When modern-day audiences think of William Shakespeare, they probably all come up with something similar. Many recall intellectual, serious plays with strangely lyrical language that a teacher made them read in school. It’s possible that some consider Shakespeare’s works boring, austere or old-fashioned. Others might consider them meant solely for the elites of the world. Perhaps, in order to talk about any series based on the life of the famous playwright, its necessary to acknowledge the Bard’s contribution to the cultural canon. To point out the importance of his legacy to the works that came after him. To revel in the fact that his genius created some of the most memorable characters and stories in all of literature. Because he is Shakespeare, and he is probably the greatest writer who has ever lived.
But here’s the thing: In the Bard’s day, his plays weren’t exactly considered high art. And they certainly weren’t the provenance of stuffy academics. In the sixteenth century, the theater wasn’t the home of the elite, but the everyman. Packed shoulder-to-shoulder in groundling pits, audiences cheered, yelled, and got drunk together during the various productions. They weren’t thinking about wordplay or the deeper meaning of language, they were just there for a good story, entertainingly told. (And maybe a bit with a dog. Shakespeare in Love was probably right about that.) Renaissance theater, though it may come as a surprise to some, was common and rough, but most of all, it was fun.
TNT’s new drama Will attempts to embrace this more updated idea of William Shakespeare, both in terms of the man, and the world in which he lived. As depicted here, Will is seems to be something of a punk-rock idol, an edgy artist who nevertheless snags all his best comebacks from his friends at parties. He’s a sort of trendy Renaissance-era forerunner of Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda (with the rap battle chops to boot). Will enters a London teeming with vice – a riotous cacophony of rebels and renegades struggling to break from the traditional and expected. There are bright colors, grungy street urchins, coarse language and completely anachronistic music. (“London Calling” is used in the first ten minutes, for example.) This presentation can feel fairly artificial, a sort of check-the-box list of “edgy” imagery meant to illustrate the extent of Shakespeare’s rebel heart, rather than the actual truth of his life or work. But there’s no denying that it’s a good time. In fact, when Will stops taking itself so seriously, there’s quite a fun show in there. Silly, and kin of dumb at points, but definitely entertaining. Which is why it’s unfortunate that Will so frequently tries to be something it’s not, shoehorning in a draggy political plot that inevitably pulls our focus away from the joys of theater and the pressures of fame.
The series’ initial story goes something like this. William Shakespeare heads to London in 1589 to seek his fortune as a playwright, leaving his wife and children behind in Statford-Upon-Avon. His family sends him off with a rosary and a letter for his militant Catholic cousin, Father Robert Southwell, who happens to be wanted by Richard Topcliffe, the Queen’s chief interrogator. This all becomes important later, after Will is mugged, and his incriminating note stolen. In happier news, Will manages to stumble into a job with James Burbage’s acting troupe almost instantly, and into a flirtation with his daughter Alice immediately thereafter. Alice, to her credit, is educated and charming, and one of the few secondary characters we want to see more of immediately. Though perhaps not necessarily more of with Will, which is maybe going to be a problem as the series continues. (Honestly, she deserves better.) We’ll have to see.
Burbage’s theater troupe is comprised of a gaggle of rather delightful weirdos, and Will’s scenes getting to know all of them are a highlight of the series’ first two episodes. Will ends up providing a play for Burbage’s crew, which serves as his introduction to the London theater scene at large. The scenes which focus on the artistic process of theater work best, as Shakespeare attempts to navigate producing a play that is both up to his own personal standards and appealing to the public at large. The Burbage performers fight with each other and other theaters along the way, and the business side of making art is enjoyably messy. (And the moment in which Will’s first play is a success is unexpectedly moving.) Afterward, Will meets fellow playwright Christopher – Kit – Marlowe, here presented as a rival, an idol, and Will’s escort into the seedy underbelly of Renaissance London. Actor Jamie Campbell Bower plays Marlowe as something of a proto-David Bowie, all leather pants and dramatic eyeliner and making out with handsome boys at every available opportunity. While his read on Marlowe may be something less than historically accurate, Bower’s bitchy disdain makes the character the series’ instant standout. And, at least, initially, he’s perhaps a more interesting character than our dear Will. (Laurie Davidson surely tries his best – and is very attractive – but at the moment, his Will is as much a cipher as he is a hero.) After he figures out Shakespeare’s Catholic secret, Marlowe sends a man off to face torture and death to save Will’s life, because art must be sacrificed for, and occasionally paid for in blood. It’s a dramatically over-the-top twist, but one that feels almost believable for a character like this.
In truth, Will’s most confusing creative decision is the choice to focus the series’ B-plot so heavily on the persecution of Catholics in London. Whenever the story jumps from Shakespeare’s raucous theater adventures to threats of violence, religious lectures or exposition about Topcliffe’s reign of terror, the momentum of the show basically stops dead. And this is probably because, well, the story kind of makes no sense. Based on deeply nebulous historical facts, it asks us to believe that Shakespeare was not only a secret Catholic, he was a particularly militant one who actively spied for the Faith in Protestant England. This….isn’t at all true, most likely, but since the historical record surrounding Shakespeare’s life is so spotty, you can kind of make up what you want. It’s…theoretically possible, let’s say. But it’s also incredibly bizarre from a storytelling perspective. It seems safe to say that no one at all is watching Will for a Game of Thrones-style religious persecution drama with torture and ghosts. But that’s what we get for a large part of these first two episodes, and it’s unclear why exactly. Who asked for this? When can we go back to the dramatic eyeliner and leather pants?
Because, somewhere, under all the serious (and, quite frankly, forced) drama is actually kind of a fun show. Will freely embraces its most ridiculous elements. It clearly loves the performative nature of theater, the fun of language, and the larger than life historical figures whose stories it purports to reimagine. There are plenty of little shout-outs here for Shakespeare enthusiasts, ranging from a sly wink at the ongoing authorship debate surrounding Edward III to the direct incorporation of lines from many of the plays themselves. At its best, the show is bright and joyful fluff – which means that it should probably lay off the torture scenes a bit next week.
Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2 (S01E01-02)
Will airs Mondays at 9PM on TNT
Lacy is a digital strategist by day and a writer because it seemed like a good start to her supervillain origin story. Favorite things include: Sansa Stark, British period dramas, and that leather duster that Aeryn Sun wears in Farscape.
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Lacy Baugher | Contributor