On Thursday, 10/27/11, the English Seminar, along with some others, had the pleasure and honour of meeting Roland Emmerich for the purpose of a panel discussion with Prof. Bronfen. The topic was Emmerich’s new movie, Anonymous, which deals with the author of Shakespeare’s plays. Bronfen was very interested in the depiction of Queen Elizabeth I, which the movie portrays in a new and fascinating way. Students were especially interested in Emmerich’s work as a director. The latter evaluated the success of the movie as quite low but admitted that the fun doing it was worth it. This fun and his enthusiasm are palpable in the movie itself. For those of you who did not get the chance to go to the preview, I have summed up the content for you. For those of you who attended the discussion, this article will give you the opportunity to  participate in a further discussion about the film, as well as about the encounter between Emmerich and Bronfen.

When you visit a Shakespeare production, you sit down on your seat in the theatre, full of expectation – you are waiting for the play to begin, and then you are welcomed by someone who tells you what you have to expect in the next hours. After this prologue, the play starts and you are abducted into another time, another world – the Elizabethan time and the world of Shakespeare. Like the beginning of such a classical Shakespeare performance, so too does Roland Emmerich’s movie Anonymous start. It is a movie about Shakespeare or the man who played Shakespeare or rather the man who wrote Shakespeare’s plays or… Indeed, after watching the trailer, you still do not get what the movie is really about since it is a random combination of scenes not really fitting together. Even the minimal story is not revealed. Was Shakespeare a fraud? That is the only sentence which gives a hint to the content of the movie.

Although the trailer is not convincing, as an English student, I was eager to watch the movie simply because it was about Shakespeare, the greatest poet of all times, ‘the soul of the age’. Yet, I remained sceptical. What if my Shakespeare, the poet I imagined, was destroyed? Thus, I went to the cinema full of expectation, I was waiting for the movie to begin. After the prologue, Anonymous started and I was abducted into the world of … Ben Jonson, playwright: not a fraud.

We follow Ben Jonson through London, into a theatre, into prison and we get to know what has happened by means of a 90 minute flashback with several flashbacks inside the flashback… We get to know Queen Elizabeth I as we imagine her today – old but strong. However, we also get to know the same person as a young, sensual and feminine woman. The Queen loves men, the theatre and, in particular, she loves plays by ‘Anonymous’. This anonymous person turns out to be a nobleman, the Earl of Oxford. As a boy, he bewitches the Queen with dreams of a midsummer night; as a young man, he enchants her with words; as an old man, he tries to pursue her with actions. Equally, Oxford tries to pursue the dreams he put into words and turn them into emotional reactions and political actions. Yet, in order to do so, he needs to publish his words – a step he, as a nobleman, is not allowed to take. Therefore, Oxford chooses Ben Jonson to publish his works under a false name, the name of Ben Jonson himself. The latter agrees but is not quite sure about this offer since he wants to become known for his own writing. His doubts bring Jonson to talk with a friend of his, an actor, whose name is William Shakespeare, who is a ruthless show-off, illiterate but a good and enthusiastic actor with a penchant for spending money as well as for investing it. Consequently, William Shakespeare seizes his chance and starts to play the role of his life, the role of the playwright Will Shakespeare. In order to attain his goal, he does not flinch from blackmailing Oxford. Oxford has no other choice but to accept this unplanned and definitely unwanted change. Jonson is downgraded to a messenger. The triangular constellation between Oxford, Jonson and Shakespeare, is, however, not the only relationship which causes complications. Political intrigues, sexual intercourse, murder and incest (in ancient Greek style) are subsidiary topics that the movie depicts.

Indeed, the argument for mastermind William Shakespeare as a nobleman is quite plausible, even if you do not agree with the theory. Roland Emmerich’s interpretation makes you think and it makes you eager to know even more about William Shakespeare on the one hand, and Ben Jonson on the other hand. The web of intrigue woven by Robert Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s counsellor, is not only interesting but also obligatory to further complicate the plot. The incest, however, seems too exaggerated, although the scene in which it is revealed is very impressive. In the end, despite being released into the real world again by an epilogue, you are left alone with many pictures, many impressions, many topics, and one question: “Was Shakespeare a fraud?”

The movie answers yes. However, there are still doubts, there is still the other possibility that Shakespeare was merely Shakespeare – ‘no more’, but no less either. Anonymous does offer only one interpretation of the Shakespeare myth but it also demonstrates that the Shakespeare question will continue to be discussed.

Why don’t you discuss further in the comment section and/or issue a statement about the panel discussion with Roland Emmerich and Prof. Elisabeth Bronfen?


3 responses to “ANONYMOUS WHO?

  1. Thank you for this – it’s really useful for those of us who didn’t make it along (i.e. me…!) I have to say I am not filled with a desire to go and see the film; there’s too loud a voice in my mind saying – why does it matter whether or not Shakespeare was a fraud? What matters more, surely, is the text we have. I think there will always be conspiracy theories about Shakespeare because we just know too little about him, and,of course, we love a good conspiracy. The film sounds entertaining but I doubt it can offer any real truth on the matter (but then again that’s not really a job for a film, anyway!). What I do like the sound of is how you say it mimics the format of a play – I hear it also contains plenty of little references for the knowing Shakespeare fan, so it should be fun spotting those, at any rate! And if it makes more people interested in Shakespeare, his works, and his contemporaries then it can only be a good thing!

  2. To be honest, I was really surprised that Prof Bronfen liked the movie, I thought she would tear Mr. Emmerich into pieces on that stage. And I liked the movie, because it is entertaining and it gives you a nice feeling of what the time might have been like in which Shakespeare lived. About the historical rightness…well… 🙂

  3. I agree with Ciara that the movie certainly brings Shakespeare’s works even more into the limelight, which is good. As for the movie’s claims, I know there is not enough historical evidence for them, but as Emmerich said, the movie is simply meant to address the issue of authorship, not speak the truth. Authorship is an issue which he, as an artist, feels very close to, which I fully understand. It is also a contemporary concern, so I really appreciate Emmerich made such a gripping movie about it. Besides, I enjoyed the portrayal of Queen Elizabeth like no other, so I’m biased 😉

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