Oh, Shakespeare, Shakespeare, wherefore art thou, Shakespeare? Art thou truly the writer we thinkest, creating works of majesty and grace (thatst no-one can any longer understand without grave and ruddy difficulty) from thine artful brow? Art thou truly as great as rumored, prithee? Or didst thou simply take thy quill and scribble thine name on another man's parchment? If true, I have but few words for thee: Alack! Forsooth! Begone, yon blaggard, before my mangled prose finds thee and punishes thee (despite thou being deadst for lo these eternal centuries) with yet more and higher tortured uses of thine and thou and thusly.
Whew. Clearly, writing like William Shakespeare ain't easy. Most scholars agree that only one man really wrote very successfully like Shakespeare, and that would be … Shakespeare. The guy reportedly used more than 31,500 words in his plays (most of us have an everyday working vocabulary of 1,500-2,000 words, though we know many, many more), including about 1,700 he may have invented. (I try to invent words, too, but my editor has this nasty habit of looking things up in the dictionary.) Shakespeare's been called the "Soul of the Age" and was revered by contemporaries and practically worshipped in Victorian times.
But not everyone believes that Shakespeare actually wrote Shakespeare's plays. Some believe he was merely a front—an Elizabethan-era Milli Vanilli, if you will. There are those who doubt that a working-class actor, born to apparently illiterate parents, could pound out ageless works of high literature. It must've been someone else … maybe philosopher Francis Bacon or contemporary dramatist Christopher Marlowe or an infinite number of monkeys, typing on an infinite number of typewriters.
Or, suggests this film's director, Roland Emmerich, it could've been Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
The theory, according to Emmerich, goes like this: Maybe the Earl—in an effort to put his illegitimate son a little closer to the throne (inhabited by the aging Queen Elizabeth)—decided to influence public opinion by virtue of some ol' plays of his. And maybe he figured it'd look bad at court if he came out as the author. So maybe he hired some middling, down-on-his-luck poet to put his name on the plays—and when that poet (some guy named Ben Jonson, the bane of many a college English major) backed out, some unscrupulous, philandering, drunken, mostly illiterate actor decided to take credit himself.
And maybe the Earl had an affair with the queen—who was also his mother. And he married his adoptive father's daughter, only his adoptive father was secretly his real father, making his wife his sister. And maybe he wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream when he was 12, when most Elizabethan children were still learning the difference between their fortwixts and besmirches.
Yeah, it could've been like that, Emmerich says.
(Personally, I like the monkey theory better.)
We can give the Earl of Oxford grudging accolades for looking out for the best interests of his son. He even offers up his own life in exchange for his progeny's. And we can acknowledge that Ben Jonson falls in love with the earl's beautiful work—risking his own life and freedom to see that both the plays and the author's true identity are preserved.
The Elizabethan age was a time of great religious strife, when Catholics and Protestants would routinely go to war to vie for the soul of Europe. We hear rumors of this anxiousness throughout the movie: The Protestant queen sends the Earl of Essex and his associate, the Earl of Southampton, to Ireland to put down a Catholic rebellion. And she references her one-time Catholic rivals, Queen Mary and Mary Queen of Scots.
Yet despite the hyper-religious backdrop, Elizabeth is not, in Emmerich's telling, terribly religious; she quips that if plays aren't very Christian, "I hope I won't find my salvation until very late in life." Nor is the Earl of Oxford—who when told his habitual writing could put his immortal soul in peril, says, "My poems are my soul." Of the film's ostensible protagonists, then, only the Earl of Essex shows any particular religious feeling at all—shouting "God save the queen!" a second before he's beheaded.
Meanwhile, the loathsome antagonists—William Cecil, Elizabeth's duplicitous advisor, and his toady humpbacked son Robert—are shown to be quite religious, with William praising Robert for the gifts ("cunning and ruthlessness") God gave him. The two plot to kill rivals, saying, "God does indeed require our help in this matter."
But nowhere is Cecil's "faith" more apparent than when it comes to literature. Cecil, who takes Oxford in when the earl's a young man, tells him that he can't write while living with him. "Thou shalt not worship false idols in my house," Cecil says, claiming that plays are the "work of the devil."
