On a February afternoon in 1601, a group of English noblemen dined together at Gunter’s Tavern in London before crossing the river for a midday performance at the Globe Theatre. The play, requested specially by the noblemen—who paid an above-average fee of 40 shillings to the playing company—is generally believed to have been either Henry IV, Part 2 or Richard II. Most historians lean toward the latter, whose cast of characters includes several ancestors of the gentlemen in attendance. When the play was over, they returned to Gunter’s for supper. The next day, they joined their friend Robert Devereux, the Second Earl of Essex, in his disastrously bungled attempt to storm the royal court and force an audience with Queen Elizabeth I, whose favor he had lately lost and whom he believed to be surrounded by corrupt councilors hostile to the kingdom’s best interests—councilors who, incidentally, had plotted his fall from grace over the preceding years. The attempt failed in about every way it could have; Essex, once a powerful member of the Privy Council, had no allies left in London but his small band of co-conspirators, four of whom were executed alongside him in the following weeks. Richard II was likely the last play they ever saw.
Plays are written by playwrights; history, by victors. The lasting narrative of Essex’s Rebellion, crafted and propagated by his rivals, is that he intended a coup d’état. In this account, the specially commissioned performance of Richard II—a play about a king’s deposition by disgruntled subjects—is framed with dark purpose: that of rallying the public to Essex’s cause, persuading them of the need to depose an inept sovereign. It’s almost certainly not the true story; the historian Paul E.J. Hammer notes, among other things, that Richard II is hardly a sympathetic portrayal of usurpation. But it’s the story that stuck and a story that sticks today, as the American right continues to paint as insurrection any remotely insurrectionist work of art—including, most recently, Shakespeare’s own Julius Caesar. As Essex’s friends turned their eyes to the past that fateful day at the Globe Theatre, so do we gaze inward by gazing backward in TNT’s new historical drama, Will. Created by Craig Pearce, who co-wrote Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, the show is an origin story for William Shakespeare as well as the world his art imagined: One where a good story—a story full of sound and fury, poetry and impossibility—can feel truer than reality itself.
Pearce has been in the Bard’s thrall since he was a young boy in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, helping his mother study her lines for community productions. “I didn’t really understand what it all meant,” he recalls, “but I sensed there was a power and magic in these words.” As his interest grew into a vocation, first in drama school and then as a professional actor, he started to sense something else, too. “There’s always been this snobbery around Shakespeare, this elitism that I really hate,” he says. “Shakespeare was writing for the masses. The theatre back then was like rock-and-roll. It wasn’t this elite thing, but people packed inside an auditorium screaming, yelling, fighting, fucking, throwing things and getting drunk. If they liked it, they were very passionate about it. If they didn’t like it, they’d burn the place down.”
This rock-and-roll energy infuses Will from the moment young William Shakespeare (an azure-eyed Laurie Davidson) sets foot in the London city limits in the pilot episode. It’s a cramped, noisy London, a maze of dirt roads packed with merchants and their customers, fishmongers and exotic dancers and traders from far-flung territories, snorting camels and muddied street urchins. He soon finds his way to James Burbage’s Theatre—a predecessor of the Globe, it was literally called “The Theatre”—where a brawl has broken out between the players and their audience. Broken bottles litter the stage; an actor pins a groundling to the floor and bashes his head. This is not the theatre as we recognize it—corporate-backed, subscriber-supported and still expensive, patronized largely by the elderly and wealthy, their cell phones silenced and coats checked. This is theatre for everyone, from the drunken bricklayer to the Earl of Southampton, seated in separate levels but fully visible to each other in the roofless, sunlit auditorium.
“It would have been the most democratic place in that society, because you had very high aristocrats and the lowest of the low all crammed in there,” Pearce says. “They were all listening to the same words at the same time, the same ideas at the same time. Society was being created right then and there.” Were a groundling to leap onstage and shout his dissent, well, it probably wouldn’t have been all that shocking to anyone.
