Anonymous: Roland Emmerich’s greatest disaster

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Sometimes a movie is bad because of the execution, but some specials are bad as long as the idea takes shape and accept it, thus creating failure on every level.

Anonymous is a 2011 film directed by Roland Emmerich, pillar of the disaster film. It received mixed critical reviews, was limited to limited release, and was a big failure at the box office. The film is a historical drama that portrays the historical conspiracy theory known as the question of paternity. The film is set between a monologue explaining the theory to a crowd and several periods of Elizabethan London. Structurally, it’s a mess, unnecessarily cutting events out of order just to shoehorn a stage presenter who only exists to verbally explain the film’s conjecture to the audience.

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Piece together the plots, they tell the story of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, a troubled nobleman who secretly only wishes to write poetry. Edward must write his works in secret, sending them anonymously to theaters and troupes so that they can be performed without identifying him. A drunken actor and comedian named William Shakespeare takes credit for the plays and blackmails Edward to claim success for his own. Meanwhile, Edward faces a tumultuous marriage, gets involved in royal politics, begins a steamy affair with Queen Elizabeth, learns of his true lineage, and dies with his legacy well hidden. At the end of the film, Edward is portrayed as the soul of the era and the most important figure in English history, sorely overlooked for his divine greatness.

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The scenario of Anonymous is full of very simple mistakes, from the time lag around the date of Kit Marlowe’s death, to the haphazard rearrangement of the staging of Shakespeare’s plays based on the slanderous narrative of a number of historical figures. Historical inaccuracies are to be expected in most films, this is not a documentary after all, but the changes to the facts aren’t just choices made to ease the pace or suit the themes of the film. The historical changes are intentional and necessary to support the conspiracy theory around which it is built. It’s hardly a drama, it’s more of an apocryphal visual demonstration to get a point across. The movie is best compared to a big-budget version of a History Channel dramatization, except most of the story is fake, and it comes in a format that seems designed to be confusing. Sony commissioned actual high school and college lesson plans to encourage students to question Shakespeare’s claims to his own work. While the studio claims the lesson plans don’t assert Oxford as the author of the works, the film certainly does.

The theory behind Anonymous is called the Oxfordian theory, the belief that the Earl of Oxford wrote the great works of Shakespeare. Conversely, most people are Stratfordians, believing that William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon wrote all the plays with his name on them. A number of famous personalities believed that Shakespeare was not responsible for his works, from Sigmund Freud to Mark Twain and many more. Not all Anti-Stratfordians think the same writer is in fact behind famous works, but they find cohesion as long as they agree it wasn’t Shakespeare.

Although intellectuals have debated the question of fatherhood since the mid-nineteenth century, the specific source and connection to Edward de Vere was coined by J. Thomas Looney in 1920. He cited as evidence that Shakespeare would have been of lower class and poorly educated, while most of its heroes were aristocratic. So theory goes that only an aristocrat could have had the skills and experience to write Shakespeare, and the Stratford man was just too low. Looney’s theory rose to prominence after its release, but was almost entirely gone for decades, before being rekindled by a certain director’s big Hollywood movie. Against all odds, Oxfordian theory found a new audience.

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Roland Emmerich, Jim Jarmusch, John Hurt, Sir Derek Jakobi, several Supreme Court justices and even Keanu Reeves have all expressed their support for Oxfordian theory. Jarmusch and Hurt collaborated on a movie that suggested Kit Marlowe was the real soul behind Shakespeare, even claiming he was murdered to prevent this secret from being revealed. Some of the most beloved celebrities claim that a man like Shakespeare could never write art as he claimed. So why are so many seemingly smart, creative, talented and decent people supporting this baseless conspiracy? The tragic answer is classism, and skeptics need look no further than Anonymous.

The basic thesis of Anonymous, as well as the theory that informs him, is that Shakespeare’s works are too perfect to be designed by someone who was not himself perfect. The film portrays Shakespeare as a goofy drunk loser, while taking every opportunity to show Edward as a noble hero. Edward, a wealthy and elegant nobleman with a direct line to the divinely appointed monarchy must be the soul of the times, claims the claim, because only the right person could create great art. The idea that Shakespeare could be any of us, that anyone born under the less impressive circumstances could create something that will be remembered forever is actively disgusting to some people.

William Shakespeare wrote the plays to which his name is attached, there is no evidence to the contrary, and Anonymous is a terrible movie. The classist cultural myth that the film represents is a cruel argument against one of the most important aspects of humanity – that anyone can create something great.

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