The Bard On the Screen

There are lots of film versions of William Shakespeare’s plays, but lately, there have been a few versions of William himself on screens.

One film is All Is True, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Ben Elton wrote the screenplay for this film about Shakespeare’s final days. Elton also created and wrote a British sitcom that ran for three seasons called Upstart Crow about Shakespeare’s life and work. Branagh had a cameo role on the series, and Elton played Verges along with Dogberry (Michael Keaton) in Branagh’s 1993 film versions of Much Ado About Nothing.

I haven’t seen more than a few clips of the lowbrow Upstart Crow (I only found it available with a subscription to Amazon’s BritBox package) and it is interesting that the same writer was able to write these two very different approaches to Shakespeare the man.

“Upstart crow” comes from Robert Greene’s famous contemporary reference to Shakespeare as an “upstart crow…[who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of.” The upstartedness of William was that he seems to have considered himself on par with the educated and more socially-graced  “Oxbridge posh boys” (like Christopher Marlowe or Ben Johnson) who were also writing plays at the time.

The serious All Is True is no sitcom. It begins with the Globe theater burning down during a performance of Henry VIII. This is taken as why Shakespeare decides to retire and return home to Stratford. He has been away from home for about 20 years. We don’t know if he occasionally visited home. In Upstart Crow, Will apparently often complains about the London to Stratford commute taking days. We really don’t know much for sure about the bard’s life, so writers and filmmakers have some license to fill in the blanks – and Elton and Branagh do so.

It might be that Shakespeare was writing in London, in Stratford and maybe even while journeying between places.  (I vote for London.) I also love that people are still digging into whatever they can find about Will. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has suggested that Shakespeare might have spent more time in Stratford than previously thought. Of course, the Trust is on the site of New Place, the second-largest house in Stratford that Shakespeare bought in 1597, so promoting the town may be a goal.

Many fans have been fascinated by Will’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his wife, Anne. The literal distance between them couldn’t have helped strengthen any love that had once existed. I read that Elton’s TV Will has a better relationship with Anne than most scholars have said existed.  The All Is True Will and Anne are more distant in all ways.

I always thought that the death of their son Hamnet affected Will and showed up in subtle ways in his later writing. Branagh’s version of Anne is angry that her husband did not really mourn their son’s death. This Will even goes off and writes next the comic Merry Wives of Windsor. Was he cold-hearted, or trying to escape grief? This film Shakespeare is more haunted by his only son’s death and back home he tries to fix the broken relationships with his wife and daughters.

The film’s Will is serious in looking back at some of his failings as a husband and as a father. Some of the “truths” of this story involve uncovering secrets and lies within the entire family.

All Is True as a title was an alternate title for henry VIII that was used during Shakespeare’s lifetime. It is also a nice pun considering that this new film is at least partially examining the role of what is “true” in what we know about Shakespeare’s life. Scholarly types have already dug into and opined on whether or not Branagh has stuck to the facts that have been considered true in the past about Shakespeare’s play and life.

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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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