Anonymous Film

Anonymous Dismissed: Why Shakespeare Isn’t Shakespeare but Might Turn Out to Be Shakespeare Anyway By Coco Clements

Introduction to Anonymous and the Oxfordian theory

In 2011, director Roland Emmerich brought the controversial film Anonymous to fruition. This project had been on hold since John Orloff’s 1998 script had been coincidentally rendered unpopular by its subject’s counterpart, Academy Award favourite Shakespeare in Love.[1] These conflicting interpretations of Shakespeare’s authorship mirror the literary conflict based on that same question: Who was Shakespeare? In contrast to Madden’s image of a romantic and fragile Stratfordian Bard, Anonymous suggests that the true “soul of the age,” was Edward de Vere (1550 – 1604), the 7th Earl of Oxford. As counter-argument to the generally accepted theory that it was Will Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the renowned thirty-eight plays, two long poems, and more than a hundred short poems, Anonymous visualizes the Oxfordian theory. This theory supposed that it was in fact De Vere and not the Man from Stratford who wrote ‘Shakespeare.’ Emmerich’s film offers us a cinematic execution of the Oxfordian hypothesis. This article will therefore analyze Anonymous as a hypothetical take on Shakespearean authorship in relation to the Oxfordian theory and will show that the film fails in more ways than one when it comes to giving it credibility.

 The Illiterate Shakespeare

In the Chorus-like opening monologue of the film, veteran Shakespearean actor and famous Oxfordian Derek Jacobi immediately kicks off with the first argument against the Stratford theory. The monologue explains in simple terms what director Roland Emmerich has explained in his youtube video[2]: William Shakespeare’s non-academic background or ‘rough start in life’ makes him an unlikely candidate for such great literary prowess. “He was the son of a glove-maker, and was only armed with a grammar-school education” Jacobi preaches. However, the first fact is not completely true, and the second could be considered hopelessly irrelevant. First of all, besides being a glovemaker, father John Shakespeare successively became Stratford’s burgess, chamberlain, and alderman; all professions basically having to do with money and how it is pushed around.[3] To assume John was solely an illiterate glove-maker seems unlikely, because his eventual political status of high bailiff would require a certain amount of literacy. And of course it was not Will’s father who is supposed to be the literate genius in question.

We know that William Shakespeare’s own education started at the King’s New School, the grammar school any boy from any home could attend as long as they could read and write. The school was headed by three Oxfordian headmasters that upheld a strict regime that included flogging and school days from dusk till dawn.[4] The pupils would even learn to read, write and speak fluent Latin, something which is notably beyond a modern day grammar-school education. What then illustrates the rigid structure of the argumentation of Anonymous is the slightly awkward final stab at Shakespeare’s potential as a writer: namely, Ben Jonson reveals Will is actually illiterate.[5] This revelation is part of systematic shaming of the actor Shakespeare in the film, who is put in a very negative light throughout. He is perpetually drunk, lecherous, and sleeps with whores. He notably refers to his supposed writing talent only as a means to such ends.[6] Similarly, after Ben Jonson’s refusal, Shakespeare is willing to sell (out) his own name to De Vere, who is searching for a nom-de-plume.[7] However, when Shakespeare’s supposed illiteracy comes up, the caricature becomes truly speculative as it contradicts not only historical fact, but also the film’s own argumentation. Namely, as quoted above, the opening monologue of the film has literally affirmed Will’s grammar-school background and his ability to write and read.


The Uneducated Shakespeare

But even with this grammar-school background, we can reasonably assume that Shakespeare’s education ended there. There is no record of him attending university. What Jacobi’s monologue therefore alludes to is not that he might have been illiterate, but that despite his intricate knowledge of Greek and Roman literary works he would have lacked the modernity-specific knowledge: the intricate workings of the court, law, philosophy, geography, and many other subjects we see reflected in his plays. Fortunately for Oxfordians, these are notably subjects which the Earl of Oxford, as a nobleman, would have studied. How is it then that the boy Will Shakespeare, having had no higher education and who was not a high-born, could have written in such detail about such a variety of academic topics and the inner workings of high society?

