What if William Shakespeare never wrote a word? What if, instead, the plays and sonnets attributed to him were the work of a worldly English aristocrat during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First? The question has been debated for a century. Filmmaker Roland Emmerich rekindles the debate in his film Anonymous. The movie offers great performances, impressive cinematography and an inspiring tale about the power of words.
Filmmaker Roland Emmerich sets Anonymous in a royal court where Queen Elizabeth's scheming advisors, William and Robert Cecil, have dampened her majesty's love of the arts.
Anonymous is Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. In the film, the nobleman despises the Cecils for their rigidity as much as they despise him for his poetic license. His social standing does not allow him to publish his work under his name. So, he hires a lowly actor to pretend he is the bard and stage the plays for the masses. The imposter? William Shakespeare.
Anonymous is based on a theory that emerged about a century ago. It claims that William Shakespeare could not have written the literary works attributed to him because he had neither the education nor the worldliness reflected in the manuscripts.
Roland Emmerich's film validates the idea. The German filmmaker, known for action films, surprises us with his skilled and nuanced depiction of the times.
Acclaimed actors such as Derek Jacobi, who introduces the story, and Vanessa Redgrave, who plays an older Queen Elizabeth, offer superb performances and give weight to the theory.
Less well-known actors, like Rhys Ifans, who interprets Edward De Vere, and Edward Hogg as the venomous Robert Cecil are so riveting they make the story credible.
Emmerich believes the theory.
"I am one hundred percent sure that William Shakespeare was a fraud and was like a play broker, a great merchant, a minor actor and there is no evidence in all his records that he was a writer," said Emmerich. "It more looks like he was illiterate."
The story describes De Vere's writing as politically subversive. In the film, the plays incited the masses to rise up against self-serving aristocrats in the royal court.
Proponents of Shakespeare concede there is no direct evidence to prove without a doubt that Shakespeare wrote the plays and sonnets.
But Michael Collins, a professor of English at Georgetown University, says there is enough information to establish Shakespeare as the author.
"Edward De Vere was dead in 1604 I believe," said Collins. "Shakespeare continues to write till 1612, 1613. So, that's the other question. How do the later plays which embody, from some points of view, references to contemporary events? How do you account for the fact that De Vere is dead and the plays continue to be written?"
Anonymous is an entertaining story, well told, that celebrates the works and words of the bard. They survive to this day regardless of who wrote them.