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.

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 ShrewTen 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.

7. The “ghost playwright” problem. The fact that Oxford died in 1604 has always been troublesome for the Oxfordians, since someone calling himself Shakespeare continued to write plays until 1612. Most scholars agree that Shakespeare wrote a dozen plays, including some of his most profound later works—Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest—after Oxford was dead. Did Oxford somehow emanate them from beyond the grave?

Hey, no problem! Not a tough hurdle to clear if you feel free to make things up without a scintilla of evidence. (And just for the record, there is no evidence Oxford wrote any of the earlier plays, either). So let’s just say that Oxford wrote all those eight years’ worth of plays by “Shakespeare” before he died, and then have other members of the conspiracy parcel them out over the years to keep up the “Shakespeare hoax.” Voila! It explains everything but Oxford’s lost play about Lee Harvey Oswald. How could he have known? (Kidding.)

The movie can’t even get this part of the conspiracy theory straight. We’re given a scene at the end in which it’s poor Ben Jonson, a serious artist, utterly libeled beyond recognition by Anonymous, who saves Oxford’s unpublished plays from burning after his death. We see Jonson escaping with a partially burned stack of plays we’re led to believe would otherwise be lost but will be put on posthumously. But the play we see on top of the stack Jonson makes away with is Henry V, which was registered with the authorities in 1600, had been played, and was publicly available four years before Oxford’s death. So it wasn’t “rescued” at all. It was already all over the land. Little lies, big lies: What’s the diff to Anonymous? If there are any serious people among the Oxfordians, even they will be appalled.

8. The snobbery. The movie reflects the Oxfordians’ intellectual pathology: They are victims of the syndrome Freud called “the family romance.”

The “anti-Stratfordian” case—the idea that William Shakespeare of Stratford didn’t write Shakespeare—is based largely on what you might call “negative evidence”: The lack of any surviving letters written by Shakespeare or reference to his books in his will. There are gaps in Hitler’s biography as well, important ones, but as I suggested in Explaining Hitler, these gaps don’t constitute positive evidence in favor of urban legends such as the one that claims Hitler was descended from a Rothschild. I called such stories “the family romance of the Hitler explainers,” after Freud’s characterization of the fantasy that one is secretly related to royalty or aristocracy, and pointed out that a “gap” is not necessarily evidence of absence, but absence of evidence, which, in Shakespeare’s case, the passage of more than four centuries makes even more likely.

Freud used the term “family romance” to describe the wish of the neurotic patient to believe that his apparently humble origins conceal a conspiracy to hide from him or her the fact of an exotic, usually royal or noble parentage and the way his or her true legacy was stolen. It’s so obvious the Oxfordians suffer from this pathological snobbery when you read the disdain they have for the “glover’s boy of Stratford,” Shakespeare. The Oxfordians are projecting their own self-inflating neurotic “family romance” onto Shakespeare. Their belief somehow endows them with a feeling of superiority over the vast majority of “mere” common readers of Shakespeare. It’s a sign of their nobility that they recognize the noble who secretly authored Shakespeare. But Oxford is as likely a progenitor of “Shakespeare” as a Rothschild was of Hitler.

9. The poem the film might resurrect. Anonymous’ revival of Oxfordianism threatens to rejuvenate Donald Foster’s discredited theory about the so-called “Funeral Elegy,” the worst poem ever mistakenly attributed to Shakespeare.

Foster is the Vassar professor who many years ago clamied that a profoundly awful 600-line “Funeral Elegy,” long gathering dust in an Oxford (University) library, was written by Shakespeare. I was among those who spent years protesting the speciousness of this claim, until Foster finally was forced to drop it and concede that John Ford wrote the poem. The Oxfordians used to applaud the discrediting of Foster’s claim because the 1612 “Funeral Elegy”—written eight years after Oxford’s death—would tend to prove Shakespeare was not the long-dead Earl of O. 

The film doesn’t mention the poem at all, but now I’ve learned that at least one Oxfordian is seeking to restore Foster’s discredited and abandoned claim in order to bolster the bogus Oxford theory. (Foster, to his credit, was careful to instruct the deluded fellow that he was not an Oxfordian.) I guess it goes to show how you can’t scotch the snake of stupidity; it just multiplies and multiplies and multiplies. That’s what I hate about this theory. It won’t stay dead. I just refuse to take seriously anyone who believes the same Shakespeare who wrote King Lear wrote the “Funeral Elegy.”

10. The failure of gratitude. The Oxfordians almost never tell you what they like about Shakespeare’s work, regardless of who he was. Or whether they like anything at all. I don’t think any (or many) of them get it at all. They’ve never contributed any useful exegesis I’ve seen. They only scan the words for Oxford code. It so sad, the continuing pathological crusade against a man who gave the world such a magnificent gift.

I have to ask the Oxfordians: If you have no gratitude, have you also no shame? Will you not repudiate this botch of a movie, which makes even your mendacious theory look like at “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

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