I approached the first season of the new BBC Two television series, Upstart Crow, with fear and trepidation.
Sure, I love everything Shakespeare. But a period-piece sitcom with the Bard as the main character seemed as likely to enrage me as to enchant me.
I need not have worried.
I don’t know how the show would strike someone who’s not familiar with Shakespeare’s life and work, but from the first episode to the sixth (and last, of season one), I loved it.
Episode one introduces Will, his illiterate wife Anne, parents John and Mary (Arden) Shakespeare, teen daughter Susanna, actors Richard Burbage, Henry Condell, and Will Kemp, nemesis Robert Greene (who denigrated Will as an “upstart crow” in the first place), and two fictional characters, a manservant named Bottom (love it!) and the landlady’s daughter, Kate. Oh, and Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, whose name, Will says, “is like a cold sore” (“It’s on everybody’s lips”).
Predictably, the sitcom treatment plays havoc with many historical details, but all within a surprisingly faithful outline and usually “to the purpose.” Believe it or not, David Mitchell succeeds in portraying Shakespeare as a bumbling genius, and I loved the way his family and fellow players are portrayed (especially the literary twist given to the relationship between Will and Marlowe!). I loved the wordplay and the running jokes about Shakespeare’s manner of speaking and writing. I loved the sendup of his sonnets in Episode 4, which made me realize why I’d never wondered how Anne might have heard about and reacted to the sonnets, which were published (without the Bard’s approval) in both his and her lifetimes. I loved the hilarious way Episodes 5 and 6 played with the Scottish play and The Merchant of Venice, respectively.
In fact, I think the only thing I didn’t like was the laugh track–sometimes intrusive, always unnecessary. Otherwise, however, it was “full-replete with choice of all delights.” I can’t wait for Season 2.