Those are the questions explored by “Anonymous,” which is the kind of very-British film that will be a bit difficult for American audiences to follow, because, well, some of us know all about powerful Queen Elizabeth, and Mary Queen of Scots, and the Tudor lineage, and the succession of James I, and even the Essex rebellion. Some of the rest of us will be lost somewhere in all the dizzying succession struggles, and thus miss the point of all the behind-the-scenes intrigue.
Rhys Ifans, as the Earl of Oxford, is positively luminous as the “actual” writer of “Hamlet,” “Julius Caesar,” “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet” (completely in iambic pentameter, no less!), “Twelfth Night,” and other works that have since been attributed to Shakespeare, and we viewers are treated to snippets on the authentic-looking replica of the stage of the Globe Theater where they were originally produced, where the audience stood the entire time, and often responded demonstratively to what was happening on the stage.
But the historians among you will recall that this is the time of the Puritan tradition, and there were many devout people in England who felt that the very concept of theater was a silly, frivolous, naughty waste of time, and of course the guilty pleasure of it all was precisely what made it so popular. In this film, the Earl of Oxford is a nobleman who has inherited a considerable fortune and possesses enough royal titles to aspire to the throne himself, even – but, as he explains to his not-at-all-patient wife, he hears these voices in his head, and he must write down what they are saying, or else they won’t let him alone. By her lights, he spends an enormous, inordinate amount of time in his silly and pointless “hobby,” but he, with the true heart of a writer, is overjoyed to see his words come to life on the stage and appreciated by the audience, even if he doesn’t receive the public recognition. It seems that would not have been politically expedient for him. And so, through an intermediary in the playwright’s guild, he chooses a struggling, dissolute young actor named William Shakespeare to be his “nom de plume.”
The actual Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), for his part, is happy to take the public accolade – and the bribery to maintain his silence about the deceit. But he can hardly even write his own name, much less compose a masterpiece. All this is in the context of palace intrigue, as the dowager, almost-addled Queen Elizabeth (played convincingly and memorably by Vanessa Redgrave) had a roving eye in her youth, it seems. The products of her indiscretion were carefully hidden from view, as was, mostly, the identity of her lovers, one of whom was, yes, the Earl of Oxford. It’s a nice touch that in flashbacks, the queen as a young woman is played by Joely Richardson, who actually is Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter. But the flashbacks are a bit confusing, because lovers and other strangers appear and reappear, as if waiting in the wings offstage. Yes, there is something about a rebellion, featuring betrayal and entrapment, and also something about a Cardinal-Richelieu-type power behind the throne, a sleek functionary whose motives are anything but pure.
But in the end, the play’s the thing. We catch a glimpse of just how powerful and moving and beautiful the bard’s words really were. And for those of us who value words, not only as writers but also as Christians, which is, after all, a religion of one book – well, it’s nothing short of uplifting and inspiriting to hear the words soar into the soul of history like that.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas.