Friday, December 9, 2011

Words, Words, Words: Anonymous

I expected to be the last person in the country to see this film; from the generally rotten reviews it has received, I fretted that when I did get to see it, it would be a massive disappointment. I've said it once and I will say it again: 2011 has been a great year for films, and Roland Emmerich's Anonymous is one more reason why:
I'm going to divide this post into two parts: first, I will discuss the "Shakespeare controversy" over the authorship of that body of fantastical works attributed to William Shakespeare and why it is an important question. Secondly, I will go over why the authorship of Shakespeare's works isn't what Anonymous is about.
William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) in Anonymous.
Does it matter who wrote the works we attribute to William Shakespeare?
John Beifuss, on Rotten Tomatoes, writes that Anonymous "suggests that what's most interesting about this writer we call Shakespeare is not the genius of his words but the puzzle of his identity." Yes, that is what is most interesting because that is what is most important, because without knowing who said it, the words don't have any genius, they don't have any meaning. Many years ago, one of my favorite theorists, Jacques Derrida, was being publicly denounced at an academic conference; in reply, Derrida read back to his accuser, verbatim, the paper he had read that had ripped Derrida to shreds, thereby, conclusively demonstrating that: the meaning of words depend upon their source and changing the source changes the meaning.
Rhys Ifans as Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.
It matters very much, in other words, if the writer of Hamlet is a poor aspiring actor who never partook of the governing of the country, or participated in the workings of the monarchial court or if the author was, like Hamlet, a member of the court who had witnessed crimes and needed to relate what those crimes were to the wider masses; if there was a chance he himself was part of those crimes. Was the author someone who had barely any formal education or someone who had been given every advantage in the school of learning? Was the author someone writing the plays for the sake of art and personal expression or was someone writing the plays for revenge and political scheming?  Yes, these are questions that matter, and matter very much. Knowing the answers changes how we encounter and interpret the plays, how we understand the works of the greatest writer of all time and how we understand the world which produced him.
Originally, the Earl of Oxford attends a play and decides that Ben Jonson will be the one to stage his plays and take the credit for them. Shakespeare, naught but an arrogant and ignorant actor, finds out about Jonson's dilemma--Jonson's need to express himself--and Shakespeare decides to take the credit for de Vere's work. In this scene, Shakespeare has just presented himself for the first time as the author and the crowd literally embraces him and his work.
I was in high school when I first became aware that there was a "Shakespeare question," the material I was reading made the case that Lord Francis Bacon was the author of the body of Shakespeare's works; later, another argument suggested there were multiple authors, including Bacon, Marlowe and the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere; in other words, Shakespeare was a guild, a group of writers using William as a front who would take credit, but also the blame in case things fell apart, and in the unstable years of Elizabeth's reign, that was possible (especially for Catholics refusing to convert to the Church of England). The payoff for the real authors was, as Anonymous suggests for Edward de Vere, the ability to indoctrinate the crowds with their own views and have a hand in events taking place, a hand they would not have had, otherwise.
Why why why would the Earl of Oxford want to give his plays to another to take all the credit and make all the money? What does he gain from it? First, the arrangement gives him the chance to write, and when we are using the gifts that God has given us, we are finding out who we are, discovering ourselves (that quest for the self is both the reason why Edward wants to write and why Ben Jonson doesn't want to take credit for it, Jonson has his own voice). But there is also political motivations: Elizabeth is old and without an heir, the Crown will pass to the Scotsman, James I. Wanting to keep the Crown in England, Edward decides to use the stage to influence--not only the English people--but Elizabeth herself.
Knowing Shakespeare scholars who have made it their life's purpose to study the great works, conclusively demonstrates that Shakespeare was indeed the man who wrote the plays; secondly, having proven for myself, through my own education and experience, I am assured that "convincing arguments" aren't really convincing at all. It is persuasive when Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain and Charlie Chaplain, all bright fellows indeed, believe it was the Earl of Oxford who wrote the plays, but who, in my knowledge, never did a scant bit of real research into the matter.
Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth, awaiting the Earl of Oxford as she realizes her "kingdom is under attack" by the Earl of Essex. This isn't what happened, but it is the influential Robert Cecil that tells the Queen this is what is happening and thereby successfully achieves the beheading of the Earl of Essex, who happens (unbeknownest to the Queen) to be one of her many illegitimate children. The Earl of Oxford, who does know that their child together is the Earl of Southampton, comes to plead for his life before Elizabeth and wins, on the condition that, to save one child, he forfeit the other child: his name will never appear on his plays.
It has been said that a well-stated opinion is worth far more than a poorly stated fact; in the case of Shakespeare's authority, that seems to be the case, it's only the ones wanting to debunk the status quo that get the microphone handed to them, not the ones defending the castle. The truth is, while "anti-Stratfordians" get a lot of attention, they can't offer one piece of substantial evidence and that's where the matter rests: Shakespeare wrote the works of Shakespeare.
Elizabethan London across the Thames.
Fortunately, Anonymous isn't about the Shakespeare question.
I will openly confess that we all like things which verify our world views; we all like things that we think proves us right about what we believe. Anonymous agrees with me on what I hold to be two important views about art: first, art means something. The Earl of Oxford tells Ben Jonson that his comedy, "Wasn't just a mere comedy, you were making fun of your betters and show them being completely dependent upon their much more clever servants" and that is revolutionary in Elizabethan times, . . . and dangerous. Secondly, the historical plays of Richard III and Julius Cesar are not about history, and Anonymous makes it very clear that those "historical plays" were written merely as vehicles to discuss the politics of the here and now on stage for all to see. A history play is never ever never ever never ever ever about history, it is always about contemporary events, the here and the now. Anonymous is about a fraud, but here and now, not back then.
Ben Jonson, left, meets the Earl holding a Tudor Rose from his garden. As he plucked the rose from the vine, so he hopes to pluck the next Tudor Rose (monarch after Elizabeth) with his fingers, i.e., his writings.
How can I say that?
While I will be the last person in the country to get to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it shares a central theme with Anonymous: someone isn't really who we believe them to be. In Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy, the fraud is a KGB double-agent deep within British Intelligence; in Anonymous, the fraud is the greatest writer in history. Both films posit that there is a fraud, an important charade going on in Britain, and the question is, who, or what, is not truthful? On more than one occasion in Anonymous we see Edward de Vere in his garden, which is a labrynth, and it is exactly within a labrynth that we must try to find him, i.e., the fraud which he symbolizes.
The Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere in his youth and young Queen Elizabeth; Anonymous posits that he and Elizabeth not only had an affair, but a child together who was the Earl of Southampton. Later in the film, gulp, we discover that Edward de Vere himself is an illegitimate child of Elizabeth's and they didn't know it. This is not a theory of history, this is the way art works and advances it's theories, teaching us by using things such as incest to communicate to us about our own time and life.
I probably know the politics of Elizabethan England better than the average movie-goer because there is a reasonable chance that I am descended from William Cecil, the 1st Baron Burghley by his first son Thomas; in other words, I know quite a bit about Cecil politics and the family. I know, for example, that Richard Cecil (Ed Hogg) was not a hunchback and that it was Edward himself who wanted to marry William's daughter Anne and it was she who cheated on Edward, not the other way around. What's the point? Anonymous isn't about history and it makes no attempt at it.
William Cecil (David Thewlis) and young Queen Elizabeth (Joley Richardson) discussing what Elizabeth will do now that she is pregnant with the young Earl of Oxford's child. Edward de Vere happens to be married to Cecil's own daughter Anne, so William isn't going to allow a divorce to take place especially since Cecil is the only one who knows that Edward is Elizabeth's own son. Since she was 16, Anonymous tells us, Cecil had been taking her illegitimate children and placing them in influential and wealthy households and Elizabeth never knew who any of them were. It is one of those children, the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), who wants himself proclaimed king upon her death, but who she will behead for treason.
