I have only myself to blame for attempting to watch this movie.  My most trusted advisors warned against it; if I had bothered to consult my healthcare professionals, they would have warned against it, too.  But still, I thought: it’s in my Netflix queue, so it’s sort of free.  What harm could it do?  I was wrong.

Anonymous is a historical thriller based on the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship–the idea the Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was the real author of the plays commonly attributed to Shakespeare.  This theory is universally dismissed by Shakespearean scholars, which of course Oxfordians claim is evidence that they must be onto something–otherwise, why would those scholars be so defensive?  Yeesh.

My idiotic theory for watching the movie was that fiction doesn’t have to be historically accurate to be entertaining.  I thought Inglourious Basterds was entertaining, in a dopey sort of way, even though, er, that’s not the way World War II actually played out.  And Shakespeare in Love was utterly delightful, despite taking its share of liberties with the Shakespeare story.  ButAnonymous is so bad on so many different levels that I only made it through 59 minutes and 40 seconds of it, according to my DVD player.  Here are a few of its problems:

  • The screenwriter decided he wanted the central plot to be a thriller about the Essex rebellion, with the conceit that Essex was Queen Elizabeth’s son and Oxford was his father.  This means the script has to fit in endless amounts of exposition to explain the political situation.
  • Maybe in a fruitless attempt to counteract all that dull exposition, the script scrambles the time sequence till you have no idea what’s supposed to be happening when.  It doesn’t help that the movie blithely ignores actual historical chronology, so that Christopher Marlowe shows up when he’s dead, and Henry V is played as if no one had heard of Henry IV Part One or Two.  (Also, according to the movie, de Vere wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was about fourteen.  I didn’t get to the part where apparently Shakespeare’s company is hired to put on Richard III to coincide with Essex’s rebellion, instead of Richard II, which is what actually happened.  Why did the movie bother to make that change? Richard IIIis about an evil usurper–how would that help rally the public to support a usurpation?)
  • None of the characters has the slightest depth or significance, including de Vere, who doesn’t do or say anything to suggest that he could have written the plays.  He mostly just sits around looking aristocratic.

Anyway, let me commend to you James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? if you want to clear your head and actually learn something about this odd little corner of the world.  Shapiro makes the interesting point that the authorship question started up in earnest when an eighteenth-century editor made the mistake of examining Shakespeare’s works for clues to Shakespeare’s biography.  Once you start down that path, anyone can follow, and before too long you’ve got people looking for coded messages in the text, and you’ve got Freud saying, hey, Hamlet has an Oedipal complex so the guy who wrote it must have had an Oedipal complex, too.  This sort of approach says more about the theorist than it does about Shakespeare.

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