10 Things I Hate About Anonymous
And the stupid Shakespearean birther cult behind it.
Still, the afternoon after I left the screening, I vowed I wouldn’t write about Anonymous. I might be mistaken for taking it seriously. And Oxfordian theory and theorists have already been solidly debunked by Greenblatt, by James Shapiro, by Brian Vickers, by Simon Schama, and by just about every serious scholar. Even by humble ol’ me, when I exposed the maneuvers of an “authorship” cultist who had been skewing the New York Times coverage of Shakespearean controversies toward the Oxfordians. That seems to have come to an end.
But then I was tossing and turning that night and realized that I really hate what these people do, the Oxfordians. Their titanic smugness, their snobbishness. Their idea that Shakespeare’s works could never have been written by a mere middle-class person like Shakespeare himself; their idea that only a nobleman (an Earl!), recognized as a fellow noble soul by themselves, could possibly have done it.
Most of all, I hate the way they pride themselves on the vain, mendacious conceit that they’re in on a grand historical secret deception that only they have the superior intelligence to understand. It’s an insult to everyone else’s intelligence if they’re taken seriously.
So, despite my vow of silence, and, in homage to that good natured ’tween adaptation of Taming of the Shrew—Ten Things I Hate About You—I will offer up “Ten Things I Hate about Anonymous.”
1. The lie about Shakespeare’s literacy. In the opening, our fancy-pants British narrator (Derek Jacobi) tells us disdainfully that Shakespeare only had a “grammar school” education, disingenuously concealing the fact that the typical “grammar school” of the time, such as the one in Shakespeare’s hometown Stratford, had graduates who had learned how to translate and compose verse in Latin. Can you compose verse in Latin? How many American poets can? How many Oxfordians can even read Latin? As Simon Schama, the British historian, put it recently:
“Grammar school,” which means elementary education in America, was in fact a cradle of serious classical learning in Elizabethan England. By the time he was 13 or so, Shakespeare would have read (in Latin) works by Terence, Plautus, Virgil, Erasmus, Cicero, and probably Plutarch and Livy too. One of the great stories of the age was what such schooling did for boys of humble birth.
(But, of course, no one of humble birth, say the Oxfordian birthers, could possibly be as learned as they.)
Then the movie contradicts itself. Later on, we’re treated to a supposedly comic scene showing that Shakespeare didn’t even have a grammar-school education, however you define it: He’s mocked by actors in his troupe as utterly illiterate. (I have a theory about why some otherwise distinguished actors buy into the Oxford conspiracy theory. Actors are notorious for their self-loathing and loathing of other actors and it must gall some of the weaker egos among them, the idea that a “mere” actor like Shakespeare could also be an incomparable author of the parts they play.)
2. The problem of the wrong Richard. The movie has many glaring historical distortions, but the most obvious and egregious twisting of facts has “Shakespeare’s company” put on a production of Richard III to support the insurgency of Lord Essex, the idea being that Essex’s nemesis, Queen Elizabeth’s chief councilor, Lord Cecil, had a hunchback, and guess who has one in Richard III? So putting on the play will incite the crowd against all hunchbacks in power. Sounds like a great plan!
Yet it is well-established that the play the real Shakespeare’s company actually put on during that insurgency was Richard II, not Richard III, and the difference is more than a Roman numeral. Richard II is about a deposition of a sitting monarch but features no hunchbacks. The filmmakers couldn't possibly be ignorant of this, so one must infer that the movie deliberately falsifies history to accommodate its historically baseless plot.
3. The lie that Shakespeare was not known as a playwright. To quote the great scholar Brian Vickers:
We have a huge number of allusions [to Shakespeare], both laudatory and envious, from fellow-writers and others in the London theatre-world who knew him well (Greene, Meres, Jonson, Heywood, Webster, Marston, Gabriel Harvey, Chettle, Weever, Dekker); an almost continuous series of references from 1592 to his death in 1616, all of which identify him as both actor and author.
In other words, we have the names of real people who knew Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford, as the writer of the plays. Not a single person who supposedly participated in the Oxford conspiracy has ever left a record of being part of it.
Should you need further proof on this question, I suggest you consult the authorship chapter of Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare, or check out the Shakespeare authorship Web site (Shakespeareauthorship.com) maintained by David Kathman and Terry Ross. You will be overwhelmed by the evidence that the Oxford theory is a meretricious farce.
4. The insult to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I take this personally, since my life was changed by seeing Peter Brook’s legendary production of this highly sophisticated, intricately woven meditation on the nature of love and sex.
In Anonymous, we are informed that the play was written by an 11-year-old (the future Earl of Oxford). Which basically tells you that the people behind Anonymous have not the slightest notion of what a finely wrought, complex work of art the Dream is and are still prisoner of the dumb Victorian-era notion it’s a play for children (and thus perhaps written by a child) because it has “fairies” in it. It also has raw bestial sex, not typically 11-year-old fare, fairies or no fairies. Oh, the stupidity. It’s relentless.
5. The absurd, confusing incest plot. One breathless Oxfordian blogger was virtually panting at the incest he was looking forward to in the movie, before he saw it. He’s heard, he explains, that it will portray Queen Elizabeth (“the Virgin Queen”) as the secret mother of Oxford and, later, as his incestuous lover and the mother of his son.
And if you do watch the movie, this is precisely what it seems to claim. It’s one of the few things that stands out clearly from the ridiculous dungeons-and-dragons murk of the film. Yet the author of the Oxfordian website has to walk it back a bit after the screenwriter tries unconvincingly to tell him he was just suggesting the possibility of incest. Sure. But why bother to even suggest the possibility of incest for which there is no credible evidence?
6. The facial hair. This may seem like a cheap shot, but more attention in this film seems to have been paid to devising evil-looking mustaches and bizarre-looking beards (and combinations thereof) than to history, literature, or logic. Or maybe the beard-intensive focus is a metaphor for the play’s central contention that Shakespeare was a “beard” for Oxford. (The idea being, I guess, that the earl wrote the plays and got a dumb actor, our man Will, to pretend they were his, because earls weren’t supposed to be associated with anything so tacky as the theater. There’s some political hugger-mugger involved, too, I think, but I could never figure it out, either in the Oxfordian literature or in this incoherent film.) Someday, someone will make a YouTube cut of all the facial grooming styles in this film, titled Mustaches on Parade: Beards Over Broadway.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.