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 Guardian (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’s 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