If one visits the drama section of the Foyles bookshop in London, it is hard to believe that Shakespeare, far from being merely our ‘greatest living playwright’ (as Andrea Leadsom might say) is anything less than the sole playwright that ever lived. The shelves groan under the weight of his volumes and of the parasitic scholars which cling like barnacles to the immense sperm whale of English Lit. Meanwhile, in the shelves opposite, a multitude of lesser mortals, so-called 'playwrights' in their own right, huddle like microscopic krill lest they be swallowed in their thousands by the immortal Moby Dick. The ancient Greeks themselves are put in the shade. And the kitchen sink dramatists never get a look in.
This had been the case for many years, centuries even, but it arguably got even worse with the invention of cinema – talkies, that is. Silent movies couldn’t convey the man’s genius. Sir Laurence Olivier had much to do with the transfer of the Bard’s work onto celluloid, the same Olivier who famously advised Dustin Hoffman to try acting. It was Olivier who first offered a brooding Hamlet to the camera, complete with Yorick’s chap-fallen skull. His patriotic Henry V urged the ‘band of brothers’ to support the British war effort. The location was in Ireland and the ‘brothers’ were actually Irish extras whose country, being neutral, was the safest location the filmmakers could find.
More recently, the Bard himself has also received filmic treatment, reviving his acting career and appearing (as himself) in Shakespeare In Love, courtesy of that nice Mr Weinstein (who has so much else to answer for). Here, Will was flatteringly depicted as the young, slightly frenetic and adolescently confused lover of Gwyneth Paltrow. That time he had the good fortune to have his part scripted by Tom Stoppard.
So far, so bardolatrous. But it has taken till now for the Olivier of our times (he literally played Olivier in one film) to present worshippers of the only truly English religion since the Druids with the ultimate gift: after years of playing the famous roles, Kenneth Branagh has directed a film in which the finest Shakespearian actor of his generation (himself) plays the Bard (himself). No less. The one and only. At a stroke, and with all the magic of cinema at his disposal (along with a false nose and bald wig), Branagh has transformed himself into the most transcendent genius of all time, only this time scripted by a stand-up comedian.
All Is True purports to tell the story of Shakespeare’s last years back in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. The title is filched from the subtitle of the last play that the bard had a hand in, Henry VIII, and is distinctly tongue in cheek. Ben Elton, the screenwriter and also the inventor of a sit-com starring the bard called ‘Upstart Crow’, knows very well that history records next to nothing of the truth about Shakespeare. Indeed, Mark Rylance would insist we do not even know he wrote the plays. This demonstrates at the very least a treacherous attitude to Rylance’s own profession, but I leave it to some brave actor to step forward and mount a defence of the intellects of actors.
The fact is that William Shakespeare, player and playwright, managed to fly so far beneath history’s radar as to leave no real trace of his life. Aside from some anecdotes concerning deer poaching in his youth, or the endless enigma concerning the recipients of his sonnets, we have little more than a rather dreary last will and testament and some dodgy examples of his handwriting. No letters. No evidence of how his genius arose. He is the prolific and brilliant writer who left behind a tabula rasa. In the circumstances, it’s astonishing how few people have resisted the temptation to scribble all over him.
So, for Ben Elton even to hint that what his screenplay depicts is the real and compelling story of the great man is clearly a joke. Sadly, it is – along with a splenetic and snobbish outburst from the Earl of Southampton – the film’s only decent joke, except the Earl’s joke is not decent. The outburst appears when Southampton, played by a very antiquated Sir Ian McKellen, is sitting with the great poet at the fireside of his Stratford home. They are sitting in the pervasive gloom of candlelight that the whole film seldom escapes. The possible addressee of some of the sonnets sits, wizened, wearing a curly wig, before an adoring middle-aged Shakespeare, and dismisses less talented writers (all of whom belong in the disregarded shelves of Foyles) as having been ‘spat out by the dicks of non-entities’. It is probably the only moment one can detect the hand of the writer of ‘Upstart Crow’ and ‘Black Adder’. Shakespeare/Branagh, however, is not laughing. Instead, he sits in the gloom with his eyes welling up as his ruined idol pays him the useless compliment. What he really wants, we are expected to believe, is a belated confession of love from the old toff.
