Review: ‘The Woe of Roanoke’ by Mathew Horton | Annabel Mahoney

This review and the poem it discusses contains reference to violence,
cannibalism, death (including children), colonisation, racism, suicide,
sexual violence (including rape and incest), torture and murder.
Discretion is advised.

 

Epic poetry – in all its intergenerational, preternatural and moralistic glory –is a staple of most student literature, wherever in the world you may be. As a child, I ‘studied’ an Fhiannaíocht – a medieval Irish collection about the hero Finn mac Cumhaill and his warriors, the Fianna – and Beowulf, which made me scared of Grendel. While it would be easy to slap the label ‘epic’ on any poem deemed ‘long’ – and at 205 pages, The Woe of Roanoke more than qualifies –Mathew Horton’s account of murder and cannibalism runs so deep and so entrenched into the lifeblood of the genre.

The Woe of Roanoke is formed of nine different poems (‘books’, in the context of the collection) divided into three parts and an epilogue, all of varying length. Book One tells the story of ‘Black’ Agnes Bean, daughter of Sawney and den mother to her numerous siblings. After the murder of her lover by her mother Agnes manages to escape her family and marries a ploughman. Weighed down by guilt and grief, she is driven to confession ten years later.

The themes of grief and loss run strong through The Woe of Roanoke. Agnes’s narrative is temporarily overtaken in Book Two by Thomas Hume, ex-lover of King James VI and I [Historical note: King James ruled as James VI of Scotland from 1567 and James I of England and Ireland after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Despite sharing a monarch under the Union of the Crowns, England and Scotland continued to be autonomous states until the Acts of Union in 1707]. Hume lost his parents to the vigilante groups searching for the Bean clan. Part of the force which uncovers the Bean cave, Hume witnesses the humiliation of the monarch at the hands of Sawney himself.

The Woe of Roanoke does not portray James in a flattering light. Historically, James was obsessive about witchcraft. Under his reign in Scotland, the first witch trials in the British Isles began in earnest. The Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563 made witchcraft and consulting with those suspected thereof a capital offence; a law which was spread to England in 1604 after James’s accession. He was known for personally supervising the judicial torture of women suspected of being witches. His ‘theological’ treatise Daemonologie, published in 1597, examined necromancy, black magic and how the implications of both justified the execution of suspected witches. Daemonologie went on to become a foundation text for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, of which James was a patron. James was also known for his same-sex affairs, most notably with George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham whose unpopularity led to his assassination in 1628.

None of this historical context is wasted by Horton. James is presented almost farcically; a pantomime villain with a sword. After the raid on the Bean cave, James begins to purge his kingdom in order to keep his reputation intact. Hume flees to London, where the death of Elizabeth later brings James. His English coronation, which takes place in Book Three, is notably Roman in its style and influence; excess and decadence offset by the background of plague-ridden London.

The plague itself is a malleable thing. While not as infamous as the Black Death of 1360-3 or the Great Plague of 1665, 1603 saw an outbreak of plague in London which lasted for eight years and claimed the lives of approximately 43,000 people.[i] In the context of the poem, the plague is implied – in the mind of Hume, at least – to be a result of a dying curse from Agnes Bean. Within his quarantine inside a brothel (itself an interesting parallel with the lack of moral fortitude associated with his nemesis James), Hume suffers hallucinations of the Bean clan. Fittingly entitled ‘A Ruined Hume and Bean’, the third book of this poem brings together the casual ghastliness of epidemic and disregard for human life associated the Early Modern period with the mystic undertones integral to epic poetry.

The second part of The Woe of Roanoke leaves Scotland and England behind as the ship of colonists The Lion makes passage to America. Book Four introduces a new voice to the narrative; wealthy merchant Humfrey Dimmock, who provides an insight into the tensions between the Puritan settlers and the mariners on board. In the middle of this conflict is a Scottish boy named Blue Bill Brown. The unrest on board is fuelled by Blue Bill, who encourages dissent between the colonists and the primary antagonists on the staff, the pilot and the cook’s assistant.

