Anonymous is a political thriller which also involves the question of who actually wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. It follows Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), and is set against the backdrop of the succession of Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) and the Essex Rebellion against her.
Director Roland Emmerich says of the film:
It’s an historical thriller because it’s about who will succeed Queen Elizabeth and the struggle of the people who want to have a hand in it. It’s the Tudors on one side and the Cecil on the other, and in between [the two] is the Queen. Through that story we tell how the plays written by the Earl of Oxford ended up labelled ‘William Shakespeare.’
[F]or me there was an incredible script that I bought eight years ago. It was [initially] called Soul of the Age which pretty much is the heart of the movie still. It’s three characters. It’s like Ben Jonson, who was a playwright then. William Shakespeare who was an actor. It’s like the 17th Earl of Oxford who is the true author of all these plays. We see how, through these three people, it happens that all of these plays get credited to Shakespeare. I kind of found it as too much like Amadeus to me. It was about jealousy, about genius against end, so I proposed to make this a movie about political things, which is about succession. Succession, the monarchy, was absolute monarchy, and the most important political thing was who would be the next King. Then we incorporated that idea into that story line. It has all the elements of a Shakespeare play. It’s about Kings, Queens, and Princes. It’s about illegitimate children, it’s about incest, it’s about all of these elements which Shakespeare plays have. And it’s overall a tragedy. That was the way and I’m really excited to make this movie.
The film not only makes the case for the Oxfordian theory ... that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare's works. It also espouses the unorthodox Prince Tudor theory as well ... that de Vere was the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I. In the most extreme variants of the Prince Tudor theory, Edward de Vere, became the queen's lover as an adult, thus siring his own brother/son, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, who is believed to be the "Fair Youth" of the Sonnets and the Sonnets' dedicatee. This is depicted in Anonymous.
Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth I. Redgrave commented that "It’s very interesting, the fractures, in this extraordinary creature.... I only hope that I’ve been able to respond to Roland in this script sufficiently to be able to just give a little glimpse of this fracturing, this black hole, with shafts of brief sunlight."
Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford / "William Shake-speare"
Jamie Campbell Bower as young Oxford
David Thewlis as William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, longtime advisor to Queen Elizabeth. De Vere came to live in his household as a ward of the Queen at age 12 and became Burghley's son-in-law at age 21. Burghley is thought to have inspired the character Polonius.
Edward Hogg as Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, William Cecil's son and successor
Joely Richardson as young Princess Elizabeth
Xavier Samuel as Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, Shake-speare dedicatee and the focus of his sonnets; prospective suitor to Cecil's granddaughter Elizabeth de Vere
Rafe Spall as William Shakspere of Stratford
Antje Thiele as Lady de Vere
Robert Emms as Thomas Dekker, dramatist
Tony Way as Thomas Nashe, poet and satirist
Sebastian Armesto as Ben Jonson, poet, First Folio editor, and friend of Susan de Vere
Trystan Gravelle as Christopher Marlowe, poet and dramatist
Sebastian Reid as Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, executed for treason
Mark Rylance as a Shakespearean actor at the Globe Theatre
Screenwriter John Orloff (Band of Brothers, A Mighty Heart) penned the script back in the late 1990s, but it was shelved after Shakespeare in Love came out in 1998. It was almost greenlit as "The Soul of the Age" for a 2005 release, with a budget of $30 to $35 million. However, the financing proved to be "a risky undertaking," Emmerich advised Screen Daily at the time. "It's very hard to make get a movie like this made, and I want to make it in a certain way. I've actually had this project for 8 years. It's always supposed to be my next movie, but this time I'm really going to do it because I'm already set to shoot on March 22 ."
A press conference on the set at Studio Babelsberg ... the oldest large-scale film studio in the world, where such classic German films as Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis were made ... was held on April 29, 2010. Emmerich noted at the conference that the success of his more commercial films made it possible for him to do this one, and that he got the cast he wanted without the pressure to come up with at least two A-list American actors.
Elizabethan London is recreated for the film with more than 70 painstakingly hand-built sets at Studio Babelsberg. These include a full-scale replica of London’s imposing The Rose theatre. The remainder of the Elizabethan setting will be created and enhanced via CGI.
In response to the inception of the film, James Shapiro, Columbia University English professor and author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, wrote an April 11, 2010 op-ed article in the Los Angeles Times titled "Alas, Poor Shakespeare." He acknowledged recent substantial worldwide support for Oxfordian theory, including three Supreme Court Justices quoted in a 2009 Wall Street Journal article. Shapiro said that 25 years ago, support for Oxfordian theory was not strong, and that in a celebrated moot court in 1987, Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens, Harry Blackmun and William Brennanhad "ruled unanimously in favor of Shakespeare and against the Earl of Oxford." Shapiro calls Oxfordian theory "conspiracy theory," and argued further against Anonymous in an April 2010 Wall Street Journal interview.
In screenwriter John Orloff's published response in the Los Angeles Times, he said "Shapiro has, at best, oversimplified the facts." He responded to Shapiro's characterization of the original 1987 moot court decision by saying:
In fact, Brennan, the senior justice on the case, did not rule on whether Shakespeare actually wrote the plays; he simply ruled that the Earl of Oxford did not meet the burden of proof required under the law.
Blackmun agreed, but then added, "That's the legal answer. Whether it is the correct one causes me greater doubt" (emphasis mine).
Stevens went even further, saying: "I have lingering concerns. . . . You can't help but have these gnawing doubts that this great author may perhaps have been someone else. . . . I would tend to draw the inference that the author of these plays was a nobleman. . . . There is a high probability that it was Edward de Vere [the Earl of Oxford]."
I would hardly characterize these as opinions "unanimously for Shakespeare and against the Earl of Oxford.
In a June 2010 post-filming interview with the Washington Post, Derek Jacobi, who plays the Narrator of Anonymous, noted that he is not neutral in the Shakespeare authorship debate. "I'm on the side of those who do not believe that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays. I think the name was a pseudonym, certainly. [Anonymous] puts the authorship question firmly and squarely on the big screen. It's a very risky thing to do, and obviously the orthodox Stratfordians are going to be apoplectic with rage."
Bill Bryson also takes issue with the de Vere theory (and others) in his book "The World as Stage," and points out that de Vere died in 1604, while Shakespeare's plays continued to appear until 1612. Fans of the de Vere theory argue that the plays were written before de Vere's death and released posthumously, or that someone got the dates of the plays wrong.