Rosenbaum: 10 Things I Hate About Anonymous

Scrutinizing culture.
Oct. 27 2011 11:46 AM

10 Things I Hate About Anonymous

And the stupid Shakespearean birther cult behind it.

Still of Vanessa Redgrave and Rhys Ifans in Anonymous.
Vanessa Redgrave and Rhys Ifans in Anonymous

Photograph by Reiner Bajo, © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group Inc. All rights reserved.

I should be happy that Anonymous turned out to be such a laughably incoherent botch of a film. One that should make the purveyors of the pernicious Shakespeare “authorship” conspiracy theory hide their heads in shame.

But, alas, they won’t. They have no shame. The conspiracy theorists who waste time trying to browbeat the credulous into thinking that the works of William Shakespeare were actually ghostwritten by Someone Else (in Anonymous, it’s the Earl of Oxford) can’t stop. They have invested too much of their lives in the chuckleheaded fantasy to give it up now, despite how ridiculous the film reveals it to be.

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It’s kind of sad. They were all atwitter, the “Oxfordians,” when they when they heard that Roland Emmerich would be making this film. Emmerich, of course, is the auteur who brought us that super-distinguished film based on an equally bogus theory, 2012. “Ooh, Hollywood is paying attention to us!” the poor Oxfordians exulted.

Indeed, the Oxfordians are so excited about their turn on the big screen that I recently have been bombarded with email missives from an Oxfordian who, just by happenstance, is also editor of Fluoride Journal. (Remember the fear that the commies were poisoning our “precious bodily fluids” with fluoride? Birds of a feather.)

Believe me, I didn’t want to see the movie, or write about it. My position has always been that what matters is what Shakespeare wrote, not who he was. That life is short and you essentially have a choice between immersing yourself in the dizzying astonishments of his language or spending that precious time spinning idiot conspiracy theories about who wrote those words. I tried to avoid the subject entirely in my book The Shakespeare Wars, which was about genuine controversies regarding the way to read and play the plays. I didn’t want to dignify the film with any coverage or comment.

But how could I know Anonymous would be quite so bad? To remain silent in the face of stupidity this blatant is to acquiesce to a kind of culture-destroying ugliness. So let me say it: Columbia Pictures should be ashamed to spread this intellectual pollution. What’s next, a birther epic about a black president who wasn’t really born in Hawaii?

And, for all I know, the woefulness of this sword-and-mustache movie won’t succeed in exploding the loony conspiracy theory about Shakespeare it’s based on—and shame those who have been propagating it into embarrassed silence. After all, when the birthers saw the birth certificate, did it stop them?

If the Oxfordians were smart they’d concede that the film is ridiculous and argue that it’s not representative of the purported sophistication of their thinking. Come on, Oxfordians, do you really stand behind this piece of ... folly?

Too much to hope for, I’m afraid. I suspect this movie may well be remembered, if it is remembered at all, as a high point in cinematic stupidity. No, let’s give it its due: a high point in stupidity in Western culture. 

I’ve called the theory Anonymous shills for—that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by the Earl of Oxford—“Shakespearean creationism,” but that’s not fair to the creationists. I said that before the rise of birtherism, which it’s far closer to, since it’s also about supposedly falsified origins. And some have gone further.

Harvard Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt once compared Oxfordianism to Holocaust denial. This is probably taking it—the Oxfordian theory, not the Holocaust—too seriously. But here’s a portion of Greenblatt’s lament he published in a letter to the Times several years ago:

The idea that William Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays and poems is a matter of conjecture and the idea that the “authorship controversy” be taught in the classroom are the exact equivalent of current arguments that “intelligent design” be taught alongside evolution. In both cases an overwhelming scholarly consensus, based on a serious assessment of hard evidence, is challenged by passionately held fantasies whose adherents demand equal time. The demand seems harmless enough until one reflects on its implications. Should claims that the Holocaust did not occur also be made part of the standard curriculum?

And if Oxfordianism is not exactly the literary equivalent of Holocaust denial, it’s not entirely harmless, either. Inevitably, a few credulous people will end up denying themselves the pleasures and rewards of reading and rereading Shakespeare’s works for the thrilling iambic pentameter and instead opt to read for “clues” pointing to the mind-rotting conspiracy theory.