Review: The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 16 January 2017.

With any new publication, especially concerning the “universal” bard, it’s worth asking, ‘Who is this for?’ The New Oxford Shakespeare is no different. Coming to us from general editors Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan, Oxford University Press’s fourth iteration of the complete works is actually not one book, but four: The Complete Works: Modern Critical Edition (under review here), The Critical Reference Edition (containing the folio and quarto texts in their original spelling), the Authorship Companion (explaining the editors’ choices in detail), and an online resource gathering all of the above. The Complete Works’ modern spelling and slick cover design marks it as one for Waterstones’ shelves, but its prospects for this audience seem dubious. At fifty pounds it’s hardly in the ‘stocking filler’ price range, and it comes at a time when access to Shakespeare is widening anyway, through live streams of major productions and online resources like Folger Digital Texts. Despite apparently having taken 27 credited editors and consultants ten years of work, The New Oxford Shakespeare seems uncertain of its audience, and for all its critical insight it never quite satisfies.

This lack of satisfaction is partly due to a frankly bewildering introduction. The first part, ‘Why Read Shakespeare’s Complete Works?’, takes the standard tack of listing every major historical or literary figure to ever say anything vaguely positive about Shakespeare. This routine list is enlivened by the editors’ knack for cringeworthy phrases. We are told that “Shakespeare is the ghost with the most”, and that The Complete Works is “an anthology of extraordinarily powerful and varied virtual reality game worlds.” Besides the fact that they mix metaphors like a sea of troubles, lines like these feel incredibly patronising, especially addressed to a reader who has already picked up the Complete Works, and so presumably does not need persuading of Shakespeare’s importance. The presentation is also woefully inconsistent. One section attempts to refute accusations of racism in Shakespeare’s plays with a bullet-point list of notable non-white people who have interacted with the bard. All of Shakespeare’s other appreciators are generously discussed in continuous prose rather than simple listing. The introduction also mentions both Delia Bacon and J. Thomas Looney, without once stopping to clarify who these people are, despite its stated aim to create “something more accessible”.

This inconsistency further manifests in the second part of the Introduction, ‘Why Read This Complete Works?’, which explains the book’s editorial decisions. The editors note that this is “the first edition of Shakespeare’s complete works to include music for the songs, whenever a reliable original score is available”. While this is slightly less radical than the editors state (the 2015 Norton Shakespeare’s online edition featured recordings of the original music), it is a genuinely worthwhile move. The Tempest, for example, reads very differently with a more pronounced emphasis on music, and this simple change does more to inspire fresh reading than any waffle about virtual reality. Similarly good are the performance notes accompanying each play. The Tempest opens with the following:

“The play begins aboard a ship at sea. This is often accomplished through the uses of wind machines or sound effects, and ropes and sails manipulated by the actors. In early modern stagings a cannonball was rolled down a wooden trough to simulate the sound of thunder.”

This running commentary draws attention to the gaps and ambiguities of the script, as well as to different periods and types of staging. But while these performance-centric details are admirable, the authorship choices are baffling. Collaboration is this edition’s watchword, reflecting the trend in Shakespeare scholarship over the last fifteen years or so, as seen in books like Shakespeare, Co-Author and William Shakespeare and Others. This edition has grabbed a few headlines for listing Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the Henry VI plays. Yet its other choices betray its bardolatry; Shakespeare is interminably front and centre, even when his hand in a play is minimal. The collaboratively-written The Spanish Tragedy and Sir Thomas More are represented only by the bits ‘probably’ written by Shakespeare, with no indication of what came before or after, obscuring his impact on the overall script, and frustrating any reader unfamiliar with the plays. This fragmented presentation comes to a head with The History of Cardenio. A lost collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, it was adapted by eighteenth century playwright Lewis Theobald as Double Falsehood. In presenting it here the editors have used specialist software to identify the words most likely to have been written by Shakespeare, and left out everything else. This approach results in unreadable gobbets of text:

RODERICK   Why he hath pressed this absence, sir I know not
But [             ]  letters [
Wherein [Cardenio], good Camillo’s son,
[             ] (as he says) [
[                                 ] gold
To purchase certain horse that like him well

know the value of

There is some critical value to an exercise like this, but presenting it this way is not only frustrating to read (and hardly accessible for the general reader), it contradicts the sense of co-authorship the editors seek to emphasise. It may have been better to include the complete texts while typographically demarcating the collaborators. The Oxford Middleton, for instance, put Middleton’s additions to Macbeth in bold, and the Arden Titus Andronicus presents an inserted scene in a different typeface. The insistence on isolating Shakespeare serves to increase his iconic stature, rather than qualify it.