Unfortunately, this question only leads to more speculation and can give no confirmation in the authorship question. Naturally, attending university does not make you a great writer, nor does a lack of higher education make you a bad one. Remember, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain weren’t blessed with an academic career either. Additionally, access to academic knowledge was not necessarily limited to those with a degree. Will’s close friend and colleague, university graduate Ben Jonson, was more than able to supply him with answers. The printing press, too, had long been in use and manuscripts of books were now readily available. Especially with both Elizabeth I and James I (Chamberlains Men, later renamed The King’s Men in honour of James I) as his acting companies’ patrons, one would assume that Will would have been able to get his hands on most of England’s literary resources. Similarly, his company’s favour with the Queen or King allowed him to visit court himself as the writer and actor of the plays that were performed there, which would have required him to have a basic knowledge of the intricacies of courtly manners: one does prefer to keep one’s head, after all.

Additionally, his knowledge of the other parts of the world might have been based on gossip. Specifically around 1600 Elizabethan seafaring trade focused on the Mediterranean and Asia, moving away from neighbouring low-countries.[8] The intricate political relationships between England and other European countries were no mystery to the lower classes either, as the wars fought between them were a daily business for any man of a fighting age and his family. It is not unthinkable that Will could get his hands on records or travel logs, or speak to explorers, learned men, sailors, and soldiers, picking up gossip from all sorts of places. As Ben Crystal points out in his lecture on Shakespeare’s original pronunciation, London was a “cesspool” of different cultures and people, who travelled all over England and the world which means a trip to the local pub could have given Shakespeare enough material to work with. [9]

The Unexperienced Shakespeare

Even if academic knowledge could not have been acquired by a common Stratfordian actor, Anonymous supposes that Will also lacked the emotional background to write his plays. In the film, the would-be Shakespeare Edward De Vere stabs a spy sent by his father-in-law and patron, Lord William Cecil. Cecil is a devout Puritan, and does not allow for De Vere’s poetic inclination and has sends the spy to steal de Vere’s work. The scene in which Edward stabs this spy through a curtain mirrors the portrayal of first ever performance of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet a few scenes later. The character of Polonius is portrayed in this performance wearing a costume exactly like the clothes Lord Cecil wears, imitating every movement and is stabbed through a curtain. This same method of speculation is applied multiple times in the film. Imitating the play’s main character Prospero, Edward completes the manuscript of King Lear as he lies dying in his bed, old and fragile. Many Oxfordians even believe that because De Vere was once abducted by pirates and had three daughters he is the most likely candidate to have written Hamlet and King Lear, respectively. However, Will Shakespeare cannot be dismissed so easily, especially if speculation is what fuels these theories. William’s only son and heir, coincidentally called Hamnet, died at 11, quite quickly after William’s father had passed away as well. These two events have a heavy connotation with the events in the play. Both Shakespeare’s two daughters married, one only a few years before the performance of The Tempest: Prospero’s sentiments concerning his daughter marrying the prince in the play could therefore be echoes of William’s fatherly feelings.[10] Ascribing emotional reasons for creative inspiration is however a dangerous game beyond academic speculation, and can only be left to our imagination.

The Secretive Shakespeare

Whatever speculations may arise about either of these writers, the authorship question is not solely dependent upon a shouting match between the two playwrights. As Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro points out, it is the contact between the author Shakespeare and his contemporaries that reveals the most about the identity of the man Shakespeare.[11] Fortunately for the Stratfordians amongst you, this aspect of the discussion poses a significant argument against De Vere as a likely candidate. In the film, it is playwright Ben Jonson who is at heart of the conspiracy. De Vere offers to pay him to publish De Vere’s plays under his established name. Jonson refuses and Will Shakespeare immediately jumps in, so that Jonson grudgingly has to uphold the pretence. If this plot is indeed historically genuine, it must be one of the biggest and most successful cons in the history of English literature involving four of the figure heads of Renaissance era; Jonson, Will Shakespeare, Oxford and even Elizabeth I.

