The tagline of the film is: Was Shakespeare a fraud? But is the film ‘Anonymous’ the real fraud?
The 2011 film Anonymous purports to tell the ‘dark story’ of the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. Set against the backdrop of the Essex Rebellion, the film puts forward the theory that it was in fact Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
The tagline of the film is: Was Shakespeare a fraud? In fact it is Anonymous itself that is the fraud.
If Anonymous has brought you to the Shakespearean Authorship Debate for the first time, let me assure you that it is not some astonishing new discovery (just as the theories put forward in The Da Vinci Code were neither astonishing nor new). Doubts about William Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays go back to the nineteenth century, and the claim that the Earl of Oxford was the true author of Shakespeare’s complete works not only dates back to 1920, but is now the most widely held, in fact ‘mainstream’, alternative theory. There is therefore nothing original about Anonymous. (see Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare? The Authorship Contenders)
However, if De Vere’s supporters, known as the Oxfordians, are hoping that Anonymous will vindicate them and convince the world that their candidate is the ‘real’ Shakespeare, they will be sorely disappointed. In fact it does just the opposite. To anyone with a skerrick of knowledge of the Elizabethan period and theatre, this film only demonstrates how weak their case really is. I am not at all surprised that the teaching fraternity went up in arms when the producers published ‘educational kits’ hoping to induce them to bring their students to see the film. (Follow the links to see where I have written elsewhere in more depth about some of the points I touch on in this article.)
I have also examined the historical accuracy of Shakespeare in Love, and while I recognise that it is full of inaccuracies and anachronisms, I also acknowledged that the producers were having fun, and in no way trying to mislead their audience. (see Deciphering ‘Shakespeare in Love’)
Anonymous is introduced and closed by the celebrated Shakespearean actor, Derek Jacobi, an avowed Oxfordian, who claims to present the ‘facts’ about Shakespeare. So while the producers claim to be merely telling another ‘story’, the film is in fact designed to persuade its audience that it is factual and a valid presentation of an alternative historical theory.
However, if you are attempting to prove an alternative theory of history, surely you should at least keep within the known facts and demonstrate how your theory conforms to them. In fact, Anonymous plays fast and loose with the facts it does touch on and ignores any that might expose the theory’s basic inconsistencies. Given the number of people who are ignorant of history, the vast majority of its audience is likely to take the film at face value. (In one case that went viral, an American blogger named Elizabeth I as the worst mother in history based on this film and was shot down in flames.) We can only conclude that the producers are knowingly misrepresenting the facts in a deliberate attempt to mislead their audience.
While much of the Oxfordian case has some merit, as is usual with advocates of conspiracy theories, many adherents to the cause have taken their arguments into outright fantasy land and the film’s screenwriter has followed them there, to the extent of basing the whole plot on the Tudor Prince theory (more of that anon), and taking it to its extreme.
SPOILER ALERT: This study gives away the whole plot of the movie.
The film’s narrative is non-linear, but the bare bones of the underlying story are as follows:
When the young Edward De Vere’s father dies, Lord Burghley, (William Cecil) becomes his guardian. He takes control of the young man’s life and when Edward inadvertently kills a servant set to spy on him, he uses it as leverage to force Edward into a loveless marriage with his daughter Anne.
As a beautiful and sensitive young man, De Vere comes to the Queen’s attention and they become lovers. When Elizabeth becomes pregnant, Cecil arranges for her to bear her child in secret and puts a stop to the relationship. Thereafter De Vere hates the Cecils and becomes their deadly enemy. His only comfort is the friendship he develops with their unacknowledged son, the Earl of Southampton.
While well versed in all the accomplishments of a nobleman, De Vere’s great love is the writing of poetry and plays. However Cecil, a devout Puritan, forbids him to do so, and throughout De Vere’s life the Cecils oppose his writing, deeming it shameful and ungodly. However, when the young Earl of Southampton takes De Vere, now a middle-aged man, to see a performance by the Chamberlain’s Men, he realises how powerful the theatre can be in disseminating ideas.
When Ben Jonson is imprisoned for writing a seditious play, De Vere arranges his release on condition that he produces De Vere’s plays under his own name. Jonson undertakes to get the first play, Henry V, performed, but when he hesitates to take credit for it, William Shakespeare, an illiterate actor, steps into the breach and claims the play as his own. When Ben Jonson refuses to give him any more money, Shakespeare follows him, finds out De Vere is the real author and blackmails him.
