Warning: this (lengthy) season review contains major spoilers for the TNT Drama Will, and references torture, rape and the exploitation of children.
Full disclaimer: I’m an early modernist. By which I mean, I have spent over ten years of my academic, professional and personal life studying early modern literature—including but not limited to Shakespeare and Marlowe—and bolstering my readings with in-depth research about early modern women’s life and work, gender presentation/representation, and socioeconomic realities and power dynamics. I bring a hefty amount of baggage, then, to TNT’s drama Will. Baggage I did my best to stow away, out of sight out of mind, but that will still, inevitably, influence my response to this period drama.
That said, TNT’s adaptation of Shakespeare—and I call it an adaptation because there is much to be said for how the writers, producers, directors, costumers and actors bring some of the best—and worst—of Shakespeare’s drama into this show—is a surprisingly entertaining look at “how it could have happened” that, for all its faults, continues the work academics, scholars, teachers and the Bard’s many lovers have been doing for years.
Making Shakespeare accessible.
What is Past is Prologue: the Plot of Will
If you would like to skip a detailed summary of the season, please scroll down to the next heading.
Will takes place in 1589, smack dab in the middle of Shakespeare’s “lost years”: a period where William Shakespeare dropped entirely from public record. A determined but naïve young man, William Shakespeare (Laurie Davidson) leaves his wife Anne (Deidre Mullins) and three children to pursue a writing/acting career in London—partly to support his family, but mostly to spare himself the tedious destiny of a married tradesman.
London is a tumultuous place. While Will secures himself a place in James Burbage’s the Theatre as writer and actor, Protestant court torturer Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner) scours London’s streets for Father Robert Southwell (Max Bennett): an upstart Catholic priest inspiring downtrodden and secreted English Catholics to open resistance. Their war of propaganda and religious fervor touch every social circle, from the Queen’s advisers to a pick-pocket struggling to rescue his sister from sexual slavery.
It is a war Will tries, and fails, to avoid. A secret Catholic, Will is pressured by his parents to deliver a letter to Southwell—a letter the pick-pocket Presto (Lukas Rolfo) discovers and takes it to Topcliffe. Will is spared an early death by Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower), London’s most popular playwright and current Topcliffe informant, who sets up the middling playwright Baxter in Will’s place.
Will’s religion doesn’t remain a secret for very long. Marlowe knows it full well and dangles the life he saved over Will’s head, while Alice Burbage (Olivia DeJonge), James’ daughter and theatre scribe, is subjected to Will’s confession of his belief. Even knowing the danger he brings to the theatre and her family, and his married state, Alice enters into an affair with Will. They try to remain discreet, even as Alice’s parents arrange for her to marry Lord Keenan: a wealthy beer merchant whose financial backing will keep the theatre open and James out of debtor’s prison.
Will’s star rises in the theatre with the successful production of plays Edward III, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Henry VI Parts 1 and 2, all improved with Alice’s intelligence and fine handwriting. But as it does, other stars dim. Marlowe, struck with debilitating writer’s block as he is forced to deal with the impending death of his lover, undergoes a self-destructive spiral. He investigates all aspects of religion, divination and damnation to try and understand the nature of death, salvation and the soul. With no answers, he returns to his lover’s side. Barrett’s pleas that Marlowe look to his soul provide him no peace, and after his passing, Marlowe descends into a violent self-harming despair, driving him to seek out Father Southwell in one last effort for understanding and solace.
Meanwhile, Presto continues stealing to buy his sister Apelina’s (Kristy Phillips) freedom from the brothel, going so far as to sneak a dress from the theatre and use it to steal purses. Although the dress is eventually ruined and finally returned to the theatre troupe—who then take Presto in as a new boy apprentice—the brothel matron provides him a new one. But not to thieve in. She forces Presto to prostitute himself to men with a proclivity for boys in dresses. For the sake of Apelina, he does, but when confronted with Topcliffe, Presto stabs him. In a mad dash, Presto and Apelina flee the brothel and Topcliffe’s guards, taking to the muddy streets. Apelina, however, doesn’t escape their pursuers. Shot from behind, she urges Presto to leave before dying in the mud.
