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Anonymous as bad history

This review will contain spoilers, so if you still want to see the movie and don’t want to know what happens, then read this after you’ve it.  

Anonymous is a terrible historical drama, meaning it is so wrongheaded about the historical time period it wishes to portray that the film can not be taken seriously.  Like Emmerich’s other costume drama, The Patriot, we get such a perverse reading of historical events that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or be angry.  And Emmerich has been strangely silent on The Patriot, as well.  There have been many stories in the press about how Anonymousis such a departure from Emmerich’s usual sci-fi/action/disaster fare, yet there is very little talk about how Emmerich has already made a historical drama.  But just as The Patriot whitewashes the American Revolution, especially regarding slavery (and demonizes the British military), Anonymous seems to take the opposite approach by muddying the waters, by taking known historical facts and situations and deliberately twisting them to convince the audience that there is an actual authorship controversy.  

Besides the major change to history made by Anonymous (that Shakespeare wrote his works), the movie is riddled with the kind of historical errors that made me question whether or not the screenwriter, John Orloff, had ever read or researched anything on the Elizabethan age.  Some of the inaccuracies: 

  • Christopher Marlowe was killed in 1593, but the movie has him alive for years afterwards.  The movie also makes a mishmash of chronology in general, so it’s a little hard to figure out in what year things are occurring. 
  • Marlowe is murdered by Shakespeare, but was actually murdered by Ingram Frazer on May 30, 1593.
  • Shakespeare’s theatre is deliberately burned to the ground by soldiers, although the movie doesn’t seem to state which theatre this is.  The Globe did burn to the ground, but not until 1613 (and this may be the very reason why we have no manuscripts of Shakesplays).  Neither of the other two theatre’s used by Shakespeare’s troupe, The Theatre and The Curtain, ever burned down.
  • Richard the Third is performed when Essex tries to lead his rebellion, but it was Richard the Second performed by Shakespeare’s troupe.  The film is also wrong about the performance of nearly every Shakesplay featured.  Midsummer Night’s Dream could not possibly have been written in the 1560s (?).  Julius Caesar comes too late.  Henry V too early.  And Shakes’ narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, is published near the end of Elizabeth’s life, when it was published much earlier.
  • The Earl of Oxford's aversion to the theatre.  Lots of aristocrats went to the theatre. 

But maybe you think this is all nitpicking.  What matters getting dates and details wrong if you get the main narrative story correct?  Normally it wouldn’t matter.  But when the director has stated that one purpose of the movie is to correct history, to educate people about what really happened, then Anonymous’ historical inaccuracies are more than just ironic, they undermine the film’s position.  We get the kind of message that history matters, unless I want to make a point, then I’ll rearrange the places, people and events to suit my own purpose.  This is precisely the problem of all the Shakespeare conspiracists: not accepting the historical record and changing it to fit their own agenda. 

Next post: why Anonymous is a terrible film about Shakespearean literature 

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Reader Comments (5)

How do you answer author Sabrina Feldman, who posted on the Shakespeare Bites Back page you link to elsewhere? She writes, 'In my opinion, traditional Shakespeare scholars have failed to adequately explain why William Shakespeare was credited with writing not only the Bard’s canonical works, but also a series of ‘apocryphal’ Shakespeare plays during his lifetime and for many decades afterwards. Because scholars have never viewed the Shakespeare Apocrypha as a coherent group of plays, they haven’t looked for evidence that the works were mainly authored by a single playwright, who might also have played a role in creating the 'bad quartos'.' Miss Feldman has a book out in November, naturally.
October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAntony
Not sure I understand the question, Anthony. There were plays once thought to have been written by Shakespeare. Then scholars studied those plays and found that the writing was far too disimiliar to the plays in the Folio and that it was unlikely that Shakespeare was the author. In some case, those apocrypha had been published as quartos with Shakes name on them by unscrupulous publishers looking to make a buck from the Shakespeare name. However, I can't see how any of that would have any bearing on the authorship question.

To answer the Feldman quotation you posted above is very simple: there were plays ascribed to Shakes by early publishers and editors. When scholars examined those plays, they realized that Shakes didn't write them (for the same reason we have since discovered plays in which Shakes did have a hand, like Pericles, Two Noble Kinsmen and Edward III). How is that not an "adequate" explanation?

We have all kinds of trouble identifying some of the plays from the 16th and 17th century. Some have been identified, like Middleton's plays, but some may never be identified. We will probably even eventually discover otehr works in which Shakes may have had a hand (and consequently discover other authors who had a hand in Shakes' plays). That's one thing that scholarship does, painstakingly pieces together the record over time. But none of that has much bearing on the authorship of the Folio plays. We already know who their primary author. It would be nice if we could clear up the question of some of the collaborative works, but that may always be a guessing game.
November 4, 2011 | Registered CommenterEd Pettit
I haven't seen Anonymous yet, but plan too soon. Ed , in reading your review,I reminded myself in my mind's eye, when I was back in an English Lit course, and we were reading and discussing "Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man" by Joyce. One group thought the author wasn't being historically accurate,while others thought he was just being biographical from his own narcistic point of view. The the analysis quickly broke down when we began discussing "Portrait" as "if it" were a screen-play. (Accompanied with much debate !) Finally the prof ended the class discussion by asking "Did Joyce get you to 'suspend your disbelief', and if he did then was his work a novel or not? Was it a good novel?
It may be just me, but I regard a film as if it was a "metaphor" which causes us to think. Perhaps "Anonymous" is just that "a metaphor"
-Ric Ben-Safed
November 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRic Ben-Safed

I find myself agreeing with Ric Ben-Safed in many ways, and with Mr. Petitt as well. Suspending disbelief and blatant historical inaccuracies are hard to weigh against one another, especially when it is a history as famous as Shakespeare's.

And while this movie may be a metaphor or maybe just a twisting of reality to fit one's personal agenda, I enjoyed it immensely. I thought the acting and plot progression were fantastic and it kept my intrigued until the end.

Sometimes, you just have a movie for what it is. Entertainment.

September 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterResa

ye cheeky littol cant mnate

November 19, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercheekylad21

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