Did Shakespeare write his own plays? Or was he the front man for a political intriguer called Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford?
This well-worn conspiracy theory is the supposedly sensational claim of the film Anonymous. But it doesn’t live up to the hype.
The backdrop is 16th century Elizabethan England. Good Queen Bess is frail and two different camps are looking to promote a successor on her death.
Her adviser, William Cecil, favours King James of Scotland. De Vere, on the other hand, supports the Earl of Essex, who some believe is Elizabeth’s illegitimate son.
De Vere believes his plays can further his cause. But it is dangerous, as well as a bit vulgar, to be seen as the author.
He decides to do the noble thing, and attribute them to a poorly-educated tradesman’s son—Will Shakespeare.
The Shakespeare authorship question is a debate that started over 100 years ago and this film doesn’t further it.
Rhys Ifans, who plays de Vere in the film, claims that Shakespeare is an unlikely writer of the works credited him.
He says he would have to have been “a multi-linguist, well‑travelled and have had a deep knowledge of the inner workings of a very secretive and paranoid Elizabethan court… All these boxes are ticked by de Vere.”
But the knowledge required to pen these plays isn’t that great.
For instance, almost all the material for Shakespeare’s Roman plays is cribbed from Sir Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives, a collection of biographies of figures in ancient Greece and Rome.
Shakespeare only had to do what all playwrights do—a bit of historical homework.
And the verse that actually did appear under the name of de Vere is fairly insipid and forgettable.
There is also the small matter of him dying in 1604—before Macbeth, King Lear and The Tempest, among others, were first produced.
None of this would matter if the film was a good, credible romp, instead of a pretentious, overwrought confection.
The film’s cast look as though they have all auditioned for the same part.
And confusing flashbacks come so thick and fast that you give up trying to work out who’s who, let alone who wrote what.
The computer-generated images of 16th century London are too fussy. And the acting, with the exception of Ifans, Mark Rylance and Vanessa Redgrave (as Elizabeth) is dismally hammy.
Director Roland Emmerich can add Anonymous to his body of work, which includes Godzilla and 2012. Few will dispute that nobody other than him could have made this film so very silly and such a very damp squib.
Anonymous is in cinemas now