About 300 years after the publication of the first collected works of Shakespeare, the so-called First Folio (1623), a schoolmaster named J. Thomas Looney (pronounced "loanee") facilitated his students in readings of the Shakespeare plays, particularly "the Merchant of Venice". Over the years while watching the plays, hearing their rhetoric, and absorbing this remarkable voice whose Elizabethan presence is still revered and studied today, Looney became convinced the man from Stratford who is attributed to having written the plays (the Orthodox View), was not the true author. He came to believe the name "William Shakespeare" which appeared on two published poems, the later quartos and the First Folio was in reality a pseudonym for someone else, possibly a nobleman. Previously, those who questioned the Orthodox View, sometimes called Anti-Stratfordians, had proposed others of the Elizebethan Age, such as Sir Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe, but Looney was convinced the true author was someone never before put forth since Shakespearian scholarship began in the 18th century. Shakespeare has and still does remain shrouded in mystery.
Because Shakespeare biographical detail has been sketchy at best, Looney developed a profile similar to those used by detectives to paint a picture of his candidate, based on elements in the plays. He determined the writer was a nobleman, a Falconer, possibly sympathetic to the Lancastrian side of the Wars of the Roses, and someone who loved Italy and Italian culture. And, most important of all, that he was a poet who possibly had written poems and/or plays under his own name before going under the name of William Shakespeare. After finding a number of primary sources at the British Library, he came up with his findings. Looney proposed a somewhat forgotten nobleman named Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as being the true identity of the poet/playwright William Shakespeare in a book called simply "Shakespeare Identified".
"Anonymous" is a film based on Looney's original notion that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, penned the plays which would become the greatest literary canon of the English language. The events surrounding the plays, their performances, Oxford's conscious willingness to stay behind the scenes, and the attribution of the plays to the man from Stratford, a businessman who had little or no experience in theatre, are all dramatized in a period film which takes you back to the world of the Elizabethan Stage. One of the best aspects of "Anonymous" is how it relates the plays to political rhetoric of the period. In recent years, Shakespearian scholars have proposed that many figures of the Elizabethan Court were satirized in the plays, such as William Cecil and his son Robert Cecil. The links between the plays and contemporary politics are brought to the fore much more directly than in "Shakespeare in Love".
Character actor Rhys Ifans offers an Oscar-caliber performance as the man who some believe was the real Shakespeare. Ifans finds that delicate balance between the remarkable artist and the troubled nobleman who could not reconcile the two worlds of his life. If Shakespeare was in fact a nobleman who went under a pseudonym, many of the events portrayed in "Anonymous" are plausible. Unlike today, playwrights and poets lived on the periphery of society, and a nobleman of the rank of Oxford writing plays containing charged political rhetoric would have been scandalous, hence the Shakespeare-Oxford theory.
The hero of the movie is actually his colleague Ben Johnson, the Elizabethan playwright who has always dwelt under the shadow of Shakespeare, especially in modern times. Johnson would have been the greatest playwright of his age if Shakespeare had not been writing. In this story, he becomes the guardian of the Shakespeare plays, and supposedly the man who saves the canon for posterity. Johnson in fact wrote the preface to the First Folio of 1623. If there had been a cover-up of Shakespeare's true identity, Johnson would have known.
While the film bases many of its embellishments on facts known about Edward de Vere, the film does take a few rather implausible historical licenses, not unlike Amadeus which appeared about 25 years ago. Edward de Vere may have flirted with Queen Elizabeth when he was younger, but whether they bore a child does seem quite fantastic. Later in the film, an extraordinary truth about Oxford's own heritage is revealed. However, films have to tell a story, and some licenses are made in order the story remain interesting and compelling. Shakespeare in many of his plays bent history to fulfill his dramatic goals and theatrical visions.
Many Shakespeare enthusiasts not only dismiss the Oxfordian argument but do not approve of the subject altogether. Some Stratfordians' view is that there is no "authorship question" and that any attempt to discredit the man from Stratford does a disservice to Shakespare. I think "Anonymous" is not so much about changing minds but about bringing the question out into the open. Regardless on which side of the fence you may be, there are a lot of questions concerning the life of Shakespeare. Answers to mundane questions, such as primary sources concerning his composing, are strangely absent. No one seems to have mentioned Stratford being any kind of a poet, playwright or actor in Stratford. However, as shown in the film, primary source evidence survives which speaks of Edward de Vere as an adolescent putting on a short play for the young Queen Elizabeth.
So the film brings us back to the fundamental question: did Oxford write the Shakespeare Canon or was it the man from Stratford? Primary source evidence is sparse, and documents which could have shed light on this problem may have perished in the Great Fire of London in 1666. In short, we may never know. But Oxford's star is on the rise, and in years to come, this may be the first film to acknowledge there is indeed a question. Whether it has been answered is up to each viewer.