While despising Shakespeare, De Vere goes along with him in order to get his plays onto the stage so as to stir up the people’s hatred of the Cecils and gain their support for the Essex Rebellion, the aim of which is to dislodge the Cecils and make Essex, a suspected secret child of the Queen, the next king. On the day of the rebellion, the Chamberlain’s Men play Richard III, in which Richard is portrayed as a parody of Robert Cecil, Lord Burghley’s son, a bitter hunchback who has always hated and envied De Vere.
But the rebellion is a failure and as De Vere watches his friends being defeated and captured, Robert Cecil tells him some uncomfortable truths. De Vere himself is the Queen’s son and therefore Southampton is the product of incest. And far from thwarting his ambitions, William Cecil would have made De Vere the Queen’s heir if he had not squandered his talents on writing.
As De Vere lies dying, against the wishes of his wife Anne, he summons Ben Jonson and gives him his remaining manuscripts asking him to publish them someday. Pursued by Cecil’s agents, Ben Jonson hides the manuscripts in the Rose playhouse, which the soldiers burn to the ground to force him to surrender. When Ben Jonson returns he gratefully finds the manuscripts have survived.
For a film about the Elizabethan theatre, made with the assistance of some of England’s most expert practitioners, perhaps the most irritating errors were those about the playhouse and the players.
Perhaps the only times the film comes close to the facts is that Ben Jonson was twice briefly jailed for producing offensive plays, but in 1597 and 1605, not in 1599. In that year, William Shakespeare is believed to have performed in Jonson’s Everyman in his Humour, as shown in the film, but it would have been at The Globe, not The Rose.
Although the staging of the plays in the film is lively and exciting, it still displays a basic disregard of the realities of the Elizabethan playhouse. Plays are shown being presented with elaborate sets. This was far from the case. Born out of a tradition of travelling playing companies performing in inn yards and market places, Elizabethan plays were staged with a minimal set, except for props that could be easily moved on and off the stage. Not only did the plays move smoothly from one setting to the next, different plays were presented each day. Large and elaborate sets were not only unheard of, but totally impractical. (see The Elizabethan Playing Companies)
The film begins with soldiers burning down a playhouse. A viewer with some knowledge of Shakespeare would expect it to be The Globe, which was the playhouse most closely associated with Shakespeare, but we later learn it is The Rose. Although no specific date is given, since this scene is set just after Oxford’s death we must assume it is 1604.
However, this scene is wrong on a number of counts. Although The Rose was abandoned at about this time, there is no evidence it was ever burnt to the ground. The Globe was burnt down, but it occurred in 1613, and was as the result of a misfiring cannon during a performance. And finally, no sensible Londoner would deliberately start a fire of such magnitude as it could very easily engulf the whole city. In fact the producers are very fond of deploying fire in the playhouse, as torches, footlights and practical fire on stage. Apart from the fact that plays were performed during the day under an open roof and so needed no artificial lighting, such use of fire would be much too dangerous to contemplate.
Five years earlier, which we must assume is 1599, we see the Earl of Southampton taking the Earl of Oxford to the Rose to see the Chamberlain’s Men, managed by Philip Henslowe, perform a play by Ben Jonson with William Shakespeare in the cast. Subsequently ‘Shakespeare’s’ plays are performed in The Rose by The Chamberlain’s Men with Gabriel Spenser taking the lead roles. Sometime later, Shakespeare goes into partnership with the entrepreneur Richard Burbage to build a bigger playhouse, The Globe. All wrong!
The facts are: Philip Henslowe never managed the Chamberlain’s Men and they never performed at The Rose. They performed at The Theatre and The Curtain in Shoreditch (north of the river) until June 1599 when The Globe was opened in Bankside (south of the river) not far from The Rose. Their leading player was Richard Burbage who created all of Shakespeare’s major roles. It was his father James Burbage, the builder of The Theatre, who was the entrepreneur. The Globe was built by a partnership of seven sharers, led by Richard and his brother Cuthbert Burbage. William Shakespeare held a one-tenth share. (see The Burbages: First Family of Theatre)
Except for two of his earliest plays, then in the repertoire of Lord Strange’s Men, none of Shakespeare’s plays were performed at The Rose. Moreover, Shakespeare’s plays did not suddenly burst onto the stage in 1599 to great acclaim as we see in the film. Shakespeare’s plays had been performed since 1592 if not earlier, nor was Henry V the first of his plays to be staged.
