In the new film All is True, in which Kenneth Branagh depicts Shakespeare’s retirement and return to Stratford-upon-Avon, there to meet his wife and daughters, Shakespeare is confronted by the ghost of his son Hamnet; that is, he is haunted by his memory, slight as it is because he died while Shakespeare was in London, writing plays. Sitting in the garden of his Stratford home, he talks about Hamnet with his wife, Anne (played by Judi Dench). He tells her of his mortification at that time of his life, in spite of his absence. But Ann retorts: ‘Back then you wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor’.
I have read three biographies of Shakespeare, but I never retain many of the details, whereas it would take me an hour to recite all the verse of his that I can remember. Those who admire a writer tend to be less interested in the life, unless that life is Miguel de Cervantes, or Lord Byron, or Leo Tolstoy – but William Shakespeare, or what we know about him, is not as interesting enough as compared to what he wrote.
Nonetheless I decided to fact-check Anne’s claim. In one of the latest and best of Shakespeare biographies, Will in the World (2004), Stephen Greenblatt points out that, just after Hamnet was buried, Shakespeare wrote King John: a play that depicts a young boy jumping to his death from a castle wall. When the boy’s mother, verbose in her mourning, is told ‘You are as fond of grief as of your child,’ she replies:
Grief fills up the room of my absent child,
Lies in bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
If the filmmakers of All is True, who have great fun with the unsolvable mysteries of Shakespeare’s life (the best of which – actually the most convincing speculation – is the reasoning behind ‘the second best bed’), had neglected this passage, then it is because they preferred the more modern, ironic idea of the genius as cold-hearted, selfish, and oblivious to the feelings of others; even autistic.
There is also the Romantic notion that later graded into Formalism: that an author’s life and his work are a thing apart; that the genius triumphs in spite of its mortal casing. ‘We know nothing about Shakespeare,’ claimed the great critic Northrop Frye, ‘except a signature or two, a few addresses, a will, a baptismal register, and the picture of a man who is clearly an idiot’. The text is the thing, while the poet’s life is merely incidental. He is himself no better than anyone else except when he sits down and writes poems. Shakespeare is therefore free to be idiotic, because his plays are quite a separate matter.
Consequently, it has become enjoyable to depict geniuses of art and science, from Mozart to Stephen Hawking, as failed human beings, perverts, and wrecks. This is healthy. In the late Victorian period, when Shakespeare was referred to as ‘the Bard’, his works were idolised to such an extreme that worshippers declared the original author an impostor, and searched for a more interesting life to suit the works.
While conspiracy theorists have yet to find such a man, the filmmakers of All is True are content to cite the power of the imagination, which is what Shakespeare, in one scene, tells a would-be young writer who comes upon him gardening one afternoon. ‘How did you know?’ he asks. How did you create, not just, Othello and King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, but also the Porter, the Fool, and Captain Fluellen, characters of enormous vitality, characters among hundreds of others? How did you anticipate so much of European thought? The Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, sceptical of ‘genius’, once wrote that it is difficult to read Shakespeare without feeling that he must have been familiar with Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, and Derrida. How, then, did he know?
Yet, apart from occasional readings of his verse at opportune moments, Shakespeare’s only poetic thought in the film is a lame analogy between baking and playwriting. As other critics have pointed out, his language in the film is rather poor. ‘You win some, you lose some,’ he even says, as if he were a car salesman with his feet up on the desk. While it would be perverse to expect Shakespeare to thunder away in the language of, say, the Chorus to Henry V, we suspect that he enjoyed wordplay and had a powerful daily wit like his greatest comic creation, Falstaff (‘I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men’). Branagh gives us no sense of this man. The distinction between the idiot and the genius begins to seem less plausible.
The film has other merits that make it worth watching: it is beautifully shot, as who could not make their cinematography beautiful in the scenery of Stratford-upon-Avon? It is funny; it derives some pathos from the few biographical details we have of Shakespeare’s final years. And, indeed, by setting the film in those years, the filmmakers are relieved from the pressure of depicting the man at work. A writer’s life, as far as we are concerned, happens in a chair, and then on the page. It is far easier to depict a genius of more accessible and less time-consuming arts, such as painting and music. For how does a film demonstrate the achievements of a writer? Especially a writer who is now met with the scorn and boredom of children, and with the suspicion of an academy that regards his central place in the canon as an inconvenience to its more pressing agendas.