Presto takes refuge in the theatre, where in a fit of grief and rage, he sets fire to the costumes and the building.
Although Will is able to save the theatre, the Burbages and Presto, his star careens off course. Horrified her daughter sabotages her engagement, Ellen Burbage (Nancy Carroll) forces Will to break off their relationship in the cruelest possible terms. Alice is devastated, and in her grief and loneliness she gravitates to Father Southwell. At the same time, Topcliffe entangles Will in the Protestant/Catholic struggle, forcing him to write a play discrediting Father Southwell.
Everything comes to a head when as Will strikes upon an idea and Alice immerses herself in the Catholic cause. While Will writes Richard III, painting Topcliffe’s monstrous personality and atrocities in the historic English king, Alice secrets messages from the Vatican to Father Southwell and even secures passage for his manifesto to the Queen. When their safe house is discovered, Alice tries to rescue Father Southwell’s work, leading to her capture and torture at Topcliffe’s hands. Although Will rescues her, Alice is permanently changed because her ordeal. Together, though, they convince the Theatre to perform Richard III and tear the Queen’s torturer down.
All converges onstage as Topcliffe and influential members of court watch Richard III. Richard Burbage (Mattias Inwood) achieves independence and fame as Richard III, and the entire theatre turns on Topcliffe as his villainy is paraded before them. Topcliffe further undermines himself by causing a scene when all the Theatre joins in Richard’s in-character/out-of-character call of “guilty.” Topcliffe leaves in disgrace, thoroughly ruined by the unity Will has created through his work.
There is nothing for Will to celebrate, though. Alice leaves him a letter bidding him farewell. She must set her own course, with Father Southwell in the Americas, and she asks Will not to look for his “once bright angel.”
There is a History in All Men’s Lives: The Use of History
Setting Will in 1589 was clever. Most of Shakespeare’s life is known through public record (birth and baptismal records, marriage certificates, business transactions, wills and death records) and secondary accounts. Moreover, there is a seven-year gap where no records about him exist at all, and the figure who emerges at the end of that gap is wholly different from the one who enters it. A nobody in Stratford in 1585, by 1594, when Shakespeare reappears in the record, he is a popular populist playwright, earning the respect of crowds and the ire of writers. Particularly Robert Greene, who calls him “an upstart crow.”
Placing Will’s action in the middle of the lost years allows the show to play with the possibilities of Shakespeare’s early years in London. The writers have done their homework on the popular theories and controversies: Shakespeare’s Catholic leanings, Marlowe’s secret service to the Queen, Shakespeare and Marlowe’s possible homosexuality or bisexuality. They’ve also done their research about social issues affecting London, although they play fast and loose with many of those facts.
Characters like Topcliffe and Southwell have their lives compressed in the historical drama. Topcliffe and Southwell didn’t cross paths until 1592, when Topcliffe captured Southwell and tortured him until Southwell was transferred to the Tower of London. Southwell also never published or disseminated a manifesto. Topcliffe didn’t fall from power, seek to become spymaster, or (as far as we know) commit any of the atrocities shown in Will. Minus the torture. He was a torturer.
Inaccurate as they are, their adapted histories work for Will. The centrality of the Protestant/Catholic struggle necessitates powerful figures standing as leaders and figureheads. Moreover, the characters remain true to their historical counterparts, expanded only for story and entertainment. Such expansion affects other characters, like Alice and Richard Burbage. Richard’s growth as not only an actor but also an individual is given greater prominence through the changes to his history, while Alice—a mere footnote to her father and brother’s existence—is given an entire life.
One aspect of early modern history Will gets almost entirely right—and the aspect that gives me the greatest pleasure—is the theatre and theatre-going itself. It’s high time everyone, not just die-hard fans and academics, know that Shakespeare was not and is not Laurence-Olivier-upper-class-accent “Shakespeare.” Shakespeare was populist; play-going was a rock concert. And Will portrays that beautiful. The groundlings—playgoers of the lower classes who would stand in the pit in front of the stage—are perfectly depicted as loud and obnoxious, cheering riotously for what they loved and jeering cruelly what they hated. The actors played to them, encouraging their participation, while the writers catered to them, knowing that an angry sea of groundlings could ruin their career. The action of the play is punctuated with dance and song, showcasing how theatres capitalized on popular performing arts even centuries past.
