Anonymous Gives the Mystery of Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays A Very Good Name

One of the most exciting on-screen literary rows since Norman Mailer was beaten with a hammer

ano 31 2791 Anonymous Gives the Mystery of Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays A Very Good Name


Who really wrote William Shakespeare’s plays? Theories abound as scholars, dramaturges and researchers have accused the Bard of Avon of perpetrating a massive hoax through the centuries and boiled down the suspects. Now a lavish but somewhat tedious costume epic called Anonymous investigates each and every culprit in what often seems like double the time it must have taken to write the 37 plays, 154 sonnets and numerous collected poems of the Shakespeare oeuvre in the first place. It’s an exhausting film, but worth your stamina.

Shakespeare may be the most performed playwright in the history of letters, but in 400 years not one original script has been found in his own handwriting. When he died at 52, survived by an illiterate wife and daughter, he left behind in his will no mention of a single manuscript. In Anonymous, an obvious labor of love for director Roland Emmerich, the culprit is identified as Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a wealthy aristocrat who could not attach his real name to works of lusty romance, tragedy and political intrigue because they lampooned prominent members of the court. He uses his influence to free Ben Jonson from the Tower, where he’s been placed on charges of sedition, on the condition that the struggling young playwright attach his name to all of Oxford’s new plays, but the plan backfires when the opening night of Henry V causes a riot and a drunken oaf takes the stage and pretends to be the author. This is a jerk named Will Shakespeare, a bad actor who can scarcely make complete sentences but is willing to sell his name for a price, totally unaware that it would go down in history. Later, he grows greedy and kills Christopher Marlowe because he was about to expose the deception. He then tries to blackmail Oxford. There’s no proof of any of this, but it makes sense. The threat to Oxford’s power and position in the court is plausible, and after he died signing his name to the last play, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, became a businessman, and no other play ever surfaced again. The facts are still open to conjecture, but it’s fascinating, like watching the pieces of a political mystery thriller falling into place.

In addition to pomp and pageantry, Anonymous also provokes a surfeit of skepticism about Queen Elizabeth I, beautifully played by Joely Richardson as the young monarch and by Ms. Richardson’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave, as the dowager queen. According to John Orloff’s elaborate screenplay, she was anything but the “Virgin Queen” played by Bette Davis, but a randy piece of work who had many lovers and bore several children. The film takes the liberty of accusing Oxford not only of penning his plays under the name William Shakespeare but of being the illegitimate son of Elizabeth and, in later life, the father of another son by her, without knowing she was his own mother. Incest, murder, war, plagiarism—this movie has everything. Meanwhile, Anonymous builds a dazzling panorama of Tudor history, from the personal illicit palace intrigues of the royals, to the public passions of London’s cluttered streets and haymarkets, to the bustling population of poets and peasants and thieves and whores, to the crowded theaters filled with raucous mobs screaming for scandal. You will not be bored.

My caveats: It plays hopscotch with history, jumping back and forth in a confusing jumble of time frames, and it introduces so many tertiary characters, in what looks like a cast of thousands, who are hard to tell apart or keep all straight. The labyrinthian court treacheries to seize the Tudor crown because Elizabeth has no heirs, and the shift of emphasis to the Essex Rebellion of 1601, when the queen sentenced her lover Essex (who will always be Errol Flynn) to his own beheading, turn the film muddy and confusing. But the recreation of the Old Globe, the fame that brought ruin and dishonor to both Oxford and the money-grubbing Shakespeare, and the sacrifice of Oxford’s own property and family fortune to write plays he believed in against a background of danger and violence make for a bloody good yarn, masterfully told, lushly appointed, slavishly researched and brilliantly acted. Rhys Ifans, with a face like a carpenter’s tool, usually specializes in freaks and geeks, but for those who can’t stomach him, his serious role as the Earl of Oxford is deeply affecting. And he is surrounded by a cast of pure gold—the splendid mother-daughter team of Richardson and Redgrave as Bess, a comic performance by Rafe Spall as Shakespeare and a huge supporting cast including Derek Jacobi, David Thewlis and the always hammy Mark Rylance, whose ominous onstage Richard III wears more makeup than Mae West.

Historians are already calling Anonymous preposterous humbug, but I found it a complex cornucopia of ideas and panache. You go away sated.


Running Time 130 minutes

Written by John Orloff

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Starring Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave and David Thewlis



  1. Rex Reed wrote, “This is a jerk named Will Shakespeare, a bad actor who can scarcely make
    complete sentences but is willing to sell his name for a price, totally
    unaware that it would go down in history. Later, he grows greedy and
    kills Christopher Marlowe because he was about to expose the deception.
    He then tries to blackmail Oxford. There’s no proof of any of this, but
    it makes sense.”

    Excuse me, Mr. Reed, but on what planet does this make sense?  How is a jerk who can scarcely make complete  sentences going to convince anyone he wrote “Hamlet.”  Why does he think Marlow is going to keep his secret, when it would be obvious to ANYONE that he’s incapable of writing the plays?

    Rex Reed also wrote, “The threat to Oxford’s power and position in the court is plausible, ”

    No it isn’t.  Oxford published poetry under his own name.    He woudln’t have had his power and position threatened for writing “Hamlet.”   If “Hamlet” was a threat to the court, it never would have been performed, let alone published.

    Rex Reed also wrote, “… and
    after he [Oxford] died signing his name to the last play, Shakespeare retired to
    Stratford, became a businessman, and no other play ever surfaced again.

    No,  there’s no evidence – NONE – that Shakespeare retired when Oxford died.  New plays attributed to Shakespeare kept premiering for at least nine years after Oxford died.  Acccording to summaries I’ve read of the film (I haven’t seen it yet), the film acknowledges that “King Lear” isn’t performed  until after Oxford dies.

