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We open in present day NYC. A man is getting out of a taxi, entering a Broadway show called "Anonymous." We see the man go backstage and gets prepared to perform for a full audience. The man, our Narrator (Derek Jacobi), speaks of William Shakespeare, obstinately the greatest writer of all time. He wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets. And yet...his background contradicts his ability. His father was a glove maker and Shakespeare had only a grammar school education at best. His mother and sisters were illiterate. Some would say Shakespeare wrote nary a word. The narrator presents a different theory, one that is rife with sex, betrayal, and death.

A man, Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) is running from guards. He runs into the Globe Theater and hides underneath the stage as men break in. He hides the satchels he was carrying in a trunk. The guards set fire to the place, and Jonson is eventually forced to show himself. He is arrested.

He is taken to the tower and "interrogated" by Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg) about "the plays." Jonson tries to be coy but only gets beaten up. Robert gets to the point. He wants the plays of Edward de Vere.


Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) and the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuels) are walking along the street to go to the theater. Edward is less than enthused but goes anyway. The play is a comedy. Here we see William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) acting. Edward watches as the crowd is entranced by the play and realizes the powers of words.

Guards break in and disrupt the play, shutting it down. William Cecil has judged the play seditious and stops its production. Jonson, the author protests, and is quickly arrested. Edward watches.

Edward, Southampton, and Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) are at Edward's estate. Edward relates the power of the stage, saying they could control thousands by the words they use. Words would win wars instead of swords. Essex scoffs at the idea.

Essex desperately wants the throne after Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). However, Elizabeth is being persuaded to nominate King James of Scotland instead. Essex wants to maneuver himself into power and asks for Southampton's support. Southampton says yes.

Edward cautions Southampton about aligning with Essex saying it is dangerous. Southampton claims Essex is Elizabeth's son and everyone can tell just by looking at him. They would rather have a bastard on the throne than a Scot who will end the Tudor line.

Edward writes a play and publishes it anonymously. William Cecil (David Thewlis) objects to its content and shuts it down. He considers all the arts sinful.


A younger Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) watches some children perform a play and is overjoyed. Later she talks to the children and learns the young Edward wrote it. Elizabeth asks for more, so he speaks a poetic verse about truth. Elizabeth is shocked by his talent, saying he has a bright future.


Jonson is released from jail. He is taken to Edward's residence where Edward pointedly explains what he wants. He wants Jonson to pretend to be the author of his plays. Edward cannot do it himself, due to his title, so he needs a middleman. Edward promises Jonson he will be well compensated for his cooperation and silence. "All art is political, or it would just be decoration." Edward says.

Robert and William Cecil talk. They realize that Essex will try to get the throne instead of letting King James take it. They do not want this to happen as he is backed by Edward and Edward hates their family despite being married into it. He will make sure they will lose everything. So they come up with a plan. They will send Essex and Southampton to Ireland to quell the uprising, and god willing, they will not return alive.


Edward (younger version played by Jamie Campbell Bower) is brought to the Cecil residence. Edward was orphaned, and Cecil has taken him in, giving him all the tutors he will need. When Edward discusses writing, William Cecil admonishes it calling it sinful, saying it will not be allowed in his house.

Edward fences with his tutor while young Robert plays chess. Edward accidentally knocks over the pieces, angering Robert. This is one of many incidents that set up a life long animosity among them.

A man breaks into Edward's quarters and steals some papers, dropping ink on the desk. Edward comes back and realizes something is wrong. He draws his sword and stabs the curtain, killing the man.


Ben Jonson is clearly reluctant to take credit for work he didn't do.

Elizabeth is advised to send Essex and Southampton to Ireland by William Cecil. His son Robert will be put on the privy council in Essex's place.


William Cecil is pissed at Edward for killing his servant. The man was ordered to steal the pages by William. So William proposes a deal to save Edward's life (since his words could be dangerous to him). He will marry William's daughter Anne. Anne is in love with Edward.

