'Anonymous' — Not as anyone would like it

NEW YORK — O, for a juicy literary dispute that would pit scholars against Hollywood, with charges of snobbery, materialism, elitism and opportunism flying around like so many slings and arrows — not to mention the specter of young minds poisoned by the character assassination of a hero.

Heard about the new movie "Anonymous"?

The film by Roland Emmerich, a director better known for apocalyptic blockbusters than period dramas, opened in some American cities on Friday. But already, its contention that Shakespeare was a simpleton, a fraud and perhaps a murderer who never wrote a word of those great plays has set off some epic sniping of which the Bard himself might be proud.

"A new low for Hollywood," says Columbia University professor James Shapiro. "Completely grotesque," says Stanley Wells, of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Britain.

"This film tells me very little about Shakespeare's England," said Shapiro, author of the book "Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?"

"It tells me about Sony Pictures and Hollywood culture. ... It really suits our cultural moment, and that's one in which faith-based arguments should be taken as seriously as those grounded in fact."

Emmerich says he's been called names, and screenwriter John Orloff says one critic even suggested he be taken "to the tower" — the Tower of London, that is.

Orloff dismisses Shapiro's complaints as "frothing at the mouth." Not that the authorship dispute is new, of course. It has been around since at least the mid-19th century.

Nor is the film's main contention new, that the actual author was the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere: There's a whole "Oxfordian" school of thought, along with a "Baconian" school (Francis Bacon). Some think it was playwright Christopher Marlowe, or even Queen Elizabeth I herself.

But Emmerich's film goes further, pitting the story of Shakespeare in a political context involving a fight for succession using the plays as propaganda. As for Elizabeth: the Virgin Queen? Not so much. (The film suggests she had several children secretly, and one of them was born of incest.) Also, some scholars are disturbed by the film's dismissal of complaints of factual errors with an "it's only a movie" explanation.

And then there's the educational push into schools. Sony, in concert with an educational company, has prepared study guides for educators on the authorship question.

"I don't have a problem with Roland Emmerich drinking the Kool-Aid," says Columbia's Shapiro. "But when he serves it to kids in paper cups, I do."

The acrimony is mystifying to some of the actors.

Rhys Ifans plays de Vere, and he feels like the authorship debate isn't even the central point of the film.

"It's a political thriller," Ifans says in an interview. "It's a historical piece, a visual banquet. And it shows the potency of the theater as a vital form of change." Ifans particularly enjoyed shooting the scenes where, as de Vere, he sits in a re-created Globe theater and mouths his own words as the crowd becomes entranced. He is, of course, the author, but must keep that secret.

"I was really moved by the words," Ifans says.

Joely Richardson plays the younger Elizabeth, and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, plays the older queen. Richardson says the cast would sit and discuss the authorship debate during filming.

Many were swayed, she says, by various points of Emmerich's argument: that Shakespeare was a country bumpkin with only a grammar-school education; that there's no physical evidence of his writing (even a letter); that his daughters were illiterate; that his will didn't refer to any plays or books.

"All of us started to get pretty convinced," she says, including her mother, "not necessarily that it was Oxford, but that it's definitely up for debate. There are just so many missing links." Stratfordians argue the Oxfordian theory is simply impossible — de Vere died in 1604, before a number of Shakespeare's most famous plays were written. Others say not so fast: Do we really know when the plays were written, or are we guessing? About the will, Shapiro argues that like other wills of the time, it had a separate inventory that hasn't been found.

One of the more eloquent cases against the Stratfordian view comes from the celebrated Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, who was artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London for 10 years. He plays an actor in the film.

"This anger about the film is bizarre, because Shakespeare has always been a mystery," he says. "It's not like Emmerich is the first person to question this. Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, many others have. And even if we knew the answer, it would still be a mystery how one person did this, how he had a greater vocabulary than anyone else." "But once you really look at the man from Stratford, the mystery gets larger," Rylance said by phone from London.

Most important for Rylance, who believes the plays could have been a collaboration, is the idea that the whole inquiry is based on a deeply felt appreciation for the work. "It stems from great love," he says.

As for Emmerich himself, he doesn't share the long history with the material that his actors do, nor did he study much Shakespeare in school in Germany. But, he says, "I was always the kid who asked, 'Why?' " So when screenwriter Orloff pitched him a script he'd written years earlier, Emmerich became fascinated with the issue; he became convinced that the man from Stratford didn't write the plays.

"I really don't know what they're afraid about," says Emmerich of his critics, especially those worried about young people. "We have the greatest actors in this film, and they're doing Shakespeare's greatest hits. We're making Shakespeare cool!" He jokes that no one is happy with him — not the Stratfordians, and not the Oxfordians. On that, he is correct.

"We're a bit ambivalent about it," says Richard Malim, general secretary of the De Vere Society in Britain. "It will make a lot of people sit up, but the trouble is there's so much manifest rubbish in it that we're in fear and trembling. It's completely unnecessary," he says of the more lurid elements about Elizabeth, "the most utter nonsense."

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is not ambivalent — it is furious. The charity, which promotes the playwright and his work, is running an online campaign to rebut the film's claims. It also has published an e-book, "Shakespeare Bites Back." And on Tuesday, it blacked out Shakespeare's name on road and pub signs in his home county of Warwickshire to highlight its campaign against the movie. It also covered a statue of the Bard with a sheet.

John McEneny, a drama teacher at Middle School 51 in Brooklyn, N.Y., is taking some 100 students to "Anonymous" next week. Why? "Both sides have some really good points," he says.

"If you believe the Stratfordians, you have to believe a dream — that this man could come from this small town and become the greatest writer in the world. If you believe the Oxfordians, you have to believe a conspiracy." McEneny himself actually believes the answer is somewhere in the middle — a collaboration of some sort. Either way, he says, it's all good.

"It's a wonderful mystery," he says.

Share This Story