Anonymous: The Oxford Heresy Recalled to Life

Anonymous gives us a grimy, cluttered, unsanitary, conspiratorial, suspicious, truth-managed and bastard-swapping England of Elizabeth, Essex, two Cecils, the sonnetee Southampton, Ben Jonson, Dick Burbage, Chris Marlowe, Henslowe and Kempe– and the great Globe itself — that beggars disbelief, so fine is the costuming and the dusty heaped interiors and the muddy Bankside vistas over miles of authentic City.

It gives us torture chambers, a paranoid court, a dotty, teetering monarch and a mob of low-bred groundlings hissing Richard as they must have been. It gives the first hushed impact of the Bard’s words — and the maddened, hand-linked huzzahs that greeted the Crispin’s Day battle-speech — as they surely occurred in life. It gives us the pocky strumpets and beggars and bear-baiting and, wonderfully, the fairground stalls and whirligigs on the frozen Thames of 1603. And it gives us as well a theory, long scorned, of the authorship of Shakespeare that suddenly seems plausible.

I’d read three books espousing the Oxford heresy, all of them intriguing, and noted in them his work as the Master of the Queen’s Revels and the ‘entertainments’ he put on in Court, now lost, whose program notes closely paralleled the early Shakespeare love-comedies; the surviving letters home from Europe, in prose like Shakespeare’s; the surviving verse which can be intermingled with Will’s indistinguishably; his upbringing in the house of the Cecils, the younger a devious hunchback, the elder a verbose and strutting royal intriguer known to be the model for Polonius; his dynastic marriage to a Cecil daughter whom, when he found her pregnant on his return from two years in Europe, he banished into a nunnery; his reclusive scribbling, royal quarrels, exiles, and melancholy returns; his early, stormy courtship of the Virgin Queen; his close and pained relationship with the beautiful young tawny-headed Southampton; his part-ownership of a theatre; the occasion when his wife got pregnant by disguising herself as another woman, and so on.

But I thought it all too neat, really, and his absence from rehearsals and his death in 1604 when seven of the Canon were as yet unwritten – or unstaged – insuperable. And I was as well I must admit in the room when Ian Richardson said to Sir Derek Jacobi, the fanatical Oxfordian, ‘Derek, you came from the wrong side of the tracks, and were under-educated. But you crossed the Thames, and began to perform, and within very few years you were the toast of the town. Acclaimed. Unstoppable. If you could do it, Derek, why couldn’t he?’ And the irritable, wet-eyed twitching of Jacobi’s contorted face was a wonder to behold.

But, like Malvolio, he has been reveng’d upon the whole pack of us. And this film, which he loftily comperes, the result of twenty years of feverish, Iagoish plotting, has moved me once more in his direction and against what he scornfully calls ‘the man of Stratford’, showing how a tremendous forgery might have been contrived, in an era of false identities and double-agents who (like Ralegh and Marlowe, poets both), moonlighting in Satanist, Papist and sodomite circles, brought information back to their spymasters.

So, then: Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, a wealthy, promiscuous, vagrant and well-travelled man, wrote in secret, in hugger-mugger, like the Hollywood Ten, plays which a front man, the semi-literate Will, jobbing actor, grain merchant, real estate speculator and pub bore, put his name to. And he watched them from the Gods, imbibing ruefully the groundlings’ brutish delight, and that was reward enough, though it cost him his fortune and his private life. And the male subject of his sonnets was not his young lover but his ill-begotten bastard son Southampton, the son as well of the sluttish Bess, his monarch, who forbade the boy’s beheading for treason within an hour of the axeman’s stroke and set him at his liberty. And this explains, in turn, the first sonnets’ urgent theme, a wish that he must marry, and procreate sons (like Dorian Gray) as beautiful as he.

Though the film has a certain, perhaps deliberate, scholarly dodginess to it — Marlowe speaks of Hamlet, which he did not live to see; it was a specially staged performance of Richard II, not Richard III, that roused the London mob, or some of it, to follow with shouts and pikes and war cries Essex’s impetuous, doomed rebellion; the Globe burned down in 1613, not 1603; Elizabeth might well not have had sex with her son and borne his baby — it is nonetheless a joy of abundant recreative probability: Redgrave’s Bess, addled, querulous, fearful, stubborn, refusing James the Crown to her last hour, Rhys Ifan’s Oxford a massive deep-etching of imperturbability, remembrance and sadness; Rafe Spall’s Will Shakespeare a revelation by any count, the screeching mediocrity one finds in Writers’ Guilds and Green Rooms the world over. It is good to swim backstroke into its time machine, and be there, on certain opening nights of the greatest texts of the recent millennium, and think, ‘This is how it must have been’.

And as to who wrote them, well, the most damning evidence against Will Shakespeare is uttered by my pert, pernickety friend Jacobi in the first five minutes of the movie. No letter he wrote has ever turned up. No book he owned, with his name in the front, has ever been discovered. His wife was illiterate, his daughters never taught to read. The signature on his will seems to be by a hand another, steadier hand guided. There is no evidence of any speech he gave, in any church or town hall or school reunion. There were no ‘headlines’, no public mourning, no royal or state celebration of his life and work in the week he died, or thereafter, the truth by then being out perhaps. He gave evidence in a trial once, his testimony was noted, and that was that.

And, most significantly I think, though not mentioned in this film, was his friend Ben Jonson’s verse on the First Folio of his collected work, under an engraving of the Man of Stratford’s dim sluggard’s face:

You who would on gentle Shakespeare looke,
Gaze not on his picture, but in this book.