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A Living, Breathing Young Shakespeare

Quinn Mattfeld (left) as Will Shakespeare  and Jeb Burris as Ned Alleyn

Quinn Mattfeld (left) as Will Shakespeare  and Jeb Burris as Ned Alleyn

By Lawrence Henley

In creating the 1998 Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love, British playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are DeadArcadia) and his screenwriting partner Marc Norman (The Aviator) sought to personify an icon: a young actor and fledgling dramatist named Will Shakespeare. Like many brilliant artists, prior to his greatest success Shakespeare was a twenty-something writer, performer, and entrepreneur, steadily rising to the top yet still struggling to fully harness his genius. Through the creativity and imagination of Stoppard and Norman, motion picture audiences were privileged to witness a living, breathing young Shakespeare that had previously been lost to time. Shakespeare in Love embodies the Bard in those formative years that spawned a creative explosion unprecedented in the history of theatre.

Indeed, through the highly lauded film, and now via the 2014 stage adaptation by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot), we become time travelers. Shakespeare in Loveprovides the vehicle whereby we are uncannily transported to witness the birth of modern theatre. Of course, the work relies on a great deal of speculation referencing the lives of Shakespeare and his colleagues, often based on unsubstantiated theories. Owing to the paucity of historical data and accounts from the Elizabethan period, the authors had little recourse to do otherwise. Still, their method provides the historical connections, whimsy, and heightened sense of the period that make this play indispensable for fans of classical theatre.

The new Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre at the Utah Shakespeare Festival is the ideal venue for a period piece such as this. Shakespeare in Love is set in the bustling red light district on the southern banks of the River Thames, the home of Shakespeare’s first theatres. While at times more fiction than fact, the play astonishingly beams us back to the year 1595. A three-year pandemic of deadly plague has recently lifted, and the wooden, tiered outdoor theatres of London have reopened. Not unlike the present day, competition for audiences and playhouse financing is cutthroat. In recreating the period, Shakespeare in Love cleverly employs an array of factual characters from Shakespeare’s everyday world. Legendary characters ranging from young Jacobean playwright John Webster to an aging Queen Elizabeth I are, to our delight, brought back to life.

At the play’s outset, one such figure, Phillip Henslowe (producer and proprietor of The Rose playhouse), is heavily in debt and under threat of violence from Fennyman, a vicious, yet witty loan shark. Henslowe is desperate to stay apace with The Curtain, the successful venue of rival actor/producer Richard Burbage (the queen’s favorite). Henslowe sorely needs a box-office hit. Enter Shakespeare’s new comedy, a work in progress. It has an peculiar working title: Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter.

From the outset, Romeo and Ethel is a vexed endeavor. Much to the horror of Mr. Henslowe, Shakespeare has suddenly and inexplicably lost his muse. To make matters worse, Henslowe’s house players, the great Ned Alleyn’s Admiral’s Men, are out touring the provinces and unavailable. Awkward timing necessitates a rough and uneven cast featuring a gnarly bunch of regulars from the tavern next door, Henslowe’s tailor, and a novelty act—Spot, the Dog.

Most pressing is the urgent need to dislodge Will’s seemingly impenetrable writer’s block. The plot and script for Romeo and Ethel is, thus far, dead on arrival, and his best ideas have been obtained over pints of beer from mentor Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, London’s reigning dramatist (Faustus, Edward II)Shakespeare in Love intimates that young Will “nicked” a fair number of ideas from Marlowe (whose untimely stabbing death vaulted Shakespeare into elite status). Marlowe advises Will to abandon his initial theme and characterization. A reimagined Ethel becomes Juliet, the comedy morphs into tragicomedy, and the dog becomes unemployed. Definite progress, yes, but still no flow of words out of Shakespeare’s quill. The search for inspiration has reached critical mass.

It is at this point that history and supposition collide in totality, melding into the richest blend of truth and theatrical fantasy. Crashing Burbage’s unauthorized court performance of Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Will encounters a stunningly beautiful devotee of his poetry and prose, Viola De Lesseps. Lady Viola secretly desires to be a part of the theatre, but is tragically stunted by the social constraints of her era stemming from her own nobility and the ban on women as performers. In Shakespeare’s time, attendance in the playhouses by women from the upper classes was severely frowned upon. Female roles were performed exclusively by males, typically teenagers whose voices had yet to change. The edict was regulated strictly by the caustic Mr. Tylney, London’s corrupt Master of the Revels.

