Are you watching TNT’s new series ‘Will’, about the life of young William Shakespeare as a newcomer in the London theater scene, circa 1588?
And if not, WHY NOT???
Okay, okay. I know Shakespearean scholars are rolling their eyes, saying how DARE this series take such liberties? They have changed Elizabethan London into a gritty punk rock world of mohawks and warpaint! They have used historically inaccurate costumes! They have made up a background story of Will as a persecuted Catholic. They have given him a fictional lover named Alice Burbage and set him in a (horror of horrors) rap showdown with fellow playwright Robert Greene! And they expect any educated sincere student of Shakespeare to watch this trash?
The answer is YES!!
For far too long, Shakespeare has been buried in a dusty old cellar of books marked ‘highbrow’, ‘difficult’ and ‘boring’. People do not realize he was once a 24 year old trail blazer, full of talent and ambition, thrown into a vicious, provocative and cosmopolitan city. He had a wife and three children to support and was determined to make his mark.
I am here to defend this series and tell you why — if you are interested in the Bard and his ilk — you must watch at once! Or at leas watch this trailer.
First of all, there is very little we know for sure about young Will Shakespeare. He married Anne Hathaway at age 18, had three children, somehow ended up in London and became the most famous playwright in the world.
Documentation tells us that his twins, Hamnett and Judith, were baptized on Feb. 2, 1585. In 1592 there was a derogatory review written by playwright Robert Greene which referred to Shakespeare as an ‘upstart crow’ and a ‘Shake-scene’.
Other than that, no one really has any idea what young Master Shakespeare was doing between the ‘lost years’ of 1585 to 1592.
Most likely he was in London, perfecting his craft, making contacts and worming his way into the theater. Anyone who has read the plays knows he was a man of passion. He could not possibly have written all he did without some actual life experience.
There are some other things, though, that we DO know about the young Bard — which give clues to possible truths portrayed in the new series
1) Being Catholic?
Shakespeare very well may have been a closet Catholic. His mother’s family, the Ardens, were devout Catholics. Years later, Catholic artifacts such as rosaries and Extreme Unction kits (which had been forbidden) were found in Shakespeare’s childhood home.
Being a closet Catholic was dangerous and life threatening in Protestant England.
When Queen Bess came to the throne in 1558, Catholicism was outlawed, but people still practiced in secret. Bess would probably have been lenient, but eventually, as more Catholic plots threatened the Queen’s life, laws against Catholicism got stricter. Practicing Catholicism could get you drawn and quartered.
This meant basically that they would cut you in quarters and pull out your intestines before hanging you as a traitor.
Yeah. I’d keep it a secret too.
2) Elizabethan Theater = Punk Rock? You bet!
The entertainment scene of the 16th century was not respectable in the least. Theaters were bawdy places full of raucous nut jobs who engaged in drinking, whoring and pick-pocketing. All along the south bank of the Thames River, arm in arm with the theaters were houses of prostitution and dens for bear baiting. Some theaters even doubled as bear pits on their off days!
Bear baiting was like dog fighting — on steroids. A chained bear would be teased and tormented by dogs, then let loose to claw them to pieces. Which shows just how dangerous/ crazy this environment was.
Playwrights were often arrested for writing seditious material. It was a constant envelope-push to see how much politically incorrect and offensive stuff they could get away with.
Plays provided cheap, rowdy entertainment. Any peasant could come in off the street, pay a half-penny entrance fee and stand in front of the stage. These were known as ‘groundlings’ — unwashed, unkempt, swilling ale, and not beyond throwing stuff at the stage if the entertainment was not good enough. Sound familiar?
Besides that, the costumes used in the series are creative, stunning and tailored. Queen Bess meets Vivienne Westwood. It may not be historically accurate but…
Would you really want to watch guys dressed like this?
No, I wouldn’t either.
3) The Many Loves of Will Shakespeare?
Shakespeare’s plays deal with love in all its forms — forbidden, absurd, sublime, fulfilled and unrequited. He arguably knew the minds of women better than any other male writer of his time and beyond. Much like the 90’s movie ‘Shakespeare in Love’, the TNT series attempts to show how young Will may have gotten his inspiration.
Her name is Alice. She is the daughter of theater owner James Burbage and sister to actor Richard. In real life, James Burbage had no known daughters, but Alice’s character is an ambitious, intelligent woman stifled by 16th century rules. She defies her father and often cross-dresses for her own safety — providing the inspiration Will would have needed for his female characters. (Think Portia, Viola, Desdemona and Juliet.)
And what of Christopher Marlowe? The notorious playwright/ spy who dominated the Elizabethan theater scene until his untimely death at age 29 is played by the amazing Jamie Campbell Bower. Marlowe, openly gay and staggeringly handsome, may prove an additional temptation for Will.
Who was the ‘Fair Youth’ of Shakespeare’s love sonnets? (Hint: Not a woman!)
4) Eerie Resemblance?
No one really knows what young Will actually looked like. This portrait, dated from the late 16th century, unearthed with other actor’s portraits and coinciding exactly to his age, is often thought to be Shakespeare.
Compare to the actor cast as Will: Laurie Davidson
Weird resemblance, right? Perhaps a ghost is present!
By now I should have convinced you to take a look a this series. You can watch the first episode free here: Will Sneak Peak.
Let me know what you think!