Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 77
Will, the new series on TNT, tells stories derived from what we often call Shakespeare’s “lost years”—the time before he made a name for himself as a writer. The series takes advantage of that gaping hole in Shakespeare’s biography to weave an intricate and exciting tale of art, strife, death, love, poetry, and violence in Elizabethan England.
Executive producer/writer Craig Pearce and executive producer/director Shekhar Kapur tell us about adapting Shakespeare’s biography—or lack thereof—into a new television show with a punk rock aesthetic. Pearce and Kapur are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published July 12, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “We’ll Tell Tales” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. Special thanks Martine Resnick, Scott Radloff, Heather Crawford, and Kristin Boos at TNT; Tony Ward, Sharon Bowe, Ruth Waites, Pete Smith, and Alison Atkey at the BBC in London; Melissa Kuypers and Peter Stenshoel at NPR-West in Culver City, California; as well as Shekhar Kapur’s assistant, Rhiannon Allen, and Craig Pearce’s assistant, Angus Wilkinson.
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MICHAEL WITMORE: It’s morning, sometime around the year 1590, in Stratford-upon-Avon. A young writer-and-sometimes-actor is getting ready to leave for London as his sleeping son wakes up.
[CLIP from TNT’s Will:]
WILL: Good morrow, Prince Hamlet.
HAMNET: Ma don’t tell the stories proper…
WILL: Ah, then I will leave Queen Mab with thee.
HAMNET: What’s she?
WILL: She is a fairy, no bigger than a gnat, and night by night she creeps into boys’ ears and tells stories of… what?
WILL: Aye. Dragons! Can you be satisfied with Mab ‘til I return?
WITMORE: If you hear echoes of the young father’s future in that tender family moment, you are not mistaken.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. What you just heard is from the opening scene of the pilot episode of a new TV series that has just premiered on the cable channel TNT. The series is called Will. And as you’ve probably figured out by now, it tells stories derived from what are commonly known as Shakespeare’s “Lost Years” – the time before he made a name for himself as a writer.
The series takes advantage of that gaping hole in Shakespeare’s biography to weave an intricate and exciting tale of art, strife, death, love, poetry, and violence in Elizabethan England. In the first episode, Will arrives in London, where, in this version of the story, he’s hunted as a Catholic. The theater of James Burbage is in desperate need of a play; the one they were promised by Christopher Marlowe is not coming.
[CLIP from TNT’s Will:]
BURBAGE: Baxter has written a new play. Now, we can pass it off as Marlowe.
WILL KEMPE: No one will believe his dog’s vomit is Marlowe.
BAXTER: How dare you!
SHAKESPEARE: I have a play!
BURBAGE: Who are you?
SHAKESPEARE: William Shakespeare.
BURBAGE: Never heard of you.
ALICE BURBAGE: Listen to him, father.
SHAKESPEARE: I’m an actor and—
BURBAGE: (yells) I’m not hiring actors!
SHAKESPEARE: And my play’s called Edward III
BAXTER: Ugh, God! A history play!?
WITMORE: We sat down with the series’ writer, Craig Pearce, and its director, Shekhar Kapur. Craig wrote the screenplays for Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby, and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Shekhar, no stranger to Elizabethan drama, directed the movie Elizabeth and its sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
This podcast is called We’ll Tell Tales. Craig and Shekhar are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Craig, this was your idea. How did it come to you?
CRAIG PEARCE: Well, I’ve always had a love for Shakespeare. But one of my earliest memories is at home with my mum. I was about eight years old and she was washing up and I was drying and I was helping Mum learn her lines for an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet that she was in. And I sort of became the nerdy kid in class who would laugh at the Shakespeare jokes when the teachers read the play aloud that we were studying. And my friends would look at me like, “what’s he laughing at?” You know? Then I went to drama school, I studied as an actor for three years in Sydney, and we read a lot of Shakespeare plays. And so, I just had this love for Shakespeare. But, I was very aware that a) Shakespeare was writing for the people, and b) that this sort of snobbery had grown up around Shakespeare that I hated because that wasn’t what Shakespeare was about. So, it was partly that fascination with Shakespeare, and then when I started researching more about his life I realized that he was the most famous person in the world that no one knew anything about. Because there’s so little biographical detail about his life that is actually agreed upon.