    There is no actual evidence that anyone other than William Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him.

    1. Skeptic says:

      Just as you haven’t yet seen the film, it seems, at lest,  that you haven’t yet read through the reams of research that build a very convincing case that Oxford was Shakespeare. “Actual” evidence is simply mincing words.

    2. Roger Nyle Parisious says:

        Mr. Nathan,when is the last time you read the preface to Robert Greene’s “Farewell to Follie” written circa 1588-1589 though first published in the early eighties ? Greene specifically states that some bumpkin who can scarcely write his name  with out the aid of the parish clerk at St-Giles-outside-Cripplegate is about to be made “the father of interludes” and ,due to the front man’s near illiteracy,a forthcoming ppublication of the same will be an absolute mess.
          We know one of the “interludes”(thanks to RG’s quotations from the manuscript) was a play
      called “Faire Em”. It eventually appeared anonymously without the purported frontman’s name as RG had blown their cover in advance. And,the play later turned up in the library of King Charles with  a manuscript attribution to William Shakespeare.The other” interludes” to which Greene  referred have yet to be identified.So it wasn’t that hard to pull off an Elizabethan authorship hoax if you set your mind to it.
         Even Greene (who had the full nitty gritty) was careful not give the real author’s name.
          Dating the  plays? Simple. Date “King John”, which has the lowest percentage of double-endings in the Canon ,1590,(as did Honigmann,probably the greatest Stratfordian scholar in the 20th century) and allow for the author writinhg 2 plays a year(the standard Stratfordian assumption) and you end up with a terminus of  mid-1606. Date “King John” 1588 as many Oxfordians did long before Dr. Honigmann wrote and youwill  end up with the terminus of mid-1604 exactly coincident with the death of Edward de Vere and with  the publication of  the revised “Hamlet” edition.
         Space doesn’t allow dealing with your other points but you appear to have been mislead by
      numerous mistatements  which have been irresponsably  issued by Shapiro and Wikepedia .

  2. Syntinen says:

    Of course there’s no mention in Shakespeare’s will of manuscripts, and why? Because a professional playwright in the 16th century didn’t own or get to keep his manuscripts. As soon as a play was written – Elizabethan play production was a just-in-time affair – it went straight to the company manager, who organised the copying out of just enough separate scenes and speeches to enable the actors to learn their lines. It cost far too much, and took too long,  to  have copies of the whole play made.  So if the play was successful enough for anyone later to want to print it, the original went off to the printer, who didn’t normally return it after the job was done. Why bother? There was nothing sacred or special then about the author’s own manuscript; the attitude was that once you’d spent all that time and money putting the text into a nice clear printed book, the dog-eared, ink-blotted old original with amendments scribbled in the margin was redundant.

    Of course, a wealthy nobleman who wrote a play could well afford to pay a scribe to make copies of it to circulate among friends, or hand to the actors who were to perform it, and could keep his original. So the non-survival of  manuscripts of the plays is actually evidence more for Shakespeare’s authorship than against it .

  3. William Ray says:

    Rex Reed, you escaped from San Francisco but never lost your prose style.  Used to enjoy the reviews in the ’60’s when film mattered to people.  As for ‘Anonymous’, it takes great liberties with sequence and fact, tries to fill the mind with too much in a short space, but nevertheless comes alive emotionally, and you can live the personal tragedy of an aristocrat, Edward de Vere, a rhetorical master poet-artist well before his time, getting eaten alive by the Elizabethan tyranny’s “towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own
    peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation)–only one of the wolfish
    earls so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and
    knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works, works
    in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.”  Walt Whitman intuited it unerringly.  de Vere’s life and the Shakespearean canon are one continuum of life into art and the reverse. Only the comfortable Shakespeare establishment wishes to pooh-pooh the truth back into a cave.  We’ll see.  There will be a documentary soon, reviewing the history and biography the movie skewed.  The makers should get high marks for intellectual courage, stepping ahead into real inquiry, where the status quo preferred a blank biographical slate.  A real person suffered and rejoiced and grew spiritually within a real social frame to produce that art.  It is true Shakspere of Stratford had his role too–a mendacious one, captured in the Shakespeare and Jonson plays.  Look for William, Stephano, Gullio, the city and country gulls Master Stephen and Master Mathew, Sogliardo. There is his missing biography of an opportunist and parvenu, hidden in front of our eyes.  Appreciate the far-sighted review.

  4. Hk1 says:

    I wish Ron Rosenbaum were still writing here. He would tear you limb from limb. If you believe Shakespeare didn’t write the plays, you probably believe Oswald didn’t act alone, 9/11 was an inside job and Barak Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii. 

  5. Hk1 says:

    What’s most repulsive about this whole farce is the academic pomposity that Shakespeare wasn’t educated enough to write such erudite, dense works, as though one must be university educated to do so. If that’s true, how did a self-taught rural deacon’s daughter write Pride and Prejudice? 

  6. M. G. Scarsbrook says:

    Whatever you think of the authorship question, this is a
    well-made and well-acted film set in one of the most intriguing periods of
    English history – an era with so many stories to tell. The filmmakers should be
    commended for that.

    – M. G. Scarsbrook, author of THE MARLOWE CONSPIRACY, an historical
    novel featuring Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare teaming up to
    expose a high-level government conspiracy.

  7. Susanfreimanadv says:

    Sounds like an Oliver Stone movie.

  8. FC Mendel says:

    I think this story line had the potential to be much like The Da Vinci Code but its time line was presented strangely and makes it tricky to follow.

    I thought the story line was excellent. Scandalous and an entertaining twist on historical fact – just imagine if it were all true.