Of all the things we think we know about William Shakespeare, most of them are guesses, or assumptions, or just plain made up. In actual fact, even though the writings of many of his contemporaries have survived through time, there is not a single piece of paper ever discovered that was written in Shakespeare’s own hand. Not a play. Not a sonnet. Not a note to the milkman.
Scholars even disagree on the dates and the order in which his plays were written. And some make a strong case for the notion that he was illiterate. He could read, they claim, because he would have had to in order to learn his lines as an actor, but he could not write.
In a dense new historical drama, “Anonymous,” screenwriter John Orloff makes the case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, (played by Rhys Ifans) as the true creator of Shakespeare’s works. It was the 16th century, when noblemen did not write plays to entertain the rabble. And so de Vere engaged poet and playwright Ben Jonson to “front” for him, to lend his name as the supposed author of de Vere’s works — a tactic that many blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters employed in the same way in the mid-20th century.
Jonson, however, protesting that he wrote in “a different voice” from de Vere, supposedly passed the plays to Shakespeare, a crude, poorly educated actor who then became the toast of London.
While Orloff’s screenplay makes a strong case for de Vere’s authorship of the plays and sonnets, the film is more than just an esoteric whodunnit. It is imbued with the political intrigues and successionist plots rampant in Elizabethan England. It is packed with the men and women of the nobility, all of whom had multiple names by which they were known: their given names, their titles and ranks, their lineage, etc.
Moreover, while “Anonymous” engages some of the most brilliant of Britain’s classical actors, many of them are virtually unknown to American audiences. Which makes remembering who they are and which side they’re on even more difficult.
Sir Derek Jacobi, who provides a narrative prologue and a brief end-piece, is, of course, immediately recognizable. As is Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Queen Elizabeth I with a magnificent eccentricity that will probably earn her yet another Oscar nomination.
Joely Richardson, Redgrave’s real-life daughter, plays Elizabeth as a young girl, when, according to Orloff, de Vere was one of her many lovers. In fact, the script claims that she had a son by him who was secretly shunted off to be raised by another noble family. This young man became the 3rd Earl of Southampton, the man to whom Shakespeare wrote love sonnets. Since Shakespeare was not known to be gay, it makes some sense to surmise that the sonnets were written by de Vere to his son.
The film itself moves back and forth through time, depicting the back-stories of the principals as well as delivering an array of scenes from various plays (often acted by Mark Rylance, whom many consider the greatest British actor of the present day). But for me the most gripping element was the amazingly lush cinematography, by Anna Foerster, of the houses and castles and scenery of 16th century England.
In a Q&A after the screening, Orloff confided that almost all of the film was shot in front of a green screen, with the backgrounds filled in by computer-generated imagery (CGI). He also spoke with great admiration of his collaboration with German director Roland Emmerich, whose films (”Stargate,” “Independence Day,” “Godzilla,” “The Patriot,” et al) have grossed some $3 billion worldwide.
Orloff also furthered the case for de Vere by pointing out that the man who wrote the Shakespeare plays would have had to be fluent in Greek, French, Italian, and several other languages, which de Vere was, since many of the resources that were incorporated in the plays had not yet been translated at that time from their original languages. Likewise, the author had to have a profound knowledge of the law, as demonstrated in the plays. (This inconsistency has had some scholars claiming that Shakespeare must have been trained as a lawyer, “or at least, served as an apprentice to one” at some time in his life.)
“Anonymous” is a project that Orloff began working on 20 years ago. In 1998, when “Shakespeare in Love” came out, however, Orloff’s project was shelved. Emmerich became aware of it later and bought the script from Orloff and the two proceeded to spend eight years reworking it. They added more research and rewrote the historical portion some 20 times.
Eventually it was made by Emmerich’s Centropolis Entertainment, Relativity Media, and Studio Babelsberg with a budget of $30 million. And worth every penny.
Anonymous will open around the country on Oct. 28.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.