In 1599 the company in residence at The Rose was the Admiral’s Men, whose leading player was Edward Alleyn, not Gabriel Spenser. Philip Henslowe was the owner of the playhouse, but is unlikely to have been involved in managing the company. (see The Secret of Henslowe’s Diary) Earlier in his career, Gabriel Spenser had been in companies associated with Shakespeare, including the Chamberlain’s Men, but by 1597 he was a member of the Admiral’s Men. However, whatever company he was with, he could not have been the star of ‘Shakespeare’s’ plays as portrayed in the film because he was dead by this time, killed in a duel by Ben Jonson in 1598.
Still in 1599, Ben Jonson is shown to be one of a coterie of playwrights, including Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe and Thomas Dekker, who watch Shakespeare’s success with a variety of reactions. While Dekker and Nashe accept it with equanimity, Marlowe is envious and suspects that Shakespeare is not the true author. He challenges Jonson with his suspicions and threatens to confront Shakespeare. Soon after, Marlowe is found murdered in the street near The Rose, the implication being he was murdered by Shakespeare.
Again, all wrong. By 1599, Marlowe was long gone. He was reported killed in 1593 in Deptford, some distance from London, in a fight involving three other men, none of whom was William Shakespeare. (see A Fateful Day in Deptford: The ‘Death’ of Christopher Marlowe) It is unlikely Marlowe and Jonson ever met as Jonson’s theatrical career only began in 1596 at the earliest.
The Aristocratic Author
In the film, the Cecils are portrayed as devout Puritans who abhor the theatre and fight to have plays prohibited from the court. In reality, Elizabeth loved the theatre and plays were performed at court, especially at Christmas, throughout her reign. If the Cecils did try to abolish it, not only were they spectacularly ineffective, they were risking Elizabeth’s grave displeasure. In fact, although politically the Cecils leaned more towards the Puritans than the Catholics, it seems their own beliefs were conventionally Protestant.
Meanwhile De Vere’s failures are attributed to his persistence in writing to the exclusion of all else, while the very act of writing is portrayed as a shameful pastime which must be conducted in secret.
The film is somewhat confused about the attitude of the aristocracy to play-writing. When Oxford recruits Jonson to stage his plays under his own name, he says it is because ‘People like me don’t write plays,’ yet in the same breath he admits to writing plays which were once staged at court before the Queen. In fact, not only was the writing of literature, particularly poetry, considered one of the accomplishments of a true gentleman in the Elizabethan court, but De Vere was recognised and celebrated in his own time as an accomplished poet and playwright.
The whole Oxfordian premise is based on the assumption that Oxford had to write his plays in secret, an assumption which may have been fuelled by the fact that none of his plays, and only a handful of his poems, have survived. However, I believe that if no plays were published under Oxford’s name, it was not because they were published under another name, but because he would not have deigned to have them published at all. If he were to stage his plays under an assumed name it would not be because people like him did not write plays, but because they did not write plays for the public (i.e. commercial) playhouse.
The real stigma for a nobleman was not in writing, but in being seen to be paid for his writing. Gentlemen did not have to work for a living. To be paid for one’s writing, either by publishing it or by presenting it in a public playhouse, would mark one as a mere tradesman, which would be anathema to a nobleman. This prejudice survived well into the twentieth century, exemplified in the English cricket team up until WWII in which there was a distinction between gentlemen, who were not paid to play, and players who were. In publishing it still persists in that it is considered more prestigious to write literary fiction which sells only a few copies to a discerning audience, than to write a best seller.
Crucial to the plot is the Earl of Oxford’s hostile relationship with the Cecil family. According to the film, William Cecil fought to have the young, orphaned Earl made his ward. However, as a Puritan, William Cecil forbids him from pursuing poetry, his greatest love, and is disappointed in him. Meanwhile, William’s children hate De Vere. Robert is bitterly jealous of him and Anne detests him and opposes his writing right up until his death. However, much of this conflict has been manufactured for the purposes of the plot.