BOGAEV: Well, these are the “Lost Years”. That is the great mystery. This is the period that everyone yearns to know about.
PEARCE: And then also, you know, we’re very aware that the Elizabethan world was such an incredible moment in history. It was when the modern world was being invented, and modern popular culture, and entertainment as we know it today was being invented. Theater was coming back into the western world for the first time since Roman times.
BOGAEV: So, all of this made you think, oh, television. It’s perfect. This is a great idea for television. Let’s explore the young Will?
PEARCE: Yeah, exactly. And I was really aware that so much incredible writing was happening in long form television.
BOGAEV: Well, I can see why you’d be interested and of course here at the Folger we’d be so interested in any show about William Shakespeare. But, Hollywood and the networks, not so much. Shekhar, why do you think TNT went for a show about Shakespeare’s life?
SHEKHAR KAPUR: I can only conjecture why they would have gone. I think that every channel today in the U.S. has seen what Netflix is doing and what Amazon is doing and what HBO did, and everybody wants a range. You know? So, at TNT, we’re very ready, had a very strong range at one end of the pyramid. And then they wanted a strong range at the other end of the pyramid. I’m pretty sure they didn’t know what they were gonna get.
[CLIP from TNT’s Will:]
Verse, iambic pentameter. First to falter, eats [expletive].
Lord save us from these troublesome fellows,
Country-bumbling, rude mechanicals,
Upstart crows, beautified with our feathers.
They flock to London to ape their betters.
They know no classical allusions…
KAPUR: I know that they were fascinated by Craig’s writing, as I was. And I know that they were huge fans of Romeo + Juliet, the film, as I was. But, I think that they were too surprised at what came across.
Thy brain is so dull, thy tongue is tied
So why take offense that this dull brain doth foolishly wish to entertain?
I make no claim to fame, hold none is disdain.
Why dost thou fear this humble rustic swain?
Fear thee? To demonstrate my superiority—
He’ll quote another “nonsensicality!”
“Nonsensicality?” Pray, what is that?
The prating nonsense of a tavern rat!
Thy hair is wild, but thy wit is tame.
Lame as an old nag: thou rides it, for shame!
Thy wit is so stale, worms would not eat it.
It cannot be spoken, only excreted!
KAPUR: And that was a very wonderful thing when Craig and I realized that they were getting surprises. All the dailies that were coming in, they did not expect that. So, it’s part of the adventure of whether it’s television making or film making, and I think that’s why they went for it. They needed something diametrically different. Appeal to different audience, fundamentally change the character of who TNT is and who TNT Drama is.
Bring a stool so this knave can sit!
“Quilled, by common Will” shall be his epithet!
But! But! If this upstart has offended,
Think on this, I pray, all is mended.
Whether fine-feathered, or the most common of birds,
To wing our way to heaven, all we need
BOGAEV: Well, it is clear from the start of this show, too, Craig, that this is a different look at Shakespeare, and a different feel, a different aesthetic. And I’m thinking of the very first scene of the pilot, I love how you get straight to this whole issue of how we think of Shakespeare as a sacred cow and you give us a twenty-something nobody scribbling away at his desk in Stratford, and his wife, Anne Hathaway, comes up behind him and says…
[CLIP from TNT’s Will:]
ANNE HATHAWAY: Who would want a play by William Shakespeare?
WILL: I can’t spend the rest of my life making gloves!
BOGAEV: Oh, who’d want a play by William Shakespeare?