All told, The New Oxford Shakespeare has a distressing tendency to miss the wood for the trees. For the most egregious example we must return to the introduction. In relating Shakespeare to today’s theatre, the editors spend a page on Hamilton, ‘the most conspicuous theatrical event of the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death.’ The influence, it turns out, is fairly minor, but the truly shocking moment comes in reference to playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dedicatory sonnet at the Tony Awards. The editors dutifully mention that it contained “the very Shakespearean tautology “And love is love is love is love is love”.” What they fail to mention is that the sonnet was written in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting that happened the same week. This is The New Oxford Shakespeare in a nutshell. For all its worthwhile contributions, its careful attention to detail, and its slick presentation, it suffers from a near total divorce from the context in which its material appears, be it that of 1616 or 2016.

‘The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition’ is available to buy in hardback, RRP £50.

 

Review: Henry V

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 17 November 2016.

King Henry, it should be noted, is a nasty piece of work. He’s an arrogant dictator, ruthlessly purging his own men and committing war crimes before forcing himself on a French princess. This new production of Henry V at the Corpus Christi auditorium has its faults, mostly stemming from a maximalist approach to Shakespeare’s text, but it’s worth applauding for its embrace of Henry as a despicable scumbag. It’s an uncompromising take on the character, but the cast and crew make the play’s nationalist tubthumping a thing of genuine horror.

This production opens with the edited highlights of Henry IV, before transitioning into Henry V proper. It’s an odd decision, and leads to some awkward moments (the ‘Prologue’, for example, comes fifteen minutes in). But it serves to show where things start to go wrong for the young Henry. His youthful love of Falstaff quickly morphs into outright contempt, and the eventual banishment of ‘plump Jack’ is not just cold but outright vindictive.

We see this brutal streak writ large in the older Henry: Laurence Belcher is brilliant as the ranting psychopathic tyrant. Quick to anger and devising elaborate punishments for his own men, Belcher’s Henry deliciously plays a scene of rooting out traitors, as he forces the naïve lieutenants to condemn themselves. Yet he also displays the demagogue’s knack for holding attention. His lengthy deliberations on diplomacy and torture are gripping, delivered with arresting conviction and variety – Henry is many things, but never predictable. The production is pleasing in its willingness to undermine him, too. Henry delivers the St. Crispin’s Day speech to two disgruntled guards rather than an army of fans, and, in the most subtly damning detail, he draws up the peace treaty with hands still covered in blood.

The rest of the cast acquit themselves admirably. James Bruce strikes a perfect tragicomic note as Falstaff and later Nim, nailing the physical comedy of the fat knight. Similarly good are Gerard Krasnopolski as Pistol and Harry Carter as Boy; a scrappy counterweight to Henry’s macho posturing. (Krasnopolski also performs the most impressive leek-eating ever to grace an Oxford stage). Tom Fisher is perfect as the dithering King of France, and Christopher Page is a gloriously contemptuous Dauphin.

The play’s main flaw is over-lengthiness; introductory scenes feel extraneous, and the second half flabby, mainly in service of hammering home how nasty Henry is. There’s also a bit of a problem with accents. There are some appalling attempts at Scottish and Yorkshire accents, as well as the usual cringiness of thesps affecting ‘common’ voices. It’s a nitpick, but when you’re trying to shed light on a complete monster it helps not to accidentally indulge your own stereotypes about non-royalty.

But this is still absolutely a play worth seeing. Belcher is a brilliantly monstrous leading man, backed by a production unabashed in tackling his brutality. Angry, bitter, and darkly hilarious, this is what Corpus auditorium does best. Watch it, and be thankful that we no longer allow thin-skinned psychopaths to lead international armies.

