Friday, November 4, 2011

More on "Anonymous"

Last Saturday's Wall Street Journal featured an article by the screenwriter of Oxfordian movie Anonymous titled "Why I Played With Shakespeare's Story: Juggling truth and emotional needs in a film that posits the plays were written by someone else" proving the truth of Jacobitess' comment on my original post. It's just too bad this particular team produced a movie about the Oxford claims to Shakespeare's works.

The screenwriter of Anonymous, John Orloff, explains why he changed a widely known historical fact about the Earl of Essex's rebellion against Elizabeth I: that the Earl of Essex's supporters paid the Chamberlain's Men theatrical group to perform a certain play on the eve of his rebellion. That play was Richard II. But in Anonymous, Orloff exchanged that play with Richard III:

Anyone who knows Elizabethan history knows that Shakespeare's "Richard II" was performed on the eve of this event, which became known as the Essex Rebellion.

But "Richard II" is a very subtle and complicated play. Why its politics were relevant to London commoners in 1601—and why it would incite them to start an actual rebellion—would be extremely difficult to convey to a modern audience. I could have done it, but it would have required an additional 20 minutes of film time.

And, as I said, the film is not really about the Essex Rebellion. It is about showing that ideas are stronger than brute force. So how to make that point without wasting 20 minutes of the audience's time?

Well, Sir Robert Cecil—our villain—was in real life a hunchback. And so is King Richard III in Shakespeare's play of the same name. By switching the play that precedes the Essex Rebellion from "Richard II" to "Richard III," I was able to let the movie's audience immediately see the political implications of the performance. I didn't have to explain any complicated political metaphors: They only needed to see Richard III's hunched back to understand instantly a point that would have been obvious to London bricklayers and cobblers of the era.

In the end, the Essex Rebellion failed. In "Anonymous," it fails because Robert Cecil uses cannons—brute force—to destroy it.

But, ultimately, Cecil couldn't silence the plays—or the ideas that they contain. The next king, James Stuart, was an immense fan of the theater, and he, too, understood what "Richard II" and "Richard III" were trying to say.

I don't really understand that last line about James I!?! Elizabeth was a certainly a fan of the theatre--she knew what Richard II was 'trying to say' (bad advisors can lead to a king or queen's downfall) and she knew the implications of its performance before Essex's attempted coup d'etat. It woundn't have taken 20 minutes of screen time; just Elizabeth's statement ("Know you not, I am Richard II"). The substitution of Richard III for Richard II means that Orloff has changed the focus of the Essex Rebellion--from Elizabeth I to Robert Cecil. I think that's a mistake.

Also, the Essex Rebellion failed not only because of the (threatened) use of cannons (by the Earl of Nottingham), but because Devereux did not have the support he thought he had, beyond the group of young men he'd been knighting on his military adventures, something for which Elizabeth had scolded him. I wonder if Orloff takes the time to depict the fiduciary aspect of Devereux's discontent (Elizabeth had taken away his patent for sweet wines, his major source of income).

Sounds like sloppy thinking and bad history to me.

Tomorrow we will mark the Fifth of November and another plot, led by some of Essex's co-conspirators: Catesby, Tresham, and Wright. The presence of these Catholics in the Essex Rebellion led to accusations of Popery against the Earl of Essex at his trial.


  1. Disappointing. Did you ever read Joe Sobran's "Anonymous Shakespeare"? That was an educated approach to the Oxford theory but it does not sound like the filmmakers made use of it.

  2. Yes, I remember Sobran's work--I was almost persuaded. Have you looked at James Shapiro's book, "Contested Will"? The review by Robert S. Miola in First Things was very enticing. Shapiro traces the development of the controversy, including the lit crit methods that support biographical interpretation of literary works.