Shakespeare the Writer


By Cheryl Eagan-Donovan

With this week’s release of Roland Emmerich’s biopic Anonymous, audiences around the world will get their first glimpse of the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, also known as the Elizabethan poet and playwright Edward de Vere.

The most controversial thing about the film is not that it presents Edward de Vere as Shakespeare, but that the haphazard fictionalization of certain aspects of British history, in a story about actual people and events, will allow the Shakespeare industry to dismiss as entirely untrue what is an otherwise valid premise for the study of the canon.

As a writer who has studied Shakespeare for many years and as a filmmaker who has produced a soon-to-be-released documentary film about the life of Edward de Vere, I am thrilled that Shakespeare the writer is now the topic of discussion every morning at my local Starbucks.  Nothing pleases me more than experiences like the one I had recently, on an airplane bound for Italy, when I sat next to a young couple who had seen an advertisement in a magazine and wanted to know more about the man behind the mask in Anonymous. The media buzz today is palpable thanks to Sony’s impressive marketing campaign. The daily postings by orthodox Shakespeare scholars in defense of their man Will Shaksper of Stratford are both amusing and revealing. It appears that the keepers of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust fear most the prospect that students will now be asking questions about the author of the plays and poems. James Shapiro, Columbia University professor and author of Contested Will, in his rush to prevent the film from “encouraging students to search Shakespeare’s works for ‘messages that may have been included as propaganda and considered seditious’” likens Anonymous to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, and in doing so, makes an indirect yet nonetheless offensive reference to Oxfordians as Holocaust deniers.

It was my own discovery of Edward de Vere, in a history class taught by Harvard University professor Donald Ostrowski, which led me to question everything I had previously been taught about Shakespeare. For students to become great writers, I reasoned, they must understand the process of writing. They must be exposed to great writing by other authors, they must learn first by imitation and then later by mining their own life experience for deeper, often subconscious, emotional truths, and finally they must commit to a lifetime of revision, the real work of writing.  My own passion for writing inspired me to seek out the true author of the greatest works in the English language, and I found the definitive biography of de Vere in Mark Anderson’s book Shakespeare By Another Name. I acquired the documentary film rights to Anderson’s book and began writing my own nonfiction script.

Oxford was a man quite unlike any other. His was an extraordinary life.  Rich with adventure, passion, tragedy and controversy, it was the life of a scholar, a spendthrift, a scoundrel, a venture capitalist, an athlete, and an intellectual. He was a rebel, a romantic, and a poet. He was a fatherless son, an absentee husband, a reluctant father, a capricious lover, a dandy, a courtier, a royal favorite, and an accused traitor.  He was witty, temperamental, prone to jealousy, vain, and resentful. He had all the markers for genius: loss of a parent at an early age, travel to foreign lands, exposure to many languages, and access to the greatest books and teachers of his day. “Above all,” author Joseph Sobran wrote in Alias Shakespeare, “his brilliance made him a magnet even to other brilliant men.”

Unfortunately, audiences will not see this de Vere on screen in Anonymous. The Earl is presented as a dolt and a madman, despite the best efforts of Rhys Ifans. Edward de Vere’s legendary razor-sharp wit is nowhere to be found. Instead, the nobleman hears voices that compel him to write.

As a screenwriter, I felt quite strongly that many of the characterizations were rather flat and one-dimensional. The Queen is portrayed as simply infatuated with Oxford. As with the depiction of de Vere, there is no trace of the complex personality and fearless power that characterized Elizabeth I. Again, this cannot be attributed to the superb acting by Vanessa Redgrave as the elder monarch, and her daughter Joely Richardson as the young Elizabeth. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was Elizabeth’s most trusted advisor, and de Vere’s guardian and later father–in-law. Burghley is recognized by Elizabethan scholars as a brilliant and complicated man, and the model for Hamlet’s Polonius. In narrative terms, he is both a worthy rival and antagonist for de Vere, and also capable of being a strong ally. Burghley was truly influential in shaping the man who would become Shakespeare, but here he is reduced to a caricature of evil. In Anonymous, the queen is cast as a helpless pawn in the grand scheme of the Cecils’ bid for control of the throne.

The film includes plenty of costume-drama, romance-novel sex but no hint of the bisexuality and homoeroticism that can be found throughout the plays and the sonnets, and can also be found in contemporary references to de Vere’s life. I had anticipated that, at a minimum, the scenes with Essex and Southampton together in the tent in Ireland would reveal their rumored relationship, but this was not to be. In Emmerich’s Elizabethan London, not even Marlowe was gay. Lord Burghley’s daughter, Anne Cecil, whom de Vere married against his will, is nothing more than a nagging housewife. Much of the dialogue is pure exposition, and many of the film’s plot twists are simply over the top, such as when Shaksper kills Marlowe. Suspension of disbelief becomes increasingly difficult as the story races to its explosive conclusion, the Essex Rebellion.

It was quite clear to me that Orloff’s original premise was to write Ben Jonson as Salieri to de Vere’s Mozart, in an homage to Amadeus. The Jonson character steals the show literally, opening and closing the story within the story with the Holy Grail of the play manuscripts in his possession. In his attempt to incorporate the Prince Tudor theories, the conjecture that de Vere was Elizabeth’s son, and then as her lover, fathered Southampton, Emmerich has transformed Orloff’s original screenplay, Soul of the Age, into a crash course on a the hypothetical justification for the author’s anonymity touted by a faction of Oxfordians. The idea that Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, was actually the love child of Elizabeth and Oxford, has been around for a long time and is offered as a convenient explanation for the one hundred and twenty-six Sonnets by Shakespeare that seem to be passionate love poems addressed to another man. There is no historical evidence that any version of the Prince Tudor theories is true. Trying to compress de Vere’s truly epic life story for the big screen, even without including his imaginary royal lineage and claim to the throne, is a monumental task, and the director resorts to a series of flash forwards and flashbacks, devices screenwriters generally try to avoid. The technique succeeded in confusing even the audience with whom I saw an advance screening of the film, a group of Shakespeare scholars and enthusiasts who know the chronology of de Vere’s life backward and forward.

It is possible to overlook the preponderance of historical inaccuracies and inherent story structure problems because the production value is fantastic. The film looks beautiful, if dark, by candlelight, and some of the best actors in the world appear on screen, including Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance. It’s truly exciting that many people who have never heard of Edward de Vere will now be exposed to a small slice of his life. I am indebted to the director, the writer, and everyone at Sony Pictures Classics for leading the way, opening the floodgates of inquiry, and creating the opportunity for other writers to tell more of his story. Anonymous makes only a brief reference to De Vere’s travels, when the Earl tells Elizabeth how much he enjoyed the Italian women. My documentary, Nothing is Truer than Truth, focuses on the fourteen-month period when De Vere escaped the confines of life at Elizabeth’s Court and traveled the Continent, making his home base in the cosmopolitan city of Venice, and gathering the material for the great canon that would become known as the works of Shakespeare.

De Vere’s life story is perhaps the greatest story ever written. Above all else, he was a writer. It is not without irony that scholars who have championed de Vere as Shakespeare, after fighting for years to reveal the absurdities of the Stratford man’s story, are now being asked to endorse a new myth about the life of the writer. There is a significant amount of groupthink in the Oxfordian camps these days, centering on the premise that if Anonymous encourages viewers to rethink Shakespeare the writer, then it will have achieved success in spite if itself. As a writer, I must admit that I feel compelled to agree. As a filmmaker, I hope that the movie leaves audiences wanting more.

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