The sparsity of humour is surprising given the screenwriter’s back catalogue. This was the writer, after all, who reimagined Queen Elizabeth as a kooky overgrown teenager squealing with pleasure when one of her courtiers said something bawdy. There are no squeals to be heard here. The tone of the entire film is melancholic throughout, based on the idea that Shakespeare has returned to mourn his dead son, which is an excuse for several ghostly apparitions of a kind Shakespeare himself would have applauded, especially as Hamnet has a tendency to quote his father’s plays, even when they were written after Hamnet’s death at the age of eleven.
It’s really the language, however, which acts as the biggest drag on the film. There is no sense that we are hearing the words spoken by a brilliant and restless genius. Branagh’s Bard is content to delve in his garden with a heart-shaped spade, act the curmudgeon when an aspiring writer turns up asking for advice and never once ascend from the dismal plateau of modern English, except when he quotes from his own extant writings. On the part of Elton this is a massive dodging of responsibility which makes one wonder why he didn’t dodge the entire brief, but who knows, maybe Stoppard was unavailable.
The scene in the Bard’s living room is a case in point. Branagh’s apparition suddenly breaks off from the lifeless quotidian English he has spoken thus far to recite one of his own sonnets. It is number 29 in fact, a poem very pertinent to the class divide yawning between him and Southampton. The sonnet is quite possibly as perfect a sentence (and it is just a single sentence) as anyone ever came up with:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
The Bard then makes the mistake of telling the Earl that he had, indeed, loved him and wondering out loud if the Earl ever returned his love. Southampton is indignant. He scolds the poet for getting above his station. “It is not for you to love me,” he says, snootily. But that is not the end of it. We then have to hear the entire sonnet again, this time (as a further compliment to the poet) recited by Southampton. It’s as if these two national treasures of the acting profession are engaged in a sonnet duel, a competition to see who can recite the same sonnet most affectingly. This is one of those occasions when acting verges on a contact sport. We know it will end in tears. Sadly, from the point of view of cinematic climax, I have to declare Branagh the victor by a nose, though no doubt other judges will disagree. But that is of no great moment; it’s not whether you win or lose but that you played, after all, if you’re an actor, and once this scene is over there isn’t a dry eye in the house – the house of the almost entirely fictional and once again entirely quotidian William Shakespeare, that is, brought back to sullen earth after recollecting a sonnet he could not conceivably have penned.
How stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me the uses of modern English. I recall similar disappointment on first reading the New English Bible, whose ‘translators’ – they must have been a committee of trendy vicars – flatly refused to employ the word smote, presumably on the basis that it was too harsh for modern sensibilities. Branagh/Shakespeare never misses an opportunity to prove Mark Rylance’s theory that he could not have been himself. His use of language is never as good as the Earl’s was for that fleeting moment, thus fuelling another pet theory of those who deny the player from Stratford could ever have been the author: it was obviously Southampton’s work all along.
“What else do you expect?” I hear you cry. “No one could have done a better job of writing like the all-time master, not even the speaker of the House of Commons.” Oh, I don’t know, what about that strange moment in Vice when Dick Cheney and his wife go to bed and start speaking in blank verse like latter day Macbeths? It may be a kind of Shakespearian gibberish, but it sounds just as good as the real thing. And there was blank verse in Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III too, unless my ears deceived me, and that was written sometime in the future. It is at least possible to do this kind of thing. But when someone in his family accuses Shakespeare of always ‘putting words in other people’s mouths’, this is surely a confession on the part of Ben Elton that he has been doing just that with the dramatist, a feat even James Joyce could not achieve. This is what the Bard sounds like in Ulysses, after all:
SHAKESPEARE: (WITH PARALYTIC RAGE.) WEDA SECA WHOKILLA FARST.
It’s hardly even English, let alone divine poesy.
However, there is another level of sadness beyond the discovery that the Bard was not, in a private capacity at least, remotely bardic, or even the decision to abandon all pretence to authenticity and hang the entire story on Branagh/Shakespeare’s mourning of his dead son. It is the under-use of Judi Dench as the much put-upon and very disgruntled Ann Hathaway.
