The Critics, Anonymous, and the Shakespeare Question

Posted By on November 16, 2011

The Critics, trying to decide how they feel about Anonymous.

I’ve noticed something striking about the critical response to Anonymous. 

According to data available on Moviephone,  which not only collates reviews by professionals but  also supplies a forum for ordinary moviegoers to post their own evaluations, there’s a huge perception gap about how good or how bad a movie it is (if I were Sony, I’d want to pay attention to this….)

Among the cognoscenti of the film world, who write reviews for a living, Anonymous looks like a real stinker. If you ask these self-appointed historians and dubiously informed amateur scholars — who unlike the amateur “Oxfordians” have never read a book on the subject Anonymous has suddenly made them “experts” on — no good can come of thinking about Shakespeare except as a cliche.

Their Anonymous rating hovers along the ground with an only 50% positive rating.

But look at the reviews by ordinary audience members.

They rate the movie a steady 83-88% favorable, with the vast majority of the ratings being either 4 or 5 stars.

That’s a 33+ point spread.

Now, I don’t know how untypical or statistically valid any of this is, or if that even matters.  My hunch is that this is an unusually large discrepancy, and even as anecdotal evidence, compensating for all the factors that a professional statistician would want to take into consideration like selection bias (which actually seems unlikely here, since I see no reason why those who hate the movie would be any less motivated to express their opinions than the many who love or at least like it),   — it’s at least suggesting something quite fascinating.

The professional reviewer class doesn’t like Anonymous.  Apparently it feels that its own self-identity requires it to endorse the politically correct belief that only cranks would entertain the film’s premise as anything more than an entertaining fiction. They go on from that position to trounce the film as bad fiction.

Anonymous, in other words, seems to have exposed an occupational hazard of the critics. They  can’t seem to do their jobs by reviewing the movie’s merits and weaknesses as work of cinema. They feel it’s their professional calling to point out, preferably  in chorus, that Emmerich and Orloff don’t know anything about history or literature. That’s what “they” — namely the people who want to us to forget about Shakespeare except in the authorized ways — said about Charlton Ogburn also.

Their motto is that of the popular Wikipedia critic who recently announced, with all the conviction of a born-again tele-evangelist saving the souls of unlettered sinners:

No matter what anti-Strats think, their positions are firmly wedged in  the dustbin of crackpot conspiracy theories, and I feel bad that their  lives are being wasted on a comic-strip power fantasies. There’s  really nothing I can do about it, though, but I think–I hope–that I might have influenced some people not to waste their time pursuing an  outrageous lie.

One professional critic who rose above the crowd (not the only one, but an exemplary one) is Roger Ebert.

Although accepting the traditional bardoholic view of history,  Ebert is a true professional who also wrote a  fair review of the film. He opined that even though “there seems little good reason to doubt that [the Stratford Shakespeare] wrote the plays performed under his name,” Anonymous is still a  “splendid experience.”

Even if Ebert’s stance depressingly reminds me of Hank Sander’s brilliant critique of the know-nothingism school of modern criticism, you’ve got to respect the fact that Ebert didn’t project his own biases into the sort of postmodern lament about how Anonymous is destroying Western Civilization that we’ve been compelled to endure in “reviews” like the paranoid screeds appearing in such supposedly leading publications as the New York Times.

Anonymous is far from a perfect movie. But it is a damn good one. As a work of cinema it reflects both the strengths and the weaknesses of director Emmerich. Visually stunning, with some fine scripting and performances — above all it is a movie that dares to challenge the preconceptions of such grand Poohbahs of the Shakespeare world as James Shapiro. The most sophisticated review of the film I think I’ve read is one by Richard Waugaman published right here on my own site.

Another fine one is in the form of a letter to Ebert, by James Ulmer,a distinguished journalist, film producer, and member of the Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable from Pacific Palisades, CA. You can read more about Ulmer’s professional accomplishments on Linked In.

Here’s the first part of Ulmer’s letter:

Dear Mr. Ebert:

I was grateful yet frustrated with your review of Anonymous. Grateful that you found it a “marvelous historical film”; frustrated that you fell into the common trap of critics who use their reviews of the movie to flaunt their pre-conceptions about the authorship issue.

