Strange Shakespeare: Shakespeare in the flesh and the beginnings of the biopic

Shakespeare biopic movies
Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love (1998), Rhys Ifans in Anonymous (2011), and Kenneth Branagh in All Is True (2018)

To look back at the Shakespeare biopics of the last twenty years is to be reminded that each new generation recreates the poet in its own image.

For instance, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998) gives us Shakespeare the dreamy lead man in an Elizabethan twist on 90s rom-coms such as Four Weddings and a Funeral that also playfully borrows many of Shakespeare’s comic devices.

Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous (2011), meanwhile, appeals to an age of conspiracy theories and cyber terrorism by imagining Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, writing radical, anti-government plays while hiding his true identity behind a talentless actor named William Shakespeare. The film even knowingly shares its title with the international hacktivist collective so active at the time.

And Kenneth Branagh’s All Is True (2018) gives us a sentimental portrait of Shakespeare in retirement, tending to his garden and still coming to terms with the death of his son, Hamnet. As much as anything else, the film’s autumnal mood grapples with the ageing of a particular generation of great Shakespearean actors, with the cast led by Branagh as Shakespeare, Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway, and Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s erstwhile patron and love interest.

Charles Kemble
Actor Charles Kemble (in a different performance, as Hamlet). Folger ART Box D428 no.1 (size S)

This tradition of fashioning a Shakespeare to suit the trends of the time goes back to the early 19th century. Though the first play to take Shakespeare as its protagonist is Alexandre Duval’s Shakespeare Amoureux – staged in Paris in 1804 – in London Shakespeare’s life was first dramatized in Charles Somerset’s Shakspeare’s Early Days of 1829. Performed at Covent Garden Theatre, this two-act play starred leading actor-manager Charles Kemble (then in his mid-fifties) as the young, wannabe poet – and it, too, spoke to the preoccupations of its playwright and his age.

When we first glimpse Shakespeare, he’s asleep on the banks of the River Avon and in the midst of a vision in which Oberon, Titania, and a host of fairies christen him “the son of Genius”. But young “Willy” is in trouble and upon waking is immediately arrested for poaching a deer in Charlecote Park. Somerset here rehearses one of the most popular legends about Shakespeare’s youth, but part of the aim of his play is rehabilitation. Shakespeare, it turns out, is no petty criminal: he’s a man of radical social conscience, and he’s taken the deer in order to feed a destitute shepherd and his family.

As this summary suggests, Shakspeare’s Early Days is a play very much concerned with class and social inequality. Act 1 opens with Shakespeare’s parents arguing over the extent of their son’s ‘noble blood’ and closes with the spectacle of peasants laughing at Shakespeare’s satire of the cruel and illiterate local landowner, Sir Thomas Lucy. Somerset conjures a Shakespeare for an age that was to be defined by the rise of working-class radicalism and electoral reform. In July 1830, just months after the play’s premiere, the formation in Manchester of the National Association for the Protection of Labour marked one of the earliest attempts to create a general trade union in Britain.

But this moment in British history was also one in which the regulation and ownership of the theater was under increasing scrutiny. Drama was alone among the arts in being subject to censorship (put in place a century earlier), while the existence of a theatrical monopoly meant that only two London theaters – one of them Covent Garden – had the legal right to stage Shakespeare’s plays. By 1832, fears that theater was in terminal decline were great enough for the British parliament to convene an inquiry into the state of “dramatic literature”.

Covent Garden
Watercolor drawing of Covent Garden by Paul Bradddon, 19th century. Folger ART Box B798 no.28 (size L)

Somerset’s play engages directly with this cultural politics. In 1829, then at the start of what was to be a prolific career as a playwright, Somerset was openly resentful of how the theater world was treating him. The preface to Shakspeare’s Early Days casts him as “an indefatigable labourer in the dramatic field” who “has not received the encouragement that is due to his industry.” And this is very much the story dramatized in the play’s second act, which switches the action from Stratford-upon-Avon to London, where Shakespeare (manuscript of Hamlet in hand) has ventured to make his name as a writer.

Character from Shakespeare's early days
Mr. Abbot as Lord Southampton in Shakespeare’s Early Days by Charles A. Somerset. Folger ART File A129 no.4 (size M)

Here, his newfound allies – the Earl of Southampton and actors Richard Burbage and Richard Tarleton – immediately recognize his genius, but Hamlet is refused a license for performance by the sneering Doctor Orthodox, the Master of the Revels (the courtier responsible for licensing plays in Elizabethan England). Hamlet isn’t really the problem; Orthodox is aghast at Shakespeare’s lack of university education.

Undeterred, Shakespeare enters a poetry contest set by Queen Elizabeth I in which he defeats Orthodox and claims the prize: the Queen’s “own picture set in diamonds”, which Elizabeth duly hangs around the poet’s neck. The nationalism here is blunt. Shakespeare is the pin-up boy for British might, and Somerset even has his coronation as national poet coincide with news of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Shakspeare’s Early Days trumpets the global cultural supremacy of Protestant England – in 1829 as much as 1588.

But with this nationalism comes a ringing critique of the theatrical establishment and the censorship of drama. As his name signals, Doctor Orthodox is the very embodiment of the reactionary cultural and political status quo. He is also, unmistakably, a caricature of George Colman, the playwright who then held the government post of “examiner of plays” – that is, the censor.

Shakspeare’s Early Days thus sees a struggling young playwright (Somerset) dramatizing the story of a struggling young playwright (Shakespeare). In this prototype of the Shakespearean biopic, Somerset cannily created a Shakespeare through whom he could expose the entrenched systems of censorship and of class and educational inequality that confronted aspiring writers in his own present.

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