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All Is True

July 5, 2019 (1,210 words)

Every art form has the power to move me, and usually does. But the one that consistently engages my sensibilities and tugs at my heart strings is drama. Stage or screen, there is something about seeing a good story unfold that always resonates in a special way.

The new movie All Is True gives us a glimpse into the last years of William Shakespeare’s life. From June 1613, when the Globe Theatre burned to the ground, prompting its 59 year-old stage manager and chief operating officer to retire and depart London, to April 1616, when he died at the family home in Strafford-upon-Avon.

It’s a work of fiction, of course, since we have very little recorded biographical information concerning this or any other period of Shakespeare’s life.

Screenwriter Ben Elton imagines some weighty family conflict between Will and his wife, Anne, and with his two grown daughters, Susannah and Judith. The passing of his only son, Hamnet (Judith’s twin), who died as a youth, continues to haunt him.

The look of the film and the period recreation is beautiful, as we have come to expect of these things. Though far from being a grand spectacle, the movie is satisfying in the way it gets all the small daily routines exactly right.

Everything about the production – its pace, its rhythms – brings this little world of an old man finally confronting long-simmering tensions with his immediate family members to life.

three set pieces that flesh out the tale…

These emotionally fraught scenes form the heart of the story. But there are also a series of declarative set pieces with non-family members that flesh out the tale.

The first that comes to mind is between Shakespeare and a young admirer who asks the perennial question: “How did you do it”?

How did a local man with little formal education who had never traveled abroad conjure such elaborate worlds, and populate those worlds with an array of characters, from the regal to the motley and everything in between? How did such a modest man gain such insight into the human condition, imagine such depths of joy and consternation?

Ah, Will responds, I merely listened to every conversation, paid attention to every exchange – such as the one you and I are having right now – and then my fertile imagination went to work.

The next scene I’m thinking of is with a local official who derides Shakespeare as a flighty artist-type who has spent his days living in his imagination, and therefore has no acquaintance with the everyday struggles most men face in making their way in the world.

The screenwriter has our hero repel this disparagement by citing the demanding task of keeping a working theater going, performance after performance – especially all those command performances for royal audiences.

this Shakespeare was a highly effective executive…

But the set piece that really stands out to me arrives late in the proceedings. It is the imaginary visit the Earl of Southampton pays to William Shakespeare at his home in Strafford.

He appears to be a contemporary of – if not actually older than – Shakespeare. He appreciates the writer’s talent and we assume he has been something of a patron. The script coyly suggests the two men may have once shared an intimate physical relationship, and that this relationship inspired some of Shakespeare’s most memorable sonnets.

But this Southampton turns out to be nothing more than a snob, who tells Shakespeare he had no business ever falling in love with someone above his station, once upon a time.

Now, any movie that features the recitation of the twenty-ninth sonnet not once, but twice, as this particular scene does, automatically has my vote for best picture of the year.

And while I normally approve of the literary device that never lets the truth get in the way of a good story, in this case there is no reason to apply any sort of poetic license, since the truth actually makes for a much better story.

the fact-checkers are having a field day…

A number of fact-checking sites have popped up in the wake of the movie’s release, to evaluate the veracity of various plot lines the screenwriter has put forth. One red flag raised is that a nobleman such as the Earl of Southampton would never, ever, have just trotted up to a commoner’s home to pay a visit.

But the fact-checkers stop short and steer clear of the real controversy this section of the film creates.

The Earl of Southampton has long been rumored to be the Dark Youth referenced in certain of Shakespeare’s sonnets. This would obviously mean he’d have been much younger than the man writing the poems.

And just how would an untitled theater man such as Shakespeare – no matter how purportedly gifted – come to have an intimate physical relationship with a decades-younger nobleman?

This quandary is one of many that open the door to what is often referred to as the “authorship question.” Namely, who wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare?

For those casual viewers who may not be aware of any such debate regarding legitimate authorship, allow me to point out that it exists and persists, and has attracted some highly credible doubters over the years.

a leading contender for “alternate author”…

A leading contender for “alternate author” on some people’s scorecard is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. He and Southampton moved in the same circles. Their families knew each other. And the age difference between the two men helps the sonnets make sense. Oxford was a middle age man with health problems when Southampton was in his glorious youth, exuding physical beauty.

Oxford was also erudite, having enjoyed an education befitting his status. He traveled abroad extensively, and was a close confidant of the Elizabethan court.

No need to worry, though. I do not intend to wade into the authorship question at this time.

Except to say the conventional scholars seem to spend a good deal of time explaining why one or another of the potential alternate authors could not have written this or that work.

Instead of being able to prove decisively that a local man with little education and no intimate knowledge of court life, who never left his immediate confines, had somehow managed to write them all.

To cherry-pick just one example of how what little we know gets embellished to fit the familiar narrative, the movie ends with the news Shakespeare left his wife his “second best bed” in his will. (He died eight years before she did). This is presented to us as a quirky, romantic gesture.

But the screenwriter fails to let on the last will and testament of the man said to be the greatest poet in the English language is in fact a typically dry and terse document, containing little beyond the mention of this one utilitarian item.

I very much enjoyed the movie Kenneth Branagh and company have created. But I remain even more interested in the elaborate back story regarding authorship that has yet to break through into the popular imagination. Maybe someday it will.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
July 5, 2019

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