PEARCE: [LAUGH] Yeah. Well, I, you know, that was really fundamental too. The idea of the show was to pull Shakespeare down off the pedestal and say: he didn’t spring into the world as a middle-aged genius. He struggled. And, you know, even if you read, you know, Henry VI, Part One, Two and Three—you know, who out there has actually seen a production of those plays? They have greatness in them, but they’re not that great. If Shakespeare’s reputation had just rested upon those three plays, we wouldn’t be here talking about him today. So, it was really important for me to say, especially to younger audiences: everyone, even the most famous writer in the world, struggles. And you may not always achieve a dream or your objective, but you just have to put one foot after the other and keep on striving and keep on moving forward. And the destination can change, the dream can change, but don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work out at first.
BOGAEV: Right, and it’s a crazy idea. I mean, he’s going off to… leaving his wife and three kids to become a rock star.
PEARCE: Exactly. To become a rock star. And that’s what it was like back then. It was like saying, “Honey, I’ve got the solution to all our problems. I know we’ve got three kids, no money, we live in this tiny little house with my, you know, crazy father. But, I’m gonna go to Mars and become a rock star.” I mean, that’s how slim the chances of success were.
[CLIP from TNT’s Will:]
WILL: I dreamed this for us!
ANNE: No Will, your dreams are your own.
BOGAEV: So, Shekhar, Will is off to London for the first time in this pilot episode and this London that you create, it’s really wonderful. It’s just like a planet that they visit on a Joss Whedon sci-fi series. Everything is larger and crazier than life and every possible thing is going on right there on the street…
[CLIP from TNT’s Will:]
PRESTO (a street urchin): Good’ay, sir! New in town? I’ll show you all the sights, sir. Bowling alleys! Pistol shooting! Bears ripped apart by wild dogs…
BOGAEV: Carnival barkers and exotic animals. I think there are camels in there, and there are live eels for sale, and there are trades-people. It’s all knife sharpeners, you know, hurly-burly. It’s a very hyper-real aesthetic. Where did you go for your inspiration in depicting London street life for this?
KAPUR: Well, I don’t know where Joss Whedon went to get his thing, I’m not sure what his life experience is, but my life experience was exactly this. I was a middle-class Indian boy from a middle-class banker in India and I came to London, and the first place I went to was the most famous place in London, and that was Carnaby Street. So, one of the things when I was doing the production design, I told everybody, I said, “I don’t remember what the buildings were like.” The fundamental mistake we make is when we do a historical, we talk about buildings as the architecture and the design. I kept saying: the design is the people. And my memory is about being confronted by the diaspora of the people. That’s what I tried to bring to this, my memories of being totally zonked by London of the ‘70s, Carnaby Street of the ‘70s. In fact, you’ll even see somebody that’s dressed like they are out of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band. He walks by. Right? And, so, it was all just about trying to see—to put myself into Shakespeare’s head and say, “Guys, we’re not making a historical. We are making somebody that is alive, in a place that is alive, at a time that was actually probably much more alive than we are now.”
[CLIP from TNT’s Will:]
JAMES BURBAGE: A word, a word! Tomorrow there will be a free performance for one and all—
AUDIENCE MEMBER: We don’t want this [expletive] again!
BURBAGE: No, it’ll be a magnificent new play—
AUDIENCE: Who’s it by?
AUDIENCE: Let’s torch the place!
BURBAGE: The great Christopher Marlowe!
AUDIENCE: “Holla, ye pampered Jades of Asia!”
BURBAGE: Ah, yes, “Holla, ye pampered Jades of Asia!” But this new play is even greater than the great Tamburlaine the Great!
AUDIENCE: What’s it called?
BURBAGE: Tamburlaine… the Ghost! Tamburlaine the Ghost!
AUDIENCE: The Ghost? Oh, Marlowe, that’s brilliant.
