It is a rather remarkable fact that although annually thousands of articles and books are devoted to the study of William Shakespeare – the result of intense research by literary and history scholars – surprisingly little is known of his life.
Indeed, we know more about the life of Chaucer, who preceded the bard by some 200 years, than we do about that of Shakespeare. For example. there are eight years of Shakespeare’s life about which we know almost nothing, either about where he was or what he was doing.
Of course, this lack of knowledge has led to a great deal of speculation, often based on the “evidence” offered by a careful reading of his plays and those facts that are known.
So, for example, Caroline Spurgeon, as far back as 1935, published an analysis of all the images employed by Shakespeare in his works, though many would question some of her proposed theories.
Does, for example, the fact he employs many images based on butchery and others based on a knowledge of ships and sailing mean he spent those unknown eight years employed as a butcher or a sailor?
In a similar vein, does the fact virtually all references to dogs in Shakespeare are negative mean he disliked dogs?
Clearly such conclusions are questionable at best. Such lack of certainty has resulted in a number of efforts to produce plays imaginatively based on the life of Shakespeare but with no claim to historicity – the most successful of which is the delightfully inventive Shakespeare in Love.
Now we are offered yet another film, All is True, dealing with another part of the Bard’s life about which we know little: Shakespeare’s last years.
We do know that Shakespeare, relatively wealthy as the result of his theatre experience, returned to his birthplace, Stratford, in 1611 and died five years later. He made a will famously leaving his wife his “second-best bed.”
His son Hamnet had died several years before, and scholars have suggested that the period of great tragedies, including Hamlet, was given impetus by that event. He also had two surviving daughters, owned property in and around Stratford, and applied for a coat of arms during this time.
With these as the most salient known facts, clearly any writer addressing this period has a largely blank canvas on which to paint anything imagined. Many must have wondered what sort of reception his family gave to a virtually absentee father; many have wondered why Shakespeare abandoned his career as a writer, which had brought him fame and fortune. Equally, several have conjectured how he dealt with the dull provincial life of Stratford, having experienced the excitement of the capital, found favour with monarchs, and been adulated by the thousands who attended his plays.
Despite all that this might have inspired, it is sad to report that the scriptwriter of All is True, Ben Elton, has managed to produce an exceedingly dull, indeed downright boring, film. Of course, he has tried to make things interesting by building on what is known. Thus, he shows Shakespeare attempting to overcome a sense of social inferiority by becoming a gentleman. He shows one of his daughters subjected to an abusive relationship by her Puritan husband – and indeed Shakespeare as a man of the theatre had had to battle Puritans for his entire professional life. He shows an estranged relationship with his wife (nee Anne Hathaway) – understandable in that for the previous 20 years, the dramatist had spent most of his time in London.
He has also opted to accept the view that Shakespeare had a homosexual attraction to the Earl of Southampton to whom his sonnets were dedicated – a view that, while it might resonate loudly today, many would differ with, arguing that Shakespeare was merely writing conventional love poetry and looking for patronage having written it.
In similar contemporary vein, rather anachronistically (and presumably in a further vain attempt to give the film relevance), he shows his other daughter fighting for women’s rights. Above all, he shows Shakespeare haunted by the memory of his dead son, though Shakespeare wrote some decidedly sunny plays in the last years of his writing, several years after the death of Hamnet.
While all of this may seem interesting enough and quite valid, the main problem is the proceedings are scripted and filmed in outrageously plodding fashion with mind-numbingly static and unimaginative camera work and numerous lethargic scenes, so that events unfold in disorganized fashion at leaden pace.
The result resembles nothing so much as a badly made and disorganized soap opera, which not even the combined talents of a skilled cast, including the redoubtable Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, and Ian McKellen, can save from soporific dullness. While there is a possibility that all is true about All is True, the result is truly disappointing.
Fortunately relief is on the way as Vancouver’s own Bard on the Beach opens shortly with a rollicking production of The Taming of the Shrew – a revisiting of a former treatment in which the play is set in the Wild West.
Equally exciting, a stage version of Shakespeare in Love opens June 12. Here at least we know we will not be disappointed as we revisit Shakespeare’s life and art. So book your tickets now for Bard on the Beach.
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