Fact, fiction and speculation are all bound up together in a film about the ‘true’ authorship of Shakespeare’s work.
30 Oct 2014 - 10:56 AM  UPDATED 23 Apr 2020 - 12:06 PM

Learn all about literature’s biggest question

Anonymous kicks off with the assertion that William Shakespeare never wrote a single word of his plays, then proceeds to tell a story that explains who the author was – the real-life Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford – and why he pretended otherwise. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: knowing a film is underpinned by truth always adds substance. Knowing that Anonymous is also underpinned by a tantalising literary mystery that continues to ripple down through the ages adds even more. Director Roland Emmerich below gives 10 reasons why Shakespeare wasn’t the author. One of them is that Shakespeare wasn’t born into the aristocracy but wrote so much and so well of it. Another is that no manuscripts in his handwriting were ever found. John Orloff, the scriptwriter of Anonymous, backs up this video in the accompanying text.

The Virgin Queen conundrum

There’s another major mystery explored in the script too, namely whether Queen Elizabeth I was or wasn’t childless – one of the principal narrative drivers is the question of who will succeed her – but it’s best to say no more or it may ruin one of the film’s big surprise twists. And a warning: for the first half an hour in particular, keep your wits about you because there’s lots of back and forth in time and between characters.

High drama in high places

In historical times and now, irrespective of country, the Royal Court seems to be a hotbed of gossip and intrigue. The picture painted in Anonymous is an example. Is it because power corrupts, too many people have too much time on their hands, or human beings always want to be the boss? Whatever the reason, dastardly deeds and wickedness makes for high drama. And so does religious conflict. (Sigh) Some things never change.

The breathtaking beauty

Anyone with a penchant for frocks is going to be thrilled at those worn, especially late in life, by this version of Queen Elizabeth I. They are breathtakingly gorgeous and inventive. That said, there are images of extraordinary beauty throughout Anonymous and it has extremely high production values across the board. Emmerich has extensive Hollywood experience – his most widely known films are Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow – and this is probably relevant here.

The big British cast

Leading the big ensemble of British actors are three splendid actors: Rhys Ifans as the Earl of Oxford, Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth I near the end of her 44-year reign, and Joely Richardson as Queen Elizabeth I nearer the 1558 beginning. And by the way, David Thewlis still gives me the creeps because of the role he played in Mike Leigh’s 1993 film Naked. Also, that’s Australian actor Xavier Samuel as the Earl of Southampton. (He’s also in new release Fury.)


Watch 'Anonymous'

Sunday 3 May, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)

UK, Germany, 2011
Genre: Drama
Language: English
Director: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis, Rhys Ifans, Derek Jacobi, Joely Richardson
What's it about?
Who actually created the body of work credited to William Shakespeare?  Experts have debated, books have been written, and scholars have devoted their lives to protecting or debunking theories surrounding the authorship of the most renowned works in English literature. Anonymous poses one possible answer, focusing on a time when scandalous political intrigue, illicit romances in the Royal Court, and the schemes of greedy nobles lusting for the power of the throne were brought to light in the most unlikely of places: the London stage.

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