KAPUR: And that is the London that I tried to recreate. Where does my inspiration come from? Well, for the architecture it comes from the slums of Mumbai, because the theater was in Shoreditch. Shoreditch was just outside the walls of London. It was a slum. The crowds, the idea that every time anybody talked about the people on the streets, they would just amass. Color belonged to the nobility because they’re the only ones that could at that time pay the artist to portray them. So, we had no real references about the people. So, I went, and if you walk down the slums of Mumbai, you realize one thing. That the less you have, the more individualistic you got, because every human being wants to say, “I am, I am, I am.” And I remember Craig and me going to the Globe Theater and understanding that Shakespeare actually wrote for the masses. For the first time, I understood that what’s called “Shakespearean,” the language that intellectuals, so-called intellectuals, are supposed to know and we, the ignorant masses were not, well, actually, it was the language, it was the slang of that time. And, so—excuse me, you could take this out if you want—but, I said to Craig, I said, “When the [BLEEP] did the intellectuals usurp of Shakespeare?” And in that sentence, I fell in love with him.
PEARCE: And I think, you know, what Shekhar was saying about coming into Shoreditch for the first time, it’s about perception. And what we’ve done in capturing and showing that, is to say that this is what it would have felt like for a young kid from the middle of nowhere to come to London from the first time. And the real evidence for the proof of that is in Shakespeare’s plays because there’s such vibrancy in the language and the storytelling. Such color, and movement, and pace, and energy. So, it must have been a vibrant world.
BOGAEV: Right. And in the performance, itself, and that’s another thing that this first episode captures really well, what the life of a groundling was like. And we all know that Shakespeare wrote for the masses, but, what did that feel like? And the way you depict it, Shekhar, particularly the way you direct it, you experience what that means.
[CLIP from TNT’s Will:]
Richard Burbage acts onstage in front of a shouting crowd, as Baxter yells at him from the wings.
BAXTER: Rhythm, damn you, Richard, rhythm! Rhythm! Your son is ruining my play.
JAMES BURBAGE: I’ll bloody ruin you!
ELLEN BURBAGE: It’s a disaster!
BOGAEV: The audience is just wild, and they’re barely civilized, and they’re chanting, and shouting, and throwing trash at the actors, and the pit is like a mosh pit. And you get this sense that Shakespeare, you know, had his work cut out for him just getting these people to shut up and watch the stage.
KAPUR: You know, my greatest fear is that when people make a film about me and Craig, 400 years from now, we’ll be standing straight, we’ll be enunciating rather than speaking, we will be holding hands rather than having wild sex. [LAUGHS] You know what I mean? It’s just every time we tend to look at each other—With each other? I made a few proposals to him and he says no. So, I’ve given up. He has some other interests [LAUGHS].
BOGAEV: But where did you go for the inspiration for this one?
KAPUR: Listen, I come from Mumbai. Okay? One thing did happen, which I’m very, very scared to say, because people would say it’s a Bollywood version of Shakespeare. The fact of it is, that when I look—
BOGAEV: They said that about Elizabeth.
KAPUR: —They said that. Which, I thought… No, they said it’s an MTV version of a British court. And I started to celebrate and everybody said, “Shekhar, it’s not a compliment. It’s a criticism.” I took it as a compliment! But, you know, I have this thing about the whole idea was to put the audience in the middle of the action. So, they feel they are part of that event. They feel that they are part of Shakespeare’s life.
BOGAEV: And the other way you bring this very much down to the masses and a popular culture is that you create this 1980s kind of punk rock vibe with him arriving in London with the soundtrack to the Clash’s London Calling and the clothes, and the tattoos, and such violence in the theater performance.
KAPUR: Well, I would say that a large part of that music was inherent in the script that I read. And I remember when I used to… When we first started and I got my production designers and got everybody aboard, I would put poor old Craig on the spot and I’d say, “Craig, can you give us a reading?” Because in his reading he would sing the songs. In his reading, he would go there. And I’d say, “Understand the tone of his readings. In that tone that Craig reads, lies the very essence of our design.”
BOGAEV: I imagine people getting such a kick out of all the Easter eggs that you drop for Shakespeare fans.