A reluctant Edward marries Anne, but it is clear he does not want to.


Henry V by Anonymous is being performed. Edward is in the audience along with Jonson. Edward watches as the crowd is riled up by the performance.

The play ends, and the crowd demands the playwright. Shakespeare is backstage, listening and makes a rash decision. He comes out and claims to be the playwright. Edward and Jonson look on in shock. Shakespeare makes a stilted thank you speech, thanking his actors and the audience.

Jonson meets with Edward. Edward is aghast. "An actor. An actor for God's sake!" Edward is mad because Jonson was supposed to be his face. Jonson tries to defend himself saying his style, his voice is different from Edward's. "You have NO VOICE. That's why I choose you!" Edward screams.

Edward goes to his shelf and pulls out several plays. He selects Romeo and Juliet and gives it to Jonson for Shakespeare to perform. Jonson leaves.

Anne comes to speak to her husband about their daughters dowry for marriage. Edward offers only a tiny amount, and Anne is angry. Anne notices him writing and is mad he is doing so since he promised not to. Edward tells her the voices in his head call to him, and if he does not write them down, he would go insane. Writing calms him and allows him to think clearly.

Will talks to Jonson saying he wants to play Romeo since he doesn't like the lead actor in his troupe. Jonson scolds him, saying he is now a writer and writers do not have time to act.


Edward and Elizabeth dance. Elizabeth speaks of him being away for 2 years and that Anne must be very pleased. Edward says he only came home because William Cecil told him too. He does not care for Anne. "How can one love the moon, when one has already seen the sun?" Edward asks.

Edward and Elizabeth talk more. Edward says he enjoyed Italy most in his travels due to the arts and the women. The women there are not like English women. They do not hesitate. They take what they want.

Elizabeth and Edward have sex.

Edward speaks to her about a commission, and Elizabeth goes cold, thinking he only slept with her for a position. Edward calms her fears and speaks more poetry, earning back her favor. Elizabeth tells him tht he will stay in her chambers at court.


Jonson sits in a bar drunk, listening to the patrons talk about Shakespeare. He can barely hold in his contempt.

We see a montage of "Shakespeare's" plays. 12th Night. Julius Caesar. Macbeth.

Hamlet is performed at court. The man playing Polonius is a dead ringer for William Cecil. The Cecil's are enraged by the likeness.

After a performance of Hamlet for the people, Shakespeare, who has really gotten used to the attention, crowd surfs with his fans. Edward leaves, disgusted with his behavior.

William and Robert Cecil talk. They conclude they cannot do anything about Shakespeare. He is too popular with the people.

William tells Robert to write to King James, telling him that they will take care of Essex personally. William also concludes that Edward will have to die, as well. He suggests bribing his fencing instructor.


Elizabeth is pregnant with Edward's child and wants to marry him. William Cecil counters he is already married to Anne. Elizabeth says she is the queen and can do what she wants. Cecil warns her of the men who conspire to take her power. She is crushed by the implications. "I LOVE HIM!!" she screams.

William Cecil says she will go on pilgrimage and deliver the child in secret. Edward shall never know.

Edward is lied to by William Cecil saying Elizabeth never loved him.


Christopher "Kit" Marlowe sees Jonson and tells him that he knows Shakespeare didn't write the plays since he is illiterate. Marlowe says he will pay Shakespeare a visit, so they can blackmail the true author for more money.

In Ireland, Essex and Southampton are discussing battle plans when a servant comes in with wine. Southampton realizes he is acting funny. The servant pulls out a musket pistol and aims it at Essex's head. Southampton is quicker and kills the assassin.

Jonson is on the streets as people crowd a dead body. It is Marlowe, who has been murdered.

Edward is fencing with his coach when the man gets more aggressive. Apparently he took the Cecil's up on their offer. Edward is forced to kill him.

At a sporting match, Shakespeare talks to Jonson saying he needs more money to build his own theater. Jonson scoffs at his request.