This conflict takes up the majority of Book Four, and Book Five finds Blue Bill living with Chief Wanchese, the last known leader of the Roanoke people, to whom Bill’s blue skin and red hair are a source of fascination. Given the Algonquian name ‘Matwau’ (meaning ‘Enemy’), Blue Bill stalks and terrorises the colonists’ isolated camp, who are also battling food and water shortages. Bill becomes an almost preternatural presence among them. Book Six concerns Eleanor Dare – mother of the ‘first white child’– kept chained alive inside a cave by Blue Bill, the son of Sawney and his daughter Black Agnes. Eleanor tries to keep her grip on reality by shielding her child from the worst of the cruelty that surrounds them; a parallel of Black Agnes’s narrative in the first book. As she loses her grip on sanity, her murdered husband Ananias appears to her. Eleanor begs Ananias to protect their teenage daughter Agnes as she succumbs to her fate as a captive.

The third part of The Woe of Roanoke knits together the strands of London, Virginia and the fate of the colony itself. Book Seven starts with an excerpt from Sallie Southall Cotten’s The White Doe, a 1901 self-styled ‘legend’ about the fate of Virginia Dare. The work is proudly colonialist; the dedication reads ‘To The National Society of Colonial Dames of America; WHOSE PATRIOTIC WORK HAS STIMULATED RESEARCH INTO AN IMPORTANT AND INTERESTING PERIOD OF THE HISTORY OF OUR BELOVED COUNTRY’[ii]. Book Seven’s six line quotation ends with the phrase ‘The fierce brawny red man is king of the wold’, repeated three times like an incantation.[iii] The duality of ‘wold’, an almost-archaic phrase referring to a piece of high, open uncultivated land or moor and ‘world’ is clear here. The wold on which Blue Bill rules is the world; it is the beginning and the end of the lived experience of all who come across him. It brings to mind Macbeth’s witches on the heath; the meeting of two spaces in a land deemed ‘unclaimed’. The book continues with James I still tormented by his memory of the Beans. The colony briefly thrives, before a mysterious wedding prophesises a ruination which unfolds through the rest of the book.

Part Eight – broadly told as a conversation between Blue Bill and Matwau, both embodying a separate character – highlights the script-like nature of the poem. The individual speakers and their idiolects, intercut occasionally with lines from the omniscient Narrator, feels very much like the text of a Jacobean tragedy. Horton carries this atmosphere forward into Book Nine, with the ruin of Roanoke told by Chief Powhatan – whose proper name Wahunsonacock is the title for the ninth book – to John Smith, of Pocahontas infamy. Wahunsonacock recounts the final climactic battle against Matwau, the ‘tawny cannibal King’ to bring the poem to its ostensible finish.[iv] In true epic poetry form, the defeat of evil does not mark the end. Hearing of the tragedy of the colony and the spread of the Bean clan, King James orders a sustained effort into their eradication; one of his lieutenants is Enn, one of the original raiders of Sawney’s cave.

It is not the poem’s close – the glumly prophetic warning ‘Matwau was not the last one-/Madman believed messiah/More rejects were to follow on/As sheep will seek pariahs’ – which cements its epic form, although that is certainly a part of it. [v] The cyclical nature of the narrative, of violence begetting violence and the repeating of the same intergenerational mistakes is a hallmark of the genre. Other characteristics of the epic; the supernatural, the breadth of setting, the objectivity of the central voice (in this case, the narrator) are immediately evident in Horton’s verse. Others are less so. One of the seven primary features is the hero; a character deemed to be historically or legendarily significant. Sawney Bean himself was most likely fiction – or at the very most, a significant embellishment – and many of the other characters, while being historical figures in their own right, are unlikely to be labelled as ‘historically significant’. Is Sawney, by dint of his legendary status and as the overall connecting force between the books, the true hero of this piece? Is it King James? It is not required that the hero be good.