I posted a trailer at the beginning, but please watch this one, too, because there is a greater emphasis on the beginning of the film, which takes place (I believe) in London with the prologue delivered by Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi (who was marvelous in a film called Dead Again):
The opening scenes are of London, and Jacobi gets out of a taxi hurriedly and enters a theater, going through the "backways," the ways that only the actors and stagehands know. He apologizes to someone for being late, is handed an umbrella, and the curtain opens; he speaks, giving us his prologue on what Shakespeare means to all of us, his importance and then the basic questions of why his authorship should be questioned.
Derek Jacobi delivering the prologue for Anonymous. Without this scene the film would be a failure.
He opens his umbrella and then, we see a rain making "sprinkler" rain upon the stage, a set is lighted and it appears we are going to watch a play, but we cut to the film, a chase with Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) carrying the most valued manuscripts ever written and being pursued by the guards.
Why do we have a prologue? 
The Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) left and Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) background. Southampton is the son of Elizabeth and Edward, although Edward is the only one who knows; Southampton agrees to give his wealth and army to Essex in his bid for the throne when Elizabeth dies because "everyone knows that he is Elizabeth's son" just by looking at him. Hoping to keep the English Crown on an English head, Edward decides--not to support Essex with armies and wealth--but with his words, and he does that by undermining the Cecils who are bidding on James I becoming King of England and Scotland.
This unusual prologue gives us a "play within a play," and that's why Ben Jonson is the Anonymous writer John Orloff has Edward de Vere approach first: Jonson wrote the play Volpone, which is a play within a play, so Orloff is rewarding those students of English literature who read their Elizabethan plays with an insider's trick to understanding what is taking place: just as Edward de Vere creates an audience to communicate to them through the play his own political ideas, so the viewers of Anonymous are mirrored in the audiences at the Globe theater. So there are three theaters: the Globe in the film, the London theater where Jacobi delivers the prologue and then the theater in which we, the cinematic viewer watches the film, and I assure you, all of this is quite intentional.
This is the "naked scene" of Anonymous, the scene where the whole film reveals itself for what it is. Shakespeare and Jonson bet between the dogs that are about to be let loose and the bear, and the dogs circling the bear and attacking is exactly what happens to Elizabeth through the staging of plays; what's so ironic is her own fondness of plays which are working to undermine her choice for the next monarch. Yet there is also a bear today, and a pack of dogs trying to attack it, and a group of people trying to make money off the whole scheme . . . what would that be? A "bear market" on Wall Street, perhaps? Perhaps. It might also be the Parliament controlled by Cecil-esque powers behind-the-scenes.
Let's start back at the beginning.
We see London as it is today, the London built upon the lineage of the greatest writer of all time, William Shakespeare. And in a cab on one of these busy roads, is an actor who has specialized in those plays, getting out as he is running late and paying the cab, then entering the modern theater, going behind the scenes and appearing on stage to tell us that Shakespeare was the soul of the age, and he is, for all English speakers, "our Shakespeare. He is all of ours" because he has given humanity its ultimate expression in his words. The theater in which Jacobi speaks is situated downtown, in the financial center of, not only England but of the British Empire.
What two parties are incestuously sleeping together that shouldn't be sleeping together? Perhaps it is the United States (the child of Great Britain) and the motherland, England. Is the U.S. "playing a part" in British politics?
What is the "vehicle" which had to be paid in order for him to get to the theater? Perhaps it was the financial losses of the stock market crash, the London Riots of the past summer and the marches against austerity measures which the Parliament has been trying to pass and people were marching against because public demonstration was the only way they could be heard. . . . Perhaps it is something else, entirely, but I doubt it.  What else, besides the very identity of the Empire itself (like in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) could be a fraud? Only Parliament. There is, after all, an artificial rain storm produced on the stage, and we might as well ask, what storm is it that the prologue could be referencing? Perhaps the housing bubble that broke in the United States and its effects on world markets? This is why Jacobi apologizes for being late: it took years to get the film made and, if it had been made earlier, we would have had a warning about how we were all going to "be played" like the audiences at the Globe. But we wouldn't have paid attention.
