William Shakespeare: We’re all but ghosts and shadows, Jack. We shall all be forgot.
Jack Rice: You, forgot? You don’t believe that. – Will Shakespeare
Shakespeare never goes out of style. When Baz Luhrmann isn’t crafting a post-grunge Romeo + Juliet (1996), Shakespeare is falling in love. Slings and Arrows may no longer be on television, but the myriad Shakespeare festivals at which the show cast its barbs continue unabated. Thirty years ago, Will Shakespeare, a miniseries detailing the life of the Bard, aired on British and Italian television. Now, that miniseries is available on DVD. English professors rejoice!
Conventional wisdom has it that Shakespeare’s life is shrouded in mystery: Was he gay? Did he really exist, or is he just a name under which the work of others was published? Is Shakespeare in Love (1998) for real? In light of these questions, one might be suspicious of a TV series that claims to tell the story of the Life of Shakespeare (an alternate title of the miniseries). Will Shakespeare gives little indication of its sources, and the DVD set includes no bonus features that might elucidate its origins. However, if one seeks historical accuracy from the program, five minutes of Will Shakespeare will assure the viewer of one certainty: the show’s creators were not aiming for sensationalism.
The rich, elaborate settings, detailed, human storylines, and fine acting of the miniseries are all given the lie by the grainy, sub-soap opera film quality that is the hallmark of British television period piece productions like this one. If the goal of Will Shakespeare was to use the Bard’s life simply as a starting point for a juicy drama that would draw in strong ratings, the film quality alone sabotages that purpose. Add in the difficult Elizabethan English that the characters speak and it becomes clear that Will Shakespeare is not designed for a wide audience. Those who have the patience will find that the film quality and the alienating language become more comfortable as the series goes on, and the interest of Shakespeare’s well-told life story easily trumps these potential deterrents.
Will Shakespeare begins its story in 1590, when Christopher Marlowe (Ian McShane) is London’s foremost playwright and Shakespeare (Tim Curry) is unknown. Shakespeare befriends Marlowe, who immediately admires the young writer’s talent for words. Marlowe soon dies and Shakespeare establishes his own theater company, but nothing is easily won for Shakespeare. His initial success is challenged by the black plague and ego battles within the theater company. After a disagreement with one of his actors, Shakespeare decides to accept the patronage of the Earl of Southampton (Nicholas Clay), whose appreciation of the Bard goes beyond admiration of his work.
Shakespeare continues to write his enduring plays and sonnets as he attempts to requite his love for a married “dark lady”—never mind the fact that he has a wife and children waiting for him in Stratford while he goes about his business in London. Shakespeare’s relationship with his family grows more complicated and divisive as his fame grows. His world is made all the more tumultuous when he decides to stage Richard II as a form of political protest.
Queen Elizabeth exacts her revenge on the playwright’s company, and the Bard’s relationship with royalty is never the same. Having established his beliefs about himself as a writer (a mere shadow), Shakespeare struggles until the end with his status as a husband and father. The Will Shakespeare story ends in 1603, shortly after Shakespeare premieres King Lear for King James.
Shakespeare’s story, as told by this miniseries, is a familiar one. Much of his story overlaps with that of Ray Charles or Johnny Cash, if we are to believe our biopics. It is the story of creativity and fame told time and again, the one that, 100 percent true or not, repeatedly captures our interest. This particular rendition benefits from solid acting by most of those involved. Tim Curry is as comfortable in the Bard’s clothes as he was in drag for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Likewise, Nicholas Clay is excellent as the Earl of Southampton, subtly flirtatious and always arrogant, challenging the viewer’s trust even at his most honest moments.
Will Shakespeare certainly has its flaws. The moments of highest drama are sometimes overstated by ham-fisted cinematography, music, and/or acting. However, these overwrought moments are compensated for by a depth of detail in the story as well as in the settings, costumes, and language.
In total, Will Shakespeare is a familiar story of fame that will not appeal to everyone who enjoyed, say, Walk the Line (2005). It will, however, appeal to most everyone who loves period drama, and of course to all those who still think the Bard is hotter than July—no small group, mind you, and undoubtedly the group most concerned with this DVD release in the first place. But just about anyone who is willing to give Will Shakespeare the time, practitioner of Bardolatry or not, will be rewarded by this human portrait of a near-mythical figure.