[CLIP from TNT’s Will:]
JAMES BURBAGE: Friends, patrons, countrymen! Lend me your ears. A word, a word!
BOGAEV: James Burbage is trying to stop a riot among the groundlings and he yells, “Friends, patrons, countrymen, lend me your ears!” [SHOW CLIP PLAYS]
PEARCE: It’s a delicious thing to think, “Okay, Shakespeare heard that. Will heard that.” So, maybe that’s later when he wrote Julius Caesar that’s where he got the idea for the line, “Friends, Romans, countrymen.” But it also helps you write better dialogue because, you know, James Burbage could just come out on stage and go, “Oh, stop fighting. Shhh, everyone. Shhh.” Which is pretty bad dialogue. But, you know, if you sort of reach into the Shakespeare treasure chest and play amongst there and steal all the really good bits, it helps you to think about your dialogue in a more imaginative way. And I think, you know, it’s not only just cool stuff for people who know about Shakespeare, it’s actually… it feels of the world, it feels of the time. But, you know, it also feels strangely modern.
BOGAEV: Well, another thing that you play up in this pilot are the Catholic/Protestant tensions. That side of the story is a significant part, and you show the violence of it rather vividly. A Catholic heretic gets publicly disemboweled in very near the beginning of the episode. And it felt as if you were making a parallel to modern day religious strife and beheadings and the brutality used by terrorists and other fundamentalist jihadis. Was that a clear intention of yours, Craig?
PEARCE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you never write about history unless you’re also writing about the present, because then there’s no point. You might as well make a documentary. So, in many things, in the vibrancy of the world, the punk aesthetic, the music, and the political divide of the world, a world riven by fundamentalist religious ideas and politics, very consciously I was making a parallel between today and then. Because, then suddenly your story isn’t about an anachronistic person who lived 400 years ago, it’s about you. And the show all the way through is a play between here and now, and now and here, and back and forwards. And it’s saying that ideas and culture and storytelling, they constantly flow between the past and the present and the present and the past. And it’s this circuit really where ideas and, unfortunately, in many ways, the troubles and the strife of life, keep on cycling through. And if you don’t pay attention to history and don’t learn from it, well, you get stuck in this wheel.
BOGAEV: Well, there are plenty of people from history in this show. People we know from Shakespeare’s life. And one of them is Will Kempe, the comedic actor. And the first time we meet him in your pilot it’s during a production of a truly terrible play and he’s right in the wings backstage having sex with a groupie.
[CLIP from Will:]
BURBAGE: Get out there and calm things down!
BURBAGE: I said, get out there and calm things down! Now!
KEMPE: Jesus wept. Can’t do it all. Can’t even get his end away without getting interrupted…
BOGAEV: And then he gets called on stage suddenly to try to save the tanking production by doing a Morris dance. But, we already think of him as a real degenerate, you know? Not some kind of light hearted clown. He’s more like John Belushi on a tear. So, what all do we actually know about Will Kempe? And what did you know? Was any of that based on real life, or did you just dream up this kind of insane, gritty comic character?
PEARCE: Well, I… Look. I mean, what we do know about him is that at a certain point he danced from London to Norwich, and he called it the Nine Days Wonder” because it took him nine days and thousands of people would line the roads to see him dance. And actually, pamphlets were produced of him dancing. Now, I think you have to be pretty insane to do that. We know from our own experience that often, brilliant comics are very troubled and have a very dark side, and that a lot of that brilliance and a lot of that comic genius comes from trying to reconcile themselves with these forces that are whirling around inside of them.
[CLIP from Will:]
WILL SHAKESPEARE: There’s love, war, death, betrayal.
WILL KEMPE: Is there any comedy?
WILL: Uh…the Scottish characters are quite funny.
KEMPE: Ah! Scots are funny…
PEARCE: You know, the wonderful thing about this history is that it’s so lost in time, much of it, because no one was actually sitting down recording the theater world and saying, “Oh, these are important people in culture and history. We have to record what happens to them.”