Review: The Tempest at the Donmar Warehouse

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 29 September 2016.

Shakespeare has many faults, not least his failure of the Bechdel test. Director Phyllida Lloyd has taken it upon herself to correct this, and since 2012 she and her team have staged a trilogy of all-female productions for the Donmar Warehouse, with the final instalment debuting this week. The trilogy has grabbed a few headlines for its setting in an all-female prison, and it’s certainly a bold move. The Tempest is about a powerful wizard in command of a mysterious exotic island, so setting it in a chilly concrete cell seems counter-intuitive. In its best moments this produces an interesting tension, but it often feels like the play is struggling against its own concept. Rough, strange, and a little bit shambolic, there’s a lot to like in this production, but there’s also a sense of a gimmick wearing a bit thin.

The play starts with the cast lining up, and Harriet Walter announcing she is serving a life sentence for “a politically motivated bank robbery”, before taking up her role as Prospero. The story unfolds as a performance, or shared fantasy, of the prisoners, with the realities of prison life intruding at key intervals. It’s a good idea, but it feels a bit arbitrary — guards are constantly harassing Sebastian and Antonio, but they never come near Prospero, despite her constant tricks on her fellow inmates. This ought to be ambiguous and fantastical, but comes across muddy and confused. Lloyd jams in some extraneous musical numbers, mostly sung by Ariel, and while they’re mostly competent they disrupt the flow significantly. Ariel’s final song painfully drags out one of the play’s best moments, repeating the same lines ad nauseam rather than coming up with new ones. The stage dressing is minimal, but nicely evocative, strewn with rubbish befitting Sophie Stanton’s interpretation of Caliban as a kind of mad bag lady.

While Caliban and Ariel are fun, it’s Prospero who anchors the play, and Harriet Walter excels in the part. She’s every bit the weary old scholar of Shakespeare’s text, but she’s much less spiteful than the usual interpretation. Strolling around with hands in her pockets, her contemplative attitude makes her louder moments stand out, such as her unhinged delivery of the ‘insubstantial pageant’ speech. (A rather beautiful moment involving video projections onto a cloud of white balloons, emphasising the otherworldly splendour). Her affection for Leah Harvey as Miranda is genuinely touching, and Harvey manages the shift from youthful joy to adolescent wonder impeccably. Between them they form the play’s emotional core, and it’s nice to see a Shakespeare production focused on a mother-daughter relationship rather than the Bard’s paternalism. Jackie Clune and Karen Dunbar are funny as Stephano and Trinculo, and Jade Anouka makes a fine Ariel, even if her rapping was a bit weak at the preview performance. The rest of the cast don’t make much impression, but to be fair these are hardly Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, and finding depth in Gonzalo is a challenge few actors have met.

The Tempest is a potpourri, then, but not without its charms, and, more importantly, not without relevance. The boldest choice comes at the end — in the original Prospero ‘abjures’ his magic, and returns to Milan, a moment many have read as reflective of Shakespeare’s own decision to retire. Lloyd’s ending goes beyond Shakespeare’s text — Walter delivers her final monologue, and then steps out of character, becoming a prisoner again. We then hear a set of messages from Walter’s friends and family, including the daughter she left behind when she was arrested. The message is clear: don’t give up. The light returns to the harshness of the prison, the voices fade into the whirring of a vacuum cleaner. The final impression is of resilience rather than resignation, and for that alone it’s worth applauding. It’s a wonderful subversion of Shakespeare’s text, and one that could only have been done with this cast and this setting. Because, let’s face it, after 400 years, the male angst version is played out.

Review: Shakespeare’s First Folio by Emma Smith

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 21 July 2016.

Emma Smith’s study of Shakespeare’s First Folio sets out with the aim “to contextualise the material Shakespeare”. As such, it’s less a book about the material of Shakespeare than the material around Shakespeare, less about the text itself than about note-taking, performing, and doodling in the margins. Smith presents a thorough, cogent, and highly readable history of this landmark publication, and while her sense of structure is occasionally idiosyncratic, this is a definitive work of Shakespeare bibliography. It’s also a refreshingly materialist piece in a year of gaudy Shakespeare pageantry.