Young Queen Elizabeth watching A Midsummer Night's Dream as Cecil (right) watches her. Knowing the power of drama, Cecil tries to have it stopped; are we going to listen to him and recognize the power of drama for our own days and heed its lesson?
 The list of praises which Jacobi enumerates for Shakespeare is important because it reflects the people of England themselves, what Shakespeare means to them because he is one of them. This is an important point: before the film Elizabeth of 1998, there really wasn't any (artistic) issue with the "Virgin Queen's" virginity; now, in 2011, it's her very children who surround her and threaten her; what has happened? In 2011, the "illegitimate children" of England is a pointed way of addressing the problems surrounding England just as the dog pack surrounds and attacks the chained bear.
This is a great shot: the audience doesn't know it at the time, but all three of these men are Elizabeth's sons. Essex, on the far left, plans to take the throne; Southampton, center, plans on helping him believing that is the just and right thing to do while Edward, right, just wants to bring down his in-laws, the Cecils so they can't meddle anymore. The interesting point is, both methods fail: Essex and Southampton use wealth and armies and are accused of treason, while Edward uses art and has it stolen from him. Even those in power are powerless.
Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows how fond I am of Game Theory and how I love to apply it any chance I can get; Anonymous gives me that chance. When Edward attends the "common theater" for the first time, it is Southampton who takes him, telling him how marvelous it is, so one son (of the body) introduces the father (Edward) to another son (of the mind); later, when Edward sits in the theater after one of his plays is performed, Southampton comes to talk to Edward but Edward is distracted by what is going on in the theater and fails to respond to Southampton; this is a classic case of sibling rivalry because Southampton storms out of the theater, apologizing over his shoulder for "intruding upon your entertainment." After the first showing, however, Southampton and Essex play racquetball as Edward discusses "real power" in getting "thousands of souls" to listen to your ideas, and Essex replies that "Words never won a kingdom."
Looking through a window means "self-reflection" which we are invited to do.
It is a regrettable piece of foreshadowing because it is the political games of the Cecils which will bring down Essex; he might be good at racquetball but his Cecil opponents are heavy-weights in the world of spy craft and espinoage and manage to destroy him while he is away at Ireland, thereby causing him to blunder his way back into Elizabeth's good graces at which he fails miserably. The tagline for Anonymous is that "We've all been played," and that references the game of politics which someone has used to their advantage. Yes, games are important, and not for the faint of heart.
This is an interesting scene. Edward was banned from the court after the affair with Elizabeth and hasn't seen her since his youth. When he enters, she says, "You look old." It's terribly funny because its the legacy of Glorianna that will be forever young, but no one else will . . . Edward has come to plead for the life of their son, Southampton, and Elizabeth gives him back Southampton on the condition that his name will never be known. This is what we have to ask ourselves about politics today: what is being threatened and what is being sacrificed? Who is being saved and who is being thrown to the "dogs" (like in the bear and dog contest above)? Having been banned, how does Edward manage to see her again? He writes her a book of poetry, Venus and Adonis, reminding her of how they were and how they loved, and indeed, Elizabeth was swayed by words.
So, the final question is, is Anonymous playing games with us?
No, Anonymous is trying to unmask the games that are being played with us. Whether it's Parliament or the financial district or the entire Square Mile of London, there is fraud going on and we should all be alerted to it. We should "read between the lines," and unmask the words so that we don't get played by those holding the real power in the world. If "Shakespeare never wrote a single word," that would be a huge challenge to the "free market economy" of Great Britain and the possibility of the "rags to riches" ever coming true for Britons or Americans because the lad from Stratford-upon-Avon is one of the inspiring success stories of being able to work you way up; not, in the case of Edward de Vere, to work your way down.