KAPUR: Well, let me just talk about Kempe a little. You know what? I worked with that actor before and I knew that if I could get him to play Kempe he would bring something that is unknown. He wouldn’t play it as a straight comic, and I didn’t want that character just to be a straight comic. What I wanted that character to be is a straight comic, and then some unexplained anger inside him. Which is what Craig was talking about. Because, you know, characterization is not about defining, it’s about allowing the audience to explore. But, I think that’s where it succeeded. That he brought something that was not quite comic. You couldn’t understand, is he angry? Is he playing at comedy? What is he doing? But yet, you see the audience respond to him and you as a viewer respond to him.
[CLIP from Will:]
WILL SHAKESPEARE: Master Kempe, in this scene, the line where you—
KEMPE: The line? Shut your gob, sonny. Watch a star shine!
BOGAEV: There’s a very three-dimensional character as well when in the sister of Richard Burbage, Alice. And Craig, it doesn’t matter of course, but do we know whether Richard Burbage had a sister?
PEARCE: We don’t know if—
KAPUR: Well, I do know now. Of course he had. Her name’s Alice.
BOGAEV: [LAUGH] Right. And her name is Alice.
[CLIP from Will:]
ALICE BURBAGE: Yes, I am that most useless of creatures, an educated woman. Seems that women are only good for ruling the nation, rearing children, and whoring. I have yet to choose which path I shall choose.
PEARCE: You know, Shakespeare wrote such incredible characters for women and I think Alice for me was always an amalgamation of some of those qualities of those iconic Shakespearean characters.
[CLIP from Will:]
RICHARD BURBAGE: Henslowe is trying to ruin us. But we don’t need his poncy playwright. We have you!
ALICE BURBAGE: Aye! That we do.
WILL: You’re dressed as a man.
ALICE: ‘Tis easier to go abroad at night like this.
BREWITT: Methinks thou art a pretty fellow.
PEARCE: They form a very important relationship that runs throughout the show and they learn from each other. And I wanted to create a character that Will could learn from and also vice versa. She learns from him, which is what true friendship, a true relationship, is really about.
KAPUR: I love Alice. I think that she is embodies a lot of what being creative is all about. I mean, being creative is to explore your feminine side and every character, whether it’s Marlowe or Alice, also represents a part of who Will was… you know, what does creativity mean? Creativity means encompassing everything that is around you. So, I think that Alice reflects his love for—Alice reflects on him. And reflects upon his character. His acceptance for Alice reflects and teaches us about who Will really is. So, I love that character of Alice.
BOGAEV: And then there’s also Christopher Marlowe as a very sexy and very duplicitous young star.
[CLIP from Will:]
JAMES BURBAGE: Will! Come and met Christopher Marlowe.
WILL: Will. . . William. Shakespeare. An honor
MARLOWE: Seems your play is quite the thing.
WILL: A very poor thing compared to your great works.
BOGAEV: What were you thinking of when you decided to paint him that way, Craig?
PEARCE: Well, even though Marlowe was a similar age to Shakespeare, he was the superstar playwright when Will came to town. And he was so famous that people would yell out, you know, lines of his plays to him as he was walking down the street. You know, “Holler you pampered jades of Asia!” You know? And he’d give a wave and go on the way. He was a boundary pusher. And he also was a spy recruited at Cambridge. So, you know, I think in a way he is a reflection of Will and they also form a very strong relationship throughout the series. And, you know, he seems duplicitous, and he is in a way in the first episode. But, there are great depths to Marlowe.
[CLIP from Will:]
JAMES BURBAGE: Where is it? You said it was finished.
MARLOWE: I’ve been far too busy on her majesty’s secret service to write.
BURBAGE: I need a Marlowe play.
MARLOWE: Obviously. But, the unfortunate truth is I am bound to Henslowe of the Rose.
MARLOWE: Henslowe pays me not to write.
