July 31, 2017

Upstart Crow Will Shakespeare on the Small Screen

Currently, William Shakespeare has a television program. The cable channel, TNT, is showing an original drama series called Will.

Even though there are more books written about him than probably anyone, we don't know that much about William Shakespeare. This is especially true for what are known as the "lost years" from 1578-82 and then from 1585-92.

The first period covers the time after Shakespeare left grammar school, until his marriage to Anne Hathaway in November of 1582. The second period covers the seven years of Shakespeare's life in which he must have been perfecting his dramatic skills and collecting sources for the plots of his plays.

That second lost period is what the TNT series focuses on. Will is a struggling playwright who is tired of working in the family business as a glover (making gloves) in order to support his wife and three children. He leaves them to travel to London and seek his quite literal fame and fortune.

Shakespeare purists may have problems with the liberties that those lost years allow the filmmakers. It is no surprise that some aspects of the telling are updated. The most obvious inclusion is a pop-punk soundtrack to Will's adventures.

Though this story begins in 1592, two years after the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, with Queen Elizabeth I is on the throne, there are allusions to future plays by Will alluded to. In one episode, Will learns about exploration in the new world - a brave new world - and jots a note to use for The Tempest in about 20 more years.

Pretty quickly after arriving in the funky London, he co-writes the play Edward III to a great reception and a star is born. I'm not sure it was that fast in real life, but then no one is really sure. Will the charms theater James Burbage, befriends the acting company, pushes out the previous playwright, has a rap battle with Christopher Marlowe in a pub and falls in love with Burbage's daughter, Alice.

Alice? Burbage's son Richard did become one of the most celebrated actors of his era and the elder son, Cuthbert, followed in his father's footsteps as a theatre manager. Alice?

One aspect of Shakespeare's real life that is emphasized in the episodes I've seen so far is religion. Will keeps his Catholicism secret from those who would threaten to kill him and exploit his connection to the wanted Robert Southwell.

Though Will is out-of-place - a Catholic from the small town of Stratford in a turbulent big city during a time of religious turmoil -  he seems to adapt quite easily.

The first real reference to Shakespeare as an actor/playwright was in 1592. He was attacked in a pamphlet, written by a well-known poet and playwright, Robert Greene. Greene was one of the university wits. They were the Cambridge/Oxford trained literary scholars of the era and that included Christopher Marlowe and Sir Walter Raleigh. Both of those wits appear in the series. The pamphlet was called the 'Groatsworth of Wit' in which Greene attacks the actor William Shakespeare as an "upstart crow."

I like Shakespeare. The real one. And his plays. I also like that the plays remain relevant because people keep bringing them into the present. Some people have a problem with that. I don't. Some people protested this summer at a New York production of Julius Caesar during the assassination scene and shouting: “This is violence against Donald Trump.” Yes, Caesar looked like Trump.

The play was part of the annual free Shakespeare in the Park series. I have attended many of those performances over the years. I've seen Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep. I've seen old style and new style Shakespeare there. I love it.

Company spokesperson Oskar Eustis addressed the audience one night before the performance and said “Anyone who watches this play tonight… would know that neither Shakespeare nor the Public Theater could possibly advocate violence as a solution to political problems, and certainly not assassination. This play, on the contrary, warns about what happens when you try to preserve democracy by non-democratic means, and again, spoiler alert: it doesn’t end up too good.”

Go for it, Will and company.

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