Why we turn Shake­speare into a char­ac­ter

Per­haps we wish to imag­ine ge­nius em­a­nat­ing from a per­son just as clumsy as we are

The Washington Post Sunday - - DRIVING THE BEAT ROAD - BY MAIA SIL­BER maia.sil­ber@wash­post.com

We hear the sound of a crowd clap­ping in uni­son, chant­ing an in­de­ci­pher­able name, faster and faster, and then ex­plod­ing in ap­plause. When the ap­plause fades, we see a lone hand hold­ing a quill to parch­ment. The quill forms a few let­ters, then pauses and scratches them out. The cam­era moves to show us a hand­some face, eye­brows fur­rowed in thought.

“Who will want a play by Wil­liam Shake­speare?” a fe­male voice calls out, break­ing the mood. We see a woman stand­ing, arms crossed, in the cor­ner of a can­dlelit room.

It’s the first of many wink-wink mo­ments in “Will,” a new TNT show about the writer’s life. The show, cre­ated by Craig Pearce, who helped adapt the screen­play for Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film “Romeo + Juliet,” imag­ines an El­iz­a­bethan world of sex, drugs and the­ater crowds re­sem­bling mosh pits. With its gory tor­ture scenes and elab­o­rately cos­tumed but oft-nude cast, the show re­sem­bles such pop­u­lar pseudo-his­tor­i­cal dra­mas as “The Tu­dors,” “Rome” and “The Bor­gias.” This is the English Re­nais­sance, “Game of Thrones”-style.

“It was a world di­vided by religion and re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism,” Pearce says. And if you’re on the wrong side of the di­vide? “Your stom­ach is split open.”

Which raises the ques­tion: Why Wil­liam? It might seem that a poet would of­fer poor fod­der for such a premise — at least com­pared with war­ring mon­archs or con­niv­ing popes. Yet for cen­turies, writ­ers have mined the Bard’s bi­og­ra­phy for drama — de­spite the fact that very lit­tle is known, and very much is de­bated, about the events of his life. (Did he love his wife? Did he sleep with other women — or men? Was he a se­cret Catholic? Did he even write his own plays?)

Per­haps it’s be­cause there’s some­thing tit­il­lat­ing about un­mask­ing the man whose name has be­come syn­ony­mous with ge­nius, and whose plays em­body uni­ver­sal ideas. Ev­ery­one knows Shake­speare — at least a line or two — but this is “Will.” Wink-wink.

Get­ting in­side his head

One Oc­to­ber morn­ing in 1823, the Amer­i­can writer Wash­ing­ton Irv­ing had an idea for a play. “Shake­speare as young man,” he jot­ted down in his note­book. “Seen with Ann Hath­away.”

Irv­ing might have been in­spired to write about Shake­speare by his visit to Strat­ford-upon-Avon, a pop­u­lar tourist at­trac­tion. There, lo­cal res­i­dents hawked arm­chairs and writ­ing desks and bar stools graced, sup­pos­edly, with the Bard’s ghostly pres­ence. Irv­ing mocked the tourists who be­lieved they could pos­sess the Bard’s essence through cheap trin­kets, but Irv­ing un­der­stood their de­sire to get in­side Shake­speare’s head. If fur­ni­ture didn’t do it, per­haps fic­tion could.

As far as schol­ars know, Irv­ing never wrote a play about Shake­speare. But as Sa­muel Schoen­baum doc­u­ments in his book “Shake­speare’s Lives,” the Bard’s rise to cul­tural hero in the 19th cen­tury co­in­cided with his emer­gence as a fic­tional char­ac­ter. The French play­wright Alexan­dre Du­val called a one-act com­edy “Shake­speare amoureux”: Shake­speare in love (with an ac­tress named Clarence). English play­wright C.A. Som­er­set quickly fol­lowed with “Shake­speare’s Early Days,” which dra­ma­tized a pop­u­lar story — never ver­i­fied — about Shake­speare poach­ing a deer.

But th­ese works pale in com­par­i­son with Robert Folke­stone Wil­liams’s ex­pan­sive tril­ogy “Shake­speare and his friends.” The second in­stall­ment, pub­lished in 1839 and clock­ing in at 415 pages, con­cludes with the tri­umphant first pro­duc­tion of “Romeo and Juliet.” Amid roar­ing ap­plause, Folke­stone writes, “one of fa­mous strong lungs made him­self heard above the rest by putting of the ques­tion ‘Who wrote this play?’ ” Shake­speare steps for­ward and de­claims him­self. It’s an­other wink-wink mo­ment: to think of the­ater­go­ers not know­ing who wrote “Romeo and Juliet”!

