What if William Shakespeare’s plays
were not really written by the sometime actor?
What if, instead, they were penned by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford?
And if so, why the subterfuge?
Those are the questions explored by
“Anonymous,” which is the kind of very-British film that will be a bit
difficult for American audiences to follow, because, well, some of us know all
about powerful Queen Elizabeth, and Mary Queen of Scots, and the Tudor
lineage, and the succession of James I, and even the Essex rebellion.
Some of the rest of us will be lost somewhere in all the dizzying
succession struggles, and thus miss the point of all the behind-the-scenes
Rhys Ifans, as the Earl of Oxford, is
positively luminous as the “actual” writer of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King
Lear, Romeo and Juliet (completely in iambic pentameter, no less!), Twelfth
Night, and scores of others, and we viewers are treated to snippets on the
authentic-looking replica of the stage of the Globe Theater where they were
originally produced, where the audience stood the entire time, and often
responded demonstratively to what was happening on the stage before them.
But, the historians among you will recall that this is the time of the
Puritan tradition, and there were many devout people in
who felt that the very concept of theater was a silly, frivolous, naughty
waste of time, and of course the guilty pleasure of it all was precisely what
made it so popular. In this film, the
Earl of Oxford is a nobleman who has inherited a considerable fortune and
possesses enough royal titles to aspire to the throne himself, even---but, as
he explains to his not-at-all-patient wife, he hears these voices in his head,
and he must write down what they are saying, or else they won’t let him
alone. By her lights, he spends an
enormous, inordinate amount of time in his silly and pointless “hobby”,
but he, with the true heart of a writer, is overjoyed to see his words come to
life on the stage and appreciated by the audience, even if he doesn’t
receive the public recognition. It
seems that would not have been politically expedient for him.
And so, through an intermediary in the playwright’s guild, he chooses
a struggling, dissolute young actor named William Shakespeare to be his “nom
The actual Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall),
for his part, is happy to take the public accolade—and the bribery to
maintain his silence about the deceit. But
he can hardly even write his own name, much less compose a masterpiece.
All this is in the context of palace intrigue, as the dowager,
almost-addled Queen Elizabeth (played convincingly and memorably by Vanessa
Redgrave) had a roving eye in her youth, it seems.
The products of her indiscretion were carefully hidden from view, as
was, mostly, the identity of her lovers, one of whom was, yes, the Earl of
Oxford. It’s a nice touch that in
flashbacks, the Queen as a young woman is played by Joely Richardson, who
actually is Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter. But
the flashbacks are a bit confusing, because lovers and other strangers appear
and re-appear, as if waiting in the wings offstage.
Yes, there is something about a rebellion, featuring betrayal and
entrapment, and also something about a Cardinal-Richelieu-type power behind
the throne, a sleek functionary whose motives are anything but pure.
But in the end, the play’s the thing.
We catch a glimpse of just how powerful and moving and beautiful the
bard’s words really were. And for
those of us who value words, not only as writers but also as Christians, which
is, after all, a religion of one book----well, it’s nothing short of
uplifting and inspiriting to hear the words soar into the soul of history like
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor,
St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church,