Making History ANONYMOUS: A (Limited) Review


My friends think I’m entirely humorless.  Having convinced themselves that it would be fun to watch Anonymous with an English professor, they were a bit taken aback by my initial outraged rant about the movie’s complete abandonment of historical accuracy.  But there was another reason I was scowling furiously.  I was internally debating: the part of me that enjoys a good yarn thought the movie kept me entertained with its wild conjectures; the scholar of early modern British literature was dismayed that the producers of the movie decided to ride rough-shod over incontrovertible historical events.  After mulling it over a few more days, I’ve concluded that the scholar won.

It should be acknowledged, and ungrudgingly, that the movie is quite a bit of fun.  Political intrigues are multi-layered and engrossing, the cinematography is attractive, and most of the actors are eminently watchable.  Rhys Ifan as Earl of Oxford, outfitted with ink-smudged hands and what appears to be eyeliner-enhanced gaze, manages to look dignified and pretty at the same time.  As Elizabeth, Vanessa Redgrave's alternation between imperious and doddering perplexed me at times, but I still bought her portrayal. I'd always pictured Ben Jonson as smoother than the almost doltish figure that Sebastian Armesto at times depicted, but I found moving his awed reverence for the superior craft of the "real" Shakespeare's beautiful lines.

Action is brisk, and I often I found myself breathlessly awaiting what would happen next.  But then I was kicking myself for engaging with the improbable conspiracy theory that is Anonymous.  Sure, we understand the movie’s director Roland Emmerich is best known for his disaster films like Independence Day and Day after Tomorrow, and we shouldn’t have expected this movie to be radically different—that is, thoughtful, nuanced, and dare I say “realistic”?  Besides, it’s somewhat naïve of viewers to expect complete adherence to established historical narratives.  But what ultimately bothered me most was that the movie trashed history needlessly. 

Let’s take Christopher Marlowe.  With the film’s fondness for flashbacks (within flashbacks within flashbacks), one is never certain at any moment what year the movie purports to cover.  As far as we can tell though, it seems that the bulk of the action covers the period between the Earl of Oxford’s death (in 1604) and “Five Years Earlier” (thus providing two flashbacks within the movie’s first few minutes).  That means that the movie is primarily covering the years 1599-1604, give or take a year in either direction.  Can someone on the movie production roster explain what Christopher Marlowe is doing at all in this movie when he was killed in a shady bar-fight in 1593, thus cutting off a brilliant career that could possibly have surpassed Shakespeare’s? 

My guess is that the movie producers wanted to use his name: they probably bet that the audience must have heard of Christopher Marlowe, might even know that he is another candidate brought forward periodically—and incongruously—as the “real” writer of the Shakespeare plays.  It would kill two birds with one stone by making the audience feel smart recognizing Marlowe’s name, and by winking at ones aware of the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare theory.  But if Anonymous is advancing the Earl of Oxford as the real playwright, then why are we bothering with resurrecting the specter of Marlowe anyway?  And it’s not like there were no Renaissance dramatists whose names they could have invoked (Tourneur, Marston, Dekker, etc. etc. etc.) all of whom died after 1604.  No, the producers wanted to have their cake and eat it too.  Marlowe, as a name and personality, was too good to pass up.  So they passed up history instead.

In many other instances, intentional inaccuracies were distracting.  (I won’t bother calling them mistakes because they could easily have been corrected with a Google search on Wikipedia.)  In a montage of scenes from Shakespeare plays put on during Elizabeth’s last years was included the iconic scene of the witches from Macbeth.  Unfortunately, this is a play that has some historical significance since the Scottish James’s ascension to the throne of England preceded, and most likely prompted, this exploration of Scottish history and witches—both subjects that James was particularly interested in.  And, as was the case with Christopher Marlowe’s character, the error was not necessary for the movie’s central claims.  Instead, these unnecessary inclusions point to over-indulging the dramatic flair at the expense of history.

That same dramatic flair comes also at the expense of narrative plausibility.  At one point in the movie, the frontman Shakespeare is challenged by his (justifiably) irate colleagues to prove himself a writer—of any sort.  When mocked to produce the letter “i,” the rascal somehow evades having to follow through (and thus having to reveal himself to be a fraud).  Suspensefully though the scene might unfold, the logic escapes me.  Will Shakespeare was not challenged to spell “antidisestablishmentarianism.”  All evidence points to the Stratford grammar school having taught proficient English and even Latin.  And, as the movie itself acknowledges that the actor Shakespeare was literate enough to read for his roles, it takes a stretch of imagination to believe that he could not have reproduced a single “i.”  The viewer almost wants to say, “Oh, come on!”  And I’ll skip discussing the unsavory claims of incest and illegitimate children of Elizabeth since they, mercifully, seem so outrageous as to flaunt their status as unfounded conjecture. 

Admittedly, the movie is entertaining.  However, it could also have salvaged its conspiracy theory appeal and historical drama creds by giving the tiniest bit of lip-service to accepted history.  Instead, rather than the movie merely being a-historical, it seems to embrace being anti-historical.


  1. Thanks for this terrific review. I have avoided the movie believing that it would be wildly off track. Having written a high school English paper on the theory that Marlowe was Shakespeare and argued against such (even as a tender teen), I think I would have found the movie needlessly condescending. This even though that high school paper was my last on anything remotely related to Shakespeare. I can only imagine the grate on an actual scholar of the field.


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