The groundlings highlight the fact that in Shakespeare’s time, plays weren’t high art—that was poetry—but low-brow entertainment. Puns. Sex jokes. Dick jokes and dick waving. Staged death and dismemberment. Copious amounts of fake blood and body parts. The nobility would go to see them, and occasionally host popular or talented troupes in their homes, but the theatre was a lower-class entity, nestled among muddy markets, bear-baiting rings and brothels. At the same time, though, Will shows why plays, and Shakespeare’s plays in particular, would become art because of their ability to pull the social circles together to a common cause in a common place. The powerful insights playwrights provided and actors portrayed were available to men and women, regardless of status. Will, from beginning to end, showcases that reality and potentiality expertly.
I Have Had a Most Rare Vision: Setting and Costume
Will is a vibrant show: bright and colorful, dark and filthy. The impoverished area where the theatres exist is full of open markets and muddy streets, and the bottoms of skirts, pants and boots are appropriately dirtied by the life and activity there. There are animals and open stalls, caught fish and cut meat packed in with fabric and materials. Open fires and narrowed alley ways. Hay everywhere.
The estates and courts of the noblemen and women are packed full with brocade and silk, full of art and furniture and all the trappings of extravagant spending that would lead many gentlemen to bankruptcy, while the cells of Topcliffe’s craft are dark and foreboding, with the shadows of his implements and one or two ray of lights filtering in to raise and diminish the prisoner’s hopes.
Of course, everyone is a little too clean for the early modern period. There are a few notable exceptions. Until he steps out onto stage as a prince, Presto is almost always smudged with dirt, reflecting the rough life he leads. The ripped bandages he keeps on his arms hide the scars on his arms of self-harm, which somehow never become infected (which I’m thankful for). When he’s homeless or descends into depression, Will is unkempt and unwashed, reflecting the fracturing of his life and self. And when he exits the plague house, Richard Burbage is realistically-uncomfortably-grievingly unshaved, tousled and dirty; he burns his clothes immediately.
The clothing itself is bright and colorful, and anachronistic in a way that fits. A mix of late-80s punk and New-Romanticism goth (my wife is a punk and goth expert, and I thank her for her brilliance), the lower class—especially the groundlings—are packed full with mohawks, face paint, chains and leather. Especially the women.
Men, on the other hand, regardless of their rank, tend to be in more period appropriate clothing. We still get Richard Burbage’s leopard-print lined and glass-embroidered coat, and the entirety of Marlowe’s closet, but from shopkeep to lord, the men are often in leggings, trousers, tunics, shirts and coats. With historic colors and patterns. Funny how that works.
Even the higher-class women, in which I’ll include Alice Burbage for the moment, have more anachronistic clothing. Emilia Bassano, Lord Hunsdon’s newest mistress and a key supporter of the Theatre, often has her shoulders and arms bared, while Alice is usually walking around the Theatre, and the streets, in spaghetti-strapped dresses prominently displaying cleavage.
And that’s not even including the brothel workers.
To be fair, Richard Burbage sometimes walks around on stage with a golden cup encasing and enhancing his “better” part, but that’s only in performance.
The dress, or rather lack of dress, is an uncomfortable comment on women in this world. Women are property, at once sexually available and sexually constrained depending on the men they’re attached to. Emilia Bassano is a mistress to her lord. Alice Burbage is a young woman participating in an affair. And the other bared women are generally tavern or brothel workers. Only Catholic women and Topcliffe’s wife are historically accurate, and they appear infrequently. It’s also worth noting that when Alice converts to Catholicism and later leaves London, she too is finally dressed in a full top, all her skin covered minus hands, neck and face. It’s a noticeable comment on the effect religion has had on stripping Alice of an identity and agency deemed inappropriate and troubling.
