As the first chapter of Homer’s the Iliad is entitled “The Rage of Achilles,” so every film about Queen Elizabeth 1 could be subtitled: “The Sadness of Elizabeth.” Having never left the shores of England, she pined for tales of faraway, exotic lands and the romance of the men and women in them, albeit devoid of the politically-burdened context in which they became known to her in her day-to-day business of state. In her life, there were a few men who provided her that vicarious outlet, among them Walter Raleigh, and, according to the new film by Roland Emmerich, Anonymous, the Earl of Oxford, through his magnificent and breathtaking poetry and plays.
Now labeled, ridiculously, a “controversial” film, Anonymous, written sharply by John Orloff, posits the long-debated theory by historians and Stratfordians that the man we have come to know as William Shakespeare, author of hundreds of the best pieces of writing that the world has ever borne witness to, is in fact a charlatan, and never in fact wrote a single word. Further, according to the film, he was rather a dull-witted, opportunistic slug who was a mere actor when the powerful words written in secret fell into his bumbling hands.
Rhys Ifans, always a reliable force, plays the Earl of Oxford, a man whose political position does not allow for a side career as a writer of plays, which are considered a work of the devil by all those loyal churchgoers. Among the naysayers, however, one woman takes endless delight in his words and stories, and has since the Earl was a young boy come to court. In fact, his art so inspires and enraptures Queen Elizabeth, otherwise cloaked in her loneliness, that she orders him to her bedchambers and commences a passionate affair, one that begets a secret child born in secret.
The English are covetous of the image of their Virgin Queen, the Gloriana whose iconography paints their past and present like the image of Christ. It was shocking enough to portray the queen, in the fiercely capable hands of a young Cate Blanchett in the 1998 Elizabeth, in bed with Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester; Anonymous takes it further in claiming the Virgin Queen not only produced one illegitimate, but three, going back to her teenage years while Bloody Mary, her frenzied sister Mary Tudor, possessed the throne.
Joely Richardson, daughter of screen legend Vanessa Redgrave, paces in oppressed outrage while her advisor William Cecil demands she retreat and give birth in secret, forever dismissing her young poet lover; “But I love him!” she shouts in a heartbreaking agony. One can see how the beauty of words and art has enlivened this slowly withering figure of state, so frozen behind her powder and wigs and dresses and pomp, so plastered into her role as an objet d’art, removed from all passion and flesh.
Concerned for her immortal soul, Elizabeth’s religious council is all too eager to be rid of the dreamy poet, who is compelled to pour forth the characters who rage through his head night and day, despite the condemnation of his wife and powerful father-in-law. But he has enough sense to realize he could never make known to the world his passion and recreational activities. He enlists a struggling young writer, Ben Jonson, who recoils from the assignment. The works then are hungrily picked up by equally young and ambitious actor William Shakespeare, a man more or less dismissed by his colleagues. At curtain call after the first performance of the Earl’s plays, accepting the adoring applause, Shakespeare is met with a dumbfounded shock by the audience: “Will??” they wonder, perplexed.
It is curious that the filmmakers chose to portray Shakespeare as such a nitwit, so obviously lacking in any depth or integrity, let alone the potential to render such searing, visceral insights into the workings of human nature. But the drunken colleagues around him seem to accept it and move on, except for the brooding, lurking presence of an unsatisfied Jonson, who finds himself further and further falling in love with the Earl’s gorgeous plays.
The screenplay slowly and masterfully layers the present political climate with that of the past, intercutting between the young Elizabeth and Earl, and their older counterparts. As the film mounts, the audience is presented with a somewhat plausible but wonderfully interesting conjectural explanation for what would – or at least should – be considered, if true, one of the world’s biggest and astonishing cover-ups. And what gives the film its pathos are the human dramas and dilemmas behind such a cover-up. Much more is revealed to lend credence to the conspiracy, details of which I will not expose here; but the essence of human loss, deception, painful yearning, and creative compulsion are the film’s driving forces.
A Greek philosopher once coined a phrase that goes, paraphrased, if one were to be walking and come upon a dropped royal diadem, it would not be worth the traveler’s time to kneel and pick such a thing up. The trappings of royalty, the demands and sacrifices of ruling, are a torture that should not be wished on any, even your worst enemy. In Anonymous, we see the emotional cost of such a title, in the quiet anguish of Joely Richardson and her mother Vanessa Redgrave’s rich performances.
But such pain and loss never fail to yield up to the world, like a lamb on the slab, a worthwhile piece of art. In this case, the world was given, one way or another, a series of writings that continue to inspire, continue to be performed more than any single other piece of work, and continue to set the standard for the portrayal of human life.
Do I believe Shakespeare really wrote it all? Yes. Is there, nevertheless, some compelling evidence for the contrary? Yes. Ultimately, the truth will never be known, and it doesn’t matter; the works endure, and will be found in the outer reaches of space when Earth has long expired, taking with it the troubled and troubling race that inspired their very existence.