Entertainment & Arts

Anonymous: Roland Emmerich stirs up Shakespeare debate

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Media captionTom Brook meets the director and cast of Anonymous

Did William Shakespeare really write the works attributed to him? That is the question. In Anonymous, director Roland Emmerich offers a possible answer.

"I'm fascinated by the fact that the biggest name in literature could have been a fraud," says Roland Emmerich.

It's a bold statement, and one that has made enthusiasts of the Bard bristle.

But Emmerich - best known for effects-laden blockbusters like Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 - is clearly comfortable being at the heart of an academic tempest.

"Artists should be outsiders," asserts the German director. "If art is not provocative what else should it be? You want to provoke thought and discussion, you want to be scandalous."

Anonymous portrays William Shakespeare as a drunken, inarticulate buffoon, played by Rafe Spall.

Rhys Ifans is Edward de Vere - the 17th Earl of Oxford - who is credited as the true genius behind the words of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear.

Vanessa Redgrave and daughter Joely Richardson play the older and younger Queen Elizabeth I, while David Thewlis is Elizabeth's chief advisor, William Cecil.

When it is pointed out that Emmerich's track record does not obviously point to a project set in the political and literary world of Elizabethan England, the director is quick to disagree.

Image caption Vanessa Redgrave plays Elizabeth I and will also appear in the film version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus later this year

"A lot of my friends said it's totally obvious. They know that I have always read a lot, I have my own view of history, and I am very opinionated."

His interest in putting Shakespeare onto the big screen goes back some 10 years when he read a draft of John Orloff's screenplay, then titled Soul of the Age.

Emmerich decided to put Anonymous into production while making 2012. He realised that advances in visual effects would allow him to recreate Elizabethan England without the use of expensive model shots.


At the start of Anonymous, actor Sir Derek Jacobi strides into a modern-day theatre and suggests that Shakespeare is "a cipher, a ghost".

As the story shifts back to Shakespearean times, actor Mark Rylance appears on stage as Henry V and Richard III.

Both Jacobi and Rylance are supporters of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, which declares there is room for reasonable doubt about the identity of Shakespeare.

Conspiracy theories have circulated for more than a century and prominent doubters from the past include Mark Twain, Orson Welles, Sir John Gielgud and Charlie Chaplin.

Image caption Anonymous? Rhys Ifans plays Edward de Vere - who some believe wrote Shakespeare's plays

Some in the "anti-Stratfordian" camp believe that a collective group of writers is responsible for the works attributed to Shakespeare, while others suggest a single writer such as Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe.

The "Oxfordian theory" about De Vere, an Elizabethan nobleman, started in 1920 after the publication of a book about him by an English teacher called J Thomas Looney.

In the film, De Vere (Ifans) is first encountered picking his way through the muddy streets of London towards the Globe Theatre. "All art," the character informs us, "is political."

For Emmerich, Ifans had the necessary "eccentricity" required for the role. "I always like actors who are not too obvious, they bring something to the part that is not written."

To coincide with the film's release, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has launched a campaign to demonstrate that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was indeed the true author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets which bear his name.

"There's a lot of conjecture about the plays," says Emmerich. "Very early on people said this cannot be the voice of commoner. The debate is so heated because people have devoted their life to both sides of the argument and now they are hitting each other over the head."

Is Emmerich prepared for the reaction to the film from Shakespeare scholars?

"They will say it's all crap and I will defend myself as eloquently as I can," he laughs. "I'm no professor, but I cannot believe that somebody who had nearly no education could write like this.

Image caption Roland Emmerich (above left) shot Anonymous at Berlin's Babelsberg Studios

"The Earl of Oxford is the most likely candidate. He was a renaissance man, he spoke eight or nine languages fluently, he travelled the world, he was incredibly educated. And Shakespeare's plays are the work of a very educated man."

Emmerich adds: "Anonymous is many things - it's a political thriller, it's a whodunnit, and it's a homage to theatre and to William Shakespeare's plays."

At the gala screening of Anonymous at the London Film Festival earlier this week, Ifans denied the film was an attack on Shakespeare.

"It's quite the opposite," he said. "It's a celebration of his work, and anyone who sees this film, if it encourages young people, or anyone, to revisit these plays, then it's very important.

"But there's absolutely no evidence to prove that William Shakespeare of Stratford was the author of these plays. So it's our duty as actors to ask the question and to offer up candidates. And Edward de Vere is a very convincing candidate."

Anonymous opens in cinemas on 28 October.

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