The Greatest Scandal Waits on Greatest Strength: Strengths and Flaws
It’s hard to talk about what makes Will great because what is a strength in one scene is a serious flaw in another. The consistency of the Theatre and theatre goers is, perhaps, its greatest strength, but there is so much else that could make Will a phenomenal show, if it was done consistently or wasn’t undercut with uncomfortable overtones.
As a show about Shakespeare, Will capitalizes on music and wordplay. The score is a mix of original symphonic pieces sprinkled with twentieth and twenty-first century punk and rock music. James Brown, Radiohead and The Clash are just some of the soundtracks included and, for the most part, they work. Most of the modern music is attached to the theatre, either playing during performances or performed by the theatre troupe as they celebrate or spend their time together as close family and friends. Sometimes, though, the transition from original score to modern soundtrack is jarring. One such instance is in episode 6, when Catholic criers are attacked in the open market. As a brawl breaks out and the law arrives, the music shifts into heavy rock, which downplays the horror of the Catholics being assaulted and murder and Hamnet’s terror as he is nearly run over by a horse.
Will’s wordplay is also fantastic, when it works. An homage to the language Shakespeare is known and celebrated for, many of the dialogue switches into iambic pentameter occur in or around the theatre. From his coinages (“‘bedazzled’ is not a word, it’s ‘dazzled’, fix it!” Oh, shut up, Baxter) to word battles to powerful moments of intimacy, the breaks from blank verse/modern dialogue showcase talented writing and acting and bring a sense of drama working its way into life, rather than the other way around. Occasionally though, wordplay escapes the theatre and it often leads to jolting surprise. Will often speaks to Father Southwell in iambic pentameter, and more than once Presto and his sister engage it in.
Especially with Presto and Apelina, the shift to iambic pentameter should highlight the importance of the speakers to the plot and the gravity of conversation they’re having. Iambic pentameter should emphasize, regardless of status, the seriousness of their situation. But it doesn’t because it’s not done often enough. When Will argues with Southwell in iambic pentameter, and when Presto speaks with Apelina, the importance of the wordplay is lost in the confusion that comes with the sudden linguistic shift. These characters aren’t immersed in the theatre world, where the majority of the wordplay exists. Nor do they, or other characters, speak it enough to let it be a common linguistic model. So when it is used, it becomes a momentary spectacle and little else.
Will tackles some difficult questions, including ones about sexuality, faith, and exploitation. Its treatment of sexuality is at once refreshing and disappointing. It’s fantastic that Marlowe is portrayed consistently, and in the end proudly, as a gay man although he would never call himself such (and thankfully doesn’t). Homosexuality isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination, but “gay” as a term for a homosexual man is a twentieth-century invention, inappropriate for that time. But Marlowe is a man who prefers the company of other men and is wholly devoted to two lovers: Thomas, his new younger lover, and his long-time lover Barrett.
In many ways, Marlowe’s arc is heartbreaking as his depression and grief rob him of his ability to write, and his fear and inability to understand or process Barrett’s death pushes him further and further to a physical, mental and spiritual collapse. This doesn’t excuse his atrocious behavior, but his pain becomes more understandable. The desperate lengths he goes to are the frantic reaching of a man who has lost everything that gave him meaning, without having any system to navigate that loss. The fact that Marlowe pulls himself out of that grief and offers an authentic apology and explanation to Thomas—the fact that he can both love and write again—is also unbelievably refreshing considering current media trends.
Unfortunately, Christopher Marlowe is the only openly homosexual main character, and he’s kind of an awful human being. Hedonistic, selfish and needlessly cruel, Marlowe does a host of questionable things, and you’re never entirely sure where his loyalties lie. In the end, there is some redemption. He accuses Father Southwell of hypocrisy and sin when he allows Alice to be captured, and then uses his influence to free her; when that fails, he tells Will what happened. But these instances aren’t enough. This is a man who willingly sacrifices a second-rate playwright because Will is more talented, a man who dismisses his lover with cruel and angry words when he is in the middle of a satanic ritual that scares his lover, a man that goes up and punches another man to prove how little he can feel. He is, as Marlowe later admits, “a great stupid child with a broadsword, slashing and swiping at everyone and everything.”
