The Shakespeare Apocalypse

Rhys Ifans 

Early in the daylong set tour, it becomes clear that Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s upcoming drama about the secret author of Shakespeare’s plays, won’t be a decorous literary costume drama but rather a certifiably loony fantasia built on an epic scale. This comes as an enormous relief and made me much more excited about both the movie and the tour. Even in his non-end-of-the-world-related work (The Patriot, 10,000 B.C.), Emmerich has a gift for excess. And, from all appearances, he’ll be doing with literary conspiracy theories in Anonymous what he did with world monuments in 2012: taking really big famous ones and slamming them into each other.

After the first step of our tour, a fascinating slideshow presentation in which the film’s digital effects designers illustrate how they created a mockup of London circa 1599 based on 50,000 photographs of surviving architecture from the period, we’re shepherded to a sitdown with a specialist on the authorship debate who’s serving as a consultant on the film. As she launches into a brief outline of the history of the debate, it’s clear that the woman knows her stuff. But what her stuff appears to be is the usual anti-Stratfordian mix of class bias (only an aristocrat could have amassed the erudition necessary to write these works); Da Vinci Code-style cryptography (the works themselves and the writing of Shakespeare’s contemporaries are studded with coded references to their real author); and a not-so-subtle shifting of the burden of proof onto Stratfordians (there are no proven samples of Shakespeare’s handwriting, outside of six signatures on legal documents; therefore, the man from Stratford must have been an illiterate patsy).

If you walked into the room with no knowledge of the history of this argument (and all the Shakespeare scholarship that’s being left out of it), you could almost be convinced, until the consultant gets to the big reveal. Emmerich’s film will not only make the case that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the work, but that de Vere was the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I. Unaware of his royal lineage, de Vere became the queen’s lover as an adult, thus siring his own brother/son, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton (the man to whom many sane scholars believe the sonnets may be dedicated). At the end of her talk, we’re all given copies of a new book that argues this, er, case: Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom: The True History of Shakespeare and Elizabeth, by Charles Beauclerk, a descendant of Edward de Vere.

The critic Ron Rosenbaum has written for Slate, “There is something about the trifecta of fame, sex, and Shakespeare that seems irresistible to scholars.” As we troop to the shuttle bus clutching our hardbound feverish rants, I hastily arrive at a working theory of the symptomatology of anti-Stratfordianism. Those who dispute the plays’ authorship aren’t dumb by any means; some of the world’s great minds (including Freud, Nietzsche, Henry James, and Walt Whitman) have registered their doubts. But there’s a certain personality type—creative, obsessive, paranoid—that seems driven to cogitate on the who-wrote-Shakespeare question. It’s the very lack of information about the poet’s life, combined with the unsoundable depth of his genius, that makes his work such an ideal projection screen for fantasy. I have a hard time keeping a straight face while listening to the anti-Stratfordian crowd—in matters like these, I’m usually content to go with the logic of Occam’s Razor—but their passion is endearing. And while throwing conjectures about royal incest into the mix may offend the sensibilities of orthodox Oxfordians, I’m starting to respect the balls-out loopiness of Emmerich’s project.

Sony pulled out the stops for the final event of the day, the Anonymous press conference. It took place on one of the movie’s sets, a mini-Elizabethan theater built on a soundstage that can be dressed to serve as either the Globe or its predecessor and competitor, the Rose. To get to the entrance we traverse another set, a facsimile of the London neighborhood of Bankside: dilapidated Tudor housefronts, hanging fake laundry, and a real fire burning in an iron brazier despite the 70-degree weather. Extras in full period costume hand us paper cones of pistachios on the way in. (At the real Rose, the preferred groundling snack would have been hazelnuts, according to archeological digs at the site.)

After we’ve taken our seats, a young actor appears in a doublet to deliver the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V; who he is, or why this speech was chosen, is never made clear. A small band of musicians, also in costume, play 16th-century music on period instruments. After a time, the film’s cast, along with Emmerich and the screenwriter, John Orloff, file up to the stage to sit at a brocade-draped table.

If the movie’s level of verbal invention and intelligence in any way approaches that of this press conference, Anonymous will be a real meeting of the minds. The cast is uniformly charming and well-spoken in the way that only British actors can be. Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Queen Elizabeth, looks impossibly wiry and elegant in a pale-gray suit and silver ponytail. She reminisces, ramblingly but with erudition, about watching her father, Michael Redgrave, perform Shakespeare as a child: “I was enthralled … that’s a fantastic word, enthralled. A rather old English word.” I’m ready for an etymological disquisition (enthrall comes from the Middle English for “to put in irons”) but Redgrave lets the thought drift off. Rhys Ifans, the Welsh actor who plays the Earl of Oxford, is irreverent, funny, and sly. “I play Edward de Vere, the author of these works. He has a mind like a creamy pumpkin the size of the universe. … I’m kind of deeply moved by the whole thing, and talking to you is kind of a nuisance.” (There’s general laughter, and some members of the press even applaud before realizing they’re being insulted.)

John Orloff, the screenwriter, insists he’s not trying to make the case for either side in the authorship debate: “The film is actually about the creative spirit and the power of the word.” (Good luck telling that to the bloggers already planning the headline “A Midsummer Night’s MILF-hunt.”) And Emmerich himself genially admits he knew nothing about the controversy until Orloff came to him with the pitch. Only one person onstage, the stage actor and former Globe Theater director Mark Rylance (who plays a Shakespearean actor in the film) comes off as a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Stratfordian. True to my theory, Rylance (who discourses at considerable length on the topic) appears extraordinarily sensitive and bright; his case that the man from Stratford couldn’t have written the plays seems, in some inscrutable way, to be built on Rylance’s own passion for the work. (At one point he seems to be arguing that anyone who believes the historical Shakespeare wrote his own plays must also regard the entire oeuvre as a dry, impersonal “literary exercise.”) From everything I’ve heard, the Tony-winning Rylance is an extraordinary performer and director of Shakespeare’s work. If doubting the identity of the author is a cornerstone of that talent, why would I mind if Rylance comes off as a little unhinged?

In his book The Shakespeare Wars, Rosenbaum writes beautifully about how the absence of facts about Shakespeare’s life “becomes something more than mere anonymity; it becomes a highly charged void.” On a bunch of soundstages in Germany, that void is being filled with sound and fury, signifying … well, I guess we won’t know until Anonymous comes out in 2011.

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