Amongst all the other Shakespeare 400 announcements, there was one you might have missed. Ben Elton is to write a comedy about the man himself, starring David Mitchell as the Upstart Crow*.
If you search for William Shakespeare on IMDB, as well as an impressive number of writing credits ** there are also more than a hundred acting credits. From La mort de Jules Cesar in 1907 to Bum Killers*** in 2016 – and probably a dozen other appearances by the time I finish this blog.
The actors don’t have lot to go on. There are only two representations of Shakespeare that are unambiguously identified as him, and both may be posthumous. There’s the Droeshout portrait, which appears in the First Folio and which Ben Jonson describes thus:
This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut;
Wherein the Grauer had a strife
with Nature, to out-doo the life :
O, could he but haue drawne his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath hit
His face ; the Print would then surpasse
All, that was euer writ in brasse.
But, since he cannot, Reader, looke
Not on his Picture, but his Booke.
The other is his funerary monument, presumably seen and approved by his widow and the rest of his family.****
The two don’t provide a lot to go on: dark hair – receding hairline and a bit of a bob, small beard, brown eyes, a hint of a smile. A large number of famous people and shows have nonetheless decided to take on the challenge of bringing Shakespeare back to life. Eric Idle had a bash in an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, albeit a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. Dean Lennox Kelly played a rockstar Shakespeare in Doctor Who, in one of my favourite episodes from the new series. *****
Rafe Spall played Shakespeare in Anonymous, although Rhys Ifans played the author of the plays. That’s all I’m going to say about that, because I really don’t have the finger strength to type out a proper rant on the subject.
Of course, when it comes to personality there’s an even freer rein for putting your own spin on things. What there seems to be is a spectrum between two different types of interpretation: the celebrity who revels in being idolised; and a hard-working underdog. Interestingly enough, neither category is above stealing lines from others – think of Joseph Fiennes overhearing the street preacher calling for “A plague on both your houses”. And most characterisations also give him some serious hero-worship of Kit Marlowe.
Epitomising the underdog is the fabulous Mathew Baynton’s turn in Bill (which I badly need to watch again when not jetlagged so I actually pick up more of the jokes), or Colin Firth****** in Blackadder: Back and Forth, who is dissuaded from writing the plays and instead becomes the inventor of the ballpoint pen. Also in the latter category – Hugh Laurie in a sketch for comic relief with Rowan Atkinson as his editor, which must make Rowan Atkinson easily the person most likely to have played Shakespeare who never actually has, along with Hugh Laurie being the blondest Shakespeare ever…
For the former – as well as Dean Lennox Kelly there’s the version in The Sandman who trades with Morpheus – inspiration in exchange for two plays. He gains fame, but loses his son – just as Joseph Fiennes gains financial security but loses his lady.
The thing is, I love them all. I really do. And that’s why I’m thrilled by the thought of Upstart Crow. And that’s why when I was in the States I went to Something Rotten on Broadway. I’ll post a proper review shortly, but first I’d like to introduce you to Christian Boyle as the most rockstar, coolest Bard you could ever hope to encounter. The song’s pretty catchy, too.
Do let me know who your favourite is!
* That’s the name of the series, not just a random comment.
** And co-credits. Perhaps the Shakespeare number would be a welcome addition to the collection of numbers which measure network connectivity. If Natalie Portman ever writes a screenplay, she can complete the set.
*** I’m too scared to do more than look up the title.
**** The Chandos portrait – the image of him which is on display in the National Portrait Gallery, and on my blog, is only assumed to be Shakespeare. However it’s the best shot at being painted from life, since it has been dated to 1610.
***** I believe Shakespeare appeared in an earlier Doctor Who episode, but not in my knowledge.
****** Interestingly, Colin Forth has a Bacon-Erdos number of 7 (same as Natalie Portman) so he’s probably a shoo-in for lowest combined Bacon-Erdos-Shakespeare number if that ever takes off…