You’ve seen the plays: now watch the playwright do some gardening. In the new film All is True (trailer), director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton adopt the contemporary title of William Shakespeare’s last play, Henry VIII, in order to tell the story of the Swan of Avon (not portayed, sadly, by an actual swan, but by Branagh himself) returning to Stratford at the end of his career, after the burning of the Globe Theatre. Far from his successes in London, Shakespeare has to reckon with the hostility of his long-abandoned wife (Judi Dench) and daughters Susanna (Lydia Wilson) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder), as well as the snark and accusations of neighbours, and his long-held grief for the death of his son Hamnet. I was lucky enough to see the film courtesy of the lovely Viral History team (check out their work, it’s brilliant), and joined them and Dr Joanne Paul from the Sussex History department for a chat on their new podcast. You can listen to our episode via iTunes, Spotify, Audioboom, or wherever you like to source your listening material.
Spoiler: Jo and I didn’t like the film a great deal, though it’s definitely worth a watch if you’re a lover of beautiful cinematography, famed stars of stage and screen demonstrating why they get paid the big bucks, and terrible false noses. Another spoiler: I’m afraid I don’t talk about Thomas Nashe in the podcast, partly because I was too busy ranting about the plague to get to half of the things in my notes. Nashe does crop up in the film, though: not in person (the film is set in 1613, about thirteen years after Nashe’s death), but as a memory.
Nashe gets two mentions in the film (yep, the cultural takeover starts here), both in scenes in which figures from Shakespeare’s past visit him in Stratford. The first of these visitors is Shakespeare’s ex-patron Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton, played with rakish glee by Ian McKellen. Wriothesley presents himself in Stratford as Shakespeare’s biggest fan, describing the playwright as ‘the most important man in the kingdom’ and bemoaning his decline from all-conquering literary idol to staid middle-class Warwickshire gentleman. He mentions Nashe in a list of the dead: the larger-than-life writers of the 1590s, of which none remain aside from Ben Jonson (a line that prompted me to get rather outraged on behalf of Thomases Dekker and Middleton, not to mention Shakespeare’s possible Henry VIII collaborator John Webster [EDIT: John Fletcher! Got my Johns mixed up! Thank you to the commenter below…).
In a parallel scene near the end of the film, Shakespeare – by now noticeably sick with his final illness – is visited by Ben Jonson, played by Gerard Horan. Jonson is down on his luck, temporarily out of favour with the king, sympathetic to Shakespeare’s distress (as he gently reminds Shakespeare that he, too, lost a son). Like Wriothesley, Jonson delivers the sorrowing Shakespeare a substantial ego boost, but he has little time for the idea that the provincial life the playwright has returned to is inconsequential. No, he tells Shakespeare: you won, you got to go home, to rekindle a family life, to have a quiet and comfortable end. In this version, nostalgia is tempered with awareness that the violent delights of the 1590s had violent ends for the decade’s literary stars. Nashe gets a bit more than a name-drop here, as Jonson opines that, well, no-one knows for sure what he died of, but his ‘dildo poem’ (‘Choise of Valentines’) suggests that he didn’t pass peacefully in his bed. The implication that Nashe died of dildos is not pursued.
To be fair to Branagh and Elton, we are not asked to take either of these interactions at face value. Wriothesley’s snobbery is revealed in the way in which he rebuffs Shakespeare’s (rather heavy-handed, it must be said) declaration that Wriothesley was the young man addressed in his sonnets, and yes, he did mean what everyone thought he meant. Jonson is gossipy, genial, troubled by the disgrace he is in with James, mourning happier times. The two vignettes are telling, though, both in terms of what the film is doing and the ideas about literary culture that lie behind it. The 1590s haunt the film, both literally (Hamnet, who died in 1596, appears repeatedly to his grieving father) and in the spectre of a lost literary golden age, from which Shakespeare, Wriothesley, and Jonson have emerged blinking and bereaved, missing their youth and their friends and the opportunities for connection they missed. It is important to note here that this world is specifically homosocial. Judith (and this is a mild spoiler) has literary talent but is frustrated by her inability to realise it, declaring angrily to her father that ‘women can’t be poets’ (I’ll spare you my all-caps opinions on this, and limit myself to pointing you towards the Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing (RECIRC) project). Shakespeare was – at least, according to Wriothesley, Jonson, and an unnamed young man who interrupts his Bardening to fanboy at him – the best of the best, the top of an illustrious heap of literary auteurs. He is asked how he managed to create all these wonderful stories, ‘sitting alone at [his] desk’. In part, this idea of authorship forms a riposte to anti-Stratfordians: Shakespeare could write all those plays without an elite education or experience of international travel because he had booksmarts and genius on his side.
Nashe, the ribald poet with the suspicious death, becomes both Shakespeare’s analogue and his antitype. He represents the world that Shakespeare conquered – one of the memorable and dissolute young men of a lost literary scene – but at the same time he’s the tragic, squalid figure Shakespeare didn’t end up being. Branagh and Elton’s use of Nashe has some historical basis. Nashe remained a popular figure to invoke after his death, referred to in works by the likes of Middleton, Dekker, and John Taylor, who revived Nashe in the 1640s for Tom Nash his Ghost (somewhat edited image from the 1642 title page below):
However, Nashe is also – as we know from research into The Isle of Dogs, Dido Queene of Carthage, and the first act of Henry VI, Part 1 – a prime example of dramatic authorship not working in the ‘Great Singular Intellect admired by all’ way that it is treated in All is True. Branagh and Elton depict a notion of literary creation far removed from current research on collaborative authorship (such as that presented by Emma Smith and Laurie Maguire at our recent conference); from the use of anonymity and polemical personae in Nashe’s Marprelate pamphlets; from the self-conscious, contingent interactions of reality and persona we find in Pierce Penilesse and Have With You to Saffron-Walden.
By noting this I don’t mean to denigrate Shakespeare’s literary achievements – ‘you have’, as I once (with mounting horror) found myself saying in an undergraduate lecture, ‘gotta hand it to the guy’ – and nor do I want to criticise the politics underlying the decision to stress his talent so firmly. Literary skill is not the preserve of the moneyed and highly-educated, and it is valuable to make that point on film. I do think there’s space, though, for depictions of Shakespeare and his contemporaries that move beyond the ‘authorship debate’ – beyond the repetition that, yes, it is possible for a glover’s son to be good with words – and into the complex, vibrant world of conflict and collaboration that Nashe represents. Nashe is a resonant name to drop, an interesting story to speculate about, but his career gives the lie to comfortable nostalgia about the great authors of the late sixteenth century. I am, of course, extremely biased, but I’d love to see him portrayed on the big screen: posturing, collaborating, troubling reverential approaches to literary history.