he was highly literate. Susanna and Shakespeare wrote in Secretary Hand. Clearly, they were functionally illiterate boobs.

Finally, Sir Derek brings up the will, which doesn’t mention Shakespeare’s plays or books. See reason 10 here. So, Sir Derek proposes to offer us a different story. At this point the film moves into the past. I should point out that I took copious notes, but even at the best of times, my handwriting is pretty horrible. That’s right: I am functionally illiterate. When I’m writing in a darkened movie theater, I am even more illiterater (see?).

The cinematography is rather beautiful, especially the scene of Elizabeth’s funeral procession. The facial hair is also extremely impressive. Also, the movie makes no fucking sense. It moves backward and forward in time, but Ben Jonson stays the same age and other characters age at significantly different rates. In particular, Elizabeth and William Cecil, Lord Burghley, seem to age at roughly 3 times the rate of everyone else. This is confusing.

In an early scene, when the queen is very old, she is told that she is to be presented with a play written by “[pregnant pause] Anonymous.” She’s thrilled because she loves plays and “[pregnant pause] Anonymous.” I suppose this is the justification for the film’s title (rather than the more appropriate Pseudonymous). Except it doesn’t make any fucking sense. The play in question is Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, it transpires, Oxford wrote for the court when he was an adolescent. He also played Puck. Everyone at court knows he wrote the play. There was nothing hidden about it. It seems Oxford wrote a whole bunch of plays for court in his youth, including the Prince Hal plays. Again, none of this is hidden, so there is no real reason to refer to him as “[pregnant pause] Anonymous.”

At some point, Oxford attends a public performance of a Jonson play with Southampton (who, we will eventually discover, is his son by Elizabeth; Oxford is also Elizabeth’s son [ick], as is Essex). Shakespeare is AWI (Acting While Intoxicated). Christopher Marlowe has the hots for Southampton. Playwrights Thomas Nashe and Thomas Dekker are essentially non-entities: one’s fat and the other’s skinny, if that helps. All the playwrights, including the highly educated Marlowe, have noticeably less educated-sounding accents than the court characters. All the playwrights seem to be untalented hacks compared to the Incomparable Genius that is Oxford. Marlowe’s a conniving dick; Jonson is kind of a sniveling weasel, although he has integrity and a genuine love of great poetry (i. e. Oxford’s).

Perhaps now is the time to mention how excessively unpleasant all the characters are. Elizabeth is petty and solely driven by emotion. When she discovers that she is pregnant by [her son] Oxford, she declares that she will marry him, even though he is already married: “I LOVE HIM!!!! she screeches, in all caps). She seems utterly useless at statecraft, no more than a pawn of the Cecils. The Cecils (William,  Lord Burghley, and his son Robert) are practically mustache-twirling villains (they plot to murder Oxford, Essex and Southampton; when that fails, they connive to make it appear that Essex and Southampton are in open rebellion against the queen. That’s right, the Essex Rebellion was an inside job). They are also poetry/pleasure-loathing Puritans (“plays are the work of the devil,” says Burghley), a characterization that is simply incorrect, as far as I can tell. Southampton and Essex are pretty and uninteresting (the same is largely true of Oxford as a young man, but he is more actively unpleasant).

And then there’s Shakespeare. He is a drunken, unscrupulous, moronic, conniving, self-aggrandizing, semi-literate (can read but can’t write), inarticulate, barely coherent, petty, malicious, blackmailing, murderous (kills Marlowe for threatening to expose him) little toad. It’s hard to imagine anyone more unappealing. Yet, somehow Oxford manages to be worse. I suppose what makes Oxford so thoroughly reprehensible is the filmmakers’ attempts to make him seem a paragon of, well, everything. Oxford certainly seems to think he’s wonderful. Toward the end of the film, he admits that he’s failed at pretty much everything. But it’s not really his fault, you see. It’s the Cecils’ fault. Also, it’s because of his single-minded devotion to his poetry. The only thing he didn’t fail at is the one thing he didn’t do (write Shakespeare’s poetry). He points out that he had been one of the richest peers in England, but at the end of his life, he is impoverished. Why? Because of his devotion to his Muse. How the fuck much did parchment cost in Elizabethan England? Oh, also he claims Burghley stole his inheritance. Whatever. When he witnesses a performance of Henry V, he silently mouths the St. Crispin’s Day speech and weeps at the beauty of his own words. Barf.

Anyway, after seeing the Jonson play, he has an idea: he can use the public theater to spread his ideas and, somehow, win a kingdom for his son. In this, of course, he fails miserably. Oxford wants Jonson to produce the plays under his (Jonson’s) name. Oxford can’t be seen to write plays in his position (except for all those plays he’s already known for writing; sure, they were written as court entertainments, but you’d think someone might notice some similarity. Nuppers).

Oxford assures Jonson that his plays will make him the richest and most popular playwright in London. He’s modest like that. Jonson doesn’t really want to do it. He has integrity, you’ll remember, and he wants to be known for his own work. But for the sake of the wonderful plays, Jonson agrees. Shakespeare, of course, has no integrity, and when the crowd begins chanting “playwright, playwright” after Henry V, Shakespeare leaps forward and takes credit, to Oxford’s horror: “An actor, for God’s sake.”  Jonson, of course, was also an actor for a time (in real life), but in the film, he tells Shakespeare that playwrights don’t have time to act. Tell that to Nathan Field.