Moreover, Marlowe’s comfort with himself and his lovers comes at the cost of faith. As he dies, Barrett is terrified about the state of his and Marlowe’s souls. He knows he will be damned for their love and implores Marlowe to look to his own. It is this terror that spurs Marlowe’s descent; he has to know if hell and heaven, God and Satan, are real and if Barrett truly has been damned for love. The lack of answers and insight both terrify and inspire Marlowe. They drive him to the worst places, but also allow him to write Doctor Faustus, his ultimate performative expression of damnation. Marlowe finds peace only after he finishes, when he decides “belief is a state of mind.” In addition to bringing uncomfortable parallels to the fundamentalist trauma LGBTQ+ individuals face every day, Marlowe’s forced atheism eliminates the fact that faith is still important for many LGBTQ+ people, and that faith and existence shouldn’t be at odds.
Marlowe as LGBTQ+ representation, then, is extremely discomforting. Which is unfortunate because he is a fantastic character. Just…bad representation. Does this mean I would have liked to see Marlowe and Shakespeare as lovers? Not necessarily, although I think it would have been a better storyline. At least, it would have made Will cheating on Anne Hathaway a bit more stomachable.
Will’s treatment of women—especially Anne and Alice—is something I could (and probably will) discuss at length, but it highlights another important aspect of the show that I wish was more of a strength: No one in this show is good.
Except Presto, because he is an abused, exploited child and cannot be held as accountable for what he does for the sake of Apelina and his own health and safety.
In some cases, the lack of goodness and morals works; it highlights the many ways people with power exploit those without it. Father Southwell and Topcliffe, for example—on opposite sides and employing opposite means—are shown to be equally evil. Religious zealots, they are wholly committed to their respective causes and no amount of begging or bodies will deter them. Southwell is just as culpable in the deaths of the Catholic martyrs as Topcliffe. He doesn’t torture them, but Southwell makes no effort to rescue them and assures his followers their deaths are for the greater good. God’s good. Even when confronted with a man who wants his son to live, Southwell has only platitudes about the boy’s place at God’s side and how he will be saved because if he dies, God will welcome him.
Southwell also displays the same frustration and fury as Topcliffe. He rarely takes it out on others—except in one scene where he pushes Will—but he routinely hits furniture and walls when things don’t go his way. He is also manipulative and cruel, using their relationship to control Will and Alice. One minute, he calls Alice a whore; in the next, he offers her comfort as she grieves Will’s abusive words toward her. All to get them to join his cause. Southwell, then, for all his talk of religious freedom, equality and peace is an arrogant, harsh leader whose hands and conscious are no cleaner than Topcliffe’s.
Topcliffe is still the primary antagonist, cemented in the role through his cruelty, depravity and sexual predation, but Southwell is by no means depicted as a hero.
For other characters, the lack of morals is not as successful. Flaunting all social expectation of her, Alice returns her parents’ concerns with sarcasm and a total inability to understand the financial straits of the family and the theatre. This is not to say we’re not sympathetic, nor to say that those societal expectations are good, but her total disavowal with them come with serious consequences Alice just doesn’t seem to care about. Nothing—not her family, not her reputation, not others—is as important as being more than she was born to be.
Her behavior during the affair is also cruel and selfish. When Alice meets Anne and his children, she dissolves into tears about how his relationship with Anne is real while theirs isn’t. It’s a manipulative tactic, unintentional as it may be, because as much as she says to the contrary, Alice does want Will to pick between her and his family—and does so without being able to reciprocate. They agree to live out their married lives, enjoying an emotional affair, but Alice can’t, and won’t, go through with it.
