I may be one of the few people who can admit to adoring William Shakespeare while still finding it possible to enjoy Anonymous, the newest in a series of efforts that seeks to assert the theory that Will never really wrote anything. For those unfamiliar with the film’s premise, it rehashes the idea that the bard’s great plays were actually written by an educated member of the British nobility — in this film one Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford — who, in order to protect his identity, paid an illiterate wanna-be-actor by the name of William Shakespeare to produce the plays under his own name.
Where I Stand
Perhaps it may help if I begin by stating my allegiance. I have had the great privilege and pleasure to have read widely in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, as well as to participate in graduate level course work in Elizabethan literature. I’ve heard the arguments and bizarre theories about the supposed “mystery” surrounding the identity of the world’s most lauded playwright and feel no qualms in stating quite frankly that I believe they are bogus. While I realize that others may disagree with my position, it is not one which I intend to defend here. I leave that to more gifted and articulate scholars than myself. Suffice it to say that the theory that Shakespeare was anyone other than himself has been disproven and has fallen out of favor in legitimate academic circles. As such, it does not warrant further discussion in terms of my opinion of this film.
Finding the truth in the lie
That being said. . . if the film is a fiction, which it certainly is, is there any value to this fiction as such? Can the film be viewed simply as a story, with a plot and characters all its own, with themes worth pondering for the truths they convey? I would argue the answer to both these questions is yes. . . . with a particular caveat: Ask yourself, dear viewer, if it will be possible for you to see beyond the fact that your beloved poet is cast as an effete, conniving, traitorous, lackluster sot? Can you willingly — albeit with great effort — suspend your disbelief in this heinous offense against all that is grand and literary to see the story for the trees? If so, the viewer intrepid enough to wade beneath the travesty will find the value of the fiction that is Anonymous lies in its themes and subtext.
In the film, Rhys Ifans gives a captivating performance as Edward de Vere (Oxford). Oxford can only see himself as a writer. Whatever prestige his title gives him, whatever roles he must play as a member of the Elizabethan nobility, these are to him so much nothing. His true call, his true vocation, is poetry. It is his life blood and he would rather lose everything than give it up. Time and again, he is expected to do just that. But time and again he refuses. The enormity of this choice is evidenced in his growing estrangement from his wife — whom he never wished to marry — his inability to provide a dowry for his daughter’s marriage, his exile from court, and perhaps most poignantly, his cavernous study filled to the brim with scrolls and parchments, inks and quills, and all manner of piles containing the words and images that haunt him, no matter whether he sleeps or wakes. The only way he can make them stop, we learn, is to write them down. It is then only that he finds peace.
Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as played by Rhys Ifans in Anonymous
Oxford believes in the power of the imagination transformed into art to effect positive change in the world, in contrast to forces in Elizabeth’s court that would have the realm look upon all art as evil and from the devil. Refusing to bow to the pressure of this fanatical puritanism in a time of political unrest and with treason afoot in the court, Oxford insists upon and believes in the power of words to effect social change. It is this belief that he acts upon, coming out of his exile “anonymously” to share his poetry and plays with the masses in an effort to affect public opinion, reason with sympathies, and preserve not only the monarchy, but those most dear to him without bloodshed.
(Aside): Now seriously. . . admit it. . . if this film didn’t make a mockery of the Bard and contain egregious historical inaccuracies, wouldn’t it be a great story? Especially if you’re a writer, and believe some of these ideas about art yourself?
Art as gift and the humility of genius
Quite frankly, it didn’t matter to me who the characters were or that historical inaccuracies were prevalent, simply because the story of this man as a writer carried me away. I was in love with the parchment and quills and the words and the ink-stained fingers that branded him a servant to his gift. Perhaps I should be ashamed to admit that I was, in fact, so taken with this “fiction”, this “story”, that it was hard for me to remember that Shakespeare was even an element in this film at all — truly the character of Will had little screen time, and when he did appear he was so thoroughly disagreeable, I found myself dismissing him entirely, hungry to get back to the real story — the story of a writer toiling in obscurity in service to his talent, who ultimately gives the fruits of this gift in service to others while seeking nothing for himself in return.
