Hunting Will Shakespeare will be a continuing pursuit. It is almost as if the hunt for him is a hunt for humanity and a search to understand ourselves…
My oldest son, Benedict has rightly observed that TV series are now more interesting than movies. Many of the series are well written, well budgeted, and well acted. As Ben observes, “They’re like ten-hour movies.” As such, there is more time to see characters and relationships develop and serious themes can be explored with more insight and interest.
An intriguing new series on the TNT channel (which can also be viewed through Amazon) delves into the life of William Shakespeare. The series starts with him in Stratford explaining to his wife, “I can’t make gloves for the rest of my life.” So, he takes off for London leaving Anne in the provinces with three children.
The producers have populated Elizabethan London with steam punk characters and added a sound track to match. In my opinion this is a stroke of perverse genius. While it is completely anachronistic, it is suitably shocking. No matter how grubby and gruesome film producers try to make Elizabethan society, their films still come across as a pretty costume drama. One thinks of the ridiculous Shakespeare in Love, which made sixteenth century London into a stupid, sentimental wonderland. Shakespeare in Seattle more like.
The steam punk atmosphere of Will, on the other hand, conjures up what must have been the true grit, guts, gall, and glamour of that most amazing and terrifying time. Viewers should be warned. The punk is not the only thing that is steamy about Will. There is a hefty dose of rampant romping, partial nudity, and plenty that is bawdy, boisterous, and bad. Throw in Christopher Marlowe’s homosexuality, some dabbling in the black arts, torture, spies, murder, and bloody executions, and I would say the series is pretty accurate in tone if not in fact.
The most fascinating thing about the series, however, is that it takes Shakespeare’s Catholicism seriously. In every episode the major subplot is the young playwright’s conflict between pursuing a successful career and pursuing God. The writers are unambiguous about it. Shakespeare and his family are recusant Catholics, and we see his strong relationship with his cousin, the poet and martyr Robert Southwell. This is the first major production that acknowledges Shakespeare as Catholic, and the writers use the thrill and terror of life in the Elizabethan police state as Southwell and all Catholics are hunted down, captured, tortured, and executed.
I have been watching the series as I read Peter Ackroyd’s 2005 biography of Shakespeare. Mr. Ackroyd is also up to date on the theory that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic. He rightly details the fact that Warwickshire was famous as an enclave of recusant families. Not only was Shakespeare’s mother from the famous Arden family—whose relatives were imprisoned and martyred for the old religion, but many of the Shakespeare family’s friends and neighbors were Catholics. Will Shakespeare’s schoolmasters were Catholic and there were strong family and community links with the recusant pockets of resistance in Lancashire, Hampshire, and West Sussex. Throughout the biography, Mr. Ackroyd traces the Catholicism that continued to murmur beneath the surface of Shakespeare’s life and works.
What emerges from both the new television series and Mr. Ackroyd’s book is not so much Shakespeare the man, but Shakespeare the mystery. Mr. Ackroyd tries to flesh him out, but while there seems to be an abundance of evidence about the man in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, when we try to identify the man himself, he shifts, slips, and slides away. Contemporary descriptions say William Shakespeare was witty, intelligent, handsome, and well-mannered. They say he was buoyant, dynamic, ambitious, and courteous. They report that he was pleasant and easygoing. In other words, Shakespeare was one of those really nice guys you never really get to know.
I believe the essential mysteriousness of Shakespeare’s personality is best explained by two factors. First is the simple fact that he was a great actor. When you read the biography of a great actor like Alec Guinness, for example, the same quality shimmers there as it does in Shakespeare. On the surface you meet a pleasant, well-mannered, witty, and charming person, and yet you wonder whether this too is an act. He is a man of many parts. Like a Russian doll, beneath every mask there lies another mask, and beneath them all lies a secret person unknown perhaps even to the man himself.
Without indulging too much in conspiracy theories, I think the second key is Shakespeare’s secret Catholicism. His instinct and skill as an actor served him well. He remained courteous, polite, and pleasant—always playing the game, but always playing his cards close to his chest. He must have had a deeper life and more profound spiritual insights or he could not have produced such masterpieces of human pathos, passion, jubilation, and joy. Like many others, I believe it was his secret Catholic faith that gave his work the depth of beauty, goodness, and truth.
Hunting Will Shakespeare will be a continuing pursuit. It is almost as if the hunt for him is a hunt for humanity and a search to understand ourselves. This is the intrigue of drama, for who among us are not (at least a little) masters of subterfuge and secrecy? Who among us do not don a mask from time to time and pretend a little? Who among us does not step on to the stage of the world—humiliated at the fact that we are merely players.
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