Just a quick perusal of De Vere’s biography uncovers this scenario’s basic flaws. If William Cecil had such a low opinion of De Vere, why did he try over many years but fail to get De Vere the political preferment he craved? And why was De Vere still writing to Robert Cecil right up until the last years of his life, still seeking that elusive preferment? In fact, if we read between the lines, it becomes apparent that De Vere was emotionally unstable and his own worst enemy.
It is true that Oxford was a ward of William Cecil’s, but that was because Cecil held the position of Master of the Court of Wards, in which he supervised the education of all orphaned young aristocrats including the Earls of Essex, Southampton and Rutland. Oxford spent only two years in the Cecil household, during which time Robert was an infant, certainly not old enough to feel jealous of a young man of sixteen.
Oxford did kill one of Cecil’s servants, but the circumstances were certainly not those portrayed in the film. He was found not guilty but as a nobleman he would have had no doubt about the verdict. As for his marriage to Anne, it occurred much later, and all the evidence points to De Vere’s instigating it against Cecil’s better judgement. The marriage was indeed an unhappy one, and Oxford treated Anne shamefully. The poor woman long predeceased him and he was married to his second wife at the time of his death.
The Essex Rebellion
According to the film, Oxford is a central figure in the Essex Rebellion which is undertaken to stop the Cecils handing Elizabeth’s throne to James VI of Scotland, and to get rid of the Cecils altogether. When William Cecil gets wind of Essex’s plans he persuades the Queen to send Essex to Ireland where Cecil plots to have him assassinated. Falsely accused by Robert Cecil of conspiring with the Catholic Irish to hand the throne to the Spanish, Essex precipitously returns to England and barges into the Queen’s bedchamber, severely shaking her. When Cecil takes measures against them, Essex and Southampton are forced to instigate their rebellion. The performance of ‘Shakespeare’s’ play, Richard III, is meant to rouse the people of London to rally to his side. However, the rebels are betrayed and both the mob and the rebels fall into a fatal trap. Meanwhile, Oxford publishes Venus and Adonis, a metaphorical account of his love affair with Elizabeth thirty years earlier, in the hope that she will summon him so he can put the rebels’ case to her.
As can be imagined, the true facts of the Essex Rebellion are much more complex than this, too complex to go into here, so I must summarise them as succinctly as possible.
It was Essex himself who persuaded the Queen to send him to Ireland to quell the rebellion so that he could win back her esteem. However, when the realities did not live up to his high expectations, he opted to call a truce with the leader of the Irish which was little short of a surrender. In taking this independent decision, he not only disappointed the Queen, but roused her suspicions that he was overreaching himself. Disturbed by her reproachful letters, afraid his enemies were poisoning her mind against him, Essex precipitously returned to England with an armed following, thus rousing the Queen’s suspicions and fears even further. She banished him from the court, and the Privy Council put him under house arrest.
On his release almost a year later, excluded from the Queen’s favour and the benefits that brought, Essex became ever more convinced that Cecil was plotting to turn the Queen against him, and her throne over to the Spanish rather than the rightful heir, James of Scotland. As for Essex and his followers, their plotting was more wild talk than purposeful planning, with no clear goals apart from prising Elizabeth away from Essex’s imagined enemies. Nor was it very secret, with Essex opening his house to a large following of malcontents.
On Saturday, February 7, 1601, Essex’s more militant followers paid the Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II, complete with a censored scene in which the king is deposed, thus signalling their intentions of overthrowing the Queen. The next morning, when Essex would not attend the court when summoned to explain himself, the Privy Council sent four of their number to Essex House where Essex’s followers took them hostage, forcing him finally to set out to storm Whitehall. However, when the armed soldiers and adoring crowds Essex had hoped would follow him did not materialise, he tried to turn back, but it was too late, and he and his followers were arrested. Despite denying throughout his trial that he had committed treason, he finally admitted to planning to take control of the Queen and rule through her. Essex, Southampton and several others were condemned to death. Essex was executed while Southampton was one of a small number who were spared.
Although the film vaguely follows the outline of the Essex Rebellion, it is wrong on a few vital facts. Most crucially, the Earl of Oxford played absolutely no part in the rebellion, and in fact, was one of the panel of peers that sat in judgement at Essex and Southampton’s trial. As we can see, the play that was meant to precipitate the rebellion was Richard II, not Richard III. The film also reverses whether it was Essex or the Cecils who favoured James VI as the next king.
