Shakespeare’s birthday is coming up! This is the week where I usually stop talking about individual plays, and talk about the man himself. Today I’d like to cover how he’s been portrayed in fiction. As you’ll see, with such a famous and at the same time mysterious figure like Shakespeare, there is a lot of leeway in terms of how you portray him. This list shows multiple interpretations of Shakespeare and at different stages (ages) of his life. Some are comic, some are tragic, but all are fascinating to discuss:
#10: Rhys Ivans (Anonymous, as The Earl Of Oxford).
Like I said in my podcast, I don’t believe Oxford was the real Shakespeare, and I have some issues with the character and his lack of humanity. That said, I do like the character they were going for- a tortured genius who has to create, in spite of himself, and it destroys him and his family.
#9: Hugh Laurie
I love what they do here- Shakespeare’s a temperamental artist who hates editors, but ultimately accepts that he has to put butts in seats. It’s very true-to-life and Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie do a great job in this sketch!
#8: Kill Shakespeare Volume 2
Like I said in my full review, I really like the idea of an aging Shakespeare buckling under the pressures of being an icon. Bardolatry, the worship of Shakespeare as a literary god, has been a real thing in academic circles for at least the last 200 years and I think it really hampers first-time readers from even attempting to read Shakespeare. Since this comic is very much attempting to get people to do just that, it makes sense that they portray Shakespeare as a deeply flawed human who is trying his best, but not able to live up to his god-like persona.
#7 Matthew Baynton- Horrible Histories
Even though this history show for kids is also trying to make Shakespeare accessible for British schoolchildren, it actually takes the opposite approach for Shakespeare- make him cocky, self-assured, silly, and a bit of a schlamaazel, who like his own creation of Mercutio, talks too much and invariably gets himself into trouble.
#6: King Of Shadows
“Nat, say hello to William Shakespeare”. They might as well have said, “Nat, say hello to GOD!”-King Of Shadows
Again, most interpretations of Shakespeare are aware of and try to subvert the god-like status he has in our culture, which is why this YA novel attempts to humanize him, by having him interact with the hero, Nathan, a 20th-century child actor, go back in time and finds himself switching places with another Nathan Field, a real boy actor in Shakespeare’s company. Nathan then meets and befriends Shakespeare and the two form a father-son bond.
This book takes place just a few years after the death of Shakespeare’s own son, Hamnet, so this William Shakespeare has a son-shaped hole in his heart. It’s really heartwarming to see the two broken people form a family bond.
As I said before, Shakespeare is not the main character of this novel; he pops in and out of the life of the real main character; his wife Anne, as he visits her at his parents’ home, and later when he sees her on periodic trips home from London. His characterization is entirely indirect. That said, we learn a ton about him through her perceptive eyes. We see his hatred of his abusive father, his frustration with being a glover’s son with no time to make a living in the theater. We see his ambition take hold as he travels to London, and at last, his contrite return to finally become a good husband after the death of his son. This Shakespeare is sort of a prodigal son, who searches for fame and fortune as a young man in the big city, but eventually comes to value his life at home. This solves the mystery of why Shakespeare never moved his family to London, why he retired in the early 1610s, and why his writings have nothing about his relationship with his family, his wife, or especially his son. This Shakespeare is scarred; trying to redeem himself from the sins of his past.
#3 Kenneth Branaugh- “All Is True”
This Shakespeare is at the end of the journey he took in “Hamnet.” He’s retired from theater, trying to pick up the pieces of his life in Stratford, and trying to reconcile his feelings for the fair-young-man (played by Ian McKellen), and his wife, (played by Judy Dench). It’s melancholic, but still funny in a dour way.
#3: Christian Borle- “Something Rotten”
Like I said in the review of the Broadway musical, Borle is the best part of this show. Like Matthew Baynton, he plays Shakespeare as a cocky young self-assured genius on the outside, but unlike Baynton, we see he has a deeper side underneath. As he sings in the incredibly catchy “Hard To Be the Bard,” Shakespeare is once again dealing with the problem of maintaining his success and is under a tremendous amount of pressure to crank out new and successful plays all the time. Even though he’s the antagonist, he’s more sympathetic than the heroes.
#2: Jacob Fiennes- “Shakespeare In Love”
I realize this movie has lost a lot of prestige over the years, thanks to the controversy over its loathsome producer, Harvey Weinstein. I realize that the film Shakespeare In Love might not have deserved best picture over films like Saving Private Ryan. That said, I still think it’s a fantastic movie and every single element from the sets to the costumes to the near-perfect casting, is top-notch, especially the casting of Jacob Fiennes as Shakespeare. This young, heartthrob Shakespeare hasn’t yet become the self-assured genius we see elsewhere on this list. He’s constantly out-classed by Christopher Marlowe, which is a very good choice because it helps us sympathize and root for this man, whom we all know will become a rich, successful genius, but hasn’t yet.
Fiennes also gives Shakespeare a very good arc- he’s a selfish dreamer like Bottom at the beginning and a sweet, sensitive man at the end. In the end, he writes for all the right reasons- supporting his family, immortalizing his love Lady Viola, and helping his friends and partners in the Chamberlain’s Men. Most of these Shakespeare are fairly static, but this movie gives him a great hero’s arc which allows us to like him and hope that his play is a success. As you can see in this alternate version of the final scene, Shakespeare makes a tearful goodbye to Viola, and sets about paying tribute to her in a play that will eventually become Twelfth Night. He also begins his lifelong partnership with Richard Burbage, who will go on to play Malvolio in that play, as well as Hamlet, Othello, and many others. It’s a satisfying conclusion to his arch, which like Viola, shows that Shakespeare is ready to take on a “brave new world” with a new sense of purpose.
#1: Dean Lennox Kelly From Dr. Who: The Shakespeare Code
Though this episode has an inauspicious start, Dean Lennox Kelly from this 2007 episode of Dr. Who finds a way to incorporate every aspect of every other Shakespeare on this list! He’s a cocky, self-assured showman on the outside who knows he’s a genius but is also a middle-class man of the people, playing to the groundlings. On the inside though, he is mourning the loss of his son and yearning for love, which is why he falls in love with Martha and (spoiler alert) makes her the Dark Lady of the sonnets. He also is clever enough to figure out what’s going on as three aliens try to manipulate him into using his gift of words to conjure the end of the world for them. Finally, he is still a hard-working writer and does occasionally doubt his own work:
Shakespeare: “To be or not to be”. Oh, that’s quite good.
10th Doctor: You should write that down
Shakespeare: I dunno… bit pretentious?-The Shakespeare Code.
Again, the best thing about this Shakespeare is his arc- he drops his mask of genius and opens up to Martha and the Doctor, just like how the Doctor confides in Shakespeare how he is mourning the loss of his previous companion, Rose. In the end though, he draws strength in the memory of his son, and actually uses it to save the world!
Is this a historically-accurate biopic? No. Is it a silly cartoon? Also no. The reason I ranked this episode the highest is because they managed to encompass the myth and the man of Shakespeare in a very compressed time, with tons of Shakespeare easter eggs, and historical references, and it was filmed in the real re-creation of Shakespeare’s own theater! Someday I’ll write a full review of this episode, but for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this list, and are hungry for more Shakespeare’s Birthday Week content!