Anonymous supposes that Oxford was Elizabeth’s secret lover and his biggest fan, so that she was also in on the plot and even encouraged Oxford to write under a nom-de-plum. It is slightly strange that, being queen, she does not simply grant him some royal pardon to write under his own name. Especially because, if their ability to keep secrets is to be measured by their ability to hide their affair as it is portrayed in the film, it is nearly impossible to think that anyone in London was still unaware of the authorship plot. Yet, it is Jonson’s secrecy that is pivotal to the whole scheme. In contrast to their relationship in the film, Jonson and Will Shakespeare are historically considered to have been friends. Jonson has notably expressed his affection and admiration for Shakespeare’s works on multiple occasions, such as in his dedication to the first Folio (1623), but most notably in his memorial poem “To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author Mr. William Shakespeare: and What he Hath Left us.” The text includes lines such as “Sweet swan of Avon” and “And though thou hadst small Latine, and lesse Greeke,” which specifically reference Shakespeare’s birthplace and his lacking education, respectively.[12] Unfortunately, such proof can always be derailed by the Oxfordian argumentation. In Anonymous, Jonson not only shows his deep admiration for De Vere’s words, but also promises to take his secret identity to his grave. If we assume that the real Ben Jonson made that same promise to the real Oxford as he makes in the film, his use of Shakespeare’s name and his related signifiers in dedications can indeed be completely dismissed as Jonson’s disguised love for De Vere’s work. As a result, none of Jonson’s words could ever escape the dismissal of the Oxfordians.


The Deceitful Shakespeare

However, a real gut-punch to the Oxfordian theory comes from Shakespeare’s dealings with his other contemporaries. Emmerich does include many other figures from Shakespeare’s time such as Henslowe, actor and business partner Burbage, as well as fellow playwrights Marlowe, Dekker, and Nashe. The author Shakespeare worked on many plays in collaboration with these other playwrights, Nashe being one of them, as well as Thomas Middleton and Fletcher.[13] Despite their insignificant or even non-existent participation in Anonymous, many of these collaborators and fellow-actors literally worked Shakespeare on his plays on a daily basis and consequently must have known who he was. Even those not so familiar with him knew his ability to turn a phrase, as Thomas Fuller’s report suggests:

Many were the wit-combats betwixt him and Ben Jo[h]nson, which two I behold like a Spanish great Gallion, and an English man of War; Master Jo[h]nson (like the former) was built far higher In Learning; Solid, but Slow in his performances. Shake-spear, with the English man of War, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his Wit and Invention.[14]

Not only did Fuller witness these “wit-combats” between the two friends, it proves Shakespeare is not simply the arrogant bad-mouther that Anonymous makes him out to be. In a like-minded situation to Fuller’s report in the film, an aggravated Johnson challenges Will Shakespeare in the hopes to expose him as a fraud. He asks him to compose something on the spot, which Will obviously fails to do.[15] In this scenario, Will is able to wiggle himself out of it. However, as part of London’s playwright circle and an active member of the Chamberlain’s men, these kinds of challenges must have come up far more than once. Whether it was indeed to speak poetry from the top of his head, defend some of his writing choices during the process of rehearsal, or as Fuller reported, having a laugh with his friends, it is truly outrageous to assume Will Shakespeare was able to uphold the illusion of being a genius without ever being able to prove it.

Unsurprisingly, as his friends and colleagues knew him, Shakespeare himself knew his friends. Shapiro argues, “whoever wrote these plays had intimate, first-hand knowledge of everyone in the company, and must have been a shrewd judge of each actor’s talents”.[16] The man who wrote Shakespeare must have known the audience and the actors he wrote for. Notably, in the ‘foul papers’ (first drafts or bad quartos) we have of some of his plays, he even mixes up characters names with the names of the actors who he envisioned would play them. The quarto of Romeo and Juliet shows such a slip concerning comedic actor Will Kemp, who played the Nurse’s comic sidekick Peter, and similar errors arise for Kemp’s Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing.[17] Shakespeare notably stopped writing comedic parts for Will Kemp, who quit the Chamberlain’s Men in 1599 and then started writing them for his replacement, Robert Armin. Similarly, the texts are riddled with little inside-jokes referencing little every-day details. For instance, in Hamlet’s Gravedigger scene, the name of a pub-owner is referenced who happened to own an establishment across the street.[18] It is unlikely that highborn De Vere ever went to get an ale amongst the common folk, solely to find out the barman’s name.

Unfortunately, despite their heavy influence on the authorship issue, none of these social connections are shown in the film. His friends and playwright rivals are reduced to villains (in Marlowe’s case) or two-dimensional clowns in a vague reference to the Marley Brothers from A Muppet Christmas Carol (Thomas Nashe and Thomas Dekker). It is even suggested that Christopher Marlowe, who had always affronted the court with his wildly heretical mystery plays and political satires and had been arrested multiple times as a result of this (of which there is absolutely no mention in the film) is only killed because he finds out about Shakespeare’s true identity. As most of his contemporaries have outlived this murderous Will Shakespeare, it seems the brightest minds of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage were unaware of his deceit. Their untalented friend was lying to their faces about being the best writer of the century, every single day, but it happened to go unnoticed. Unless everyone was in on the scheme of course, and we, the modern readers, are the naive ones.


