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What’s With All the Sexy Shakespeares?

TNT’s ‘Will’ is the latest entry into 2017’s “historical figure, but very hot” TV trend. We talked to a Shakespeare scholar (and parent) about it.

(TNT/Ringer illustration)
(TNT/Ringer illustration)

In the past 12 months, television has given us de-aged, re-sexified versions of some highly unlikely candidates: Archie Andrews; Albert Einstein; the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz; and best of all, the Holy Father himself. Monday night, TNT throws its hat in the ring with Will, a proudly ridiculous origin story for William Shakespeare that involves dubiously factual elements like secret Catholicism, sexual tension with an equally hot Christopher Marlowe, and a suspicious amount of coiffing for a time when hairspray didn’t exist. Will is much closer to Harlots, Hulu’s underrated prostitution series from this spring, than to Masterpiece Theater’s Wolf Hall; it has neither the budget nor the patience for a somber period piece, and it delights in its anachronisms (the characters engage in a singalong to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” for example). But Will is far from the first riff on “hot Shakespeare.” There’s Shakespeare in Love, which Joseph Fiennes is currently doing his best to ruin our memories of with a creeptastic heel turn on The Handmaid’s Tale; there are the teen-rom-com reboots like 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man; there’s even Still Star-Crossed, the rare miss of a Shonda Rhimes production that follows the aftermath of Romeo and Juliet. To learn more about why we’re still obsessed with the playwright and his work 400 years later, I called up the biggest Shakespeare expert I know: my dad, who teaches 17th-century literature at San Diego State University and has a pair of bookends with Shakespeare’s face on them prominently displayed in his living room.

Dad/Professor Herman was an excellent sport and watched the first two episodes of the show, which follow Will and his prominent cheekbones (personified by Laurie Davidson) to London so he can pursue his playwriting dreams. The following is an edited and condensed version of our conversation, in which I learned a great deal about Petrarchan sonnets, Elizabethan politics, and Shakespeare’s enduring appeal as both an author and a man. Despite what Will might have you believe, his looks don’t have much to do with it.

Let’s just get this out of the way: Was Shakespeare actually that hot?

No. [Laughs]

[Will] got one interesting detail right; there’s a famous portrait of him with a little earring in his right ear, and there’s a scene where you can see that. But not as far as we know.

What about the starving-artist-whose-wife-wants-him-to-be-a-breadwinner dynamic?

Everything about the marriage to Anne Hathaway [Editor’s note: Yes, that was her real name, and no, she’s not the star of The Intern] centers around a really, really weird clause in Shakespeare’s final will and testament where he bequeaths to her “the second best bed.” Nobody knows what that means. [Laughs] There’s ten thousand theories and deeply learned articles, all of which contradict each other. Anne Hathaway did not join Shakespeare in London. She stayed in Stratford, so we really know very little about the relationship between the two.

So the show’s clearly not striving for accuracy.

Oh, no. I kind of have a list here of all the major inaccuracies.

Let’s hear it!

The Globe Theater? That was built in 1599. So that’s completely wrong. There were no women in the Renaissance stage.

Even theater owners’ daughters?

There was no theater owner’s daughter. James Burbage didn’t have a daughter! He had two sons: Richard, who was the actor, and Cuthbert, who was the business manager.

Go on.

There was also lots of improvisations in the scripts. They didn’t always follow the script, and there was a lot of clowning in between the acts. So Shakespeare getting pissed off because people aren’t following his lines would never have happened. Let’s see, not a Catholic — oh, yes: People didn’t dress like punks.

Lotta jewel tones there.

Yeah, that was really weird. I have no idea why they decided to do that. Also, there weren’t guitars. There were lutes.

On the other hand, it’s easy for the pedantic professor to sit here and say “This is inaccurate, that is inaccurate.” But, no. 1, it’s telling a really compelling story, and that’s the most important thing! And Shakespeare mucked around all the time when he did his history plays with chronology and changing the characters and things like that. So why shouldn’t we have the same options? The key thing is, is this a compelling drama? And it is! I want to watch more of this! I think it’s fun to watch!

Just to give a small example: Richard II, the play, has scenes between Richard II and his wife where Richard II is basically saying, “I’m gonna miss you and it’s terrible that we’re gonna be separated.” Richard II’s wife at that point was like, 14 years old. [Laughs] That just never happened. So why shouldn’t today’s playwrights have the same privilege of taking the past and turning it into entertaining fiction? No problems there.

There are a lot of conspiracy theories about Shakespeare this show indulges, like the idea that he was a secret Catholic. Where does that idea come from? Is it true?

In short? It’s not true. There are two conspiracy theories around Shakespeare. One, he didn’t write the plays, which is obviously nonsense. Two, there are people who have really promoted the notion that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic — including, if not especially, Stephen Greenblatt in the biography Will in the World. Now there’s equivocal evidence that Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, was what’s called a recusant, which would be someone who is Catholic in England, but someone who is recognized as Catholic and then subject to all of the penalties which Catholics were subject to. [But Shakespeare himself] was not subject to any of the strictures. You also have to remember that Shakespeare’s company was not a rough-and-tumble bunch, as it’s depicted in the series. This was the top company in England. They regularly performed for the queen. If he was a recusant, he wouldn’t have been allowed within 50 feet of the castle. There’s no evidence one way or the other, but no evidence whatsoever one way or the other (as we know today) doesn’t prevent people from believing in fantasies, and this is one of them.

