PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

1978 British miniseries released on DVD as ‘Will Shakespeare'

Bruce Dancis
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

William Shakespeare, the man, playwright and poet, has been portrayed onscreen since the dawn of motion pictures. But with the exception of Joseph Fiennes' performance as the youngish Will in 1998's "Shakespeare in Love," those portrayals have often been slight, intentionally arch appearances in TV shows such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Monty Python's Flying Circus."

Consequently, it was a bit surprising to learn that in 1978, a British TV miniseries entitled "Life of Shakespeare" presented a six-hour dramatic exploration of the Bard's life, with Tim Curry, only three years removed from his infamous performance as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," in the title role. The miniseries, however, was never shown on American television and has not been available here until this week, when A&E Home Entertainment will release it on DVD as "Will Shakespeare" (two discs, $29.99, not rated).

Although the miniseries lacks the panache and romantic intensity of director John Madden's "Shakespeare in Love," which won seven Academy Awards, including best picture, actress (Gwyneth Paltrow) and screenplay (Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard), it remains worthwhile viewing for those who are in thrall of the Bard. And Curry, a notorious scenery chewer, acquits himself with both subtlety and force.

Written by John Mortimer (who would shortly thereafter write "Rumpole of the Bailey" for British television) and directed by Peter Wood, Mark Cullingham and Robert Knights, "Will Shakespeare" traces the author's life and work from 1590, when Shakespeare was a struggling playwright in London, to about 1607, when he returns home to Stratford-Upon-Avon and his long-estranged wife for the marriage of one of his daughters.

Despite its relatively low budget, "Will Shakespeare" does a good job in depicting London's teeming, dirty streets and the milieu of taverns, disease and dilapidated lodgings that were the lot of most theater folk. An exception was Christopher Marlowe (played by Ian McShane, of "Lovejoy," "Sexy Beast" and "Deadwood" fame), who was from the upper class. Unlike "Shakespeare in Love," where Marlowe gave useful professional advice to the younger Shakespeare, here it is Shakespeare who tells Marlowe, "I have noticed your verse sometimes walks a little halting" while helping the established playwright overcome a case of writer's block.

More central to Shakespeare's personal and professional life is the Earl of Southampton (Nicholas Clay), who becomes Shakespeare's patron, close friend and recipient of some of the writer's most famous sonnets. Something of a rogue and dilettante, the Earl enables Shakespeare's entry into the Elizabethan court, but also exposes the playwright to political intrigues that almost ruin him. The production treats their relationship somewhat ambiguously, never clearly showing whether they were just dear friends or homosexual lovers.

As the story moves along, we see Shakespeare grow in stature and affluence, and we join contemporary audiences watching Shakespeare's actors in their Globe Theatre presenting scenes from such plays as "Richard III," "Romeo & Juliet," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Twelfth Night," "Hamlet" and "King Lear." Paul Freeman, who later played Belloq, Indiana Jones' French nemesis in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," stands out as the famous actor Dick Burbage.

While "Shakespeare in Love" placed a fictional romance between the playwright and Viola De Lesseps (Paltrow) at the center of its tale, "Will Shakespeare" dwells upon Shakespeare's disappointing home life back in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where his wife Anne (Meg Wynn Owen), portrayed as more bitter than shrewish, holds the family together during the frequent absences of her husband. Away from home, Shakespeare fools around with tavern girls and has an unrequited romance with Mary Fleminge (Janet Spencer-Turner), the married wife of a nobleman and the "dark lady" of his sonnets. Yet his happiest moments are in the company of the Earl of Southampton and his Globe actors.

Although one can't fault "Will Shakespeare" for failing to include a romance that never actually existed, the relative absence of passion and excitement is a more general problem with the miniseries. It's well-acted and well-written but fails to fully engage a viewer over six hours.

Still, for lovers of the Bard's immortal work, discovering this three-decades-old miniseries will be a worthwhile viewing experience. While "Will Shakespeare" may not be the stuff that dreams are made on, there is method in its madness.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.