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'Anonymous' Asks The Right Questions Of Shakespeare's Work, Says Director Roland Emmerich

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ANONYMOUS
Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) is one of William Shakespeare's rivals in Roland Emmerich's 'Anonymous' | Sony Pictures

"I'm stunned at the rigidness, especially here in England, America is a little bit better, they're more open about the authorship question, but only a little bit. Here in England, there is only one professor really who cares about it."

Anonymous director Roland Emmerich has caused a storm with his big screen epic drama, exploring one of history's most enduring conundrums - the genuine authorship behind the works ascribed to one William Shakespeare.

Stratford purists may be up in arms that the genius of their most celebrated citizen is being questioned in the film but, for unflappable Emmerich, it's purely a case of "looking at the facts".

Emmerich, a name previously associated with less literary fare - Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow - has already written down his 10 strongest reasons for disbelieving the hype surrounding William Shakespeare. It seems that is only the tip of his iconoclastic iceberg.

"I have another 200 reasons, maybe 500," he explains in London, ahead of the film's release later this week.

"For example, you have to ask how and why he invented language. The real Shakespeare created 3000 words out of Latin and Greek and anglicised them - in the public theatre, nobody would have understood that, that's why I think all these plays were written first for the court.
And a commoner playwright couldn't have written for the court, because that wasn't where their work went."

In Anonymous, it's one of Queen Elizabeth's most senior courtiers, the Earl of Oxford, who gets the credit instead. Why, out of all the usual suspects, including Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe, has Emmerich settled on him?

"Oxford was not only the most famous, celebrated court playwright during the Elizabethan Age, but also someone who got dedications in books of learning," he explains. "He was known in his time to have two acting groups, including the Blackfriars Theatre. At one point when he had no money, he even bought a house called Fisher's Folly to put up writers.

"These are just striking facts, and the Stratfordians (those who support Will Shakespeare's claim to the works) always make you believe he could be the worst candidate because he was such a complicated and eccentric man. I'm asking, 'Haven't you read the plays?'"

So is Emmerich firmly in the Earl of Oxford's corner when it comes to identifying the genuine author of the plays?

"No, the Stratfordians do that, I'd never do that.

"It's very likely it's Oxford, but we cannot know for sure. The best thing is to say we don't know, but we should keep searching, because the search will lead us deeper into the meaning of the plays.

"You have to be careful of history books, because they are old scholars, basing their stuff on errors, and often writing within a totalitarian state. Everything left from a time like that has been censored, and censored again, so you have to read a lot of stuff, read between the lines and ask, 'If this happened today, who would that be?' And then you have astonishing ideas."

Emmerich remains equally unabashed at causing controversy with his depiction of the Virgin Queen Elizabeth as a woman who took full advantage of her God-given authority to enjoy many more earthly pleasures.

"The Virgin Queen?" he laughs. "Well, there were rumours then too, which she always furiously denied, sometimes so strongly that you thought, 'Oh my god.' She constantly had these favourites, and she took them into her bedchamber... what were they doing? She was the daughter of Henry VIII, who had eight wives and beheaded her mother. The other view could be that she was so traumatised by all this that she never wanted to be touched... it's another theory worth exploring, we'll probably never know."

Obviously it matters to those who've taken to the streets to defend the Bard, or to deface his posters around Stratford with the word "Fraud". But does it really matter who wrote these works that continue to inspire us 400 years later?

"Yes and no," reflects Emmerich. "When it comes to the place and the work, I don't think it matters. But when you look at the literary establishment, students and kids growing up, it matters - it's very dangerous not to give people the complete picture. What we're really trying to do is entice people to watch and read Shakespeare again.

"We're very proud of what we have done, because it glorifies theatre and Shakespeare. It's about a writer, and about words, and I tried to make the film as Shakespearean as I could.

And after such a journey of discovery, could Emmerich be persuaded to take on his own favourite Shakespeare role of Hamlet?

"I'm not an actor," he says firmly. "I'm terrified of even standing on the stage."

Anonymous is in UK cinemas from Friday 28 October. See the trailer below:

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