When William Shakespeare died in 1616, he left his children and friends some modest property, a smattering of money, and a few token heirlooms. To his wife he bequeathed the curious gift of his "second best bed." But more curious still is the fact that the will of the English language's most prolific and celebrated literary artist makes no mention of books or manuscripts of any kind.

In fact, the only written documentation historians can confidently ascribe to the Bard from Stratford-upon-Avon is his signature on some legal documents. Aside from the plays attributed to him, there are no manuscripts, letters, journals, or poems accredited to Shakespeare—a man who was ostensibly the author of 34 plays and 154 sonnets. So you can see how tempting it has been to contemplate alternative theories about the authorship of his body of work. Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe are among the more than 60 historical figures who have been forwarded at some point as the true author.Those who posit such theories are called anti-Stratfordians and they're a diverse lot, including Mark Twain, Orson Wells, Sigmund Freud, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Sir Derek Jacobi (a British stage veteran). With the release of Anonymous, you can add director Roland Emmerich (The Patriot, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) to the list of those who find compelling drama in the story behind the stories.

In Anonymous, Emmerich explores the theory that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is the true author of the Shakespearean corpus. He sets the stage quite literally with none other than Sir Jacobi providing a prologue under bright lights in a dark theater. As Jacobi argues the case for doubt about the identity of the beloved Bard, we see actors preparing themselves for their cues, production hands readying special effects, and as the stage is taken with action, the fourth wall dissolves and viewers are plunged into an unfolding manhunt in Elizabethan England.

Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere

Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere

A muddy Ben Johnson (yes, that one) clutches a collection of papers in a manner that suggests these are the reason he's being pursued by the royal guards at his back. His capture at The Globe Theatre and subsequent interrogation about the authorship of these papers presents the context for the flashback in which we are introduced to William Shakespeare, loutish actor, and Edward de Vere, brilliant and tortured aristocratic soul. The drama in Anonymous stems not from the question of which man wrote the works—the movie's clear stance on this matter is de Vere— but from the personal and political events that shaped both the corpus of literature and compelled de Vere to remain in the shadows.

Article continues below

In this telling of the story, de Vere (Rhys Ifans) is middle-aged and unhappily wed to the daughter of William Cecil (David Thewlis), a wholly unsympatheticPuritan who has no use for art of any sort and serves as chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth.De Vere loathes his close minded father-in-law and his conniving brother-in-law Robert (Edward Hogg), and for good reason fears that the Cecils will hand the English throne to James, King of the Scots, when the aging matriarch dies. In flashbacks, we meet de Vere as a child prodigy in the court whose way with words delights a younger Elizabeth.As a young man, de Vere becomes Elizabeth's lover and even fathers a child with her before being banished from her sight.

Still a loyal subject, the middle- aged Earl of Oxford conspires to keep a Tudor on the throne against the wishes of the Cecils. But undermining the Queen's trust in the Cecils is no mean feat. And for this task he attempts to harness the power of the theater to turn both public opinion and that of Elizabeth against his nemesis. Enter Shakespeare via Ben Johnson, and a series of sordid and sometimes convoluted plot points. Those familiar with Shakespeare's work will see the parallel lines between de Vere's life and those of Shakespeares's characters being drawn.

Vanessa Redgrave as the older Queen Elizabeth

Vanessa Redgrave as the older Queen Elizabeth

I like to think that the sometimes flat look of Emmerich's production is intentional, a CGI'ed nod to the idea that the entire movie that we're watching is actually playing out on a stage, a sly homage to Shakespeare's famous contention that all the world's a stage; and more than that, a movie's tip of the hat to the powerful creative work of the live plays that came before it. When we talk about going to a theater these days, chances are good that we mean a movie theater. And even those who enjoy the the-uh-tah on occasion can forget the transfixing quality of good stagecraft. Anonymous reintroduces this power by presenting Shakespeare's productions as energetic crowd pleasers, stories that captured the imagination of their audiences with such visceral force that they could influence the fate of entire countries.

Not that this force was unquestioned. "Since when did words ever win a kingdom?" asks one skeptic of de Vere's theatrical plan. And the movie responds with a depiction of the ways in which words can indeed be wielded as effectively as swords—and also as ineffectively as swords.Ifans's de Vere is a flawed hero, animated by lust and pride as much as by loyalty and righteous indignation. And in his frustration, we see a searching brilliance that could indeed inform Romeo's passion, Hamlet's tragedy, and Lady Macbeth's guilt.

Article continues below
Joely Richardson as the young Queen Elizabeth

Joely Richardson as the young Queen Elizabeth

Played by the mother/daughter team of Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave, Elizabeth is a deeply textured character, fiercely independent and strong, yet vulnerable, especially in her older years. Redgrave plays the part with an idiosyncratic fire that is usually absent from portrayals of women of a certain age. The movie is worth watching for her performance alone.

Less satisfying is the depiction of the Cecils as being anti-art for reasons that are seemingly tied to their faith. This flat stereotype of religious people (especially during a period when religious art was flourishing) presents us with the tired juxtaposition of the prudish Cecils against the sensual de Vere. But the tension does provide a foil against which art and words can seem all the more dangerous and powerful for being illicit. Anonymous bristles with the idea that stories matter, that they can even win kingdoms—an assertion that I think would find friends, not enemies, in most religious people.

Redgrave has discussed her own doubts about Shakespeare's authorship of the canon that bears his name. But while Anonymous is sure to alert many people to the controversy they'd been unaware of, those who do much digging online will find the vast majority of scholars support the Bard. Still, insofar as Anonymous is a good story, I think Shakespeare himself might settle in with a bucket of popcorn.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Discuss the assertion that all art is political. Do you agree or disagree?
  2. De Vere's wife said his writing humiliated her family. On what basis, if any, should artistic endeavors humiliate others?
  3. Can you think of a time in your life when words have indeed saved the day in some sense?
  4. Who do you think wrote Shakespeare's canon? Why?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Anonymous is rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content. When one character confides that "wisdom is a quality, unfortunately, thatI have never possessed," he could be referring to his adulterous ways, including an improper sexual relationship with the Queen. One scene implies incest; one bed scene is suggestive and shows skin, but stops short of nudity. Several characters are shown to be promiscuous. There is also non-explicit violence in the form of battle and torture scenes. Drunkenness abounds.

Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(6 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for some violence and sexual content)
Directed By
Roland Emmerich
Run Time
2 hours 10 minutes
Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis
Theatre Release
October 28, 2011 by Sony Pictures
Browse All Movie Reviews By: