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As canonical controversies go, who wrote Shakespeare’s plays is the literary equivalent of who’s buried in Grant’s tomb—a question that answers itself and a bad joke that doesn’t improve with retelling.

Thanks to Roland Emmerich, English professors can count on hearing it a lot over the next five years. That should be about enough time for Emmerich’s new film Anonymous to pass through the digestive tract of popular culture before being deposited in the remainder bin. The premise of the film is that the author of Shakespeare’s plays is not actually William Shakespeare. Instead, it is Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, an erratic nobleman best known in his own day for the casual afflictions of aristocracy: art patronage, indebtment and fencing. Today, however, some people prefer to think of him as the author of Hamlet, this despite the fact that some of de Vere’s verses survive uncontested. They include:

When wert thou borne desire?
In pompe and pryme of May,
By whom sweete boy wert thou begot?
By good conceit men say,
Tell me who was thy nurse?
Fresh youth in sugred ioy.
What was thy meate and dayly foode?
Sad sighes with great annoy.

Sad sighs with great annoy is a good way of describing how Shakespeare scholars feel whenever they are asked to defend their side in the authorship debate. They tend icily to note that there wasn’t one in Shakespeare’s day. Yes, it was a matter of no small wonder that a sometimes actor and simple glover’s son, without the apparent benefit of foreign travel or a university degree, might write Romeo and Juliet, King Lear or Love’s Labor’s Lost, but then again it was hard to imagine that any mortal hand had written them, and no one proposed assigning them to God, much less to Edward de Vere.

That took over three hundred years. In 1920, a man deliciously named J. Thomas Looney published Shakespeare Identified, a book claiming de Vere as the actual author of Shakespeare’s work. It had become fashionable in the nineteenth century to entertain the idea that someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays. (It also became fashionable to cover piano legs, but I digress.) Looney, who it is safe to say never shaved with Occam’s razor, devised an abstruse argument that ultimately relies on a dubious two-step in inductive logic. The first step involves negative inference: William Shakespeare was not well educated; William Shakespeare never traveled abroad; William Shakespeare did not spend time at Court—therefore, William Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare’s plays. The second involves circumstantial evidence: Edward de Vere was well educated; Edward de Vere traveled abroad; Edward de Vere spent time at Court—therefore, Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

If this doesn’t strike you as a syllogistic display that merits a respectable score on the LSAT, much less a century of contentious debate, you are not alone. You also haven’t heard the best part, which is that de Vere died in 1604, or before fully one third of the plays he’s claimed to have written had their theatrical debut.

To put this in perspective, imagine that someone writes a book in three hundred years contending that the famously reclusive Cormac McCarthy did not author Blood Meridian or The Border Trilogy, citing as proof the fact that McCarthy was born in Rhode Island and never wore a ten-gallon hat. Instead, he proposes Louis L’Amour, who was not born in Rhode Island, wore ten-gallon hats, and died in 1988. Now you have some idea of how (one can’t help himself) loony this argument sounds.

Now I’m not being totally fair to what is known as the Oxfordian theory of authorship, but only a little less so than Anonymous, a movie that never seems to take its central premise very seriously. The film opens with the magnificent Derek Jacobi playing prologue before a modern Broadway audience. “But what if I told you Shakespeare never wrote a single word?” he asks the crowd, stunned into silence by the great actor’s gilded syllables—or else by the general absurdity of the suggestion. After it has been stated, however, Anonymous doesn’t waste much time trying to convince us of its indecent proposal. Instead, it plunges us headlong down the rabbit-hole of Roland Emmerich’s imagination, into an alternative Elizabethan England that rather robustiously makes merry with the facts.

Many of these historical infelicities have already been catalogued, but let me chip in a few more. Near the very beginning of the film, Emmerich’s Ben Jonson is thrown in jail for a satire the authorities have deemed seditious, only to be sprung by de Vere in an attempt to enlist Jonson to become the “author” of his plays. The episode, if not necessarily its end, is based on an actual event. Jonson, the second greatest player-playwright to ever stride the English stage, was infamous for his pugnacious wit, which nearly ended his career before it had even begun. In 1597, he was briefly imprisoned for what may have been his first play, The Isle of Dogs, a comedy Jonson co-authored with Thomas Nashe that is said to have scandalously poked fun at the Queen. We cannot be sure because the play was so swiftly and successfully suppressed that it no longer survives.

In Anonymous, Jonson accuses Christopher Marlowe of informing on him—a rather remarkable act in itself, as Marlowe died in 1593—but not for The Isle of Dogs, rather for “Everyman,” a reference that could be either to Every Man in His Humor (1598) or Every Man Out of His Humor (1599). The latter includes one of the great putdowns in all of English literature involving Shakespeare’s coat-of-arms. In Elizabethan England, with a few guineas and some creative genealogy, just about anyone could purchase the right to be called a “gentlemen,” and Jonson decided to fillet his dear friend for doing so. In Every Man Out of His Humor, a clownish social climber pays a preposterous sum for a coat-of-arms whose golden shield recalls Shakespeare’s. The sight prompts an educated wag to suggest the ridiculous motto “Not without mustard,” a stinging backhand to the Bard, who had “Non sanz droict” or “Not without right” appended to his.