Horton plants narrative themes within the text – colonialism, the critique of monarchy, the externalisation of evil as disease – and he manages to sustain them through the whole 205 page effort. While Macbeth’s influence is present, there is the intriguing thought that The Woe of Roanoke could be seen as the inverse of Shakespeare’s Henry V, itself a mediated metaphor for the colonisation of Ireland. The legend of Sawney Bean is believed to be a piece of anti-Scottish propaganda invented after the Jacobite Risings. The Woe of Roanoke also presents an interesting inversion of another popular propaganda myth, that of the ‘savage native’ which was used by Europeans as a pretext to invade, massacre and enslave indigenous groups during the colonisation of North and South America. The savagery of colonisation is made manifest in Blue Bill, whose very existence is used as an excuse for further invasion and terror at the end of the piece.

Other influences are visible in the scheme and metre of Horton’s work. Book Four, ‘Dimmock’s Yellow Diary’, which focuses on the voyage out to America brings to mind Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in its verses which run ‘Half a crew, no wind blew/Both boats were lagged in loiters/Lazy, for the spirits knew-/Chastisement for exploiters’, and ‘Like men morphed into mannequins/Pus coughed from corrupt lungs/Like the strangled cut from scaffoldings/With scurvy bloodied gums.’ [vi] [vii] The brief homage to Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est in ‘coughed… corrupt lungs’ – which may or may not be intentional – serves to underline the futility of the viciousness inflicted throughout the course of the text. Horton has had some fun with the historical background of the text; ‘Four cannon and some cannon shot/And gunpowder to blow their plot’, a reference to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a plan to assassinate King James by blowing up the Houses of Parliament on November 5th is just one of the historical witticisms planted in the text.[viii]

Horton manipulates the verse in a way which spares the reader none of the savagery associated with his narrative. Wahunsonacock recalls finding the corpse of his wife ‘…stripped of every sinew/Eye sockets stuffed with plumes’; the ruins of the colony described as ‘… Its corrupted sin/Like feasting on the flesh of men/Or laying with your kin.[ix] [x] The colonisers bring ‘disease, disgust, despair/Convinced us It was sacred’.[xi] There is a vivid veracity to the verse, one which does not shy away from showcasing all the horror and violence of its subject.

The rhyme and rhythm are varied throughout the course of the poem. Some verses are deceivingly simple in their structure, such as ‘Johnny Bright was set alight/His treachery uncovered/His torched remains were torn by kite/Dog, rat and crab and buzzard’ has an almost nursery rhyme-like skip to its structure.[xii] Similarly, ‘An English boat was spied to float/Into Chesapeake bay/Matwau slit five English throats/To scare the ship away.’[xiii] Compare this to the comparatively long opening verse of the poem, which runs ‘T’was not just the gale that chilled his skin/As he mulled on the cannibal captured within./In trembling state he clenched his cane/To rap tap the gate of the jail in the rain.[xiv] These variations are not limited to individual books of the poems either; in Book One, The Ballad of Agnes Bean from which the previous quotation was taken, is the verse ‘They say I’m a witch/Which I say to them nay!/I’m a Christian now/I know how to pray’ which echoes the ABCB structure of the fate of Johnny Bright.[xv] Within the same verse are the follow-on lines ‘I’m repented of sin lamented the crime/A new son’s arrived. A husband who’s kind’; the change in rhyme scheme abrupt.[xvi] Horton wrong-foots the reader in many such instances, allowing his rhythm to become familiar before snatching it away.

Other times the rhymes flow on and on; the verse ‘Five years in a pit with a fern for a door/A toil for food in the soil on the floor/Rat and root and dreams of boar’ describes the squalor which Sawney, his wife and their early children lived in before migrating to their infamous cave.[xvii] The verse feels claustrophobic and tight, but the rhyme does not feel laboured. There are similar moments of exposition, such as ‘He came into the world callous and brawny/Alexander she named him/They nicknamed him Sawney’, in which it would be all too easy to fall into the trap of forcing a rhyme for rhyme’s sake –  you cannot, after all, write this poem without the word Sawney.[xviii] Yet Horton’s admirable writing and eye for rhythm surmount these challenges without the reader realising there was a challenge to begin with. Horton does not sacrifice rhyme for image; the verse ‘The hangman was a man of frock/The noose was tightened by the parson/A forced recluse, now half an orphan.’ exchanges the half rhyme of ‘parson’ and ‘orphan’ for the role of the diocese in the judiciary, which is so integral to the background against which Horton is writing.[xix]