Indeed, this is a crucial point to consider in evaluating the role of the artist in society. In his Letter to Artists, John Paull II wrote that this idea of art as service is integral to the full development of the artistic consciousness and an awareness of the artist’s great responsibility. He writes that artists “must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a ‘spirituality’ of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people.” Amazingly, and I am sure inadvertently, the writer of this film created the character of an artist who personifies this very idea, though he did not allow it to be manifested through the character of Shakespeare, but through Oxford instead. Perhaps, in light of the sheer importance of the idea, he can be forgiven his poor choice.
Sebastian Armesto as Ben Jonson in Anonymous
But Oxford’s character isn’t all rosy altruism. One goal of artistic genius is growth in humility, and we see this growth happen in Oxford. He has much to learn about the bestowal and use of “the gift” of words, and that he is not the only soul who has been the beneficiary of such a gift. After showing his pride and arrogance by severely berating one whom he should look upon as a fellow brother in art — in this case, none other than the illustrious Ben Jonson, brilliantly conceived by Sebastian Armesto — he soon learns better. In the end, after all his efforts have come to naught, it is only the sound of the clapping hands of this lately realized brother to whom Oxford looks for approval and esteem, much as an apprentice might look to his mentor to acknowledge a job well done. For Jonson himself had to give up and risk everything in service to the larger gift of truth that Oxford’s plays brought forth. His character, too, moved from pride and skepticism, to wonder, to jealousy, to awe and humility in the presence of an awareness of an unusual genius. Both characters discover something of humility, eventually moving from an attitude of self-righteous possession of their gifts, to a more sober attitude of being beholden, to an attitude of service.
These themes of humility and the vocation of the artist are, in my opinion, the only redeeming aspects of the film. If viewed simply as a fiction, a text to be read and characters to ponder, rather than as a “film purportedly recounting the real history of William Shakespeare,” one sees that this story can indeed stand alone in the realm of true ideas. And in this realm, what matters is that we find here the portrait of a writer who, in direct opposition to the prevailing conspiratorial powers of the time, chose to use his gift as an instrument to effect change and learned humility in the process.
One Question Remains
Could the film makers have succeeded in telling this story without the blasphemous offense to the Bard and all who love him? Most assuredly so. But they chose not to, for reasons of their own which I cannot claim to know or understand. In my opinion, that they sacrificed the telling of a beautiful story in order to assert a bizarre agenda of academic fraud is a tragedy. Clearly, they have some sense of the true, the beautiful, and the good that writing as art is capable of. Clearly they have some sense of the vocation of service to which the artist is called. Still, in the midst of their cinematic debacle, the real story of the portrait of an artist — any artist — comes through. The truth will out. . .
Something tells me Shakespeare would be amused by all of this and not offended. “The play’s the thing,” he said. He knew the value of a good story. He also knew the artist should never eclipse his work — the work must stand alone as truth above and beyond the person of the artist. It is the work alone that is timeless, not so much the person who creates the work. It is the work that effects change and lives on well beyond the life of the artist. This is a great responsibility.
My love and admiration for Shakespeare hasn’t changed, nor do I believe it will change for thousands of other lovers of the “voice of the age” who see the film. If anything, an unlooked-for consequence of this cinematic travesty will drive many back to the plays themselves, which stand on their own and speak their own truth apart from the vagaries of pseudo-academic theorists. For those who know no better, they could do much worse than to sit through two hours of a story in which they see the artist learn humility through exercising his craft in the service of others. We could all do with more examples of vocation such as this.
Update: I just read an article in the Los Angeles Times which offers another unique perspective, not wholly unrelated to my own, in relation to this film. Critic Charles McNulty doesn’t believe the Bard’s reputation will suffer as a result of Anonymous, but encourages us all to examine the reasons behind his centuries-old staying power — and at the same time issues a challenge to find the current artist in our midst who possesses the same…….It’s definitely worth the read.