#192: IMAGINING SHAKESPEARE’S LAST YEARS . Our historic sense of the life of Shakespeare is occluded not only by the vast gaps in the documentary record (where he went to school, the lost years between his leaving Stratford and his work in London, the final time back in Stratford) but by piquant, unfathomable details in what we do know, most famous of which is the phrase in his will leaving “my second-best bed” to his wife Anne. In 1997, in her book The World’s Wife—a collection of acerbic marvels—Carol Ann Duffy overturned centuries of cynical assumption about this bequest by turning it into a rapturous poem of marital love. One of the other most tantalizing mysteries is not just the death in 1596 of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet—causes unknown—but what connection it might have to Shakespeare’s having written “Hamlet” only some three or four years later; the two names, as Stephen Greenblatt points out, being “entirely interchangeable” in Shakespeare’s day. And now two new works, a film and a novel, have gone deftly into where the documents cannot take us, and done it with imagination, challenge and ingenuity.
“All is True” (2018), written by Ben Elton and directed by Kenneth Branagh, begins with Shakespeare’s return to Stratford after the loss of the Globe Theatre to fire. He is, belatedly, stricken with grief at the death of his son; his wife and daughters have made their peace with it (seemingly) and are making their own difficult adjustments. What little peace there is is tipped over by the visit of the aging Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s unrequited love. That’s about what you need to know, except that the film is shot through with the imaginative affection of people who have spent their lives with Shakespeare; it’s teasing and allusive throughout, like the twisting references to Watson’s original stories in the recent BBC “Sherlock.” And the primary roles are beautifully filled and even more beautifully voiced. Branagh plays Shakespeare; like John Barrymore before him, he seems to have an almost alarming love of grotesque disguise, and his Shakespeare has a balding dome you could bounce an arena spotlight off of, rather like that dead-beaver-on-your-lip mustache in his turn as Hercule Poirot. But he gives it his clipped, distinctive diction, which can so easily go off into either rage or humor. Judi Dench plays Anne Shakespeare; the gravel she puts in her voice makes Anne formidable, and we see and hear the character's scantly repressed resentment. As Southampton, in a firelit scene with Branagh, Ian McKellen’s voice is brocaded and rich, and this old, ironic voluptuary responds to Shakespeare’s recital of the 29th sonnet with a second recital, in each case the sonnet perfectly mirroring the speaker’s joy and loss. God, when will you hear voices like this again in a movie? And I suppose that’s the advantage of doing a movie about Shakespeare: you can dash in and borrow from that inexhaustible, steadfast well of words virtually at will (pardon the pun). At the end, the imagined ghost of Hamnet speaks to his father, in lines from “The Tempest,” and I was struck to tears at hearing them. By the end of “All is True,” we feel some of the fire and calm of Shakespeare’s last romances, with their play on the themes of reconciliation. Few movies give you anything like.
Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet (Knopf, 2020) hit the best-seller lists (remarkable) and, like A. S. Byatt’s Possession, you feel that the period has opened up to her a richness beyond simple realism. Hamnet too takes on the mystery of the boy’s death and its relation to Shakespeare’s creation of “Hamlet.” It’s an entirely different take, at least in detail: the cause of Hamnet’s death, for one, and the character of Shakespeare’s father (in “All is True,” Shakespeare speaks affectionately of his father; in Hamnet he is a lowering and dangerously angry man, who unwittingly contributes to Hamnet’s death). In “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) London is where Shakespeare malingers and carouses; in Hamnet, some notice is taken of the midnight oil necessary to manage a theatre, write thirty-seven (or however many) plays and send home money to keep a family comfortable. O’Farrell’s Anne becomes Agnes, a young woman with unnerving presence and powers. One of the devices in O’Farrell’s novel is that we see Shakespeare as Stratford sees him: a bright, useless boy, son of a dishonest local businessman, who has no talent the town can use or see; London is, finally, the only place he can flower. The language we notice most in the novel is O’Farrell’s own sensuous style, which enriches the story rather than enfolding it; the scents and sounds, the effortlessly intricate time schemes, keep us from feeling any itch to hurry on. Hamnet is a novel of the old world, with forests and ponds and flowers and herbs, straw mattresses, “fecund, leaf-damp ground.” In a pivotal chapter, we meet a glassmaker in Murano and a ship’s boy bound for Alexandria, and follow the pestilence ‘til it reaches Judith Shakespeare’s bed some months later. We see Judith and Hamnet, with a walnut divided between them, become mirror images, and more than once the twins are mistaken for each other; these works, like Shakespeare’s plays, are full of doublings. These are scenes, but it is the story as a whole that matters, and it moves with perfected pace from start to end. This is mastery.
With O’Farrell we end at the Globe Theatre, which is where her cunning pays off: we have seen Shakespeare as foolish, plain Stratford has seen him, and now we see him in his element and sense the almost surnatural power that others have seen only in Agnes. Agnes feels her powers have failed her; in the Globe, what she has given Shakespeare is returned to her. In both “All is True” and in Hamnet, there is Shakespeare flawed and human, but never anything reductive or mocking. In the movie, Southampton, teasing Shakespeare for his sense of social inferiority, greets him as “the son of Apollo, god of poetry, god of truth—the finest, the most complete and most beautiful mind, I warrant, that ever existed in this world.” In the playwright’s triumph in O’Farrell’s last chapters, in Southampton’s speech in “All is True,” so beautifully spoken, there is a bow to what’s been given us by Shakespeare and a stirring, natural emotional generosity. Both—the best praise possible—are worthy of their subject.