In Anonymous, Shakespeare debuts his purchased pedigree about halfway through the film, long after seizing from Jonson the lucrative opportunity to become the “author” of de Vere’s plays. As a matter of record, however, Shakespeare’s application to the College of Heralds, the body vested with granting arms, was approved in 1596, which was not only before either Every Man, but also before The Isle of Dogs, Jonson’s incarceration, and the very event (on Emmerich’s telling) that provides de Vere the opportunity to solicit his stand-in.

For those devoted to Shakespeare, the discrepancies make the cinematic experience of Anonymous somewhat the opposite of that of Shakespeare in Love. Both movies make liberal use of history, but the latter is decked with clever departures that underscore the intellectual integrity of the film even as they reassert its creative fancy. When a boyish John Webster answers Queen Elizabeth that his favorite part of Romeo and Juliet is when the star-crossed Capulet “stabbed herself,” the literate viewer grins, recalling the morbid obsession of The White Devil and other of Webster’s plays. This is an inside joke, but it succeeds by acknowledging the special devotion of a slender minority without breaking the action for the broader part.

Shakespeare liked to bestow such gifts. Perhaps the most famous comes in the third act of Hamlet, when the arrival of the players sees Polonius reminiscence about his days at the university when he “did enact Julius Caesar” and “was killed i’ th’ Capitol” by Brutus, prompting Hamlet’s remark that it was “a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf.” The exchange was a wink by the Bard to those who would have remembered that the two actors, John Hemmings and Richard Burbage, played these same roles in Julius Caesar, which had debuted at the Globe a year or so before. Embroidering a work with these pleasing distractions without marring the essential plot may be the highest achievement of dramatic wit. Shakespeare’s is especially remarkable in that the significance of the aside would have evolved for spectators, for in Gertrude’s closet, just two scenes later, the slaughter of Caesar is re-enacted. Burbage (once Brutus, now the Dane) slays Hemmings (the Pontifex Maximus become Polonius). But whereas history made the first murder a tragic necessity, this one is wanton and unexpected. The audience gasps, and those among them who realize the subtle omen of the earlier exchange—elegant, intertextual, grim—thrill with a newfound sense of uncertainty. This is art, and they are in good hands.

Anonymous should not be faulted for failing to meet the dramatic standards of Hamlet; one might as well fault subway graffiti for falling short of the Sistine Chapel. Yes, unlike Shakespeare in Love or, for that matter, not a few of Shakespeare’s plays, Anonymous is clumsy in its manhandling of history, but this should be reassuring to those who are, perhaps, a little too sensitive to its mistakes. The film aspires to revisionist history, not historical fiction, and if this is truly the best the disciples of J. Thomas Looney can do, Shakespeare’s authorship seems quite secure.

Which is not to say that Anonymous isn’t entertaining. Forget its dubious premise (the film largely does); for the most part, Anonymous favors a tale of Tudor intrigue over a wearying academic debate. At the center of both is Edward De Vere, played with graven splendor by Rhys Ifans. He is the man of a thousand sorrows, beset by bad politics, a bad marriage and a very bad taste in mistresses—and that is before he is compelled to pawn the greatest body of work by a single writer in the West to a whore-mongering buffoon.

That buffoon is William Shakespeare, played with devil-may-care gusto by Rafe Spall. Not since Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke has an actor so memorably shaken his fist at a higher power and dared him to strike. Spall is a gleeful profanity and a sharp contrast to Sebastian Armesto’s Ben Jonson, who mopes about the playhouse with a superabundance of self-pity more befitting a frustrated teen poet than the age’s second sharpest tongue. If anyone’s memory is vandalized by Anonymous, it is Jonson’s. He is too little remembered to withstand Armesto’s caricature, which ably convinces the unaware that the man who bragged of slaying a Spaniard in single combat and later killed an Englishman in a duel would have stood by while his literary skills were slighted. “You have no voice,” de Vere tells him, “That’s why I choose you.” Tosh.

De Vere chooses him—or tries to choose him, for Shakespeare seizes the distinction—to put his shameful scribblings to work in service of royal succession. A nobleman is not supposed to busy his time with poetic musings, but de Vere is as procreate in private as the supposedly Virgin Queen. The issue of their issue is at issue in Anonymous, and therein lies the play.

It’s a pleasing distraction—a $30 million budget buys a convincing period piece—but one can’t help feeling the sweet assembly and the sublime source material could have been put to better use. Far more than Shakespeare in Love, the natural comparison to Anonymous is Amadeus, another portrait of an artist that plays fast and loose with the facts. True, Miloš Forman’s film never holds itself out as an authoritative account of the great composer’s life (and death), but the salient difference is that Amadeus warps the historical record to tell a tale of envy, genius and the amoral mysteries of the creative act. Anonymous is never so bold. Ultimately, it suffers for ambition and will.

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