An Embarrassment of Richards: a Review of “Will”

I recently binge watched (ten episodes, four days) the first and perhaps only season of Will. This is not a series about determination, as in the force of  . . . It is, rather, the imagined first months/years in London of William Shakespeare, a kid down from Stratford-upon-Avon, looking to make a name in the theater.

If this sounds a bit like Shakespeare in Love, winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1998, well . . . it is. Yet it isn’t. John Madden’s movie, written by Marc Norman and the great Tom Stoppard, was – as is Will – an irreverent spin on the young Bard’s trials and tribulations. But unlike Will, Shakespeare in Love is luxurious in its blackout hilarity, delightful inventiveness, and reverence for the great poet’s words.

There’s a principle sometimes employed in translation known as “dynamic equivalency,” the attempt to render something very old into the language and imagery of the very new. There’s a school of Biblical scholarship that champions the method, usually with terrible results. Indeed, the only reliably effective application of dynamic equivalency happens in comedic parody – the broader the better: for instance, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Broadway, 1962; film, 1966) or A Knight’s Tale (2001).

A Knight’s Tale is supposedly based upon the similarly titled section of The Canterbury Tales and even features Geoffrey Chaucer as a character in the film – played by Paul Bettany. Heath Ledger plays William Thatcher, a squire who impersonates a knight named Ulrich von Liechtenstein (a real 13th-century knight). The young squire becomes champion of the lists! And at one point the spectators, gathered in the stands to watch the jousting, do the “wave,” as the soundtrack blasts Queen’s foot-stomping anthem, “We Will Rock You.”

Absurd as it sounds, this may actually be closer to the way a medieval audience behaved at a tourney than, say, the polite applause and gentle gasps of fine people in their finery watching Lancelot (Robert Taylor) jousting in Knights of the Round Table (1953), the first film I ever saw in a theater. (At one point I whispered to my grandmother, pointing at Mr. Taylor: “Why is that man’s hair blue?” Ah, Technicolor!)

            Will began as a project for Pivot, a network unknown to me, devoted as it is to young adults, 18 to 34. Pivot pivoted and the grown-ups at TNT took on the project, giving us not too much Elizabethan-speak but plenty of pop music and pop dance, and pretty men and handsome women. Drollery!

But here’s the rub: More so even than The Tudors, Will is as pro-Catholic as any production ever presented about Reformation England.

Messrs. Bower (Kit Marlowe) and Davidson (Will Shakespeare)

Would that I were such a booster of our Faith that I might recommend Will unreservedly just for being respectful of Catholicism, but faith here is mostly a veneer, even though it lacquers everything. And although Will goes further than any previous dramatic presentation in emphasizing Shakespeare’s faith, it goes too far. It takes threads of true history and weaves them into an absurd tapestry of fantasy. Of Shakespeare’s Catholicism, scholars have no doubt. Of his devotion or crypto-activism, however, there is little evidence.

So, then, in fair London where we set our scene: In 1592, actor Richard Burbage (Mattias Inwood) will star in Richard III by Shakespeare (Laurie Davidson) but actually be portraying Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremmer), Elizabeth I’s Catholic hunter and torturer: a sort of embarrassment of Richards.

Topcliffe’s main obsession is capturing a cousin of Shakespeare, the Jesuit priest/poet Robert Southwell (Max Bennett). Topcliffe, unaware of Shakespeare’s relationship to Southwell, has actually commissioned the play from Will, thinking it will be a paean to Topcliffe himself.

Now Burbage and Shakespeare really were friends – business partners, in fact – and Topcliffe really was Protestant England’s answer to Catholic Spain’s Tomás de Torquemada. Southwell and Shakespeare may have been distantly related, and the Bard seems to have been aware of the Jesuit’s illegal writings (banned in England simply for being Catholic, as were priests, on pain of death), but whether or not they actually knew one another, let alone ever met in London as they do in Will, is pure speculation. Obviously, the real Will really did write Richard III (sorry Oxfordians), but there is no evidence that it was a satire of Topcliffe, and – even if it were – it did not ruin Topcliffe’s career, as apparently it does in Will. In fact, Topcliffe lived another dozen years, in all of them enjoying the full favor of the queen.

Much as I love Shakespeare in Love, I don’t think it captures the genius of Shakespeare at work. A hard thing to do, I know. But at least Joseph Fiennes entertains as the great playwright struggling to write Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, which becomes one of his greatest triumphs, once Ethel becomes Juliet. Mr. Davidson is good as the Bard, but the series itself is too choppy and too in love with its hipness to give us very much of the playwright’s “process” or of Richard III, whereas Shakespeare in Love gives us plenty of Romeo and Juliet, enough anyway to display the playwright’s genius. Fiennes is brilliant; Davidson is adequate. And Will is about half as clever as Love.

I should mention that the best performance in Will is given by Jamie Campbell Bower as Will’s friend and ill-fated rival, Christopher Marlowe.

The other day, I also stumbled upon an episode of this season’s ABC drama, Still Star-Crossed, the story of what happens to the Capulets and the Montagues after the tragic deaths of Romeo and Juliet – a series that demonstrates why English accents are insufficient to enthrall an audience, nor is the creative casting of white and black actors intermixed in two Renaissance Italian families. The network canceled the show after six episodes.

I’d say, “The more Shakespeare the better!”, if only there were more Shakespeare.

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Will is rated TV-MA. TV ratings used to be comprehensible, but now that Turner Classic Movies shows films uncut and including nudity, the limits are stretched. Will includes scenes of fornication, although never explicitly. Obscenities abound, however. The cast features Olivia DeJonge as Alice Burbage and Colm Meany as her father.

Brad Miner

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. The Compleat Gentleman, is available on audio and as an iPhone app.

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