This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 23 May 2016.
William Shakespeare’s life should be prime sitcom material. The stresses of one man trying to work within a theatre company, while having to deal with stroppy actors and the Master of Revels breathing down his neck offer plenty of opportunities for comedic scenarios. The portrayal of the bard as an acerbic social climber, similar to Edmund Blackadder, ought to be an absolute stunner, especially with an actor as good as David Mitchell in the role. Sadly, the ambitions of Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow, part of the BBC’s much-hyped ‘Shakespeare Season’, seem limited to showcasing the party pieces of familiar comics. It tries to do precisely the above, but the plotting is lazy, the jokes are obvious, and the pacing slipshod. Every episode opens with Shakespeare squabbling with his family in Stratford, before travelling to London to bicker with his fellow actors and household servants. The repetitious structure kills any momentum, as episodes open with around ten minutes of filler before the premise emerges. But despite all that, does Ben Elton’s series have something positive to contribute to this year’s Shakespeare celebrations?
There is occasional wit, such as the first episode’s closing gag about sending a corpse to Cambridge: “They found him cold, uncooperative, and expecting advancement without effort or talent. In short, a perfect member of the English establishment.” It’s the sort of gag Elton did well on Blackadder, but in the absence of strong collaborators – such as his former writing partner, Richard Curtis – Elton’s worst instincts come to the fore. The Shakespeare-specific humour is particularly uninspired: we are reminded that the playwright’s comedy often requires footnotes; that the Henry VI plays can be a bit dull; and that ‘wherefore’ sounds like it means ‘where’ when in fact it means ‘why’. The result is a disappointingly shallow view of Shakespeare, which is odd for a show ostensibly made in celebration of him.
But while Upstart Crow does not do justice to Shakespeare’s output, there is a defence to be made of the way that the show treats Shakespeare the man. Just as Elton is at his best when working with others, the Bard of Avon is best understood as one man amongst a team of playwrights, actors, and theatre personnel. Shakespeare collaborated with other writers throughout his career, and worked extensively with his fellow actors in penning plays. This has been a notable thread in Shakespeare scholarship over the last decade, spearheaded by books such as Brian Vickers’ Shakespeare, Co-Author (2002), which surveys five collaboratively written plays, and Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern’s Shakespeare in Parts (2007), which highlights the vital role that actors had in shaping the plays.
This trend came to a head in 2013, with the publication of William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, a definitive collection of Shakespeare’s co-writings, including A Yorkshire Tragedy, Sir Thomas More, and even Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. But in the last few years this trend has subsided; as the anniversary year approached, scholars returned to focusing on Shakespeare and his text, with titles like Emma Smith’s Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book and OUP’s upcoming New Oxford Shakespeare. Just as Elton is often credited with making Blackadder “one of the wittiest, most original sitcoms that British television has ever produced”, Shakespeare is often given sole credit for the brilliance of his output, as if nobody had helped or encouraged him along the way.
In Upstart Crow, Shakespeare is not a divinely inspired artist casually tossing out classics. The plays go through drafts: we see Will discussing them with his fellow actors; we see them submitted for approval, accepted, or rejected. It’s hardly the most nuanced or historically accurate vision of Shakespeare’s life, but nor does it pander to the easy cultural assumption that he was the only guy writing plays back then.
So for all its faults, Upstart Crow does have an important place in this Year of Shakespeare, as a welcome antidote to the prevailing attitudes of awe and reverence. It demonstrates a much shrewder and more sensible view of the bard than its simplistic humour may suggest. It may be ultimately forgettable, but it’s a good deal more grounded than many more serious treatments of Shakespeare’s life.