22 November 2011
In the weeks before Anonymous hit movie theatres I was asked no fewer than 20 times how I felt about the film. “Could it be true?” people wondered of the absurd tagline: ‘Was Shakespeare A Fraud?’; “are you outraged?” demanded others, inquiring whether my bardolatry had me on the defense; “why is Xenophilius Lovegood in it?” some pondered, rightly wondering why the bright and witty Rhys Ifans was on the poster. “I don’t know yet” was my answer to questions 2 and 3 since I’d yet to actually see the movie; question 1 has long had a definitive “no” attached to it, complete with a long rant about the gross pretentiousness that accompanies each and every theory positing that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wasn’t educated or rich or respectable enough to be talented.
No, the outrage never came. And as for Ifans, I suspect it had little to do with anything other than the studio’s need for a familiar face who could speak in a straight line and the actor’s need for a paycheck.
See, many were expecting me and my scholarly, bard-loving friends to leap right to the defense of our favourite playwright, arguing adamantly against the absurd proposition presented by the should-know-better actor Derek Jacobi, who opens and closes the story with authoritative monologues presumably filled with “facts” that lend the film weight. Instead, what the 4 of us sitting alone in the theatre with our English degrees and theatrical expertise found was the unintentionally funniest movie we’d seen all year.
Anonymous is flippin’ hilarious. Rife with inaccuracies ranging from the should-be-dead Marlowe cavorting in the tavern to the incorrect assertion that Shakespeare has only 37 plays attributed to him (38’s the real number; 40 including Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won), the film presents a version of “history” so preposterous that it’s less threatening and more amusing, as though it’d been re-imagined and already satirized by Seth MacFarlane for the enjoyment of Fox’s Sunday animation audience.
We started chuckling from the very beginning (after, I grant you, a few moments of heckling Jacobi for entertaining conspiracy theories) when Ben Jonson kicked off an action sequence by being chased through crowded streets, captured then tortured for information about harmful manuscripts. They tortured Ben Jonson! Any world which cares as much about the guy who wrote Batholemew Fair as it does about, you know, bombers and stuff, is already pretty out there. We howled when they introduced a Midsummer written about 40 years before its time and how it got the young-and-pretty queen hot and bothered for a 12 year old. And oh when that queen proceeded to have the world’s most predictable affair with said kid then turns out to be his mother- a twist that comes out yet another secret illegitimate birth later-, we could barely breathe we were laughing so hard. By now, Queen Elizabeth was being played by an oh-so-slumming-it Vanessa Redgrave, whose wizened face deserves much credit for staying straight through all the lunacy (as does Ifans’, for the record).
Wonderfully, hilariously, ridiculous incest stories aside (because Queen Elizabeth I was nothing if not a slut who had nothing better to do than bed every kid in the kingdom then disappear for 9 months to, in turn, have his kid!), Anonymous frames entire stories around things like the Earl of Oxford writing Richard III as a way to incite a riot that would surely banish one of the queen’s advisers from court. Right, because Richard III was very clearly an ANTI-Tudor piece of propaganda; as long as you cut act five. Oh, and did you hear that Macbeth was written in the late 1500s? It had to be, because the entire action of Anonymous takes place before the death of the queen in 1603. Forget that Shakespeare’s final play (The Tempest) came out in 1611 and Macbeth, specifically, was indisputably written for King James I. Tiny insignificant details, who’s got time for those?
Like I said, most of that stuff didn’t actually bother us. (Though the assertion that Ben Jonson didn’t have a clear authorial voice of his own did almost get my friend Borah out of her seat and swinging at the screen). It mostly just made us laugh. But the thing is, Anonymous isn’t a comedy. It takes itself monumentally seriously. If it were an action-adventure caper with the sort of rip-roaring purposeful anachronism that marked the recent remake of The Three Musketeers, for instance, it might have even been a success (had, you know, the writing and direction been better, and all that). The academic seriousness with which major Shakespearean name Derek Jacobi presents Anonymous‘ argument, however, makes that in-the-moment joy of mockery the film inspires hard to sustain when viewing the picture as a whole.
We were meant to take this seriously, which means that the complete misrepresentation of historical fact ceases to be funny and becomes somewhat alarming. Thank god the film tanked (hey, thanks pedantic writing and clunky direction, the academic community and Shakespeare fans the world over owe you one!) because for every viewer who doesn’t know to laugh, Anonymous could really be messing with some heads. You can’t count on every college kid to know when Macbeth was published or the average Joe to have read Richard III, so Anonymous rewards them with a hearty helping of “haha, you don’t know any better!” and presents them with a supposedly real world full of unsettling conspiracies, sexual and political corruption and a lower class that apparently can do nothing of merit except claim things that aren’t theirs- helpful!
Go ahead and mess with history for the sake of story-telling (you won’t ever find me complaining about Shakespeare in Love‘s fact-light mythology), as long as you present it as though you’re telling a story. No one’s going to see Titanic then wonder why Jack Dawson doesn’t appear on passenger manifests; they got the dates and locations right, then elaborated from there. What Anonymous does is pretend it’s telling the truth. But there’s only one real rule when it comes to telling the truth: You’re Not Allowed To Just Make Stuff Up!
The New Yorker nailed the issue in a recent column (read it HERE) that took on the absurd misrepresentations in Anonymous and the classism and ignorance inherent in its founding conspiracies by putting hyperbolic pen to tongue-in-cheek paper and, well, making it worse. The hilarious lies formulated by Eric Idle are past plausibility, making it easier to discern the truth than it could be in Anonymous. His point, is that sometimes you just have to shut up and accept that maybe the truth isn’t quite as entertaining or grand as you want it to be. Shakespeare wasn’t an Earl, he had affairs but none of them were particularly interesting, and there was likely no incest involved whatsoever. So what? Does that somehow make King Lear any less brilliant? Is “what light through yonder window breaks” less beautiful when written by a peasant? And what of Comedy of Errors- are we claiming that this fancypants Earl wrote the crap stuff as well? Because I’m sure there are a few duds old Willy would be more than willing to escape the shadow of.
Genius doesn’t live in the walls at Cambridge; they don’t pump it into the Harvard water supply or distribute it as an automatic bonus when your offshore account exceeds a couple billion. I’m sure Edward de Vere, the conveniently timed Earl of Oxford, was a brilliant man, but he wasn’t Shakespeare. I know that, my friends know that, all my professors knew that. I bet Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave know. Hell, I bet screenwriter John Orloff’s even got a sense that he’s spinning yarn instead of sharing history. Now if only we could convince Derek Jacobi…