If that sentence turned you off, stop reading now. I completely understand if you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, historical intrigue, and/or intellectual property rights. But I am, and I’m going to talk about each one in detail below.
As you may know, there are several schools of thought about who wrote Shakespeare’s works. Some attribute them to Shakespeare (a no-brainer, right?), others to Francis Bacon, and yet others to Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford. It is this last school that gets its day in Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous.
The film flashes back and forth between the end of the Elizabethan era and a time about 40 years prior. Queen Elizabeth discovers that the author of a lovely play she’d just seen called “The Tempest” is in fact an 8-year-old scamp named Edward De Vere. She sends him off to be raised by the Cecil family, powerful political rivals of the Tudors. Just go with it.
During a fencing lesson one day, Edward accidentally kills a servant. Cecil blackmails Edward into marrying his daughter Anne, which he reluctantly does. Good thing the Queen still has her eyes on him. They become lovahs and (oops) she has his lovechild. (Who is then of course squired away to be raised as the Earl of Southampton with no idea who his real parents are.) In the meantime, Edward writes, political intrigue ensues, and the question of the Queen’s successor remains unanswered. Will it be James of Scotland, backed by the Cecils? Or the Earl of Essex, backed by the Queen?*
Meanwhile, Ben Jonson is trying to get his own playwriting career going. This is where it got a little confusing for me.
I think what happened is that Edward gave his plays to Jonson to pass off as written by Anonymous. Shakespeare took credit for them (and thus “stole” the credit from Edward) and started extorting Edward for money. Edward tries to stir the country into a pre-Essex/anti-Cecil revolt with a stirring version of “Richard III.” Jonson, Essex, and Southampton are accused of treason and locked in the Tower. Cecil burns down the theater. Edward privately meets with Elizabeth, finds out that she is (incest alert) both his lover AND his mother, and agrees to never take credit for his work as long as Southampton is saved. Essex is beheaded. Jonson is set free, returns to the theater, and finds that some of the plays had survived.
Got all that? I myself had a LOT of trouble keeping up, and I’ve seen more historical drama than you can shake a spear at.
Twisty and turny though the plot was, the real revelation for me was the entire Oxfordian theory. I mean, think about it. William Shakespeare was the child of an illiterate father. No education. Not well-traveled. How could he have written what he did? How does one write about Italy in the pre-internet age without having been there? Or without having been taught?
Regardless of who wrote them, Shakespeare’s works are obviously of immense importance to western civilization. But it’s fun to wonder, whether you’re a believer, a skeptic, or an agnostic.
* Not least because he is also her lovechild. Scandalous!