The book is organised into five chapters: ‘Owning’, ‘Reading’, ‘Decoding’, ‘Performing’, and ‘Perfecting’. The history is organised thematically rather than chronologically, and this is true even within the individual chapters. At first this can be a bit disorientating, as the first chapter lurches from eighteenth century book collectors, to the use of the Folio in the first ever National Lottery broadcast, then back to book collecting in the twentieth century. But once the reader has found their sea-legs it makes for quite an appealing style, governed by associative logic rather than strict chronology. It allows Smith to play the raconteur – she is ultimately less interested in Shakespeare’s Folio than the stories surrounding it, and the anecdotal approach brings them vividly to life. Colourful characters, bizarre misreadings, and facetious marginalia abound – an effective conversation-starter might be to ask readers what their favourite stories are.

Some of the best sections concern the efforts of librarians to get their hands on the Folio. Smith relays the story of the Bodleian Library’s first ever fundraising campaign, an attempt to purchase the First Folio from a student (the gloriously named Gladwyn Turbutt) in 1905. The observation that “the wheels of the university ground very slowly” in securing funds hits close to home, and the details of the 2012 ‘Sprint for Shakespeare‘ Campaign to preserve and digitise the Folio are a fascinating case of history repeating itself. But my favourite story is the tale of the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, the only public library to own a copy of the First Folio. Smith notes that “the dominant ownership mark… is the purple library stamp of the Birmingham Free Libraries Reference Department on several of its pages” as well as the charming detail of “the faint tread of a cat’s paws across a page of Henry VI Part 1″. Smith’s prose is clear and measured, but she takes a clear delight in relaying these minute observations, resulting in a book that feels richly detailed and slyly playful.

But while the stories told are many and varied, certain themes recur throughout. The spectre of capitalism haunts the First Folio, as the book is almost always a prop for the rich. The introduction details the first recorded purchase, by up-and-coming nobleman Sir Edward Dering, and from there we see the rise and fall of English aristocratic ownership, before American hyper-capitalists (most notably Edward Folger) move in, a battle Smith refers to as the “squirearchy” vs. the “squillionaires”. This commodity-fetishism repeatedly crops up, as do the book’s own inadequacies – printing errors abound, and Smith documents the various owners’ attempts to correct them. Smith also touches on female ownership – she points out that “attested female readers of Shakespeare’s First Folio seem more numerous than for many other early modern books” – but the theme feels a tad under-developed. One gets the feeling that the search for a “Feminist Folio” would be worth a book in its own right.

Smith’s prose is crisp and clear, but retains some of the annoyances of academic writing. Almost every chapter begins with Smith baldly telling us that ‘this chapter will explore x’, instead of getting on with exploring it already. There are also occasional typos and a variable layout design, with easily-missed slithers of the main text appearing beneath large photos, which interrupts the natural flow of the prose.

Nitpicks aside, Shakespeare’s First Folio is a marvellous bit of scholarship. Detailed without being dry, playful without being silly, it’s a well-researched, thoroughly balanced account of this ‘iconic’ book, and one which remains aware of its flaws. The Folio is riddled with typos, mistakes, dirt and marginalia. And that’s OK – more than that, it’s what makes it worth documenting. Smith concludes with the sobering reminder that “it is quite possible to over-value this most valuable of books”, and it’s a fitting message for this Year of Shakespeare. It’s the plays themselves that we love, and they are worth far more than the paper they are printed on.

‘Shakespeare’s First Folio’ is available to buy from Oxford University Press, RRP £19.99.

Review: Twelfth Night

This article first appeared on the Oxford Opening Night website on 10 June 2016.

Garden plays are among the hardest to get right. Making a good play is difficult enough without having to worry about the weather, hay fever, and the possibility of an unscripted entrance by the local wildlife. Luckily, Worcester College’s Twelfth Night pulls through these challenges to create a light, breezy, raucously entertaining production. Complete with lutes, doublets, hoses and ruffs (not to mention a top-notch cast), Fishbowl Productions deliver all the bells and whistles of a proper Shakespearean romp, even if it occasionally suffers from over-complicated staging.

