TIFF Report 2.3: ANONYMOUS—Roland the Headless Oxford Gunner

In spite of the suggestion at the end of my last post and the fact that I’m not a scholar, I’m going ahead with a catalogue of the factual errors I found in Anonymous. Once the movie goes into wide release the truth squads will be out and the list will grow much longer, but this should make it clear how absurd it is to think of Anonymous as anything resembling a serious argument for Oxford. At the same time, I repeat that it would as likely as not be counterproductive to harp on the errors, especially the relatively minor ones. It’s better to assume that they were deliberately introduced by the filmmakers (I know, Emmerich’s flaunted ignorance of the facts makes that hard to swallow, but try it), and to argue only about documentable errors that affect any argument for Oxford, such as the Richard II/Richard III snafu.

Why not start at the beginning? The Globe did burn, of course, but not in 1604 and not in the course of an attempt to flush Ben Jonson and de Vere’s manuscripts out of hiding.

Christopher Marlowe could not, of course, have kibitized throughout the rise of “Shakespeare” circa 1599 because he was murdered in 1593, most likely as a result of his espionage activities (a film of Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning  would be far more exciting than Anonymous). He was not dumped under a tunnel in Southwark but died in a “little room” in Deptford. Marlowe could not, of course, have shard a scene with Ben Jonson, who didn’t become active before 1597.

William Cecil’s household is said to be Puritan, which is supposed to be the source of his hatred of the theater; in fact his loyalty was to the Queen her church and he had no problem with persecuting Puritans who didn’t share it.

Cecil is depicted as forcing his daughter on Oxford(so that, as explained in my first post, when Oxfordsucceeded Elizabethas King his children, Cecil’s grandchildren, would be next in the line of succession). Actually, it was the other way around; Oxfordwanted to marry Cecil’s daughter but Cecil opposed the match, making this a crucial plot point that is completely divorced from reality. As with the Richard II/Richard III mixup, this isn’t a question of facts hidden by a conspiracy; it’s a question of nonfacts that render the plot a fiction.

It’s not exactly a factual error but the movie doesn’t mention thatOxfordgot away with the murder with the defense that the victim committed suicide by running onto his sword. Here, perhaps, we’ve finally found a fact too preposterous-sounding even for Emmerich.

The banjaxed chronology plays havoc with the timing of “Shakespeare’s” works in the movie. Apart from the laughable idea that the nine-year-old Oxfordwrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and heaven knows what else), the annus mirabilis of 1599 (and can this possibly be an allusion to James Shapiro’s book?) saw the composition of Romeo and Juliet, whose first quarto was published in 1597, and Venus and Adonis, published in 1593, 1594, 1595, and 1596 but supposedly written in 1599 for the express purpose of getting an audience with Elizabeth to intercede for Essex and Southampton.

As for Essex, the movie depicts him as being recalled fromIreland, in fact he returned against the Queen’s express command.

These are just the more glaring factual inaccuracies I noticed. There are at least as many writing choices that are implausible enough to suspend the suspension of disbelief. Did none of the other playwrights ever spill the beans, perhaps while drunk? Why didn’t Jonson takeOxford’s posthumous plays and produce them under his own name instead of perpetuating the Shakespeare deception, especially after Shakespeare banned him from the Globe? Contrary to the usual justification,Oxford isn’t pseudonymous (the correct name for his situation, though it would have made a terrible movie title) because nobles don’t write plays; he’s trying to conceal his activities from the Cecils. But they know all along, so why is he bothering? And so on, and so on, and so on.

Errors and distortions of chronology and fact are perfectly fine in dramatic work. Shakespeare’s departures from fact, to take only one example, are numerous and well known (hi there, Richard III Society!). Writers use whatever works. To repeat, though, Anonymous is a special case, though, because it serves two masters. What works to make an entertaining drama might not—does not, in this case—work to make the case for a factual claim, and it absolutely does want to make an argument for a factual claim. Even if it were a good movie, it would fail on this ground. But it’s not.

One response to “TIFF Report 2.3: ANONYMOUS—Roland the Headless Oxford Gunner

  1. I think that’s a comprehensive, if not exhaustive, list — thank you. One could add that it’s a little odd that Oxford, who hates growing up in the supposedly staunchly Protestant Cecil household, would throw his support behind the staunchly Protestant Essex. And there’s the oddity of William Cecil’s support for war in Ireland (which he adamantly opposed, unlike Essex, who was very keen on it) — and the “fact” that it’s old Cecil who’s persuading Elizabeth to send Essex there, even though he was cold and buried when that decision was made. And there’s more…

    One small correction: even though the historical action of the film begins in 1604 (after Oxford’s death) and then jumps back 5 years, it has to jump back at least 6 years, since Burghley is still alive (he died in 1598) and since Oxford is 8 when he writes MND in the film (he was born in 1550). The plot then covers three years, from 1598 to 1601, and both R3 and V&A are written in 1601. Still preposterous, of course.