Taylor Swift: cynosure of the age, winner of a barn full of awards, incomprehensibly wealthy, beautiful, talented, young. And how does Ms. Swift begin a typical day? In “You Need to Calm Down,” she sings about how she wakes up and immediately begins stewing about what people are saying about her on the Internet: “You are somebody that I don’t know / But you’re takin’ shots at me like it’s Patrón / And I’m just like, damn. It’s seven a.m.” Taylor Swift is queen of earth, and even she is a bit annoyed with her lot. Naturally this brings me to William Shakespeare.
What might it have been like to be history’s most celebrated literary genius, the greatest man of his century, a figure of such vast and enduring influence that, 400 years later, innumerable people still quote him every day without even knowing it? Well, Shakespeare probably spent a lot of time griping about his critics, his audiences, his actors, his family, his social standing, his superiors, and his endless rump-ravaging commutes between London and Stratford-upon-Avon.
At least that’s the Bard emerges in an imaginative and very funny BBC half-hour show by Ben Elton, Upstart Crow. (All 20 episodes are offered on the wonderful streaming service BritBox, which combines the best offerings from the BBC and another major producer of British television, ITV.) Posterity may have placed Shakespeare on its highest pedestal, but his day-to-day existence was a sitcom, or could have been. Elton, who wrote every episode, stuffs his scripts with gleeful lowbrow humor, comic anachronism, and flowery pastiche of Elizabethan idiom (“Heaven forfend, I am a dunceling clumbletrousers”). One running gag is Will’s endless series of complaints about the coach service between his home and his stage 100 miles away. The joke is that everything he says sounds exactly like a National Rail commuter today, but in 16th-century vernacular (“Now we’re jammed together like two boobies in a bodice!” he says about one overcrowded carriage). But beneath the gag, there’s an awareness that Shakespeare’s life must have been miserable in many ways. Imagine regularly traveling 100 miles on 16th-century transportation! Bard or no Bard, Shakespeare must have put up with a lot (and he died at 52). Even basic hygiene would have been unheard of. Will’s mischievous old dad frequently razzes him while doing his business on a chamberpot stationed an arm’s length from the dining table.
As Will, David Mitchell is a delight, playing the immortal Bard as harried and uncertain and ordinary, an overworked dad who just wants a little respect. Nobody gets his labored and obscure puns, nobody is impressed when he tells them he just invented the word “multitudinous,” and everyone thinks his plays could do with some pruning. Why can’t he be as universally beloved as his swaggering, rakish man-about-town friend Christopher Marlowe (Tim Downie)? Even his acting troupe thinks his plots are needlessly convoluted. And who does this actor Kempe think he is? The one who is forever breaking into an annoying high-pitched giggle and loftily informing everyone that he has developed a superior variety of comedy? “You’ve got to challenge the form,” Kempe declares, in a typical unsolicited testimonial to his own genius. “It’s a pre-agreed scenario around which we all improvise. Improv, mate, yeah? Going with the flow, yeah? Picking up the ball. Free-forming. Finding the comedy, ooh! In the moment.” Hang on a minute, there’s something familiar about this guy. After a few episodes, it sinks in: Kempe is a merciless parody of Ricky Gervais. Random, but funny.
Will’s foil on the show is an envious, scheming fellow writer, Robert Greene (Mark Heap), the man who in real life dubbed Shakespeare an “upstart crow.” In the show, Greene is a pompous and odious Crown officer who uses his authority to block Will’s application for a coat of arms and otherwise troll him, and he’s also a snitch nosing around for heretic Catholics to report as traitors. Will tries to avoid politics, mainly in the interest of keeping out of prison. When someone calls Catholicism “the one true faith,” he corrects her: “It was the one true faith under the last queen. Under the current crazed harridan, it is Satanic heresy. Do try and keep up.”
So little is known about Shakespeare that any detailed look at his life must be mostly speculation, which gives Elton plenty of historical gaps in which to frolic. But he is also deeply versed in his subject, and even as he delights in juvenile gags (“She has a fine chest and I particularly admire her assonance”), he lightly sprinkles in accurate historical references. For instance, we learn that the poet Philip Sidney, who was suspected of seditious thoughts, bought Queen Elizabeth a golden whip in recognition of her divine authority. Alas, some of the jokes that were not timely when written (the show aired from 2016 to 2018) are a bit too timely today. Referring to the 1592–93 recurrence of the plague in London, Will says, “A grim business. We were giving my Richard [III] the night it struck. For a moment I thought half the audience had nodded off. Big relief to discover they were dead.”
Elton has a lot of fun mocking period conventions such as the aside, the absurdly contrived plot, and the casting of boys as women. Will’s assistant Kate (Gemma Whelan) longs to break into acting, but the playwright scoffs: Doesn’t she know it’s absurd for her to think she could play Juliet? It would be against the law. One episode is a spoof of Macbeth, another introduces the Bard to a visiting African prince named Otello, and another mocks Emma Thompson’s “Is it sex and a necklace” monologue from Love Actually. That’s an in-joke about Elton’s old writing partner from Blackadder, Richard Curtis, who wrote Love Actually.
So anything goes, as long as it’s good for a laugh, and most of it is. The show is such a cheery, cheeky thing that it could prove a gateway drug for young folks. Bertrand Russell wrote in 1951:
Children are made to learn bits of Shakespeare by heart, with the result that ever after they associate him with pedantic boredom. If they could meet him in the flesh, full of jollity and ale, they would be astonished. . . . Shakespeare did not write with a view to boring school-children; he wrote with a view to delighting his audiences.
Upstart Crow gives us Shakespeare in the flesh, along with plenty of jollity and ale.