Would those penalties you mentioned include torture?

They absolutely would. [The crown] would not have gone after someone like [fictional playwright and suspected Catholic] Baxter in that way. But they absolutely went after [executed Jesuit Robert] Southwell in that way. They really went after the Jesuits. The reason for that was that the pope really did promote the assassination of Queen Elizabeth. It wasn’t just simply, “I like to worship in a particular way, and I think bread is the body of Christ.” This was highly, highly political. Spain at the time was a highly aggressive Catholic empire that regularly tried to have Elizabeth assassinated. So people like Southwell were really considered foreign agents seeking to undermine the British crown.

Catholicism is only one of many conspiracy theories surrounding Shakespeare, including his sexuality (which they get at in his relationship with Christopher Marlowe). What are some of the others, and why are they so popular?

Why are they so popular is a really difficult question. It has to do with a kind of contradiction. On the one hand, Shakespeare — from the moment he showed up on the stage — was widely considered [not only] the preeminent author of the English Renaissance, but basically the preeminent author, period. Well, when you start getting into the 18th and 19th centuries, this creates a bit of a problem, because England is a really, really snobby country. [Laughs] And you have people saying it is not possible for someone who is, as the show calls him, a country bumpkin — someone who does not come from the aristocracy, someone who is not educated at Oxford or Cambridge — to create all these incredible plays. So you have all these conspiracy theories saying that Shakespeare didn’t write these plays, and aristocrat-fill-in-the-blank did, be it Francis Bacon or the Earl of Southampton or Queen Elizabeth. It just doesn’t matter at a certain point.

The business about the sexuality — that’s actually a little bit more complicated, and a little bit more grounded. We have no actual evidence about what Shakespeare’s actual sexual preferences were. We just don’t know that. Not to be too pedantic about this, but our understanding of sexuality was not their understanding of sexuality. They didn’t think of being gay or being bi in the same way that we did. But putting that aside for a second, the sonnets very clearly talk about same-sex desire. It’s there. People can come up with all sorts of excuses for it, but it is absolutely there. What happened in the late-19th century is that critics, looking at this stuff, faced with words on the page that basically can’t be denied, then invent something called “the cult of friendship.” So it’s not actual same-sex desire. They’re talking about passionate friendship among men that would use erotically charged language, but there’s no eros whatsoever in it. I actually tried to track down, following the footnotes, where this idea comes from, and it starts in the 19th century. Auden once said something about how we’re just not ready to deal with Shakespeare in this way. We’re just not. So people came up with all these excuses to basically get around this.

Now there’s another part to this, which is that Shakespeare’s sonnets were written after the craze for sonnets in the 1590s. It’s almost like he sat down and made a list of, what are all the conventions of the Petrarchan sonnet, not the least of which is blonde hair and blue eyes? Well, his mistress is not gonna be blonde-haired or blue-eyed. None of this has to do with procreation, so the first 12 sonnets or so are all about procreation. Heterosexual? Well, I’m gonna come up with a version that’s not. It’s almost like he sets himself this project of writing the anti-Petrarchan sequence.

Then add another point to this. Starting with the Romantics, people start assuming that poetry and autobiography are one and the same thing — that when you read a poem, you’re basically reading a diary entry. You can thank the confessionals for really hammering that one down. So people tend to look at the sonnets and assume that this is an actual record of Shakespeare’s erotic experiences. There’s no evidence to support anything like that. Again, they thought about these things differently at that time.

So if the sexual component wasn’t there, how accurate is the rest of the relationship with Marlowe?

That’s probably accurate! Marlowe and Shakespeare were actually the same age. Marlowe, however, was much more successful much more quickly than Shakespeare was. By the time Shakespeare showed up in London, Marlowe had already written several spectacular plays which were incredibly popular, not the least of which was Dr. Faustus. The two of them clearly knew each other. They were kinda rivals. Shakespeare would tweak at Marlowe in some of his plays, pick up something that Marlowe said. They clearly knew each other and they probably were friends. At the same time, everybody was friends at that point. They all went on to the tavern and drank together.

You’ve mentioned this is part of other pop-Shakespeare works like Shakespeare in Love or Still Star-Crossed. It’s a trend that’s been happening for a long time. Why do you think people keep going back to Shakespeare, and what do you enjoy about these works?

I love Shakespeare in Love! I also really, really like Will.

One: Why Shakespeare? Because the plays have an uncanny ability to continue to be resonant and meaningful. Not only over our lives, but over centuries. There is no other author that I’m aware of who accomplished something like that. So he has this place in our culture that no one else does.

Then, we’re always curious! What was the guy actually like? Because while we have a fair amount of documentary evidence marking his passage through time, we have no idea what he was actually like. We have no idea what his relationship was with his kids. We have no idea about his writing habits. We do not have a single autographed draft of a Shakespeare play. And consequently, there are all these mysteries out there which give the imagination free rein. So you put the two of them together and then you have people projecting whatever the contemporary concerns are onto Shakespeare. Shakespeare becomes this blank slate.