A long list of cred­its

Fast-for­ward to 2017, and Shake­speare has his own char­ac­ter page on IMDb. He crowd­surfs dur­ing a solo in the rock mu­si­cal “Some­thing Rot­ten!” and in­spires a “Da Vinci Code”-es­que mys­tery in “The Shake­speare Se­cret” (pub­lished in the United States as “In­terred With Their Bones”). He makes cameos on “Satur­day Night Live,” “The Simp­sons,” “The Twi­light Zone” and “Doc­tor Who.” He even faces off against Satan in the video game “Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell.”

Alexa Alice Joubin, a pro­fes­sor of English and Shake­speare scholar at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity, says that rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the writer’s life fall into three cat­e­gories. There are par­o­dies, such as the BBC Two sit­com “Up­start Crow,” which imag­ines Shake­speare as a hap­less Strat­ford dad with a daugh­ter who rolls her eyes at his puns. Then there are dra­mas, such as Roland Em­merich’s film “Anony­mous” (tagline: “Was Shake­speare a fraud?”), which draw on fringe aca­demic the­o­ries about Shake­speare’s au­thor­ship. And fi­nally, there are fan­tasies, such as the Academy Award-win­ning movie “Shake­speare in Love,” which imag­ine a Shake­spearean life as full of ro­mance and tragedy as a Shake­spearean play.

Though th­ese cat­e­gories em­ploy dif­fer­ent means — mock­ery, con­spir­acy, ro­man­ti­ciza­tion — all aim to show that “Shake­speare’s not the per­son he ap­pears to be,” Joubin says. Or rather that he, the source of those lines so fa­mil­iar as to seem origin­less, is a per­son at all.

“Shake­speare in Love” shows the Bard ly­ing prone in an apothe­cary’s shop, like a pa­tient in his psy­cho­an­a­lyst’s of­fice. “Words, words, words,” he sighs to the apothe­cary, be­moan­ing his writer’s block and sex­ual frus­tra­tion (“It’s as if my quill is bro­ken”). The scene’s clev­er­ness comes from its merg­ing of two in­con­gru­ous reg­is­ters: the po­etry of “Ham­let” and the com­plaints of a modern neu­rotic. The plea­sure in mak­ing Shake­speare cor­po­real is the plea­sure of imag­in­ing time­less wis­dom em­a­nat­ing from a body as clumsy as our own.

The Shake­speare spec­ta­cle

It helps, though, if that body has deep blue-green eyes and dark wavy locks of hair, as does “Will’s” Lau­rie David­son. Be­cause while we want a hu­man Shake­speare, we also want a spe­cial Shake­speare. Show us the man be­hind the plays, we say, but don’t ruin the ro­mance en­tirely. Let him be destined for great­ness, like Folke­stone’s Shake­speare, or love as deeply as any tragic hero, like Joseph Fi­ennes in “Shake­speare in Love.”

That’s the real wink-wink of “Will”: the cur­tain drops to show us the man, then goes back up again to present an­other spec­ta­cle. There’s a scene in the first episode, where the Bard and his play­ers go to a pub to cel­e­brate their first suc­cess. A well­known au­thor be­gins to tease the young play­wright, mock­ing his hum­ble ori­gins. The cam­era zooms in on David­son as he swal­lows ner­vously and sput­ters, “Why?” For a mo­ment, we’re in Shake­speare’s head, strug­gling with him to come up with a witty re­tort.

But then David­son stands up and de­liv­ers in­sults, in rhyme. The spat be­comes a rap bat­tle.

Will a soap like “Will” help us probe the depths of ge­nius? Or make sense of schol­arly de­bates? No, but that has never been the goal of those who have fic­tion­al­ized Shake­speare’s life, and it’s not nec­es­sar­ily Pearce’s.

“No one re­ally knows if Shake­speare had a rap bat­tle,” Pearce says. “But, hey, wouldn’t it be great if he did?”

Will (one hour) pre­mieres Mon­day at 9 p.m. on TNT.

ALEX BAI­LEY/TNT

Lau­rie David­son stars as Wil­liam Shake­speare in TNT’s new se­ries “Will,” a kind of “Game of Thrones” for the English Re­nais­sance.

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