July 2017 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Made-for-TV Shakespeare

On July 10, the cable network TNT premiered "Will," an exuberant new drama series based on the undocumented early life of William Shakespeare. Here's the Bard before he became famous; aged 25, married with three children, and about to leave Stratford (alone) to see if he can make it as a writer in the big city. He quickly falls in with theater owner James Burbage, his son, actor Richard Burbage, and playwright Christopher Marlowe. Plus, this being a twenty-first-century drama, the young, beautiful, and educated Alice Burbage, is also a central player.             

TNT-Will.jpgThe series has been billed as a "punk-rock" Shakespeare, mainly because of its soundtrack and some cross-over costuming, e.g. Will embarks for London to the tune of The Clash's "London Calling," and the audience at Burbage's theater sports multi-colored mohawks. If not entirely apt, it's an amusing conceit. As the show's creator, Craig Pearce, explained to the New York Times last month, "[Theatre] wasn't this polite thing ... It was 3,000 people crammed into these wooden structures. They were fighting and they were drinking and they were eating."

The entire season is already available for binge-watching, and episode three holds some noteworthy moments for book-lovers. One is set in an underground Catholic publishing outfit run by the Jesuit missionary Robert Southwell--likely a distant relation of Shakespeare's, although in "Will," the two are made to be close cousins. Southwell shows Will his printing press calling it a "modern marvel." Another scene, set in St. Paul's Churchyard, where Will and Alice are browsing new books for sale, was tantalizing, though short--and underscoring it with Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" was tepid at best.

Still the series is great fun to watch. Shakespeare in a poetry slam? Kit Marlowe, a hedonist with writer's block? Alice Burbage as co-author of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona"? It's a brave new world in made-for-TV Shakespeare.    

To hear more about "Will" from the producers of the show from the Folger Shakespeare Library's "Shakespeare Unlimited" podcast, listen in here.

Image from "Will" via TNT.