Shall I compare Judge Jim Thomas to a summer's day? His feet do smell like moldy clay.
'Tis ten to one this play can never please /
The above quote kept rattling around in my head as I tried to get a handle on this glimpse into the life of England's most famous writer penned by John Mortimer (Rumpole of the Bailey). A&E brings us this 1978 BBC miniseries blends a little fact with a little more fancy to create an image of Will Shakespeare (Tim Curry, The Rocky Horror Picture Show), a brash, assured young man who, by force of personality, became one of the greatest playwrights the world has ever known.
Facts of the Case
Will Shakespeare has six episodes:
"Dead Shepherd—London 1590": Shakespeare, who's getting by as a stable hand, gains a foothold with the Lord Chamberlain's Men, apprenticing to Christopher Marlowe (Ian McShane, Deadwood). Will writes his early histories (Henry VI, Parts 1-3 and Richard III).
"Alms for Oblivion—London 1593": The Lord Chamberlain's Men struggle during an outbreak of plague, while Will becomes involved with the Earl of Southampton (Nicholas Clay).
"Of Comfort and Despair—London 1594": The Earl of Southampton becomes jealous when he learns that Will is also seeing Lady Fleminge (Janet Spencer-Turner), the "Dark Lady" of the sonnets. Will writes Twelfth Night.
"The Loved Boy—Stratford Upon Avon 1596": Shakespeare brings his sickly son Hamnet (Joshua White) to London, where the boy's presence alters his lifestyle. The stories Will tells his son become A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"Rebellion's Masterpiece—London 1600": Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain's Men become unwittingly involved in the Earl of Essex's plan to overthrow Queen Elizabeth when they are paid to perform Shakespeare's Richard II, which chronicles the overthrow of a weak, ineffective king.
"The Living Record—London 1603": Southampton, reprieved from his death sentence and returned to the favor of the court with the ascension of James I, turns on Shakespeare and attempts to have the sonnets destroyed. Stunned at the rejection, Will returns home to soul-search.
OK, let's get this out of the way: this is a drama, not a documentary. If you use this set as the basis for a biographical report on Shakespeare, you'll only have yourself to blame. The first episode is pretty much composed entirely of whole cloth; not only is there no evidence to support that Shakespeare was Marlowe's apprentice, but Marlowe wrote for another acting company, the Admiral's Men, not the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Writer John Mortimer has taken what little is known about Shakespeare's life and worked it into the tapestry of Elizabethan history as best he can. The political intrigue surrounding Marlowe's death is very real, but the rest of the episode, not so much. Once you get past the initial episode, the episodes become somewhat more grounded in history. For instance, the Earl of Southampton was Shakespeare's patron early in his career, is one of the leading candidates for the "fair youth" of the sonnets, and, in all probability, was Shakespeare's lover; however, there is little to suggest the lifelong relationship posited by Mortimer. There is no attempt to provide a comprehensive or even continuous take on Shakespeare's life or career; each episode offers a snapshot of a period in Shakespeare's life.
None of the preceding should be taken as a criticism of the series; after all, little is known about Shakespeare's early life, and anyone writing about it has no choice but resort to dramatic license. An effective move on Mortimer's part is to steer clear, for the most part, of the writing of the various plays. We see Hamlet being performed (along with rival players in the audience frantically transcribing the play, as happened frequently in the Elizabethan theatre before copyright laws); we see Will telling young Hamnet the stories that will become A Midsummer Night's Dream; we hear Will tell Southampton the basic idea behind Twelfth Night; Will watches a wrestling match that prefigures the match in As You Like It. By presenting these scenes in this manner, we avoid a series of generic "Will's writing" scenes that would have undermined the series' progression, and in doing so, the focus stays with Will the man, not Will the work. Mortimer doesn't go overboard with his allusions and references; there's just enough so that someone familiar with Shakespeare can appreciate them, but not so many as to confuse someone who isn't.
Two episodes in particular stand out: "Of Comfort and Despair," which focuses on the personal intrigues behind the sonnets, works not only because it is built on strong acting and character interaction, but also because the story, supposition though it is, reconciles well with the sonnets themselves. It goes a little over the top at times, but the question of the relationship between Shakespeare and Southampton in "Rebellion's Masterpiece" works in large part because it is firmly rooted in the historical record; Shakespeare was, in fact, ill used by the Earl of Essex, and doubtless had some very nervous moments being questioned by Sir Francis Walsingham.
The series' greatest strength is its depiction of Elizabethan life. The series goes beyond just accuracy of costume and sets: The hustle and bustle in the lives of the commoners, the oppressive dread and false bravado fostered by the plague, the overweening arrogance of the aristocracy—it all feels right, and that sense of verisimilitude makes it easy to overlook some of the plot failings.
Tim Curry handles a difficult role with assurance, conveying both youthful brashness and mature assurance. Not only is he portraying the greatest English playwright, but the episodic nature prevents a true character progression. (A discussion with Curry and writer Mortimer on how they saw Shakespeare changing between each episode would have been a welcome extra.) Nicholas Clay does a decent job as the Earl of Southampton, but occasionally the character is used merely as a plot device, shifting from devoted friend to backstabber to political intriguer as needed to move Shakespeare along in his journey.
To give you an idea of what BBC video was like thirty years ago, just consider that at the beginning of each episode, we get a notice that the episode is "in colour." The bad condition of the color blurb helps you appreciate the condition of the video. All things considered, the video isn't bad. Though it's a bit washed-out and a bit grainy, the picture doesn't have many obvious blemishes. The 2.0 stereo track is merely passable; it's tinny in spots, and while there are no pops of hisses, dialogue isn't always clear.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Given the amount of material out there that attempts to fashion a life for Shakespeare that does cleave unto the known record, the manner in which the series plays fast and loose with history is a bit off-putting.
If there is a specific plot weakness in the series, it might be the development of the relationship between Shakespeare and his wife Anne. That relationship is one of the big question marks in Shakespeare's life; despite Anne's appearance in several episodes, we never get a good grasp on how they really feel about one another.
A lot of time was put into restoring the video. The menu design took them maybe three seconds. At most. Instead of displaying each episode on the top menu, you get only two options: Play Show and Scene Select. Play Show plays all episodes on the disc, while Scene Select gives you a screen with the first episode title with links for each act; you have to use a next/back option to see the other episodes. More annoying, if you select a specific episode, when it ends you are returned to the top menu and not the menu for the next episode. It may seem petty to bitch so much about a menu, but you rarely run into a menu quite so user-hostile. (The special edition of Memento was worse, but that was deliberate.)
This series has so many possibilities for extras that only including the cast biographies borders on insult. No, actually, it is an insult.
John Mortimer set himself quite the challenge—to draw the man out of his works. The result is decidedly uneven. If you're familiar with the plays, you'll enjoy the series; if you're familiar with Shakespeare's biography, the dramatic liberties may result in a bit of cognitive dissonance. But overall, the realistic portrayal of Elizabethan life wins the day.
The quality of mercy is not strained. Not guilty.
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