The world outside the Theatre walls, however, was far from democratic. The bustling, cosmopolitan city limits Will quickly makes his home are sharply contrasted by the grim candlelit chambers of the Tower of London. It’s here that Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner), chief enforcer of the Queen’s anti-Catholic laws, tortures his way through the London theatre scene in his search for the rogue Jesuit priest Robert Southwell (Max Bennett). To be Catholic was treason in Elizabethan England. The Crown ruthlessly hunted, tortured and executed Jesuit missionaries like Southwell, a real figure believed to have been Shakespeare’s cousin—a relation that in Will becomes a source of significant conflict, as Pearce has imagined Will to be a devout (if secret) Catholic.
“I think Will probably idolized [Southwell], as a boy, and probably wanted to be like him,” Pearce says. “You know, lay his life down for a cause. At a certain point he probably went, ‘You know, what I really want is to write. I want to create. I don’t want to lay my life down over what brand of god I believe in.’” One of Will’s central questions is whether this ambition—to change society through art rather than scripture—is worth sacrificing one’s faith, especially as one’s fellow believers are systematically eradicated by the state. “It’s hard to escape those beliefs,” Pearce says. “If you do grow up with them—and that was strongly adhered to in his household—then he probably lived with a lot of guilt in rejecting them.”
Will isn’t all torture and guilt—there’s also a good amount of sex and, yes, some theatre—or even all Will. Key to the show’s religio-political intrigue is Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower, dry and dreamy as ever), Shakespeare’s star contemporary, who was no stranger to the hazards of Elizabethan life. Thought to be a government spy, Marlowe’s former roommate, the playwright Thomas Kyd, was arrested for possession of heretical documents—documents he said belonged to Marlowe. Though set years before that incident, Will draws deeply from the Marlowe mythos, finding great tension in his dual role as Shakespeare’s mentor and the Queen’s covert Catholic-hunter.
Bower, who knew little about Marlowe before he came to the role, says he approached it with a mix of historical research and good old textual analysis. “I kind of delved headfirst into that world—his espionage and his university days and his disappearance in university, where he was accused of training to be a Jesuit priest, and so on and so forth,” Bower says. “And then in terms of what he was writing, with Faustus, what you see is a man struggling with his idea of faith and his own mortality. And so, with that, I kind of went a little bit further… I read a lot of weird shit and I lived in the middle of the woods.” To play a tortured genius, it turns out, you sometimes have to live like one.
For all the high drama that surrounded him, Shakespeare himself was, well, fairly normal, as best we can tell. A country boy and the son of a glover, he married by 18, had three kids by 22, moved to London to act and write, acted and wrote, then retired back to the country, where he died a relatively young man. What drama he brought to the world was in his plays themselves, and the immense cultural frisson they’ve generated for centuries since.
“From his whole body of work I could see that this is a guy of humanity,” says Davidson, who plays Will as a naive but bright young intellect. He recalls discovering in Twelfth Night the surprising, heartbreaking ways Shakespeare poured himself into his work. In the play, a character is briefly reunited in a dream with her dead twin brother; before he wrote it, Shakespeare lost his son Hamnet, who had a twin sister Judith, to the plague. “When you understand that and see the play again, it totally changes everything,” Davidson says. “The last time I saw the play I bawled my eyes out. It was like, ‘Oh my god, this is so beautiful. That’s his children he’s talking about.’”
It’s hardly news that Shakespeare wrote with a deep understanding of the human condition. What Will reminds us is how widely he shared that understanding across every stratum of Elizabethan society. “He was a man of the people,” Davidson marvels, a sentiment that may seem dubious in an age where even free Shakespeare productions are accessible only to those who can wait in line all day. But it’s true. Shakespeare did not write exclusively for the landed noblemen popping in for a matinée after plotting against the Crown. He wrote for the masses, and the masses returned day after day, year after year to catch his latest work. For Pearce, the Bard’s lasting power, the mirror he held up to nature, is in the unmistakable humanity of his characters.
“They are the same people as us,” he says. “If they were the same people back then, 400 years ago, then probably those other people we think are completely different from us today” — Shakespeare’s audiences — “were probably the same people too.”
It’s an uplifting thought, the mirror to nature as a mirror through time, and one that Will elevates and complicates with each episode. The theatre, it insists, used to be at the heart of civic life, a vibrant and messy and irrepressibly populist space. It is no longer. We may very well recognize ourselves in audiences past; to watch Will is to wonder whether they would ever see themselves in us.
Will premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on TNT.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.