Undaunted, Viola is determined to audition for a part in Shakespeare’s next play. Donning male dress she becomes “Thomas Kent.” Her natural ability and poetic depth stuns the writer. Intoxicated by her oration, Will is baffled as she flees the stage in panicked response to his unnerving request to remove her hat, concealing the hair and face of a woman. Shakespeare’s hot pursuit of Thomas instead results in a breathtaking encounter with Lady Viola, in natural dress. Afterward, their clandestine meeting becomes the inspiration for what is to become Romeo and Juliet’s famed balcony scene.

A passionate love affair ensues, sparking a creative epiphany for the playwright. Will and Viola’s torrid romance becomes the metaphor for the resulting play within a play. It is, however, a doomed relationship. Viola, in the businesslike fashion typical of the period, has been promised by her wealthy parents to the steely Earl of Wessex, an ambitious seeker of fortune and no lover of poetics. In blind disregard of hopelessness for a future together, Viola (as Thomas) is cast as Romeo. Mercifully, the Admiral’s Men and their marquee player Ned Alleyn return to London. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the company births a play for the ages.

Romeo and Juliet becomes a new high watermark in dramatic literature, perhaps the greatest romantic tale of all-time. And, for the fictional purposes of Shakespeare in Love, the gender barrier in Elizabethan Theatre is broken. No one knows, but it is conceivable that, lost to history, one of Shakespeare’s women might have taken the stage under the guise of a male. In her powerful final speech, Queen Elizabeth strongly attests that she “knows something of a woman in a man’s profession.” 

And what of the real William Shakespeare (1564–1616)? What is the truth concerning his early life? Ironically, the life of Will Shakespeare remains in large part a tantalizing and speculative mystery. Scholars have long been frustrated in their attempts to create a complete timeline of Shakespeare’s life. Unfortunately, there are lengthy, undocumented gaps during his early years which defy explanation.

Today, he is known as the most iconic of dramatists, author of (at least) thirty-seven classic plays that have withstood the turbulence of the centuries and critics alike. Many experts rate him as the finest writer of world literature who ever lived. Doubtless, Shakespeare is the most read, performed, discussed, and written about playwright to walk the earth.

Based on the scarce evidence that still exists, several theories attempt to explain the missing years of 1585-1591 Shakespeare in Love so ambitiously seeks to fill in. Without new discoveries and information, the truth is anyone’s guess. The theories are, for the most part, pure conjecture.

Existing records show he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, April, 1564, to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden. His father was a wool merchant, a maker of fine gloves, an important town official (Stratford’s ale-taster and mayor). Mary had inherited wealth and birthed seven children (three perished prior to adolescence). William, the first to survive, was initially well-educated, but forced to quit school in the wake of John Shakespeare’s severe financial troubles. Consequently, one of the world’s greatest writers never attended college, as did many of his peers.   

Records also tell us that a nineteen-year-old Will Shakespeare was married in 1582, hastily, to a pregnant Anne Hathaway. Subsequently, there are no traces of Shakespeare from the mid-1580s until he reappears on the London scene in 1592. It is theorized that Shakespeare vanished from Stratford under the threat of imminent arrest for offenses ranging from animal poaching, tax delinquency, or conspiracy to practice Catholicism amid the strict Protestant reign of Queen Elizabeth. Some surmise that he fled Stratford, finding work as a primary schoolteacher in the North of England. Others believe he was lured to London by a touring theatre troupe, the Queen’s Men.  

Whatever the truth, Shakespeare in Love deliciously and repeatedly references gems from Shakespeare’s text. Abundant quotes and references from Romeo and JulietMacbeth, and All’s Well That Ends Well are inserted liberally. Best of all, the poignant ending engenders the creation of Will’s finest comedy, Twelfth Night. While it’s doubtful that we shall ever learn what actually transpired during Shakespeare’s lost years, we can revel in Shakespeare in Love’s marvelous reconstruction.

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