Shakespeare tails Edward's servant Francesco back to Edward's estate. He tells Edward that unless he is paid 400 pounds a year, he will reveal he is a fraud. Edward reluctantly pays him.

"Are you sure this is wise?" Francesco asks.

"Wisdom is a quality I have never possessed." Edward replies.


Edward has sex with Bessie, a court maid close to the queen. Bessie reveals the queen had his child. Edward is shocked.

William Cecil briefs the queen on the affair (as Anne saw them together). The queen is noticeably agitated as she is still in love with him. When she hears Bessie is pregnant, she has them arrested.

They are arrested and placed in the Tower. William goes to see Edward and tells him the queen has decided to released on three conditions. He shall have not any contact with either Bessie or the child. Furthermore, Elizabeth wants him to avoid court as much as possible.

William also wants Edward to return to Anne and make her happy.

Edward agrees though asks for something in return. He wants the name of the child he had with Elizabeth. William agrees but warns if he reveals the paternity to anyone they will BOTH be executed. The Earl of Southampton is revealed to Edward's son.


William Cecil has died. At his funeral, his son Robert sets up Essex, telling Elizabeth that Essex was talking to Spain about support for a coup. Despite stressing them as "rumors" he has set the wheels turning in her head.

Shakespeare goes into a bar showing his coat of arms design. He now has patronage. Jonson, drunk, tries to expose Shakespeare's illiteracy by making him write something. Shakespeare is able to diffuse the situation by noting he has no ink and quickly runs off.

Essex and Southampton learn of the Queen's suspicions and run back to England to dispel them. Essex barges in on the Queen as she is undressing. She is gray and emaciated. Elizabeth angrily orders him out.

The Queen doesn't know what Essex was thinking. Robert Cecil turns the screws more, saying this proves that Essex wants the crown. Elizabeth is still not convinced.

Edward talks to Essex and Southampton. They will use a play to incite a mob against Robert Cecil. They then will embrace Essex openly as the heir apparent. When Essex asks where they will get the play, Edward says, "Leave that to me."

Edward begins to write the play. Richard III.

Edward and Francesco find Shakespeare with a prostitute. They give him the play and tell him to wait for their go ahead to perform it. Edward reveals that Shakespeare had a poem published that day. "Like in a book?" Shakespeare asks. Edward is stunned by his stupidity.

The poem finds its way to the Queen who realizes it is Edward talking to her. She talks to Robert about her son with Edward, and finds out it is Southampton. Elizabeth tells Robert to set up a meeting between her and Edward.

Jonson goes to the Globe theater and shows one of his plays to the co-owner. He learns Shakespeare has banned him from ever performing there. Jonson is enraged.

Jonson gets drunk and betrays Edward by revealing to an agent of the Cecil family that the Richard III play portrays him as a hunchback (a mirror for Robert).

Robert is told but does nothing. He has other plans.

During the performance, the audience boos the actor playing Richard; they only see Robert Cecil.

Essex and Southampton are nearby with men loyal to them. When the mob rises they will join, showing their overall support to the Queen.

Jonson, in the audience, realizes something is wrong as the mob storms out. He sees Francesco and tries to warn him.

The mob, including Francesco is cut down by the Queen's soldiers. The mob never arrives.

Edward arrives at the palace to see Elizabeth. She seems happy to see him.

Essex and Southampton head for the palace anyway. They are quickly shut in a courtyard and fired upon. Robert Cecil plays Elizabeth fully, showing Essex was at the palace to perform a coup and whisks her away. Edward watches from the window, seeing that Southampton, his son is down there. Essex and Southampton surrender. Edward knows they will be executed.

Robert Cecil walks up behind him and reveals he knew about the plot all along. He also knows Essex and Southampton are the Queen's sons and will die.

Robert knows something else. Something explosive. When Elizabeth was 16 she had a bastard son. It was placed with John De Vere. EDWARD IS ELIZABETH'S SON. After his father died, the Cecil's took him in with the overall plan of making him king.