And when Will ends things with her, cruelly and suddenly, Alice turns to Father Southwell. Her anger and hatred toward Will are genuine and justified—and I am so happy they don’t get back together—but her stubbornness when it comes to supporting the cause is foolhardy and clearly a way of both getting Will’s attention and getting back at Will’s cruelty. No matter how authentic her new faith is, there is no denying that Alice helps Father Southwell partly because Will will not. The deeper she gets in, the more Will clings to her and the more attention she earns from both him and Southwell. Even when confronted with the truth about Southwell’s loyalty to his followers, Alice persists with a determined singlemindedness that throws everything aside.
The worst offender, though, is Will. In some cases, his inability to stand his ground, pick sides, or be honest is understandable. He is a Catholic in a hostile Protestant city, connected to the most wanted Catholic in England. He has people he needs to, and wants to, to protect. In others instances, though, the inabilities leave Will spineless. There is, for example, nothing good about how Will starts or continues the affair with Alice (although to his credit, he’s at least up front with Alice about being married). Knowing what it will cost her, and knowing how little it will cost him, it’s incorrigible that Will continues the affair.
Should they be discovered, Will’s life wouldn’t be permanently damaged. He would probably be kicked out of the company; the Burbages would certainly be furious. He would probably be fined, ostracized for a time, and he would suffer consequences from the hidden Catholic population. Alice, however, would be ruined. Her marriage prospects decimated, her social standing destroyed, she would have nearly no future left to her. She would be an outcast. The fact that Will pursues her knowing this—and pursues her knowing this even after Alice tells him, in no uncertain terms, to leave her alone—is wrong. When Alice throws his desire to remain friends in his face—or when she hisses “you dare say that to me” when Will tells her not to be used by Southwell—he seems genuinely, stupidly, surprised. As if the fact that it wasn’t true and he said he was sorry should be enough to bring her back to him.
Moreover, Will never gives Alice the credit she deserves for launching his career: things like co-writing, creating clean copies, introducing him to standard performance practice, getting him out of the corners he boxed himself into. Will routinely tells her she’s brilliant. A genius. But he doesn’t do much else. Rather, he seems to expect this behavior from her as his creative and intellectual “equal.” And Alice obliges. To be fair, Alice could never be published or publicized; the fact that she is as close to the stage as she is, during a time when women did not perform on stage and associations with the stage and printing often quickly turned to accusations of prostitution, is unusual. But the theatre troupe knows her and her dedication to the theatre. They know she writes their copies. They know she works with Will, but Will never gives her credit around them. He never gives her, or anyone else, the proof they need to see that Alice could be more than she was born to be.
If This Shadow Has Offended, Think on This and All is Mended: Final Thoughts
It’s a shame that most of the characters are unlikable in such drastic ways, except that it works for what Will is. Will isn’t a feel-good romcom; it’s a dark drama about exploitation and the consequences of selfishly pursing your dreams. Which is not to damn dream pursuit. But Will, like many of William Shakespeare’s dramatic works, takes what is on the surface a simple and uncomplicated “good” and reveals its messiness, its complications, its destructive tendencies.
Will gets his dream; the playgoers of London shout his name. But he pursues it selfishly, with little thought to his wife, his friends, his lover. In the end, he is left alone with a gilded reputation and little else.
That is perhaps the final saving grace for Will; it mimics what William Shakespeare’s plays are. A little anachronistic (there is no coast in Bohemia, a major geographic problem in the late romance The Winter’s Tale). A little overblown. A punk-show with depth and meaning applicable and accessible to all—when done right. Will combines humor and tension, lighthearted fun and terrible far-reaching consequences in, if not the best ways, at least ways Shakespeare probably would have inclined his head pleasantly toward.
It’s not fantastic, but it’s pretty good. Entertaining and thought-provoking. I turned the TV off unhappy but mostly satisfied, and with a great deal to talk about.
Deadline has come out saying there will be no second season, and honestly, I’m neither surprised nor upset. There’s not much they could do—they packed a lot in—that could span another ten-episode season. More importantly, though, a second season would just be unsatisfying. There’s not enough here to make a second season good, especially if it’s only going to continue with the consequences of Will’s selfishly pursed dream.
These aren’t the laurels one should rest upon.