Oxford’s next play is Romeo and Juliet. He announces to Jonson that it’s in iambic pentameter. “What, all of it?” exclaims Jonson, “Is that possible?” Everyone’s amazed that it’s completely in verse. It’s not, of course. And A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was ostensibly written decades earlier, is also predominantly in verse (in reality, the two plays were probably written close together in time, along with Richard II). There were plenty of plays before Shakespeare that were in iambic pentameter, as well. The first English drama in blank verse was Gorboduc or Ferrex and Porrex from 1561.

Some other stupid things: I’ve hinted that there are some problems with the chronology of the plays. Here are some more: Hamlet appears to be written shortly after Romeo and Juliet, and Marlowe is still alive when it is performed. He sneaks off to tattle to Robert Cecil about it. Everyone explicitly makes a connection between the character of Polonius and Lord Burghley. Later, Jonson will similarly tattle about Richard III (which therefore must have been written after Hamlet), though he agonizes over what he’s done. Richard III is supposed to satirize Robert Cecil, who was apparently somewhat hunchbacked. The film suggests that Richard was never portrayed as hunchbacked before the play.

This tendency of rival poets to go around accusing Shakespeare/Oxford of writing seditious plays is, of course, preposterous. Edmund Tilney held the position of Master of the Revels. He was the official censor, and all plays had to be approved by him. If the plays were as obviously seditious as the film suggests, Tilney would never have approved them.

Oxford writes Richard III specifically to achieve…I have no idea what…in his struggles against the Cecils and his plots to promote his son. His plan backfires spectacularly, and the Cecils use it to manufacture the Essex Rebellion. In fact, shortly before the rebellion, some of the conspirators paid the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II (that’s 2nd, not 3rd) at the Globe. The play was not new at the time. Augustine Phillips, a member of the company, testified at Essex’s trial.

There are more things in the movie that are stupid. So many more. But thinking about it makes me sad and stabby, so I’ll leave you with this brief précis of stupidity.

But remember,

The Essex Rebellion Was an Inside Job!

9 Responses to Review of “Anonymous:” The Essex Rebellion Was an Inside Job

  1. Claire says:

    Just in response to this post… (and I know nothing about all this Shakespeare denial stuff) – but why would Shakespeare’s daughters’ illiteracy mean that he was illiterate. Aren’t women historically less educated than men, what with all the “women are inferior” nonsense that patriarchy has been imposing since time immemorial? It just doesn’t follow…

    • Eve says:

      The (il)literacy of Shakespeare’s daughters is basically a red herring. As you say, it has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s literacy or his ability to write the plays/poems. Women didn’t have the same educational opportunities as men. It wouldn’t be at all unusual for a middle-class woman to be illiterate. It wouldn’t be that strange for a middle-class man to be illiterate. But, as it happens, Susanna could sign her name (Judith signed with a mark). In other words, she was, in fact, literate, though some Shakespeare-deniers try to get around that fact. They are very good at avoiding facts.

  2. Pacal says:

    Thank you for giving the plot. I now have less “need” to see this farce of movie I would probably spend my time laughing and making fart noises at the screen.

    As for Elizabeth wanting to marry Oxford!? This movie forgets that the lgreat love of Elizabeth’s life was Robert Dudley. Who I assume the movie “forgot”. After all after he died in late 1588, she wrote on the last letter she got from him “His last letter”, and kept it close to her until she died.

  3. [...] to read Faulkner. Who needs that? For an actual scholarly review, let me point you to my friend Eve, an actual scholar. She explains why this Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakepeare thing Emmerich is [...]

  4. Bradley A. Skene says:

    Not Derek Jacobi! Please say he was only playing a loony.

    I really wasn’t clear on this plot detail, the whole things seems so confusing–But Oxford is Elizabeth’s bastard’s son and goes on to have another bastard with his Elizabeth his own mother?

    We, now we know this script wasn’t written by Emmerich, he’s bearding either for Sophocles or de Sade, neither of whom could afford to have their names associated with a Hollywood film.

    • Eve says:

      “Not Derek Jacobi! Please say he was only playing a loony.”

      Sorry. He’s signed the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt about the Identity of William Shakespeare” and is a patron of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition.

      “I really wasn’t clear on this plot detail, the whole things seems so confusing–But Oxford is Elizabeth’s bastard’s son and goes on to have another bastard with his Elizabeth his own mother?”

      Yup. In the film, neither of them knows that Elizabeth is Oxford’s mother. This is Prince Tudor II theory. It’s a scream.

      To some extent, even this insane theory was filched from the Baconians, some of whom argued that Bacon was Elizabeth’s child (no incest though).

      • Bradley A. Skene says:

        It stands to reason that if he had been Elizabeth’s son, he would have signed on for the Stuart and not pressed his own claim at Elizabeth’s death. And, of course, Elizabeth would never have thought of her own son as a successor!

  5. [...] the claim that Shakespeare did not actually pen his plays.- Bob and Eve have written a good post about the movie here.- There is a ton of evidence that Shakespeare did, in fact, write his plays.- Shakespeare gave much [...]

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