The Psychic Shakespeare

However, the most striking argument in the authorship question is not that the readers are naive, or that Shakespeare’s friends were so, or even that De Vere was an expert at faking intimate knowledge of the actor troupe he never worked with, but that De Vere died in 1604; a whopping nine years before his last play was supposedly written. Even the film cannot evade this problem, and Emmerich suggests that De Vere gave Jonson his remaining twelve plays and the command to “wait a few years, then publish them”.[19] However, this would also make some of his later works eerily Nostradamic. After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, James IV of Scotland became James I of England. Although he shared his predecessor’s love of theatre, his tastes were slightly different. The Scotland-centered play Macbeth is generally considered the clearest example of the shift in Shakespeare’s writing style.[20] James was famously obsessed with the type of magical creatures and prophesies that are so plentifully featured in the play, and two of James’ ancestors, Banquo and Edmund the Confessor have been lifted of the historic pages to embody figures of grace and virtue, while usurper Macbeth as a traitor to his own king Duncan, murders and plots his way to power. This play was written in the wake of the gunpowder plot, an assassination attempt on the new King’s life in 1605.[21] Additionally, it is one of the twelve posthumously performed plays. Of course, this can all be dismissed by accepting the highly elaborate conspiracy theory discussed before. De Vere could have written Macbeth while on his deathbed in the first year of James I’s reign, predicting a terrorist plot against him; he could also have predicted that writing The Winter’s Tale, Two Noble Kinsmen and Cardenio for a smaller and candle lit indoor stage would come in handy if the Globe theatre happened to burn down eight years later and the King’s Men would be forced to the only small, candle-lit Blackfriars theatre. Unfortunately, with a large enough imagination, there no way to refute these statements because we have not enough facts to disprove such assumptions, apart from the logical conclusion that such a scenario is just very unlikely.

Historically inaccurate

Even though the speculations in Anonymous are nearly irrefutable, the film mostly gets the facts we do have wrong. Naturally, this film is in line with more historically inaccurate cinematic romanticized versions of history such as Shakespeare in Love (1999), miniseries Elizabeth I (2005), or TV series Reign (2013). However, to be considered a genuine attempt to propose a hypothesis, some of these mistakes are unacceptable. Besides little mistakes like including Shakespeare as an actor in Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour, which is the sequel to Every Man in his Humour and the only play of the two-parter Shakespeare didn’t actually act in, the chronology of events presented in the film is juggled around to such an extent that it becomes slightly ridiculous. Henry V is introduced as De Vere’s official first performed play.[22] However, Henry V is a notable conclusion to Shakespeare’s so-called ‘Henriad,’ a trilogy of prince Hal’s coming-of-age. Even though Shakespeare’s historical multi-volumes are not necessarily written or performed in chronological order, it was still Henry Vs prequel Henry IV part I that assumed to be performed as the first of this trilogy in 1597, followed by part II in 1598, and Henry V followed only a year later.[23] Shakespeare’s first ever performed play was in fact Henry VI part I, the first part in another trilogy that spanned from 1589 to 1591, written well before Henry V. Similarly, Romeo and Juliet is supposed to be De Vere’s second performed play, but is in fact Shakespeare’s 15th; Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar are next, Shakespeare’s 27th and 23th play, respectively.

Vanessa Redgrave and Rhys Ifans star in Columbia Pictures' "Anonymous."