That is not to say the work is flawless. As with any poem, and particularly in a poem of this length, there are words and phrases which do not quite sit right. There are some continuity errors in the rhyming; ‘kirk’ and ‘clerk’ are rhymed on page 28, the word ‘clerk’ pronounced in the American-English manner /klɜːrk/. [xx] In the opening pages of the poem, ‘clerk’ is rhymed with ‘dark’, where ‘clerk’ is the British-English pronunciation /klɑːrk/. [xxi] However, in a work of almost 900 verses, it is to be expected that not every verse measures up to exactly the same standard. There are moments of incredible skill; the lines ‘The grog soaked ogre, half hungover/Eyed his empires’ fall; ‘They added to the mound of meat/With severed hands and severed feet’ and ‘This pulsing place that now was raw/A crucifix on every door’ were all moments of writing that I found particularly outstanding.[xxii] [xxiii][xxiv] There are moments of humour as well – the dead remnants of the Bean clan are referred to as ‘baked Beans’ at one point in the text – which manage to offset the tone of the poem from what could be an atmosphere of unrelenting gloom.[xxv]

Mathew Horton has produced something incredibly uncommon. While the thought of the sustained length of an epic – not to mention the other genre-specific characteristics – would daunt even the bravest of us, The Woe of Roanoke is plainly a labour of love for Horton. His enthusiasm shines through the text, and his thorough research into the historical background of the piece is testament to his dedication. While its subject matter and violence may be off-putting to some readers, for those interested in some of the more traumatic areas of the past (or perhaps to fill that Game of Thrones hole), The Woe of Roanoke could well be the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Paperback, 244 pages
Published May 15th 2017
ISBN 1521294194

Goodreads

Mathew Horton’s The Woe of Roanoke is available from Amazon.


The Wellington Street Review received a copy of this book from its author in exchange for an honest review. Neither author nor publisher are affiliated with the Wellington Street Review or its staff.


[i] Graunt, John (1759), Collection of Yearly Bills of Mortality, from 1657 to 1758 Inclusive https://archive.org/details/collectionyearl00hebegoog

[ii] Southall Cotten, Sally (1901), The White Doe: The Fate of Virginia Dare (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/28796)

[iii] Mathew Horton, The Woe of Roanoke, p.140

[iv] Horton, Woe, p.167

[v] Horton, Woe, p.205

[vi] Horton, Woe, p.88

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Horton, Woe, p.32

[ix] Horton, Woe, p.p. 159

[x] Horton, Woe, p.p. 164

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Horton, Woe, p.136

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Horton, Woe, p.3

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Horton, Woe, p.4

[xvii]  Horton, Woe, p.9

[xviii] Horton, Woe, p.5

[xix] Horton, Woe, p.25

[xx] Horton, Woe, p.28

[xxi] Horton, Woe, p.9

[xxii] Horton, Woe, p.48

[xxiii] Horton, Woe, p.41

[xxiv] Horton, Woe, p.36

[xxv] Horton, Woe, p.54

Was Shakespeare Sexy? Modern Pop Culture and Will’s Sex Appeal | Jesse Hernon

Since the late 20th century, a specific question regarding the perception and interpretation of the life and works of William Shakespeare have occasionally permeated the cultural discussion surrounding his legacy. Between “the mess that the new punk version of “Romeo & Juliet” makes of Shakespeare’s tragedy” (Ebert), and the 1998 Academy Award winning, “reminder that Will Shakespeare was once a young playwright on the make” (Ebert, Shakespeare in Love), a new image of Shakespeare began to take form. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet had hot teen stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes breathlessly reciting sonnets to each other and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love gave a pop culture take on Elizabethan London with Tom Stoppard cred. With Shakespeare being so mass-consumable and prolific in an award season sort of way, new audiences were introduced to the Bard and were left wondering; Was Shakespeare… Sexy?

