- Michael Sohn/AP
By Philip Conklin, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 30, 2011
Was Shakespeare a fraud?
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Since the middle of the 19th century, important thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud have questioned whether “the man from Stratford” is in fact responsible for the revered Shakespearian corpus, and books on the Shakespeare authorship debate have proposed countless potential authors.
This question is also on the poster of “Anonymous,” the most recent entry into the Shakespeare authorship debate. The film, from German director Roland Emmerich (“2012”) argues that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
“We don’t know who William Shakespeare was,” said the film’s writer John Orloff, in an exclusive interview with The Michigan Daily. “We know nothing about this man. And when you read that 800-page biography, you’re really reading one page of facts and 799 pages of guesses.”
Emmerich shares Orloff’s (“A Mighty Heart”) suspicions about the whether the Shakespeare of history is the author of the works.
“It is four hundred years ago, and there is very little known about these people, and what is known is probably edited and a lot of documents were purposefully destroyed so that people wouldn’t find out the truth,” Emmerich said in the same interview.
The road to getting this film made was long and arduous. Orloff first learned about the Shakespeare authorship debate about 20 years ago through an episode of the PBS show “Frontline,” after which he wrote the first draft of “Anonymous.”
“Sadly, two months later, ‘Shakespeare in Love’ came out,” Orloff said. “So nobody wanted to make another Shakespearean drama.”
It wasn’t until five years later, in a meeting with Emmerich that the idea gained momentum. Emmerich, who knew next to nothing about Shakespeare or the debate, did extensive research after reading the script. What resulted is a story of political intrigue revolving around the Essex Rebellion and the succession of Elizabeth I, intertwined with the narrative of the origin and true author of the works of Shakespeare.
“Suddenly, our film became this Shakespearean drama,” Orloff said. “In the sense of, it’s about incest, it’s about uncrowned princes. It’s about all the things Shakespeare talks about in his plays.”
However, even after the script was finalized, they encountered resistance in trying to finance the film, because of Emmerich’s past work. As the director of such sci-fi spectacles as “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” Emmerich's work with “Anonymous” marked a departure from his usual style. But it was a departure the director welcomed.
“It’s really not easy to make these huge tent-pole movies because of all the money involved. They’re incredibly complicated, you’re under time pressure,” Emmerich said. “I was a little bit frustrated too because you get pigeonholed as a master of disaster, but you’re actually quite a normal person who’s not constantly running around trying to destroy the world. I just do that because it’s what genre I was successful in.”
Despite the studio’s reluctance to let him direct, Emmerich found a way to get the film made, and to get it made cheaply.
One advantage of Emmerich’s miniscule budget was that he could cast the film as he wanted. The result is a cast of relatively unknown English actors. But the lack of familiar faces does not discourage Emmerich, who, in his casting process, tried to be as open as possible to find the best players.
One face American audiences might recognize is Rhys Ifans (“Greenberg”), who plays Edward de Vere, the film’s protagonist. Better known for comedic roles, Ifans was an unlikely choice for such a weighty part. But his audition surprised Emmerich.
“He was assuming that he was doing Shakespeare, whose character is a bit like the fool in our film,” Emmerich said.