The plot is standard Shakespearean comedy. What starts out as a bit of light cross-dressing rapidly snowballs into a tale of lost family, mistaken identity, comic violence and passionate love. There are bold heroes, proud servants, drunken nobles, and a fool running around generally undermining the hell out of everybody. The plot builds to the traditional multiple marriage, and along the way there’s plenty of clever wordplay, slapstick sword fighting, and even a bit of topical humour to keep the audience engaged. The energetic pacing and bawdy jokes of the first half contrast nicely with the second half’s slightly darker tinge, especially in the scenes where the servant Malvolio is duped by arrogant nobles Belch and Aguecheek.

But while the individual scenes are well-staged, the overall structure is frustrating. This is a ‘promenade’ production, meaning different scenes play out in different locations, with the audience constantly shifting to follow the actors. This does nothing but create awkward gaps as viewers migrate, undermining the flow and fast pace crucial to good comedy. Scenes will start with half the audience still on the other side of the lawn, and the scenery occasionally blocks the audience’s view. This inattention to detail suggests a traditional stage might have better suited the production, and it would certainly have been far less distracting and inconsistent.

The cast, on the other hand, are solid across the board. Rebecca Bowen is marvellous as cross-dressing leading lady Viola, part relatable everywoman and part pantomime hero. Adam Diaper’s Malvolio effortlessly shifts between the sublime and the ridiculous, and Indyana Schnieder makes a delightful Feste, with great comic timing and a lovely singing voice. Alice Moore is wonderfully waspish as the widow Olivia, moving, Maggie Smith-like, from dry amusement to love-struck bliss. But the undoubted star of the show is one Coco Chanel, a West Highland Terrier making his stage debut as the Countess’s lapdog, who provides a number of unscripted laughs on top of generally looking cute.

Subtract the faults of its staging and Twelfth Night is damn near perfect. A calm, confident execution of an extremely tricky style, it balances a light tone with some refreshingly dark elements. The result is a satisfying evening’s entertainment, and worth seeing for the sheer raw talent on display. By turns charming, funny, poignant and edifying, Twelfth Night is the high watermark by which Oxford’s summer Shakespeares will be judged.

“The music came first” – An Interview with Stephen Hyde

Stephen Hyde is one of the best musicians in the Oxford theatre scene. A prolific director and composer, his credits include Yesterday, King Lear, The Marriage of Kim K, and most recently Queueue, all extremely stylish and well-reviewed productions. He was kind enough to talk to me about his creative process, electronic music, and his experience of Oxford theatre.

Let’s start with Queueue – how did that come about?

I originally went to Leo with this idea I’d had for a few years about writing a musical about Alice Through The Looking Glass. Leo had his own concept which he developed following that conversation, about framing it with the internet. As we went on through the process, this new musical came out, which Damon Albarn had done, Wonder.land, and we realised there was a bit of a clash there. So we decided to broaden it out; it became more about the internet, and the characters in contemporary life we’d experienced around Oxford. The idea to stage it in a coffee shop came very late in the day, but by that point we’d spent a lot of time in coffee shops around Oxford, so we had kind of done all our research before that concept was even introduced.

What was it like, trying to capture the internet through music?

The internet is so multi-layered. You’ve got all these different musics, from all these different cultures and time periods, all in one space, and part of the idea behind the music was this sort of magpie approach. But I was also playing with internet-y sounds, little motifs like the iPhone ringtone and stuff, so that was another defining feature. I’ve played a lot with electronic music in some of my compositions, and I wanted to develop that further, as well as bring indie electronic music into the realm of musical theatre, which is something that’s not really been done much at all.

How did you find playing with those sorts of styles?

It was a massive learning curve. I often write some music, then realise it’s gone somewhere quite different from where I wanted it to go, but in quite interesting ways. PC Music is a genre of music which people said they heard coming through in some of the songs, which I didn’t intend at all. I felt like I had a lot of creative freedom; the music got quite whacky in places, and I just found that really, really fun.