It’s not that Shakespeare-as-hot wasn’t sort of a staple of our modern understanding. According to data website Pricenomics in a 2016 study of  “notable professional performances” since 2011, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night are the most performed (Kopf). Presumably, these are the plays people have the most access to and the ones that, for a modern audience, shape an understanding of what Shakespeare’s all about. All three are romances, and while they very in genre beyond that there’s definitely a fair amount of musing on the nature of love in all of them. They also show up in abundance of pop culture interpretations, beyond Shakespeare in Love and Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. West Side Story and High School Musical both take on Romeo and Juliet as teen-centric musicals. Teen comedy She’s the Man is a modern re-interpretation of Twelfth Night. Midsummer becomes the focal point of the BAFTA Award-winning and popular high school English class required watching Dead Poet’s Society. Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are among the most popular taught in modern high school English classes (French). Modern audiences are most likely to be exposed to Shakespeare as a romantic, and to understand his work as intrinsically connected to modern ideas of romance. Even if you think Romeo and Juliet are dumb teens, you’re contextualizing their relationship through your 21st century understanding of what relationships are and should be.

It’s not unjustified. Shakespeare either invented or at least popularized the term “star-crossed lovers” and we still think there’s something undeniably hot about the forbidden romance trope that these plays all, in some way, focus on. Shakespeare’s often described as being universal, and his understanding of how to capture romance certainly has proven to be timeless. However, the aforementioned Shakespeare in Love has a different take on Shakespeare’s romantic legacy. Rather than focusing on the sensuality of Shakespeare’s plays, John Madden, Marc Norman, and Tom Stoppard are more interested in exploring the sexiness of Shakespeare’s life. As Roger Ebert commented in his review of the film, “’Romeo and Juliet’ must have been written by a man in intimate communication with his libido” (Ebert, Shakespeare in Love).

Shakespeare in Love presents a modern Hollywood love story through the lens of the world of Elizabethan theatre. Ebert opens his review summarizing a scene that demonstrates the tone of the movie: “There is a boatman in “Shakespeare in Love” who ferries Shakespeare across the Thames while bragging, “I had Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.” As Shakespeare steps ashore, the boatman tries to give him a script to read” (Ebert, Shakespeare in Love). The film’s central storyline revolves around a young William Shakespeare, portrayed by Joseph Fiennes in a puffy sleeved shirt with a deep v-neck, engaging in a whirlwind star-crossed romance with a young noblewoman who is engaged to another man. The script borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s iconic romances, the film climaxes with the premiere of Romeo and Juliet, which mirror’s the young Will’s own doomed romance. His love interest, Viola de Lesseps, borrows her name from the protagonist of Twelfth Night, and the final scene implies their relationship inspires Shakespeare to write the piece.

The film was undeniably a hit, grossing an estimated $279,500,000 worldwide (Nash Information Services), receiving generally favorable reviews, and winning big at that year’s Academy, Golden Globe, and SAG awards. Shakespeare in Love’s popularity has lasted over the years since its release, with Disney Theatrical commissioning a stage adaptation in 2013 (Cox) that premiered in London to favorable reviews from The Telegraph (Spencer), Independent (Taylor), and The Gaurdian (Billington), who commented, “On the one hand, it suggests commercial theatre is a timelessly precarious business: on the other, it flatters us with its references to the specific conditions of Elizabethan theatre”. It’s not hard to see why people like Shakespeare in Love. Similar to Baz Luhrmann’sp Romeo and Juliet, it grounds Shakespeare’s life in a modern context and brings someone we revere as a great literary figure to a more relatable level; that of the horny kind-of-a-hack starving artist type. Modernizing Shakespeare’s world goes a step beyond modernizing the world of his text, it doesn’t functionally add any understanding to the plays themselves, but it does make us feel like we can understand the mind of a man who has been canonized as the one, true Great Playwright. Besides, it is fun to imagine what inspired Shakespeare, isn’t it? We don’t know much about his life, beyond what we know about his plays and what we know about Elizabethan theatre, and speculation about why Shakespeare wrote what he wrote (or in some cases, if he wrote it at all) has long been a popular topic. With pop-culture takes on his work aiming to keep the plays fresh, a pop-culture take on his life certainly makes sense.

