(2011) A twisted tale, braided into false strands that strain if not strangle credibility. We are the audience being played within a play within a play as Derek Jacobi in the prologue addresses a modern audience in London, introducing director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff's alternative interpretation of the author of the 37 plays and poetry attributed to William Shakespeare.
The Bard an "illiterate" son of "illiterate" parents? Playwright Ben Jonson a dupe of Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford? O spirits, "why do they suffer their authenticity to be impugned without a sensible protest against a calumnious misrepresentation?"
At the outset, Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) is pursued and arrested by Capt Richard Pole's men and later tortured in an attempt to recover the original manuscripts of the plays to prove their actual authorship. Five years earlier, in the middle of a performance, one of Jonson's plays was interrupted by command of Lord William Cecil (David Thewlis) for being seditious.
The Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), rumored to be a bastard child of Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), presents to her majesty the gift of a play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, by anonymous, which calls to mind her having seen it 40 years before (though scholars date its composition between 1590-96) as the product of the adolescent imagination of Edward De Vere.
Back to Jonson: he's released by order of Lord Oxford (Rhys Ifans), using the authority of his father-in-law, Lord Cecil. Edward offers the playwright his entire oeuvre of stage dramas: "In my world, one does not write plays, Jonson. People like you do." But Ben is too proud to take another writer's work for his own; instead, when the crowd cries for the author to come forward following the premier of Henry the Fifth, an actor of the troupe, Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), steps forward to receive the audience's acclaim and adulation.
In the court, Lord Cecil as counselor to the queen recommends sending Essex to Ireland with the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) to quell the Irish revolt (in hopes of his being killed in a plot) along with replacing Essex on her privy council with his hunchbacked son ("This is how kings are made") Robert (Edward Hogg).
In his youth, so the filmmakers would have us believe, Edward (Jamie Campbell Bower), whom Lord William Cecil coerced into marrying his daughter Anne, was the younger (Joely Richardson) Queen Elizabeth's lover: "I can't decide. Are you Prince Hal or Romeo?... You will stay in England and my chambers."
The voices in his head can only be freed onto parchment, Edward says of his need to compose: "My poems are my soul." The slaying of Polonius (seen as a caricature of William Cecil) in Hamlet is a reenactment of Edward's running through one of Lord Cecil's surrogates attempting to steal his writings from his bedchamber.
After Elizabeth conceives a child - "He must never know," Lord Cecil advises - she is hidden from view while pregnant; later Edward is banished from court when he impregnates Bessie, a lady in waiting. Meanwhile, to prevent being exposed as a fraud, Shakespeare slays Christopher Marlowe and blackmails Lord Oxford into funding the building of the Globe theatre.
Words and swords, reason and treason. A mother orders her own son's execution: "Put that in one of your plays," says Anne spitefully to her husband. Following the performance of Richard III, with its ambitious hunchback, "Why did he work so hard to become your guardian after your father died?" Robert says of his own father to Edward, accosting the earl for being a failure in politics and bankrupt: "All to write poetry."
The closing lines spoken by Jacobi are my favorite, but another deserves them: "Though our story is at an end, our poet's is not; for his monument is everliving. Not of stone but of verse. And it shall be remembered. As long as words are made of breath. And breath of life."
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