This piece originally appeared as a blog post on Arcade November 29, 2011 here.
My Shakespeare class finally persuaded me to take a class trip to go see the new Roland Emmerich movie, Anonymous. I went forewarned. Multiple reviewers have pointed out problems with the film, which proposes that the Earl of Oxford wrote the literature by William Shakespeare. (For starters, see Stephen Marche and James Shapiro.) The movie makes absurd historical errors. At one point, Shakespeare “retires” to Stratford in 1604, before Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest; at another, Marlowe is eaten up by his jealousy of Hamlet, which was written seven years after his death. Anonymous also makes unsupported allegations, suggesting, for instance, that Shakespeare never learned to write the alphabet. The film sees conspiracy in unremarkable events: the introduction makes the (dubious) assertion that we have not a single manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand, as if this is proof of a cover-up, as opposed to a norm for texts from that era. I was prepared for all of this. But I wasn’t prepared for how retrograde a fantasy of Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth, and the entire era the film advances.
Shakespeare wrote many of his sonnets to a beautiful young man. These sonnets use the language of love. In Sonnet 19, the speaker asks time not to age the young man, but to leave him as “beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.” A few lines later he claims the young man as his beloved, crying, “My love shall in my verse ever live young.” In the next poem, he addresses this beautiful young man as “the master mistress of my passion” (20).
Scholars disagree over what to make of this romantic language. Some argue that it figures same-sex desire; others believe it expresses the standard relationship between poet and patron. Some suggest that the love of the young man is Platonic; others contest that it is physical. What is indisputable is that these sonnets confound conventional modern expectations of love. As everyone who has ever tried to find a Shakespeare sonnet for a wedding knows, the sonnets generally express love in an unfamiliar idiom. (This might be why “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun” remains such a perennial favorite of high school English classes: although it rejects the norms of Petrarchan love poetry, it at least inhabits the same universe of language.) Sometimes Shakespeare’s speaker and the young man are fused — “Here’s the joy: my friend and I are one” (Sonnet 42). Sometimes their love is figured as reflection — “Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,” says the lover, only to conclude that “’Tis thee (my self) that for myself I praise, / Painting my age with beauty of thy days” (62)). The sonnets figure love in unaccustomed and fascinating ways.
Emmerich’s film straightens all this out: rather than a Shakespeare who might need a patron, or one who might love a man, Anonymous gives us a Shakespeare both noble and unequivocally heterosexual. Actually, it turns Shakespeare into not one, but two, vehemently heterosexual characters: a whore-loving lowlife and a queen-bedding nobleman. The William Shakespeare of Anonymous appreciates the virtuosic language of Romeo and Juliet only for its potential to get him under all the skirts in London. We watch him woo a tubby street vendor with lines from the balcony scene; we walk in on him bare-bottomed with a prostitute. His taste may be mocked, but his heterosexuality is unimpeachable. The Earl of Oxford, meanwhile—the film’s “real” Shakespeare—has inclinations of a similarly unambiguous, if higher, order. Even as a boy, we learn, he harbored desire for Queen Elizabeth; ultimately, he courts and wins her as his mistress. And when she rejects him, he falls into bed with one of her ladies-in-waiting.
The sonnets to a young man, meanwhile, though never mentioned in the movie, are implicitly reimagined as the expression of paternal love. In Anonymous, Oxford and Elizabeth have an illegitimate child who grows up to be the Earl of Southampton. The movie uses the dedication of Lucrece—in which Shakespeare tells Southampton, “The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end”—to encapsulate Oxford’s love of his son. Venus and Adonis, too, was dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, who many scholars believe was also the recipient of the sonnets. The movie thus implies that the beloved young man of the sonnets is neither the patron of a lower-status Shakespeare, nor an object of romantic desire, but simply the son of a loving and noble father.
Anonymous also straightens out Venus and Adonis. The movie reads the text as code for the young Oxford’s love affair with the older and lusty Queen Elizabeth. In a way, it’s a nice thought: what would it be like to be the lover of the queen? Perhaps something like being attacked by the goddess of love—overwhelming, like contending with a force of nature. Yet again, this version of history tidies up the curious and frequently comic unwillingness of Shakespeare’s Adonis to bed the queen of love (“’I know not love,’ quoth he, ‘Nor will not know it, / Unless it be a boar, and then I chase it’” [Venus and Adonis 409]).