Writing in ‘Slate’, Isaac Butler asserts that this is a biopic for the #MeToo generation, and certainly one can agree that although Shakespeare is no Harvey Weinstein, he is depicted as a ‘crap husband and father’. He has so alienated Ann with his long absences and carryings on in that London, she addresses him coldly as ‘Husband’ for most of the film. It is not till a touching scene of reconciliation over the flower beds, when he admits he’s a bad gardener, that she deigns to call him Will and lets him back into her bed ‘for comfort’. But at no point does Judi Dench really grab the limelight. So much for #MeToo, then. I thought it was about improving the lot of actresses in the film industry after dumping the casting couch in the nearest skip, or it was until the whole thing exploded over social media and became the scourge of sexual predators everywhere.
So no, Husband/Will is not a sexual predator, unless he’s what Barbara Ellen (in reference to Ryan Adams) calls a ‘needy predator’. There is some literary evidence for that, judging by the way he depicts male lovers. In ‘As You Like It’, one such lover scratches his sentiments into the bark of trees. Your typical Elizabethan predator was not a powerful middle-aged type, but a young man such as the one who courted a girl some years his senior, an upstart crow yet to become a swan.
Nowadays, the typical predator is longer in tooth and claw. If we are indeed living through an age where directors are beginning to cast women in the major roles and pay them accordingly, it is also an age where an all-female version of Julius Caesar can be staged and Maxine Peake gets to play ‘the Dane’. Far from being in the swim, then, All Is True accepts a version of Ann as the dumpy, illiterate wife of a quill, and reins Dench in to allow Branagh full sway in his somewhat ridiculous hair and beard.
This is sad, as it’s hard to imagine that the Bard, with all his references to cross-dressing and his liberal resort to gender-bending, would have been particularly alarmed by the implications of #MeToo for the theatre. On the contrary, he might have been thrilled. His own theatre with its all-male casts was in some ways a mirror image of our own. Take his Cleopatra. When she commits suicide rather than be hauled off to Rome in chains, it is informative that she dreads mockery more than simple captivity. She warns Iras, one of her faithful servants, that ‘saucy lictors’ (don’t ask me):
Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o’ tune. The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us and present
Our Alexandrian revels. Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ th’ posture of a whore. (Antony and Cleopatra, Act 5, Scene 2)
It is clear that back in Rome her tragedy could very rapidly turn into a comedy, with rude ballads to boot. No doubt, given Cleopatra’s reputation, a prosthetic nose would be involved.
But what really mortifies Cleopatra is the idea of someone ‘boying her greatness’. It is well known that female actors weren’t allowed in Shakespeare’s day, so this is an incredibly bold piece of fourth wall demolition. Even as his ‘Cleopatra’ spoke these lines, she was being boyed in her greatness before the very eyes of the Globe’s audience. Would they have awoken from their trance of suspended disbelief at this reflexive juncture, and if so, would they have experienced theatrical alienation such as Brecht could only dream of? Hard to say if we do not fully understand how they accommodated the illusion of femininity in the first place. It was surely high risk, however, for the playwright to imperil the spell of theatrical illusion and admit that his actor squeaked. One recalls Bottom pleading to be allowed to play Thisbe as he can speak in a ‘monstrous little voice’. Perhaps those classical French critics were right and Shakespeare just didn’t have the dramaturgical nous to keep his tragedy and his comedy separate in the wash.
Disappointed as I was by this portrayal of Ann as a dowdy and sulky adjunct, I naturally longed for the opinion of an acknowledged godmother of modern feminism. Amazingly, I got lucky and found a book by Germaine Greer on the very subject of ‘Shakespeare’s Wife’. Unfortunately, it predated the current debate; Greer’s book was published back in 2007. Nonetheless, what could be better for the purposes of saving Ann Hathaway from the role of resentful sidekick to greatness than a great feminist who never shied from controversy, eager to champion her cause?
