“A Darker Story”: Two Shakespeares, Art, and History in Emmerich’s Anonymous


  • Edel Semple University College Cork




Shakespeare, Roland Emmerich, Biopic, Anonymous, Shakespeare authorship conspiracy, Elizabeth I, Appropriating history, Shakespeare as character


Emmerich’s Anonymous (2011) infamously splits the character of Shakespeare into two disparate figures. In its alternative Tudor past, the ‘real’ Shakespeare – the Earl of Oxford – and Elizabeth I embark on a lifelong relationship that has shocking consequences for history and literature. The film’s other Shakespeare is the actor Will, who acts as the front for Oxford. Over the course of the film, Will is revealed to be a dangerous buffoon; he is boorish, near-illiterate, fame-hungry, and homicidal. While the film packages itself as a fresh take on Shakespeare’s biography, for all its revolutionary fervour it borrows much from Shakespeare in Love, and draws on the conspiracy thriller, period drama, blockbuster, and biopic. The film presents itself as conscious not only of its cinematic ancestry, but of dramatic and theatrical history. In this article, I demonstrate that Anonymous projects a coherent trajectory for Elizabeth’s reign that is mapped onto Shakespeare’s creative process and his plays – from the youthful magic of Dream to the decayed tragedy of Hamlet – and in doing so adapts and appropriates the Tudor past to serve a range of socio-political aims. Finally, I will connect the film’s author-hero to the film’s director through an examination of the film trailer and poster, and especially Emmerich’s propagandist video “Ten Reasons Why William Shakespeare is a Fraud”. Like the film, these paratexts aim to unseat Shakespeare as literary god, but they also reveal how Anonymous is deeply invested in appropriating Shakespeare’s authority, as well as his economic and cultural capital. Ultimately, I argue that Anonymous and its paratexts seek to deconstruct Shakespeare as icon in order to reshape our present and stimulate debate over the value and meaning of art in the twenty-first century.