How did you match the music to the action? Which came first, the songs or the script?

I think, by and large, the music came first. Leo had sketched the story before most of the music arrived, but quite often I would send him a piece of music, based on what I was listening to at the time, and he would fit it into the story. In terms of the mechanics of writing, the music would almost invariably come first, then Leo would write the lyrics based on that.

The idea of unconscious influence seems to be coming through here; does that happen a lot when you write music?

It really does, yeah. Quite often I’ll write something, and then only realise afterwards where I got that inspiration from. Before writing Queueue I’d been listening to a lot of upbeat music, stuff like Paul Simon and Rusted Root and Vampire Weekend, so a lot of the music had that kind of optimistic vibe. I was occupied with a new composition technique, which was writing bass lines first, then building a song up from there: writing a melody over the bass line, layering up the texture. But again, after I’d used this technique for a while I realised it was because I’d heard a lot of great bass lines from Paul Simon, without ever consciously acknowledging that.

Jumping back a bit, last term you directed The Marriage of Kim K – what was that like? How did it compare to Queueue?

It was quite different. Leo came to me and asked me to direct it, so I didn’t have such a stake in it as a piece of new writing. But there are certainly Leo E. Mercer trends that you see coming up in both of them, especially in his lyrics. He’s very witty, occasionally quite sardonic, so there was some similarity between the two projects. I was attracted to Kim K because it was doing something new, saying something in a new way.

What are the different demands made of you as a director, rather than a composer? Which do you prefer?

That’s an interesting question – I have very seldom directed anything that I haven’t written the music for. I always want to incorporate music into the fabric of any kind of production, really getting a musical language into the drama. So to say which one I prefer would be extremely difficult. Right now, I’m really enjoying my composition, but I really want to marry the two together.

Last year you composed and directed Yesterday at the BT – could you tell us a bit about that? Do you write music differently for the BT than for the O’Reilly or Modern Art Oxford?

Absolutely – it’s all space-dependent. With Yesterday it was more of a throwback, in terms of some of the musical influences I had, drawing from Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown. The setup there was a chamber ensemble, with just a cello, piano, and drums, and a three-woman cast. So the space determined the ensemble, and the ensemble determined the style of music we were writing. Drums were really at the heart of that – we had a continuous drumming underlay for the whole show, and the BT as a space suited that really well.

You’ve also written a lot of music for Shakespeare productions – what’s it like working with material that well-known?

It’s a great chance to prove how diverse Shakespeare can be. For King Lear we were doing a very filmic, neo-noir multimedia production, so we had a lot of electronic, ethereal soundscapes. Then for some of the other Shakespeares I’ve been doing, for outdoor touring productions, it’s a chance to indulge in my love of folk music, and seeing what sorts of different things you can apply to Shakespeare. I’ve written some songs for a production of As You Like It I’m doing at the moment, and it’s really interesting how music can inform the characters and scenario, how adaptable and diverse Shakespeare is. Music was such a big part of performing Shakespeare when he was alive, and it can still be a big part of it today. As You Like It is full of songs, it’s practically a musical.

Could you tell us about this production?

Absolutely! Right now I’m working on Macbeth and As You Like It. I’m writing the music for both, but I’m also directing Macbeth, which has been really good fun. We’re a group of five acting musicians, and we’re doing a tour of the UK; it’s all about storytelling through musical instruments, and we assign instruments to different characters. Banquo is associated with a mandolin, Macbeth with a drum, Lady Macbeth with a recorder, and they’re used to create soundscapes, but also as physical extensions of that character, or ways that character can express themselves, so that’s been really interesting to work with. The tour starts in Glamis Castle in Scotland, and then we finish in Stratford-upon-Avon. We’re performing in an RSC venue, which is really exciting. That’ll be my last project for a little while – after that I’m going to need a break!

Stephen Hyde will be on tour with the Three Inch Fools Theatre Company until 1 August. Tickets are available here. You can also find Stephen’s music on his Soundcloud page.

Review: Upstart Crow

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.