Alas, I shall not deny it, the book only served to compound my disappointment after the film. Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonder of scholarly research. The author has a grand old time challenging the assumptions of (male) scholars who have questioned the possibility that Ann might have had a mind of her own, or that her husband loved her, or that any of the sonnets could be addressed to her, etc, etc. Greer refuses to take for granted that he shunned her for years and that she was unable to read. The Ann Hathaway she gives us is (at least potentially) economically independent, intelligent and a superior gardener, possibly a brewer of beer. Yet, as is the fate of all such efforts to dig out facts concerning Shakespeare and those who knew him, Greer offers no more plausible an account in the end than that of a stand-up comedian. So dependent is she on suppositions drawn from what she can glean concerning other women who lived at the same time and in the same part of the country, it is a bit rich when she writes in her sixteenth chapter that scholars ‘bereft of anything like fact, occasionally permit themselves a little idle speculation’. Facts are even thinner on the ground concerning his wife than they are concerning the illustrious poet. Given this dearth of facts, however, one is bound to wonder why nobody, not even an arch feminist, has dared to speculate more. What did she have to lose?
In her final chapter, Greer seems close to fulfilling at last the unspoken promise of the book. She proposes that after her husband’s death, Ann supervised the collecting of his plays and their publication. Yet even here she is timid, betraying perhaps even more deference towards scholarship than she has admitted thus far: ‘The idea that [Ann] might be entitled’, she says, ‘to some of the credit for the preservation of her husband’s work is apparently too ridiculous to contemplate, which is why we shall now contemplate it’.
It has taken well over three hundred pages for Greer to become this heterodox. In the process we have had to wade through a huge amount of material that has no bearing on the matter in hand. Now, having aired her theory – which, like all bardic theories, is as plausible or implausible as the rest – on the very last page she confesses:
‘All this, in common with most of the book, is heresy, and probably neither truer nor less true than the accepted prejudice.’
Neither truer nor less true. Probably. Pray, what does that even mean?
I can’t imagine the world taking so much interest in a dusty old book the likes of which a wife from Stratford-upon-Avon might have helped preserve, if the writer had been this judicious about the Truth. We would never have got the evil ‘hedgehog’ Richard III for a start. His portrayal would have been far more even-handed. He would probably have lost his hump and spent most of the play being nice to his relatives, just as Shakespeare should have been.
But let’s imagine that Germaine Greer had not abandoned her usual guise of fearless contrarian. Imagine she had brought the full force of her heretical character to the vexed question of Shakespeare’s wife. Would she not, at the very least, have claimed that it was Ann, and not that syphilitic wastrel Will, who penned the plays? After all, who actually had the leisure to do it, stuck up there in her Stratford backwater? While hubby was off in Sin City, trawling the stews and acquiring venereal complaints, she could have been surrounded by books and helped by her clever daughters. They couldn’t go to London, that was as much a boy’s job as putting the bins out in Theresa May’s household, but it was no real loss. London would have been too big a distraction. She’d never have got a decent line written with all that hubbub going on. No, she was happy to let him go gadding off for months on end, pretending the plays she wrote were his, receiving all the praise, even visiting the court. She, meanwhile, was able to get her revenge on the patriarchy of her day by writing the best female characters the world had seen since the Wife of Bath, only this time they were written by a woman. They could be in control. They could be lawyers weighing the lives of criminals in the balance, or murderesses asking the evil spirits to ‘unsex me here’ and chiding their husbands for a lack of ambition. They could be wide-eyed innocents like Miranda, or subtle psychologists like Rosalind or Beatrice. They could be Cleopatra topping herself rather than go near a theatre. It was for her to decide. All the things she could not be, she could write. Now that would have been a woman for Judi Dench to play. It is really not impossible – although a touch heretical and impossible to prove, like everything else about him – that the Bard was in fact his better half. Not Bacon, nor Marlowe, nor even the grotesque Southampton. It is possible his very own wife was the actual writer and true genius of her age, with Shakespeare her obedient accomplice.
Even if this were not the case (though who can prove otherwise?), it is surely high time someone offered a great actress a part worthy of her genius. It is time Judi Dench got to play King Lear.