The Cecil's however, could not anticipate that he and the Queen would commit unintended incest and have a son. They also did not realize how much he wanted to write. "You could've been king. Except for the fact, you were you." Edward is beyond devastated by the news.

Edward sits outside in the snow when Anne comes up. Essex is to be executed the next day. Southampton in a week. "Your son is going to die. Killed by his mother. Put that in one of your plays." Anne sneers.

Essex is executed, his last words being, "God save the Queen." Southampton watches in horror from a distance.

Edward sees Elizabeth and pleads for Southampton's life. Elizabeth thinks he is a traitor. Edward says it was all Robert Cecil's doing. Elizabeth says it is all his doing; she knows his secret in regards to the plays.

Edward offers his life, so his son will be spared.

Elizabeth notes that many men have tried to take her down. She could trust the Cecil's despite them being greedy and power hungry because they needed her to succeed.

The Queen agrees to give Southampton a royal pardon and leave him in Edward's care under two conditions. Southampton can never know who his mother is. In addition, Edward must pay with permanent silence. None of his plays will be allowed to carry his name. Edward is reluctant, but agrees, so his son lives. Southampton is released, and Edward embraces him.

Robert Cecil presents Elizabeth with the act of secession naming King James as her successor. She flings the document away, not wanting to sign it.

The Queen dies shortly thereafter. King James is crowned. The Tudor dynasty is over.

A drunken Jonson goes to the Globe and openly calls out Shakespeare as a fraud. He goes to attack him only to be subdued by Shakespeare.

"You came to me Ben." Shakespeare says. Shakespeare then throws Jonson out.

Jonson goes to see Edward on his death bed. Edward notes he started out rich and will die poor. "Words shall be my legacy." he says.

Edward asks why he never clapped during his plays and asks for his opinion.

"Your words are the most wondrous heard on our stage. On any stage. You are the Soul of the Age." Jonson says.

Edward pleads with Jonson to keep his secret. Edward knows Jonson hates Shakespeare but asks him to keep it under control. He hands Jonson several plays, one being King Lear. He tells Jonson to wait a few years before publishing them.

Jonson feels guilty for betraying Edward during the Richard III fiasco but Edward is understanding, saying he knows Jonson betrayed him, but "You would never betray my words."

As Jonson leaves, Anne sees the manuscripts and becomes irate, saying those works destroyed her family. Jonson takes offense saying her family, Queen Elizabeth, and himself will be famous for just being alive. Her husband's words will live on forever, and no one will ever know it was him. That is the real tragedy.

Shortly after, Edward dies.

We now return to the beginning of the film. Robert Cecil asks where the plays are. Jonson says they burned when the soldiers burned the Globe down. He is sad they are lost. "He was perfection, and I was nothing." Jonson says. Robert believes him and releases him.

Robert tells him to forget Edward ever existed. Jonson says it will not happen.

Jonson returns to the Globe and discovers that the plays survived. He takes them and disappears.

Shakespeare and his troupe perform Henry V for King James. James says he loves plays and asks Robert if he does too. Robert is obviously uncomfortable but must conform and say yes. James goes on to gush about Shakespeare. Shakespeare listens to the adulation. He needs it, craves it, but he will never truly have it since he did not earn it.

Our stage narrator returns. He tells us Robert Cecil remained one of the most powerful men in England, but he was never able to suppress the arts like he wished to.

Shakespeare spent the last few years of his life not writing but as a businessman in his hometown.

Ben Jonson became a famous playwright himself, being put up there with his rival Shakespeare. However, the truth about Edward de Vere died with him.

In 1623, when an anthology of Shakespeare's works was published, Jonson wrote the foreword (having known the real man behind them).

The narrator concludes that while their story is over, the poet's is not. For a poet lives on as long as there is air for his words to be said. The man leaves the stage and the curtain falls, ending the play and the film.               

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