"But surely there must be room for beauty and light within life?" Oxford asks.
"Not in this household," Cecil says.
This sentiment permeates the entire Cecil clan, including Oxford's pious wife who loathes her husband's literary pastime. And such religiosity is further emphasized by the fact that family members are the only characters we see praying.
There's a certain irony in all this, of course: Historically, William Cecil understood the value of literature (at least as a political tool), and was instrumental in getting great European classics translated into English.
"All art is political," Oxford says. "Otherwise, it'd be mere decoration." And Emmerich himself has said as much in interviews. So I think it's fair to say the contrast between the director's (admittedly flawed) protagonists and religious antagonists tells us something: Religion, in Emmerich's eyes, is the inherent enemy of art (and, by extension, love and verve).
At one point, Oxford's wife suggests that his need to write is a form of possession. Oxford allows that it might be true.
Near the end of the film, it's revealed that Cecil and the queen had a tryst, resulting in the Earl of Oxford. Then Oxford had a fling with the queen, producing the Earl of Southampton. "You never know with the Tudors," Robert Cecil quips. "They've all had such strange tastes in bedfellows."
Of these various consummations, audiences see one—Oxford and Elizabeth frantically making out in her chambers after a party. Oxford's already married by then, but no matter, the two smooch like crazy, and later we see him wooing her, reciting poetry while shirtless. (Neither of them know they're related.)
The Earl of Essex, through means that I'm a bit unsure of, was also Elizabeth's illegitimate child. And it's suggested that the Earl of Southampton may be homosexual. Shakespeare and a prostitute are shown in coital relations. (We see a portion of his bare backside before he's pulled off the woman and she demands money.) We see other prostitutes soliciting passersby. Oxford makes out with one of Elizabeth's maidservants.
Elizabeth, while watching one of Oxford's plays, unbuttons her dress (shocking her ladies-in-waiting). Later, she's presented with a copy of the erotic Shakespearian poem "Venus and Adonis"—the movie suggesting it was written especially for Elizabeth to inspire warm thoughts toward her onetime lover. Someone makes a lewd reference to a codpiece. Feeling emotional at a play, a male audience member grabs another man's hand. (The other man jerks free.)
When a fellow poet (Christopher Marlowe) threatens to reveal Shakespeare's secret, it's insinuated that Shakespeare himself kills the man. The act isn't shown, but we do see Marlow's dead body in the street, his throat cut.
Oxford's assaulted by his fencing instructor, receiving a nasty gash in the leg before running his teacher through. The earl also stabs and kills someone who's rummaging through his writings. A would-be assassin nearly shoots Essex, but instead is shot himself. Several soldiers and dozens of peasants are gunned down, quelling what would seem to be a rebellion against the queen. A man is beheaded. Another man is savagely beaten and tortured.
Actors spit fire and are pelted with vegetables. Battle scenes are re-created onstage. A play starts a riot. A theater is set ablaze.
Crude or Profane Language
One use of "a‑‑," three of "b‑‑tard" (though it is used correctly in context) and loads of uses of the British profanity "bloody." "B-llocks" is also heard. God's name is misused about 10 times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
In addition to all his other faults, Shakespeare drinks quite a lot, including when he's in the middle of a performance. (He denies it.) Jonson, jealous of Shakespeare and all the undue attention he's getting, begins drinking heavily, spouting off inebriated screeds. Several scenes take place in taverns. Nobles drink wine.
Let's just say it: Most scholars believe the premise behind Anonymous is bunk, and the film doesn't do anything to make it seem any more plausible. The chronology is all wrong and the familial bonds are so fantastically, audaciously weird as to make the relationships in the Star Wars saga (Darth Vader built C-3PO and R2-D2 was the family trash compactor!) seem almost plausible by comparison.
But even setting aside the questions of historical accuracy, the movie itself is just not very good. It's confusing and seems to overstretch its given runtime (130 minutes) by about four hours. And the sex, incest and apparent anti-faith themes do little more than seal its fate: Let loose the rotten veggies!