Was Shakespeare a fraud?

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. “And he said, ‘Yeah, you’ve probably got me here for William Shakespeare, but I’d love to play the Earl of Oxford.’ And I probably made an astonished face.”

But after doing some research, Emmerich found that Ifans was an underappreciated dramatic actor. Emmerich said he also realized Ifans was similar to de Vere, a nobleman who is banned from writing the plays that he loves and cannot accept the acclaim he is due.

“How perfect is that, you know, a man who is misunderstood in his work in real life — that’s also why he could so deeply empathize with this character,” Emmerich said. “He put a lot of himself and his frustration in this part.”

In casting and portraying the film’s characters, Emmerich and Orloff had to tread a thin line between historical accuracy and dramatic energy. It was also more important for Orloff to write a film with a gripping narrative, rather than simply answer the film’s tagline.

“It’s not a documentary,” Orloff said. “It’s fun to talk about the authorship debate, but that’s not what the movie’s about. If the movie were really about the authorship debate, it would be a mystery.”

“Ultimately, I hope it’s about compelling characters that you become interested in, like any other film,” he added. “This isn’t a history lesson, this movie. It’s a movie, it’s supposed to be fun, you’re supposed to enjoy yourself.”

Though the film is clear in its position on the authorship question, the filmmakers aren’t proselytizing.

“I want people to think about it, though,” Orloff said. “We don’t try to convince you in the movie. The movie takes it as a given that this is what happened.”

However, Emmerich recognizes that the film might provoke some controversy in the academic community. Orloff also recognizes the potential controversy, especially from the Stratfordian movement — those who believe the man from Stratford wrote Shakespeare’s works.

“Well they’re upset. They’re very, very upset. They’re really, really angry,” Orloff said. “I think art should provoke. That’s the purpose of art. If it’s not provoking, if it’s not engendering conversation, then, as I say in the film, it’s just decoration.”

The film will certainly stir passionate reactions from both sides of the debate with its strong views on this contentious subject and unflattering portrayal of the Shakespeare character, who Orloff called the “stock Shakespearean fool.”

And it’s a debate that Orloff relishes.

“What we are trying to do is open up a discussion, and tell people, ‘Well, you should think about this — this is interesting,’” he said. “Maybe you’ll come to the same conclusion we did, which is: this might be true.”

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