By Abigail Sokolsky || Layout Assistant
Since it was first penned, William Shakespeare’s plays have been the inspiration for a variety of interpretations, stagings, and films. Shakespeare’s own life has also been used in conjunction with his plays to produce such films as Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Anonymous (2011). This fascination with Shakespeare’s plays and life continues with the TNT bio-drama of William Shakespeare, Will (2017). This adaptation, like those before it, looks at Shakespeare’s life through a modern lens in an impressive combination of historical and current context, telling a timeless story with updated language. What ultimately makes this dramatization of Shakespeare’s life such a success is the balance it maintains between light and dark, the alluring dichotomy of the London of opportunity and adventure, and the London of fear and violence.
Will (2017) includes an impressive attention to the political climate of England during the 16th century as well as the threat of the black plague. The series begins by establishing the prevalent tension between Catholics and Protestants by casting Shakespeare as a Catholic entangled with his brother Father Southwell, a Catholic in hiding fighting for religious freedom. With the character of Topcliffe, the series calls further attention to the threat towards Catholics, the near unilateral power of Church and State, and the fear with which political and religious authority then regarded theatre as a result. Topcliffe himself remarks throughout the series on his distaste for theatre, calling it immoral and sinful in nature, alluding to the banning of theatre for this very reason in 1596. The series also calls attention to the horror of the plague through the tragic death of Richard Burbage’s childhood friend and fellow actor Autolycus, a disease which swept through England and was virtually untreatable. With the abruptness of Autolycus’ sickness and death, the series highlights the suddenness and poignancy of such a painful end, particularly amidst such a lively and colorful city.
This dark historical picture of 16th century London is juxtaposed with a New York-like atmosphere of opportunity and innovation, a modern edge to a historic setting. This nearly punk-rock city edge shines through in a scene in which Will is out at a bar with this acting troupe and enters into a lyrical exchange with an actor from a rival company. As onlookers bang their tankards on top table calling for a faceoff, Will enters into an improvisational contest which calls to mind a modern “rap battle.” This scene is most probably the most impressive of the entire series, taking the Shakespearean sonnet form and updating it, staging it so that it can be relatable to an audience acquainted with a different lyric form. Will thus echoes a familiar image of a young man trying to make it in the arts. Indeed, Will’s move to London in the hopes of making it as a famous playwright, his grandiose dreams of fame, are comparable to the common trope of the young artist moving to New York, the big apple, to pursue his or her dreams. Even the choice to abbreviate William Shakespeare to Will makes him more accessible to us, making the viewer’s relationship with the character more intimate and familiar.
Junior Abigail Sokolsky is a layout assistant. Her email is email@example.com.