Arts Commentary: Not Just Shakespeare — “Anonymous” Wrongs Ben Jonson As Well
The awkward logic of Anonymous turns the initially stalwart Ben Jonson into a ludicrous double-dealer, who advances his supreme tribute (“Soul of the age!”) to a man he knows to have been a fraud and imposter.
Anonymous. Directed by Roland Emmerich. At cinemas in Boston and around the world.
Much was written in defense of William Shakespeare as the man from Stratford when Anonymous opened in cineplexes last week. The film proposes that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the author of the plays, forced by politics and breeding to keep his identity a secret. Granted, there were the usual dewy-eyed equivocators: we had critic Ben Brantley in the New York Times declare that it really didn’t matter who wrote the plays. Academics may go off the deep end, as Brantley suggests, but that doesn’t excuse discarding the value of historical research and the search for facts.
Amid the rush to save Shakespeare, no one talked about the film’s maltreatment of another playwriting giant of the era, Ben Jonson, the author of Volpone and The Alchemist. Jonson plays a major role in the plot, helping, in a bumbling way, to set up a bogus Shakespeare at the behest of de Vere. Few in academia or in the media pointed out how making the torturous de Vere scenario make (sort of) sense means turning one of the sharpest satirists in the English language into a stooge.
What more, Jonson’s part in the plot is bewilderingly sketchy: If the dramatist knew the truth (and hinted at it to others as he does in the film), why wasn’t he murdered? After all, the film theorizes Christopher Marlowe was offed (by the phony Shakespeare) because he guessed the truth. As someone who admires Jonson, and hoped that a major film might spark a production or two of his plays (no such luck, given how he comes off here), I wanted someone knowledgeable to speak up for his character. I asked one of the world’s leading scholars on Jonson, Ian Donaldson, to address Anonymous and its view of the great dramatist and poet.
Donaldson’s biography Ben Jonson: A Life (Oxford University Press), will be published here in December. I have been reading the volume with great pleasure. Donaldson is also one of a team of editors who have completed The Cambridge Edition of the Complete Works of Ben Jonson (Cambridge University Press), which is slated for a January 2012 release.
— Bill Marx
By Ian Donaldson
Roland Emmerich’s new movie, Anonymous, scripted by John Orloff, presents some interesting facts about the age of Shakespeare that your teachers at school may have failed to pass on to you. First, that Queen Elizabeth had a number of illegitimate children—including Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford—with whom she later had passionate affairs.
Next, that the Earl of Southampton, another of the Queen’s bastards, was in fact sired by the Earl of Oxford, who incidentally had written A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the age of nine in order to please the Queen. Then, that Christopher Marlowe was murdered in the streets of London by William Shakespeare after threatening to reveal the major secret upon which the biopic turns: that Shakespeare, a cunning but semi-literate actor—he can read, it seems, but not write—was a charlatan who fraudulently claimed the authorship of plays that were actually the work (you’d guessed this already?) of the handsome and cultivated Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.
And that Ben Jonson’s patron, Sir Robert Cecil, hated the theater so much that he tortured Jonson with red-hot pincers in order to discover the whereabouts of those plays of Shakespeare—no, I’m sorry, I’m going too fast, of Edward de Vere—with which he’d been secretly entrusted. That Jonson bravely withstood these tests and went on to publish these plays in the folio edition of 1623 that’s conventionally attributed to Shakespeare, foxily prefacing the volume with a great poem of praise ‘To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Mr William Shakespeare, And What He Hath Left Us” so that the reputation of the long-dead Edward de Vere would not be besmirched by the vile accusation that he’d wasted his time writing these wretched trifles.
“‘Anonymous’? Yes, I’ve always enjoyed his work,” says Vanessa Redgrave as the aged Elizabeth thoughtfully, having asked who has written the entertainment she’s about to watch. Many of the Queen’s subjects might have echoed her sentiments. As theater-goers, few would have had any idea of the identity of the persons who had written the plays they came to see. While the names of the leading players—of the Alleyns and the Burbages—were popularly known, the same could not be said of those shadowy, backroom figures who’d composed the works in which these stars performed.
“Playwright! Playwright! Playwright! Playwright!” clamours the crowd in Emmerich’s film after the first of Edward de Vere’s big successes at the Rose Theatre; and William Shakespeare, sensing his moment, moves swiftly forward to seize the applause and touch the outstretched hands of the groundlings, who drag him into the pit, passing his spread-eagled body triumphantly across the auditorium. Such a scene is more evocative of the modern rock concert than of the early modern theater.
The very word “playwright,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), along with the word “dramatist,” was still unknown in this period, not entering the language until much later in the century—although Ben Jonson, curiously enough, does use the word on a couple of occasions, unremarked by the OED, as an inventive term of contempt. No one at this time, however, is likely to have called for the author in the way the movie depicts or have cared very much who he was, or have desperately wanted to fondle his body. There were no theater programs, and the bills posted in the playhouse (as shown in this movie), announcing the piece as “written by William Shakespeare,” are an anachronism on the part of the film’s makers. No theater bills bearing the name of the author are known to have existed in England until the late 1690s, when their appearance attracted comment as something of a novelty.