While modernizing Shakespeare has clearly been a trend for at least the past few decades, in 2017 something new happened. A divisive take on Shakespeare, and an artistic attempt at a fresh, modern, and cutting edge take. Sparking discussion regarding the portrayal of politics, religion, diversity, TNT’s 2017 drama series Will presents a punk rock remix of the Shakespeare in Love premise on ecstasy. It’s not hard to find reviews panning the premise of Will. On paper, it reads similarly to the Shakespeare in Love take; a young William Shakespeare travels to London to make a name for himself as a playwright, cheat on his wife a bit, and generally get up to some wacky antics while accidentally espousing now-famous dialogue. Marlowe shows up to do… Something cryptic in the background. A woman acts in a play disguised as a boy, the beats are all there. There are two main differences. First, Will reads like it was written by the worst high school English teacher you can imagine. This aspect doesn’t go unnoticed; several reviews call out the show’s try-hard attempt at coolness specifically. In a review for Variety, Sonia Saraiya writes, “It also, quite painfully, places [Shakespeare] in a Renaissance pub’s “rap battle,” as if “Will” is a trying-too-hard English teacher informing you that Shakespeare was the original hip-hop artist of the streets” (Saraiya). Secondly, Will is fucking insane.

The first and most obvious deviation from the successful modern Shakespeare formula from the 90s and 00s is the wildly anachronistic aesthetic. Sure, Shakespeare in Love isn’t exactly period and Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet is firmly rooted in a 90s California aesthetic, but there’s something particularly jarring about seeing a young Will Shakes wearing jeans and a doublet walking around a version of London populated by a mix of citizens in community theatre quality approximations of period dress and dudes sporting spiked mohawks and leather and full tattoo sleeves. The Shakespeare-but-punk vibe might work if there it didn’t feel so glaringly obvious, but more importantly, if there was any consistency as to where the anachronism ends and the historical evocation begins. Will treads the familiar boards of Shakespeare falling for a woman he can’t have, this time James Burbage’s spunky daughter Alice. Norman and Stoppard craft the romance between Will and Viola in Shakespeare in Love to fit the established mold of Shakespeare’s romances, the relationship plays on the proven-timeless tropes of Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night in order to posit them as a source of influence. Will attempts to play with these ideas, but veers so off course with its star-crossed pair and, as it does with many other story threads, ties the conflict back to a fixation with the theory that Shakespeare was secretly Catholic. Ultimately, the show is more interested in assembling a vaguely historical portrayal of the persecution of Catholics by the English government in the 16th and 17th centuries, as Richard Topcliffe tortures those surrounding Shakespeare in hopes of ratting out Catholics in hiding, and the single season of the show culminates in the premiere of Richard III, presented as a totally punk rock takedown of Topcliffe.

Don’t get me wrong, this Shakespeare is definitely still sexy. There are plenty of steamy scenes between Will and Alice, and the plot of an entire episode revolves around the main cast attending an orgy thrown by Sir Francis Bacon. Even Marlowe gets in on the “what inspired his genius” action, and occasionally shows up to have gay orgies and participate in occult rituals until he writes Doctor Faustus. Will doesn’t get everything wrong, the general operation and performance practices of the Elizabethan theatre were clearly researched, and while the show indulges in wild speculation (William Shakespeare belonged to an underground Catholic society! Christopher Marlowe was a debased Catholic-hunting Devil-worshiping spy!), it engages in some reasonably grounded ones as well (A Midsummer Night’s Dream being commissioned for a wedding ceremony, Marlowe’s homosexuality, the refreshing diversity of the cast). The biggest problem is that the show, despite its desire to teach you that Shakespeare was super hot and edgy, never makes an effort to separate the actual research that went into it from the outrageous fiction. Whatever Will has to say about what Shakespeare was or wasn’t, it doesn’t say it well.

