I always accepted the idea that Shakespeare wrote his own plays, and considered anything to the contrary to be merely speculation not fact. So, the premise-what if Shakespeare never wrote a word, I found not to be appealing.
Upon reading some good reviews, I decided to see it, and found it to be a high quality production and a wonderful experience. Director Roland Emmerich previously directed 2012, and Independence Day, and writer John Orloff previously wrote some episodes of Band of Brothers, and as you watch this movie you will realise this term BoB originated with Shakespeare.
Anonymous proposes the Earl of Oxford wrote all the plays, anonymously donated them to Ben Johnson, a well known writer of the time for him to take credit. Then an uncouth illiterate actor, named Shakespeare steps in to claim the credit. The peer remained anonymous for reasons of social acceptability.
Another reason he may have remained anonymous which I totally loved was the parallel structure between what happened in the plays, and the real life events of the courtiers and Queen Elizabeth. Cecil, the courtier villain in this movie is a hunchback (historical fact), and brother in law of the Earl of Oxford. Richard 3 in Shakespeare's play is a hunchback, so the play becomes a social satire.
A scene where a man is stabbed through a curtain mirrors a scene in Hamlet. A usurped heir is sent to Ireland, and there is a plot to kill him, similar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet.
Emmerich's direction gives Anonymous a much grander scope. We have big set pieces, such as a rebel attack on a bridge leading to the tower of London, rowing a boat in the Thames with the London skyline looming behind, an aerial shot of a huge crowd in the snow, and visual scenes of quite unsanitary London of the time, and he evokes the period very well. For example it rains on the actor in the theater, as he recites his lines. Certain scenes play out in ways we have not scene before, particularly Hamlet's soliloquy where he holds a knife, Richard 3 as caricature, crowd interaction and participation, sweet talking bawdy ladies with Shakespeare's words. I loved this. Visually outstanding, with exquisite and intricate costumes.
I liked the lead actors charisma and presence. He was so in character and looked older for the part that I did not recognise him till the credits. Rhys Ifans starred in Notting Hill, and Pirate Radio. He does a terrific job, perhaps his best work, as does the actor who plays Johnson. There is a particular scene between the two of them at the end that makes me tear up even as I write. Derek Jacobi, begins and ends the movie opening and closing the premise.
Vanessa Redgrave plays the doddering confused queen, and her daughter Joely Richardson plays her younger self, who has a torrid affair with the Earl of Oxford when she was young, producing an illicit heir. The queen has several torrid affairs which become part of the plot of succession. Shakespeare was played by Rafe Spall, son of Timothy Spall, who you have probably seen in several movies.
If the screenwriter was hoping to persuade me, he certainly made me think. Perhaps he goes too overboard with Shakespeare having a unique form of illiteracy, he can read words and memorise them but he can't write, and yet he is a scheming manipulative lout, a criminal, a drunkard, a successful entrepreneur, and a sociopath. Asked to speak to a crowd he stumbles inarticulately over his words. If Shakespeare was as inarticulate, and uneducated as portrayed, how could he have convinced anyone of his genius when he lacked the most basic skills of expression.
If not Shakespeare, then who?
I did some online research. Apparently, almost two centuries passed before anyone seriously questioned Shakespeare's authorship. It has been suggested that Sir Francis Bacon wrote these plays, but why would an already famous writer give credit to someone else. DeVere appears to be the current favorite among conspiracy theorists. If DeVere was excluded from the court, as he is in the movie then he would not be in a position to satirise the court, or include such pointed commentary in his plays. DeVere as a child in the movie performs a piece from Midsummer nights dream for the queen. He could hardly have written it as an adult then, could he?Curiously, at times the movie appears to undermine its own premise.
It has been suggested that Sir Thomas North, North of Shakespeare: The True Story of the Secret Genius Who Wrote the World's Greatest Body of Literature, wrote the materials on which some of Shakespeare's plays were based.
He did translate Plutarch which Shakespeare used as a source in several plays such as Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Coriolanus, and Anthony and Cleopatra, adapting them for the stage, converting the words from prose to verse. According to this book, Shakespeare purchased North's works, and then adapted them from the page to the stage. In some cases the corresponding passages in Shakespeare are word for word what was written by North. Somehow North did not get credit. Rosalinde from As You Like It apparently is Elisa Nord, (north)North's daughter.
Hamlet was adapted from a centuries old story called Amleth, and had several iterations, including Dial of Princes by North. Shakespeare made numerous changes to the original story Amleth, making it way darker according to a book I read Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.
In the movie Ben Johnson proclaims sincere affection for DeVere's language skills.
In reality, Ben Johnson famously said of Shakespeare: "he would... buy the reversion of old plays,"but then mark not whose 'twas first: and after-times may judge it to be his..."Epigram no.56.
The movie claims no manuscript written by Shakespeare survives. If you don't have evidence that Shakespeare wrote something, does that mean you have evidence someone else wrote it? You cannot infer alternative authorship from a negation, only from evidence. If you have evidence that these plays were previously written, and performed or were adapted from books, then you can verify that Shakespeare was not the originator, merely wrote a version, and credit the original source. It seems that with some of these plays, they were circulating already, and then Shakespeare wrote a version, or made his own adaptation, which then became the definitive version.
Undoubtedly, this movie will stimulate debate and controversy. The idea that he didn't write a single word goes too far in my opinion, it would be interesting to know for sure what he did and did not write. I do think this is one of the best movies I have seen all year.
Wherever you stand on this, I highly recommend you see it, consider it, and form your own opinion. For me, it's too tabloidy to be taken seriously, the once virgin queen now a nympho, having an illegitimate son with the real Shakespeare, and so on.
Even if like me you do not agree with the premise, you might be surprised to discover you still love the movie.
I think you will enjoy it, and I hope this was helpful.