BURBAGE: Not to write?
MARLOWE: It’s very new age.
PEARCE: And he’s a realist. Someone’s gotta pay for his fabulous lifestyle and, you know, he can’t write at this point, so, you know, he does something for money and at a certain point, he realizes, well, you know, what that decision I made—and I don’t want to give it away—isn’t the right choice for art. So, I’m gonna make a different choice now. And someone happens to suffer for it. But, Marlowe’s a realist. He isn’t… There’s no malice in Marlowe. He’s really just trying to keep himself out of the abyss. And I think he’s a cautionary tale of what Will could become, but I think what Will had that Marlowe didn’t have—I mean, Marlowe was a grand architect. But, Will was a humanist. And Will saw humanity and could connect with humanity in a way that few other writers have been able to. And I think he was more connected to humanity probably as a person than Marlowe was. Marlowe did die young and violently. So, I think that’s what ultimately saved Will perhaps and got him through. And Marlowe, you know, I took the position that, well, perhaps Marlowe couldn’t connect in the way that Will can and that drives him mad. And that’s his great attraction to Will. He wants to connect in the way that Will can. On all different levels, but, within his art form, in his personal relationships, and there’s a sort of a cat-and-mouse love story there really between the two of them.
KAPUR: To me, genius is like the devil. It grabs you and you never know when it’s going to leave you. And there are lots of things that I think that Marlowe is potentially pointing us to what Will might become. The dangers of being a genius. And then the genius suddenly leaving you. And then you try everything and you start to go to seed. That is one level. I’ve always wondered what does genius… After all, the genius in Will is the one that drove him away from his family and kids. He went in and Craig originally talked about, like, how much of a risk he took. But, what drove him there was genius. Genius can drive you mad. The whole journey of a creative person if you have genius is to find ways to keep it alive in you. And when you forget it, and when you lose humility, as I assume Marlowe did, and you believe that it becomes your own, then that’s a time that it starts to leave you and leaves you like a shell.
[CLIP from Will:]
MARLOWE: You owe me your life, Master Shakespeare.
WILL: Then the debt is small, for I am but born this moment!
BOGAEV: Was this kind of Marlowe character familiar to you from the creative types that you’ve worked with?
PEARCE: Well, and it is… I, you know, creative people that we all work with. And it’s probably within us to a certain extent. That flirting with the edge is part of creativity, because if you don’t flirt with the edge, then you don’t discover anything new. If you don’t risk failure, if you don’t risk… You know, if you’re not somewhere dangerous, art doesn’t happen.
KAPUR: Why would a poet actually want to put himself in a position where he could be killed at any time? What is it about a character like that? What is it about genius that drives you to a point where you want to play with death? And you see that a lot with Van Gogh, you see that a lot with people. They want to explore the edges of life. Genius becomes an art, becomes like an extreme sport. You needed that provocation to keep you alive because you’ve had a drug.
PEARCE: So, it’s inherently dangerous.
KAPUR: Marlowe is very similar to the story of great pop stars who ultimately died of drug overdoses. It’s a very similar… Their desperate need to explore and explore and go to the edge and see what else is there. And then forgetting at that time that what came to you, came from inside you. It wasn’t external. And when the inside you, and that disappears and flies away from you, and you’re constantly looking for it, it’s very fascinating to look at genius and look at these people who are obsessed with genius, what happens. Especially in the creative fields.
BOGAEV: Well, I’m thinking… I realize you’ve just started and we’re only talking about the pilot here. But, how long do you think this show could run, Craig? You know, are there enough stories for you and Shekhar about Shakespeare, and fake stories about Shakespeare, and kind of 80 percent-, 60 percent-, 40 percent-true stories about Shakespeare to take this all the way from 1590 to 1616?
PEARCE: Oh, Barbara, don’t say that. Please God. One season nearly killed us.