Ironically, Will probably borrows more ideas from Shakespeare in Love and Luhrmann‘s Romeo and Juliet than Shakespeare’s actual work to examine the inner workings for the Bard’s mind. It’s telling that executive producer Craig Pearce also co-wrote Romeo and Juliet with Baz Luhrmann, and while Luhrmann’s aesthetic influence is clear, he had no direct involvement in shaping Will. It’s not surprising that Pearce’s pop-culture take on Elizabethan theatre is more derivative of other pop-culture iterations of Shakespeare than the actual texts. As Saraiya points out:

I’m no expert on cool, but haven’t we all trod this ground many times before? […] It’s been over 20 years since that film and “Shakespeare in Love”; about a decade since teen movies “She’s the Man” and “Deliver Us From Eva” applied the Shakespeare formula to high school. To belabor the point: Joss Whedon’s black-and-white, modern-day “Much Ado About Nothing” is just five years old, 2014’s “The Hollow Crown” on BBC cast well-known heartthrobs like Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead roles, and for pete’s sake, “The Lion King” is based on “Hamlet.” (Saraiya)

At this point, we’ve seen Hot Modern Shakespeare, whether the focus is his life or his work, done for at least two decades. Why do we still care if he’s sexy? If the critical and commercial failure of Will is any indicator, maybe we don’t. Independent’s Paul Taylor ends his review of the recent Shakespeare in Love stage adaptation with, “And the backstage re-angling, the impassioned presentation of the death scene Romeo and Juliet, and the haunting intimations of Twelfth Night, sharpened by the suggestion that the censorious Master of the Revels is a forerunner of Malvolio, are all masterly.  It makes you feel grateful to be alive” (Taylor), suggesting the lasting success of the piece is less in the romance or sheer modern edginess of it all, but the aspects that are purely rooted in a genuine love of Shakespeare. What Will and so many other soap opera tinged examinations of historical figures get wrong is that timelessness is not the same as a modern sensibility imposed upon history, it is thoughtfully contextualizing what it is we find relevant and universal about the past. Does every modern adaptation of Shakespeare do this thoughtfully? No. Shakespeare in Love is full of corny pop culture gags, and while its exploration of what inspired Shakespeare is a bit far-fetched, but in many ways the script is less interested in answering the question of what his life was like and is more about how the way we contextualize Shakespeare’s work impacts the way we understand him as a writer. We don’t need someone to present the idea that Shakespeare would have rap battles in bars as Pearce does in the first episode of Will, and perhaps we don’t need to bring anything but our own passion to the work to make Shakespeare sexy. Maybe that’s a corny sentiment, but trust me, it’s not as bad as the scene in Will where bright eyed young Shakespeare looks at a literal pile of shit and espouses, “A turd by any other name would smell as sweet.”


Works Cited

Billington, Michael. “Shakespeare in Love review – a heady celebration of the act of theatre.” July 23 2014. The Guardian . Website. 8 March 2019.

Cox, Gordon. “Disney Theatrical Gets Busy with ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and ‘Newsies’.” 13 November 2013. Variety. Website. 8 March 2019.

Ebert, Roger. “Romeo and Juliet.” 1 November 1996. Roger Ebert. Website. 20 February 2019.

—. “Shakespeare in Love.” December 25 1998. Roger Ebert. Website. 20 February 2019.

French, Esther. “Which Shakespeare plays are most often taught in high school English classes?” 30 August 2016. Folger Shakespeare Library. Website. 20 February 2019.

Kopf, Dan. “What is Shakespeare’s Most Popular Play?” 22 September 2016. Pricenomics. website. 11 February 2019.

Nash Information Services. “Shakespeare in Love (1998).” 1998. The Numbers. Web site. 8 March 2019.

Saraiya, Sonia. “TV Review: ‘Will,’ TNT’s Punk Rock Take on William Shakespeare.” 9 July 2017. Variety. Website. 8 March 2019.

Spencer, Charles. “Shakespeare in Love, review: ‘the best British comedy since One Man, Two Guvnors’.” 23 July 2014. The Telegraph. Website. 8 March 2019.

Taylor, Paul. “Shakespeare in Love, Noel Coward Theatre, review: Deliciously funny and absurd.” 23 July 2014. Independent. Website. 8 March 2019.


Jesse Reagan Hernon (he/him/his) is a Cleveland-based essayist and stage manager. Jesse has worked as a stage manager for Cleveland Public Theatre, Maelstrom Collaborative Arts, and The Public Theater, among others. As a writer, he is interested in exploring our modern relationship with historic dramatic texts and examining the performative aspects of daily life.  He holds a BA in Dramatic Arts from Cleveland State University.

Find him on Twitter @jessereag and Medium @reaganhernon