Ben Elton is no stranger to Shakespeare. The British author and actor played Verges alongside Michael Keaton’s Dogberry in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film Much Ado About Nothing. He incorporated Shakespeare — both the man himself and his words — into several episodes of his Blackadder TV series, which he co-wrote with Richard Curtis starting with the second season. He even passed his A-levels (in English and History) in Stratford-upon-Avon. And now he’s written the screenplay for Branagh’s elegiac film about Shakespeare’s final days, All Is True, on the heels of three seasons (plus two Christmas specials) of Upstart Crow, the British sitcom he created and wrote about Shakespeare’s life and work (that also features Branagh in a cameo role).
Elton has managed something rather remarkable: He’s taken the same sets of facts, texts, and cultural associations to script two distinctly different creations — a mournful minor-key family drama in All Is True and a bright workplace/domestic comedy in Upstart Crow.
The difference in approach is rooted in the driving force behind each project. “It was Ken [Branagh]’s impulse to do the film,” Dr. Paul Edmondson, the director of research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon and historical consultant on All Is True, told me on an episode of my Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast. “He’s wanted to do this film for ages,” Edmondson said, “and he gave Ben Elton the opportunity to write the screenplay of the story that Ken wanted to tell about Shakespeare.”
Upstart Crow, on the other hand, was very much an Elton idea, driven by his realization that William Shakespeare was the perfect sitcom character, as he shares in this Guardian interview:
He was an overworked commuter. A self-made man who was sneered at by the posh boys…A social climber…a family man with a long-suffering wife, a teenage daughter, a posh mum (who married beneath her) and a deeply dodgy dad.
Shakespeare’s social-climbing aspirations are underscored by the sitcom’s title, which is drawn from Robert Greene’s famous reference to Shakespeare as an “upstart crow…[who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of” more socially-advantaged Oxbridge-educated writers.
Shakespeare’s jealousy of and bitterness towards so-called “Oxbridge posh boys” is a driving mechanism in both the film and the sitcom. The sitcom Shakespeare is endlessly and comically embarrassed by his father John, whom history records as being guilty of a variety of questionable business dealings. Elton leans into this characterization by depicting him in the series as a scheming drunken roisterer who in one episode they nickname John “Foulstuff”, setting him up as the imagined inspiration for the character of Sir John Falstaff. John’s crass behavior motivates Shakespeare’s desire for theatrical greatness and his urgent need to become a gentleman with a coat-of-arms to erase the family shame.
Insecurity about social status also dogs the fifty-something Shakespeare depicted in All Is True. When asked why he cares what Ben Jonson thinks of him, the film’s Shakespeare says, “I care because it matters! I have what I have upon my own merit and for that, I’m suspect.” What’s played for laughs in one is treated almost tragically in the other.
The very serious All Is True begins with the Globe burning down during a performance of Henry VIII and Shakespeare retiring and returning home to Stratford after decades away. This reinforces, according to Edmondson, “the very traditional view…that Shakespeare goes off to London like Dick Whittington and doesn’t come back for 20 years.”
Yet it’s the silly, bawdy, and frequently lowbrow Upstart Crow that reflects what Edmondson calls the “growing tendency in Shakespearean biography to think of Shakespeare as a literary commuter.” One of the great running gags of Upstart Crow is Shakespeare constantly complaining (in lengthy rants every modern commuter would recognize) about the inefficiencies of modern public transport and the frustrations of commuting between London and Stratford, a journey that took days four hundred years ago and still feels more complicated than it needs to be now.
The fact is, Edmondson reminds us, we don’t know for sure where Shakespeare wrote his plays — in London, Stratford, or on the journey between them — but recent discoveries by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust on the site of New Place, the second largest house in Stratford that Shakespeare bought in 1597, suggest Shakespeare might very well have spent more time in Stratford than previously thought. To think that he never (or rarely) spent much time in Stratford until his retirement, says Edmondson, “just doesn’t ring true in terms of how human beings operate.”
The lowly sitcom also depicts the relationship between Will and his wife, Anne, with more richness and feeling than the film. Will’s constant commuting between his London lodgings and his home in Stratford allows Elton to draw a fuller portrait of what their relationship might have been. In fact, every episode of Upstart Crow ends with the loving husband and wife smoking pipes by the fireside at the end of the day, reflecting on recent events.
In All Is True, Will and Anne are distant towards each other, as well they might be after decades apart, with Anne particularly bitter about Will’s lack of appropriate mourning over the death of their son Hamnet almost twenty years prior. She accuses him of immediately going off and writing the comic Merry Wives of Windsor, which seems particularly cherry-picked and unfair as Will went on to write many plays dealing with loss, grief, and parental regret.
In a world where life expectancy was short and childhood death commonplace, to hold on to such anger and bitterness over a death twenty years in the past seems melodramatic and unbelievable. Anne’s bitterness could well be true, but even in the context of the film it doesn’t feel true.
Or perhaps I just don’t want it to be true. I don’t want to think Shakespeare was that miserable in his final days. I much prefer to think of Anne and Will as they’re depicted in Upstart Crow: Not without loss and complications, but committed and loving just the same.
Perhaps Elton’s two projects ought to be considered by the templates Shakespeare himself created. All Is True is probably closer in tone to one of Shakespeare’s lesser Histories: weirdly sentimental, unnecessarily grim, factually dubious, sadly uncompelling, and in love with its own seriousness of purpose. Upstart Crow, on the other hand, is absolutely like one of Shakespeare’s Comedies, filled with low-brow humor, genuine wit, class tension, comic asides, ridiculous schemes, romantic confusion, anachronistic references, and quiet moments of genuine power and pathos.
Upstart Crow also has lofty satirical aims, getting big laughs while addressing such subjects as the efficacy of charity, jukebox musicals, the suspicious death of Christopher Marlowe, sexism, anti-Semitism, fake news, and the Authorship Question.
I’m in awe of Ben Elton for creating two projects of such wildly different tones out of the same material. I know which one I prefer; your mileage, of course, may vary.