KAPUR: I’d say, Barbara, look. You know, I can tell you history is something that was defined by the last popular person who told it. History is as relevant as it is to, as Craig said, it’s only relevant if you can relate it to our lives now. And as long as we keep telling our stories in the context of Will, then I think that just to say, “Well, actually, it wasn’t like that or it was like this:” it’s irrelevant. As long as we capture the spirit of Will, William Shakespeare. Because nobody quite knows the truth. The truth is interpreted and reinterpreted and reinterpreted.
PEARCE: Well, I think that’s right and I think, you know, to answer your question, how long could it run? I don’t know the answer to that because, you know, his stories are fascinating at any age. But, I do think these particular years, these five or six years are about a young man who is striving to become successful…and of course success presents its own problems. But, those very urgent, violent, vibrant, early years do make great drama. And I think there’s a certain magic in speculating or imagining what those years might have been like.
BOGAEV: I do have a TV question for you both though, because social… well, viewer engagement and social media is such a big part of television now . And Shakespeare fans, I mean, they must be right up there with Star Wars and Harry Potter fans in rabid passion. Although they might not necessarily watch TNT.
PEARCE: They will now!
BOGAEV: Until now. So, what kind of—
PEARCE: Get ready, TNT. You don’t know what you’re in for.
BOGAEV: What kind of viewer engagement are you planning? And what do you want and what do you not want get into?
PEARCE: I hope that the fans, you know, as you call it, the Shakespeare fans, I hope they will argue amongst—and I don’t mean argue in a negative way—I hope they will discuss and tussle and pass through the show in their own way, and with their own friends because it’s… You know, I hope it doesn’t become about us against them. Like, oh, it wasn’t like this. Or, you know, it wasn’t like that. Because we’re not actually saying it was like that. We’re saying it might’ve been like this. I hope it incites conversation and reinvigorates the base, if you like, the fans, to explore more about Will’s life and to go into his works and see how maybe this meant that. Maybe he was talking about this when he wrote that.
KAPUR: And to me, you know, storytelling, the idea, what do I hope? I hope… because great stories offer different interpretations. And if the modern interpretations a story offers, or characters offer, or character interpretations offer, the more exciting it is. And what I hope we’ll see on social media are constructive discussions on people’s various interpretations of what the end meant, what the scene meant, what Shakespeare said, what he meant when he said what.
PEARCE: I hope it excites more ongoing and ever expanding discussion. Not vitriolic argument about who’s right and who’s wrong, because that’s irrelevant.
BOGAEV: Well, I can’t wait for the rest of the series. I want to thank you so much. It has been a great time talking to you and I wish you the best with the whole season and future ones.
PEARCE: Thank you.
KAPUR: Yeah, and after this season we’ll have Son of Shakespeare.
PEARCE: [LAUGH] Here we go again.
KAPUR: Tell me…
BOGAEV: Daughter. Daughter of Shakespeare.
KAPUR: Daughter of Shakespeare. Yeah.
BOGAEV: Thank you.
KAPUR: Okay. All right.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Craig Pearce is the executive producer and writer, and Shekhar Kapur is the executive producer and director, of the new TNT series, Will, which premiered on July 10, 2017. They were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. “We’ll Tell Tales” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington.
We have a lot of people to thank for their help in making this podcast possible. At TNT, we want to thank Martine Resnick, Scott Radloff, Heather Crawford, and Kristin Boos. At the BBC in London, we had help from Tony Ward, Sharon Bowe, Ruth Waites, Pete Smith, and Alison Atkey. We also had help from Melissa Kuypers and Peter Stenshoel at NPR-West in Culver City, California. Lastly, we want to thank Shekhar Kapur’s assistant, Rhiannon Allen, and Craig Pearce’s Assistant, Angus Wilkinson.
If you’ve been enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, I hope you’ll consider reviewing the podcasts on whatever platform you get the podcast from. It helps us get the word out to people who haven’t heard it. People who might enjoy it. We’d really appreciate your help. Thanks.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, Folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.