This jumbling of timelines is not too problematic because the mention of the popular plays is meant to establish the writer’s ability to write great plays. It does become a problem when the play’s context and content is misused to support the Oxfordian theory. For instance, the poem Venus and Adonis is portrayed to be published in order to remind Queen Elizabeth of the romantic love she shared with De Vere. This allows De Vere to have an audience with her to discuss the fate of their illegitimate son, the Earl of Southampton. Southampton had aided Essex in his failed rebellion against Elizabeth I in 1603 but had been captured and was to be executed. However, this is again a collection of assumptions. Firstly, it was never proven that the Virgin Queen had an affair with the married De Vere, which is the central plot to the so-called ‘ Prince Tudor’ theory. As Christopher Paul explains in full in his article, no proof exists that Elizabeth secretly gave birth to their son who was then adopted by the Earl of Southampton as heir and this theory, again, is solely based on “energy rather than fact.”[24] Secondly, Venus and Adonis was published in 1593, about eight years before the Essex revolution and Elizabeth’s displeasure with the lord. However, these little errors pale in comparison to Emmerich’s outrageous use of Richard III. The film supposed the play is used as a direct insult to Sir Robert Cecil, the son of Lord William Cecil, and like his father, a member of the Queen’s Privy council. Robert suffered from adolescent-onset scoliosis, which resulted in an affliction that Richard III had shared: Cecil had a hunchback. In the film, the play is notably used to enrage the audience at the newly written political satire of this councillor to the queen and to motivate them to rise up and support Essex’s claim as heir to Elizabeth’s throne. Now, the mistake that Emmerich makes is not the inclusion of this failed rebellion, as it is indeed an historic event (1601), but it was, unfortunately for Anonymous, not fuelled by the first performance of Richard the Third (1592-93), but by a private staging of the 1595 play Richard the Second. Either this is a unwitting mistake, or Emmerich is knowingly fashioning history to his own agenda. In Richard II, the King’s throne is usurped by traitor Henry IV, and the scene in which this happened was used as justification and encouragement for Essex and his troupes to do the same to Elizabeth. Emmerich shamelessly projects De Vere’s connection with Cecil onto a play that was not even used in the historical counterpart of the event.



To suppose that a Hollywood film production can analyze or support a scientific or literary issue might not be the best approach when reviewing it. However, as it is based on a real literary theory, I had my hopes for Anonymous. Unfortunately, director Roland Emmerich does the Oxfordian theory a disservice instead. Anonymous only managed to ridicule the already seemingly obnoxious authorship question through strange assumptions, contradictions and factual errors that were shaped to fit the hypothesis. I think the director of 2012, Godzilla and Independence Day, can safely add Anonymous to his list of disaster movies.



Bibliography / Cinematography

[1] Shakespeare in Love. Dir. John Madden. Perf. Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush. Miramax, 1998. Film.

[2] Emmerich, Roland. “10 Reasons Why Roland Emmerich Believes Shakespeare is a Fraud.” com. AnonymousMovie channel. 18 Oct. 2011. Web. 9 Jan. 2016 <>

[3] Bryson, Bill. Shakespeare. Harper Perennial; London, 2008. Book. p.34.

[4] Bryson, p. 37-38.

[5] Anonymous. Dir. Roland Emmerich. Perf. Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi. Columbia Pictures, 2011. Film. 1:17:30.

[6] Idem. 42:17.

[7] Idem. 27:20.

[8] Friel, Ian. “Elizabethan Merchant Ships and Shipbuilding.” Gresham College. Museum of London, London. 29 Sept. 2009. Web. 9 Jan. 2016. <>.

[9] Crystal, Ben. “Speaking the bright and beautiful English of Shakespeare:” British Council channel. 4 Mar. 2014. Web. 9 Jan. 2016. <>.

[10] Mabillard, Amanda. “Shakespeare of Stratford: Shakespeare’s Children.” Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2008. 9 Jan. 2016. par. 7.

[11] Shapiro, James. Contested Will: Who wrote Shakespeare. Bloomsbury; London, 2010. Print. pg. 251.

[12] Elizabethan and Jacobean Poets: Marlowe to Marvel. Ed. W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson. The Viking Press; New York, 1950. pg. 348.

[13] Shapiro, p. 289.

[14] Bremer, John. “From the first folio of 1623 to the memory of my beloved.” Institute of Philosophy. 11 June 2011. Web. 4 Jan. 2016. <>

[15] Anonymous 1:17:50.

[16] Shapiro, p.260.

[17] Shapiro, p. 261.

[18] Folger Shakespeare Library podcast, Ep. 7 – “Shakespeare LOL: All Mirth and No Matter”, 11:00.

[19] Anonymous,1:55:27.

[20] Mabillard, Amanda. Contemporary References to King James I in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Shakespeare Online. 20 Nov. 2011. Web. 9 Jan. 2016. < >.

[21] Idem, par. 4.

[22] Anonymous, 32:10.


[24] Paul, Christopher. The “Prince Tudor” Dilemma: Hip Thesis, Hypothesis, or Old Wives’ Tale?”, p. 2.<>