At least imagining Elizabeth as Venus gives her some credit for power, if only a sexual power. That is more than can be said for the rest of the film. Emmerich’s Elizabeth is vain, sex-addled, gullible, and incompetent. She is repeatedly exasperated by her (male) advisors’ efforts to discuss affairs of state. Each time, she throws up her hands, leaving the realm to them. She prefers to attend to her hair and makeup, and to plays and lovers. The movie explicitly assigns her three bastard sons (Essex, Southampton, and Oxford himself — don’t ask); it alludes to many more. Her affair with Oxford deprives her of any remnants of reason: dizzy with carnal delight, she declares to Cecil that she wants to marry Oxford, shrieking “I can do what I want” when he reminds her that Oxford is already married. When this Elizabeth gets angry with Oxford for talking politics in bed, he has merely to recite “O Mistress Mine” bare-chested to reduce her to quivering desire. He speaks the poem standing over her, as she bends her head below his waist.
Elizabeth I was a queen who spoke Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek. She ruled England for forty-five years, surviving multiple assassination plots and attempted invasions. On the occasion of one of those attempts, she told her assembled army that she was “resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst [them] all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.” Late in her life, when a young ambassador publicly complained about her policies, she delivered a stinging extemporaneous speech to rebuke him — in Latin.
Anonymous doesn’t only straighten out non-normative love language and female power. It also readjusts Shakespeare’s class status. Many scholars have pointed out the simple snobbishness behind the notion that only a nobleman could have written Shakespeare’s plays. Anonymous takes that idea to an almost comical extreme. It revels in Oxford’s nobility — his many tutors, his fine estate, his access to the queen. Oxford is reprimanded on multiple occasions for not living up to his position; at one point, he refers to his family as the oldest and richest in England. But the representation of Shakespeare himself is not especially comic. Emmerich’s Shakespeare is a lout: drunken, inarticulate, illiterate. The movie opens by telling us that he never finished grammar school. His worst crime, though, might be his class aspirations. A delighted Shakespeare parades into the tavern one evening, where his theater friends are drinking Falstaffian measures of ale, to show off his new coat of arms. Unable to pronounce his own motto without help, he is humiliated when Jonson challenges him to write a letter, any letter.
It might be unfair to expect a filmmaker to know the niceties of the Elizabethan education system. Emmerich has no reason to know that Stratford boys would have learned handwriting in petty school, or that grammar school then lasted for the six years between ages eight and fourteen or so. He might not have known of the rigorous training in Latin language and literature that boys received there. What astonishes me here is not the movie’s historical ignorance, but its ridicule of the very idea of social mobility. Shakespeare’s desire to raise his social status is represented as vulgar.
What is going on here? Why would a movie of our day and age be invested in protecting the nobility from lowly upstarts? Why turn Shakespeare into a straight nobleman, Elizabeth I into a pawn of powerful men, their era into one in which only university graduates could write their names, and only a nobleman could possibly write powerful verse?
One way to answer this question is to look at the way Anonymous portrays the value of Shakespeare’s poetry. The movie provides several red herring perspectives. Perhaps the easiest to identify is that of the Puritan villains of the piece, the Cecils, who believe that poetry is sinful. Elizabeth, who loves plays, seems at first to hold a position opposite to the Cecils’s. Yet for both Elizabeth and the Cecils, poetry is seduction and diversion. They agree that poetry provides sensual delight and a distraction from pressing worldly affairs; they just disagree on whether or not that’s a good thing.
Anonymous presents its view of poetry in the person of Oxford. Oxford repeatedly says that poetry is politics, that words are power. And if the movie does not quite accept that art can make kings, it does repeatedly show us the power of theater. Audiences are moved to anger, to patriotism, to tears. A crowd stands stock-still in the pouring rain, straining to hear every word of “To be or not to be.” They throw their swords onto the stage after hearing Henry V’s St. Crispin Day speech. Watching Richard III, they are moved to mutiny against Robert Cecil. In Anonymous, art is neither sinful nor merely pleasurable: art is power. And the only and ultimate holder of that power in this movie is a straight and wealthy nobleman.
A movie that so insists that art is political demands that it be judged not only for its own art, but for its politics. This is a movie concerned less with art than with power. So perhaps it should be no surprise that its portrait of power closely follows modern realities of power. Social mobility in modern-day America is now at an all time low. The gulf between those who go to college and those who don’t continues to widen. Americans continue to resent women in power, and to resist placing them there: think of the response to Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign, or look at the US Senate, where only seventeen women serve. As for culture making, in 2010, only 7% of directors of domestic films were women. Despite the progress that has been made, we continue to battle as a nation over how to represent and accord rights to non-straight citizens. As an openly gay German, Roland Emmerich is perhaps an odd director of this portrait of power. Yet his movie not only mirrors the reality of power in our country, it consolidates and perpetuates the heterosexism, misogyny, and class bias that help maintain that reality. Anonymous may well be the portrait of an age, but it’s not Shakespeare’s.