What's past is prologue

By Maureen Lee Lenker
July 17, 2017 at 10:18 PM EDT
Will 102: 26058_003
Credit: Aidan Monaghan/TNT
S1 E3
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Anytime you delve into a Shakespeare biography, you’re treading on murky ground. Not much is known about the world’s most famous playwright beyond the content of his plays — and sure, that leaves room for artistic license, but it also means that no matter what choices you make, you’re likely to draw ire from some armchair historians.

TNT’s Will is not particularly concerned with historical accuracy. Its trappings — a punk-rock soundtrack, deconstructed costumes, and the transformation of the Elizabethan theater into a mosh pit — are more about style than substance. But when you get into the nitty-gritty, there is a lot of history in the show to sink your teeth into. Will seizes on speculation as storytelling fodder, twisting historical fact into creative plot points that are accessible to modern audiences (take, for example, the premiere’s decision to turn Robert Green’s pamphlet labeling a young Shakespeare an “upstart crow” into an iambic pentameter-laced rap battle). The choices often sparkle with the wit of their subject.

With that in mind, let’s look at five historical truths woven into the third episode of Will.

Marlowe, Christopher Marlowe

This episode brought us more Christopher Marlowe, from a glimpse inside his nighttime activities (so many orgies) to his tortured writing process. The orgies and his obsession with the occult (he uses skulls in all of his decorating) are drawn from the content of Marlowe’s plays — his most famous play, Doctor Faustus, stars a man who makes a deal with the devil.

Marlowe follows Will to the hiding place of Father Robert Southwell, presumably intending to relay this information to his contacts, but then he alerts the concealed Catholics to a government raid. No one has ever definitively proved that Marlowe was a member of Sir Francis Walsingham’s intricate Elizabethan spy network, but it remains a popular biographical legend. The nature of Marlowe’s spying here hews closely to his biographical inconsistencies. Today, he is widely believed to have been an atheist, itself a heretical crime, but Marlowe was also accused of holding Catholic sympathies (largely due to an arrest in the Netherlands in relation to a counterfeit charge tied to Catholic activities). It’s only natural, then, that we might see him playing both sides for his own gain.

Pay attention to Marlowe’s closest confidante (and lover), Sir Thomas Walsingham, cousin to spymaster Francis. Thomas Walsingham worked as an intelligence operative for his most famous relative from a young age, working to bring down Catholic plots. Walsingham was also a patron to poets, including Christopher Marlowe, a connection that feeds speculation that Marlowe was one of Francis’ spies.

There are more things in heaven and earth…

Will leans hard on the belief that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic — and it finds its main justification in the character of Father Robert Southwell, hiding under the assumed name Cotton. Southwell was a real Catholic priest and dissident, moving around safe houses in England and preaching Catholic doctrine. What set him apart from other priests doing the same was how he spread his beliefs: Southwell was an accomplished writer and poet. He wrote religious tracts, including a Humble Supplication to Queen Elizabeth (we see this in the works in this episode, and it ends up in Will’s possession). But his legacy (like his historical ties to William Shakespeare) is found in his career as a writer of religious-themed poetry, such as the posthumously published collection St Peter’s Complaint, and Other Poems.

On tonight’s Will, Southwell embraces Will as a cousin. Not only has historian/documentarian Michael Wood traced the family tree to prove a distant relation between the poet priest and the Bard of Avon — enough to merit calling them cousins — but the 1616 edition of St. Peter’s Complaint bears an address on the title page: “To my worthy good cosen Maister W. S.” Many assume the W.S. in question might have been Shakespeare. The most convincing argument for this? Shakespeare makes a direct reference to Southwell’s poem “The Burning Babe” in a soliloquy in Macbeth. So, at the very least, Shakespeare was aware of his distant cousin’s writings.

Good artists copy; great artists steal

Struggling to write a play, Will goes full Joseph Campbell and discovers the concept of the hero’s journey after reviewing a bunch of the old plays tucked away in the rafters of Burbage’s theater. “They all share a common pattern,” Will realizes. “A hero with a quest or a dream and then an obstruction which the hero must remove to achieve his goal.” Now his challenge is to choose his hero, quest, and setting. The erstwhile Alice Burbage has the solution: “Steal them; all the writers do it.” And so one of the most well-known biographical facts about Shakespeare is set into motion: Nearly all of his plays are “stolen” ideas, based on mythology, history, and other works of literature circulating at the time.

Will takes the notion of stealing ideas to the next level when Will and Alice literally steal a book from the bookstalls in St. Paul’s Churchyards (in case you were wondering why they were buying books in a church, all of the prime book selling and buying in the Elizabethan era was conducted in the stalls of St. Paul’s Churchyard, a marketplace that surrounded the grounds of the London landmark and lined the walls of the cathedral itself). The book they steal is marked as a title “translated from Spanish,” full of “romance, mistaken identity,” and “set in Italy.” Many scholars agree The Two Gentleman of Verona is likely based on the Spanish prose romance Los Siete Libros de la Diana (The Seven Books of the Diana), which seems to be the book in question here. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact order of Shakespeare’s works, but Two Gents is likely one of his earliest, based on the general immaturity of the writing and plot points that suggest an inexperienced dramatist.

One man in his time plays many parts

Will manages to pen a successful play with Alice’s help (it’s a common opinion that other writers lent a hand in Shakespeare’s works, particularly his earliest plays). Suddenly, the parts are copied and ready and the company has six hours to prepare for a performance that afternoon.

This is the incredible true nature of the Elizabethan theater: Actors never received a full play script — only their parts copied out individually. Their script would contain only their lines and their cues. A constant need for new material and a desire to never perform the same play two days in a row led to a repertory-style approach and massive turnover in the Elizabethan theater. It was common to not receive your part until the morning of an afternoon performance, and actors were expected to keep several plays and characters in their heads at once. No earpiece acting for the divas of the Elizabethan stage (though prompters often waited in the wings to feed actors lines).

Spend it, well

Will sends some of the money he earns writing his play back to his wife and family in Stratford — his way of easing his Catholic guilt when, moments later, Alice shows up and they “make the beast with two backs.” Though we’ll likely never know whether Will strayed from his marriage while living in London, we do know he continued to support and maintain ties with his wife. He even supposedly bought the second biggest house in Stratford in 1597. Sigh no more, Alice.

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