Authorial anonymity (in short) was an unremarkable fact in the early modern theater, and the supposed imperative that drives this movie’s fragile plot—the urgent need felt by Edward de Vere to present his plays to the world under the name of a readily identifiable member of the London theatrical community—hardly serves to explain its action. If he was eager to see his plays on stage, de Vere might simply have conveyed the manuscripts discreetly to Philip Henslowe, and the public would not have been greatly bothered by the lack of an author’s name. But in that case, of course, the “darker story” that Sir Derek Jacobi promises to present us with at the outset of this movie would quickly have collapsed.
The one writer keen to imprint his name in the minds of the public and elevate the standing of the dramatic author at this time happened to be Ben Jonson, to whom appropriately in this version of events de Vere makes his first approaches, asking that he present de Vere’s plays to the public as writings of his own. In one of the film’s more credible touches—helpful to its opening strategy, though fatal to its larger designs—Jonson indignantly refuses this tawdry gambit as “an affront to the muses” and, more importantly, to his own theatrical ambitions. The historical Ben Jonson regarded with contempt those who tried to pass the writings of other people off as their own, a practice he excoriated throughout his Epigrams and in his satirical comedy, Poetaster. That play launches the word “plagiary” (from the Latin plagiare, to kidnap) into the English language and explores, with pioneering rigour, the emerging concept of intellectual property, which was to be of increasing significance to authors and their lawyers in the centuries to come.
Jonson’s verses addressed “To the Reader,” placed at the front of the 1623 Shakespeare first folio, show a similar concern for the protocols of attribution, vouching for the fact that the figure depicted in Martin Droeshout’s somewhat clumsy engraving was indeed the author of the plays presented within this monumental volume.
This figure that thou here see’st put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut;
Wherein the graver had a strife
With nature, to out-do the life.
Oh, could he but have drawn his wit
As well in brass as he hath hit
His face, the print would then surpass
All that was ever writ in brass.
But since he cannot, reader, look
Not on his picture but his book.
For those wanting to propose an alternative candidate as author of the Shakespeare canon, these lines have always been a major stumbling block. Jonson knew and loved Shakespeare well, had worked closely with him in the theater, and was a devoted though not uncritical admirer of his writings. His verses serve in much the same manner as an authenticating signature on a passport photo, declaring that this man was indeed the person he purported to be. Shakespeare’s personality—so Jonson declares in the longer poem that followed these lines (“To the Memory of My Beloved . . . “) was deeply interwoven with the writings he created, which bear his unmistakable DNA, imprinting and perpetuating his very name:
Look how the father’s face
Lives in his issue: even so, the race
Of Shakespeare’s mind and manners brightly shines
In his well-turned and true-filed lines:
In each of which he seems to shake a lance,
As brandished at the eyes of ignorance.
In the fantastically imagined circumstances of the film, Jonson helps Heminge and Condell publish the first folio in order to honor a promise he has made, years earlier, to Edward de Vere. But assuming that to have been his motive, there would still have been no reason for Jonson to have offered such a passionate declaration that these plays carry the very image of a quite different progenitor, William Shakespeare. The awkward logic of the movie turns the initially stalwart Ben Jonson into a ludicrous double-dealer, who advances his supreme tribute (“Soul of the age!”), to a man he knows to have been a fraud and imposter.
Counterfactual history, when openly practised, has the power to stretch and stimulate the mind. What if John F. Kennedy had lived? What if Charles I had avoided the Civil War? What if there had been no American Revolution? What if Communism had not collapsed? (a handful of examples from Niall Fergusson’s recent collection, Virtual History). What if Shakespeare didn’t write the works attributed to him? What if these were really the writings of the Earl of Oxford? These are legitimate and provocative questions, which literary and historical scholars ignore at their own peril. The disappointing thing about this film is not that it poses such questions, but that it fudges them so ludicrously, mixing counterfactual history with determined advocacy of a threadbare thesis.
An educational package accompanying the movie, designed by Sony Pictures for use in American high schools, suggests that it is “impossible to believe that a mere grammar school graduate could have written the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare.” One hopes that students are also directed to some at least of the scholarly literature that over recent years has decisively exploded this facile, old-fashioned belief.
Those who sit patiently in the cinema as the credits roll are finally rewarded with the revelation that the film “is a work of fiction” and that any resemblance to actual people and events is “entirely coincidental and unintended.” Had that cautious, lawyerly statement been more positively advanced at an earlier moment, it might have been possible to view the movie—which is never dull, containing as it does a delicious performance by Vanessa Redgrave as the dotty Queen and some startling digitized effects—with greater tolerance and curiosity.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.