Invariably, these critics rant against the very idea of an authorship question without nearly enough of a knowledge base to do so credibly.  At least [the fact that you held this view yourself] didn’t prevent you from appreciating the enormous artistry and emotional resonance of the film itself,  regardless of how misinformed many of your comments were.  So bravo for that.

But my kudos pretty much end there. Your review’s lead sentence, for starters, is simply wrong: “Very few commoners of his time are as well documented as Shakespeare.” As a matter of fact, Shakespeare is the least documented of the major writers of his time, with virtually no example of his handwriting on any letter or play or work of writing of any kind.

Only six signatures of his survive, and these are of widely varying kinds of handwriting, with little consistency in the spelling of the name. There are volumes of letters and papers, on the other hand, in Ben Jonson’s hand, and Kit Marlowe’s, Thomas Nashe’s, etc. etc.*

Your review’s second sentence is also off the mark, for there is more than good reason to doubt the traditional story of the grain dealer from Stratford as the playwright of the Shakespeare canon; men such as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Sir John Gielgud have done so, quite eloquently.

After reading this far through your review, it was tough for me to give credence to your other comments about Shakespeare.  When I read your line, “I must tiresomely insist that Edward de Vere did not write Shakespeare’s plays,” my response was simply:  Who are you, Roger, to insist on any such thing?  Did I miss taking your graduate seminar on the Aristotelian Paradoxes Inherent in the Question of Bard Authorship?

I didn’t think so.

Nothing irks a reader more (or at least this reader) than name critics indulging their egos by creating the facade of expertise in order to rationalize their opinions, at the sad expense of their own intellectual credibility.  Why not just trust the reader to make up his own mind about the issue and proceed with your review from there?

Of course, audiences will be the final arbiters of the film’s merits. Obviously the average moviegoer doesn’t care a whit about a century-old “authorship” debate but does care about getting his 12 bucks worth of entertainment.

And that’s exactly what Anonymous delivers —  a rip-roaring mystery and adventure told with extraordinary artistry, craft and emotional pull. Much of its poetic license serves the needs of compressed storytelling that a two-hour movie demands.

It was never meant to be fact-based and historically meticulous (Shakespeare took plenty of license with his history, too).  That’s why I loved the frame the writer John Orloff and director Roland Emmerich gave the movie:  we’re presented the entire story as a show from the get-go, and the movie itself is contained within the boundaries of a stage performance on Broadway.

Reality?  No.  But plausible possibility?  Absolutely.


*The case for Marlowe and Nashe may be somewhat overstated here – but Ulmer’s general idea, that there’s something highly peculiar about the “Shakespeare” paper trail is, as Diana Price has proven, “spot on.”  Marlowe is actually one of the least well documented of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, perhaps because he died in 1593 as an outcast to the state – a gay atheist killed under violent circumstances. Quite a bit different from the comfortable bourgeois life of the Stratford businessman, who died in quiet retirement, one of the wealthiest landowners in his, uh, hamlet, well into the Jacobean period. -ed

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


2 Responses to “The Critics, Anonymous, and the Shakespeare Question”

  1. Rupa says:

    Hi Roger,
    This kind of discrepancy between professional critics and the ordinary moviegoer is actually typical quite often the spread is greater. Here are a few examples I found on MovieFone.
    Smurfs – 65%
    Spy Kids – 52 %
    Columbiana – 38%
    Jack and Jill – 56%
    Immortals – 35%
    The Three Musketeers – 54%
    The Thing – 41%
    Johnny English – 51%
    Human Centipede 2 – 66%
    Zookeeper – 61%
    In all of these cases the ordinary moviegoers liked the movie more than the professionals did.

    • Roger Stritmatter says:

      Hi Rupa,

      Thanks for the feedback. Its interesting to learn that this phenomenon is widespread – as I indicated in my blog post, I wasn’t really sure. However, I also wonder if the reasons why this happens vary from movie to movie. I still think my analysis of *why* it is happening in this instance holds up, even if this does happen in many other instances.

      Nice to have you posting here!

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