Thursday, November 3, 2011
I cannot prove that Shakespeare was Shakespeare. I have no documents, no signed affidavits, no DNA evidence, not even a legally notarized etching. By that same token, I cannot prove that Edward de Vere was Edward de Vere, nor that Ben Jonson was Ben Jonson. For that matter, I have no conclusive evidence that Queen Elizabeth was indeed Queen Elizabeth, and not two stacked dwarfs in a dress and red wig.
And so the doubters shall doubt, and there isn’t much we can do about it. Maybe Shakespeare wrote his own plays or maybe he didn’t. Perhaps Edward de Vere did write the works of Shakespeare. Or perhaps Ben Jonson wrote the works of Shakespeare, and perhaps Shakespeare wrote the works of Ben Jonson (perhaps there was a mix-up at the printers). And perhaps we shall construct a time machine one day and put this inane debate to rest, and then pop over to Germany in 1920 to kill Hitler (priorities, you know).
In fairness to the doubters, there is something vaguely appealing in these theories that Shakespeare’s work was the product of a frustrated nobleman like de Vere, or some other random talent of the day. After all, if you already love Shakespeare’s work, you’ve clearly built up immunity to absurd plot twists and implausible narrative leaps. Add an extra dash of credulity and all of a sudden Christopher Marlowe is writing Hamlet after faking his own death in a bar brawl. Is this any less believable than the plot of Twelfth Night?
Besides, it’s not like there is any way to conclusively resolve this debate, short of a sudden rash of good sense amongst all parties involved. Given that Shakespeare—excuse me, “Shakespeare”—has been dead nearly 400 years, you’re unlikely to prove much beyond his brute existence, never mind what he was doing the night King Lear was written. You would think that would temper the argument, but arrogance all too often prevails among these conspiracy-minded Oxfordians and their brothers-in-paranoia (the Marlowe mob, the Bacon backers). If you hold to the belief that Shakespeare was the author of his own work, the doubters will regard you as nothing more than a pitiable dupe, a naïve fool to be classed with grown men and women who still believe in Santa Claus, Big Bird, and Barack Obama’s birth certificate. The paranoiacs are the only ones in the know, of course. The rest of us are a pathetic miscellany of rubes, suckers, dreamers, ninnies and the just plain dumb.
That brings us to Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, which likewise assumes us to be suckers, although for different reasons than the Oxfordians. With its theatrical bookends meant to mimic one of Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play structures, the film exudes glib reverence for art while not quite comprehending what “art” actually entails. The film adores the idea of Shakespeare, yet has little use for dull plays (too wordy) and obnoxious writers (too smelly). But if you’re sitting in the movie theatre watching this farce unfold, the reason you’re there is because of an abiding fascination with (or at least mild fondness for) the works of Shakespeare. Feeling like a dupe yet?
Concluding a historical trilogy that began with The Patriot and 10,000 BC (well, why not?), Emmerich’s film is a dull, lumpy mess of half-baked Elizabethan conspiracy theories and courtly intrigue. The film’s twist on the Oxfordian theory is that de Vere approached Ben Jonson to provide a front for his plays, only for a semi-literate, pompous actor by the name of William Shakespeare—perhaps you’ve heard of him—to sneak in and take credit for himself. The only people worse than writers—pardon me, that’s common writers, the nobility is okay—are actors.
All of this literary conspiracy talk is itself something of a front for the film’s true purpose. Anonymous delves deeply—oh lord, how deeply—into the political machinations behind who will succeed Queen Elizabeth. The plays are de Vere’s tool to manipulate public opinion while also reaching out to the queen, who long ago banished him from court in the aftermath of a botched love affair. What follows is somewhere between political drama and bedroom farce, loaded with incest, intrigue, and the popular aristocratic game of hide-the-bastard. It’s a very serious movie about very silly things. You can expect thunder rolling on the soundtrack as people bellow stirring dialogue like, “My poems are my soul!”
None of that reverence for poetry translates into much fondness for the poets themselves, however. Christopher Marlowe is so devilish he all but sprouts horns and a tail, while Thomas Nashe and Thomas Dekker are little more than a Laurel and Hardy routine. However, the most abused is Ben Jonson, who spends much of the film drunk and depressed, helplessly watching his life fall apart, only occasionally waking up to wave around a play of his own (considering how much time he spends sniffling in the gutter, it’s a wonder he found the time to write at all). Strangely, a single line in the epilogue notes that he was widely considered the greatest playwright of his day—a rather unexpected nod towards the historical record this late in the film, especially considering we’ve already been told Queen Elizabeth was impregnated by her son and the Earl of Oxford wrote A Midsummer’s Night Dream when he was 12 years old.
But the film’s greatest sin is its failure of nerve. I’m not necessarily opposed to constructing elaborately ridiculous theories around historical figures if there is some point to be made or fun to be had. Sadly, neither is to be found here. This mealy-mouthed movie lacks even the conviction of its own nonsense. Emmerich treats the plays with dull piety, raising them to the heavens on cardboard wings and a cloud made of cotton. The overall tone is one of fealty, which fits quite naturally with this idea that only a nobleman could write such noble works. (I notice the rather ignoble Titus Andronicus is conspicuously absent from the film.) Indeed, it’s hard to imagine these sainted plays containing something as low and common as a fart joke or crude double-entendre, even though that is just as much a part of them as Hamlet’s soliloquy or Mark Antony’s oration. It’s a curious kind of reverence that destroys the thing it loves, but Anonymous manages to do it. The film scrubs Shakespeare clean before dragging him through the gutter.