And finally, Venus and Adonis was published in 1593, eight years earlier. Nor would it have had the desired effect on the Queen. Far from telling the tale of a young man’s passionate love for an older woman as portrayed in the film, the poem actually tells of an older woman’s abortive attempts, little short of attempted rape, to seduce a chaste young man who wants nothing to do with her.
The Tudor Prince Theory
While incorporating all of the above, the film’s plot centres on the Tudor Prince theory which maintains that far from remaining the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I actually bore several children in secret who were subsequently raised in aristocratic families and inherited their titles.
The theory was first propounded by the supporters of Francis Bacon as the ‘real’ Shakespeare. They claimed that that ciphers in Shakespeare’s plays and poems revealed that Bacon was the love child of the Queen and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. (see Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare? The Authorship Contenders) Oxfordians adopted the theory, claiming that the Earl of Southampton was the love child of the Queen and the Earl of Oxford. Taking it one step further, more extreme Oxfordians claim that Edward De Vere himself was the son of the Princess Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour, and therefore Southampton was the result of an incestuous relationship. Apparently these theories have been confirmed in spiritualist communion with dead Elizabethans.
This absurd theory rests on nothing more than wishful thinking, fanciful readings of imagined codes, and a refusal to believe that a woman could remain a virgin all her life. Elizabeth may have been a passionate woman who enjoyed the company of men, but if we look at her life we can see that she had every reason to retain her virginity.
Any marriage she might have contemplated promised to be risky and problematic. If she married at all she ran the risk of forfeiting her power and independence to her husband. She only had to look at her sister Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain, and her cousin Mary Queen of Scot’s last two disastrous marriages.
If she married an Englishman, he would be by definition beneath her, and whichever choice she made would be sure to raise the ire and suspicions of all rival factions. If she were to look overseas, she would have to choose between weak Protestant candidates or strong Catholic ones, and then find herself embroiled in the Continent’s shifting allegiances, not to mention facing down the xenophobia of her own people.
Even if she stopped short of marriage and took a lover, such a relationship would have entailed all the same risks, but also leave her open to being disparaged as a sinful and wanton woman.
But perhaps her fundamental motivation would be personal and psychological. Marriage in her family had been disastrous for women. Her own mother was executed by her father. Her cousin, Katherine Howard, was also executed. When she was of a tender age, her stepmother’s husband tried to seduce her. Is it any wonder she would avoid any but the most platonic relations with men?
If rumours were rife at the time that Essex was Elizabeth’s bastard because he so resembled her, it must be remembered that he was the great-grandson of Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister and Henry VIII’s mistress, and was Elizabeth’s cousin, once if not twice over.
The theory also rests on the assumption that noble families would take in a bastard child as their heir. If there is one thing an aristocracy insists on it is maintaining the blood-line in whose antiquity they take especial pride. They would never risk leaving their title to a boy of unknown origins. And even if they knew he was Elizabeth’s son, it would be no recommendation. To the English nobility, the Tudors were parvenus.
This theory, also known as the Tudor Rose, is as impossible as that red and white rose itself, which, incidentally, the film shows De Vere cultivating.
Anonymous was produced by film director, Roland Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff. Better known for large scale disaster movies, Emmerich certainly put his expertise in CGI to good use in creating the epic look of Anonymous. Indeed, the fact that the background to this film is almost entirely CGI is a perfect metaphor for the film’s substance.
In their commentary on the DVD, the film’s creators admit to having knowingly strayed from historical fact which they justify by claiming the film is not a documentary but a drama and no historical drama could possibly be 100% accurate. Yet while selling the film to the public as historical fact, they readily confess that they had deliberately distorted the facts in order to create a ‘great Shakespearean drama’ complete with ambition, betrayal, murder and incest.
The creators of Anonymous are trying to have it both ways. They claim both the freedom to create a fictional drama and the kudos of contributing to an historical debate. In fact, all they are doing is exemplifying the very theme of their film, and perpetrating a great fraud on an innocent public.
© Pauline Montagna 2012
Lacey, Robert, Robert, Earl of Essex: An Elizabethan Icarus, Phoenix Press (2001)
Michell, John, Who Wrote Shakespeare? Thames & Hudson (1996)
William, Glynne et al (edited by) The English Professional Theatre, 1530-1660, Cambridge University Press (2000)