Shakespeare in Sitcom: Upstart Crow (2016-2018?)
Over the past week, I have finished a re-watch of Upstart Crow, the BBC’s three-season sitcom based around William Shakespeare. I think it holds up pretty well – in fact, I enjoyed it more this time than the first time, since I was not dealing with the problem of misplaced expectations. The big danger of watching Upstart Crow is expecting it to be another Blackadder… which it is most certainly not. Just because both are British history-based comedies, written by Ben Elton, does not mean that both series are genuinely comparable.
The difference is basically this. The Blackadder Model takes a well-trodden historical period, inserts a nasty and morally compromised protagonist with a line in creative razor-sharp insults, and forces him to react to the major ‘beats’ of the era. Throw in some very stupid supporting characters to emphasise how cool and smart our protagonist is, have the protagonist end up neither worse off nor better off than when he started… and you get Blackadder. More or less. The overarching purpose is to puncture the glamour of English Historical Myth via making fun of it. If I had to summarise the series in a single word, it would be ‘naughty’.
Upstart Crow, by contrast, is rarely naughty. The character of William Shakespeare is neither nasty nor morally compromised. He’s decent, rather timid, and painfully bourgeois in his mannerisms and outlook. In short, he’s a staple of traditional British situation comedy, even stealing Reggie Perrin’s rants about public transport. The supporting characters are not stupid, and with the occasional exception, rarely descend into Blackadder-style caricature. Even the lowly working-class doofus Bottom is no Baldrick. Which means that we’re generally laughing at our protagonist, rather than with him, with the twist that he generally comes out on top. This is not a matter of always returning to the status quo, but following a character through his successes.
Upstart Crow does not puncture the Myth of Shakespeare – though there is a bit of that, generally by pointing out his copious borrowings from other texts. The overarching purpose is instead to make a stab at light-hearted education. A cornerstone of the comedy also comes from the extended rants about the foibles of Modern Britain. The word I’d use to describe the series is ‘referential.’
I think it’s the educational element, rather than the comedy element, where Upstart Crow really shines. With the exception of Kate and Bottom, all the characters are real-life historical figures. While the show takes some significant liberties with characterisation, we can thank it for making modern audiences aware that the likes of Burbage, Kemp, and Greene even existed. John Shakespeare might not be the Albert Steptoe figure we are presented with (he was actually Mayor of Stratford at one point), but he did have legal trouble. The coat of arms thing really happened, while Shakespeare’s lack of a university education was commented upon at the time, in the Cambridge Parnassus Plays. Women also could not act, which did require boys to play them on stage, and Marlowe really did work for Francis Walsingham’s Secret Police. Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit was real, and really did refer to Shakespeare as an ‘upstart crow’. Et cetera.
Unfortunately, the educational element is a double-edged sword. This is a sitcom, not a pseudo-documentary. The accuracies mean that when Upstart Crow does take liberties with history, it stands out all the more. Shakespeare did not use his father as the model for Falstaff, nor did his day-to-day life shape his works. Christopher Marlowe is turned into a toned-down Lord Flashheart, which is fine so far as it goes… but real-life Marlowe was not a ‘posh boy’. Real-life Marlowe was the son of a shoe-maker, even if he did go to university. And in a series that does dwell on the implications of Shakespeare’s Fair Youth… I think they could have made more mileage out of Marlowe’s alleged homosexuality and atheism.
Meanwhile, real-life Shakespeare would have never dared talk about Elizabeth I as a tyrant (for obvious reasons), would never in a million years have written a play about Mary Queen of Scots, and would not bad-mouth Henry VIII. The actual Henry VIII play, written during James’ reign, is politically sanitised into virtual oblivion.
On the other hand, as Richard III would attest, it is not as if real-life Shakespeare would allow historical facts to get in the way of a story, so this fictional dramatisation of his life fits with the man’s own principles. Fair enough. My biggest complaint about Upstart Crow is actually a bit different. Specifically, the invented character of Kate, who somehow has the worldview of a twenty-first century middle-class Guardian reader, despite being a landlady’s daughter in sixteenth century London. While this is a show that leans heavily on modern analogies for laughs (the character of Will Kemp is a potshot at Ricky Gervais), I find Kate immersion-breaking. She does serve a thematic purpose (exploring gender issues on the stage), but the character is simply too much of a moralistic sledge-hammer in every other context.
(A bit more self-awareness on the part of the show could have tweaked this for its own advantage. Turning Kate into a Puritan would have been a truly fascinating twist, since it allows you to keep the self-righteousness and the education, while also feeling more true to the period. Plus, it creates a new thematic tension between her and Will. Rather than being all about women on stage, she becomes about the moral import of the theatre as an institution. Recall that Cromwell would shut down the theatre, forty-odd years later).
I mentioned that Upstart Crow is stronger in its handling of Education than Comedy. A weakness of its Comedy is that there is an disproportionate emphasis on topical humour, rather than evergreen humour – there are continued allusions to Brexit, immigration, public transport problems, Coronavirus, even to Red Nose Day. The intent is to reinforce the idea that Shakespeare is still applicable to our world, and yet the effect is to ironically make it feel dated. Blackadder – now over thirty years old – is genuinely timeless, because it is laughing at the enduring Myths of History. Upstart Crow’s comedy has a much shorter shelf-life, because it is merely laughing at the Britain of the late 2010s. The references will be lost on an audience in 2050. The 2020 Christmas Special really takes this to new heights, even as it attempts to comment on life in 2020 via references to the plague outbreak of 1603.
That said, I think there are two areas of humour that really do work here.
One is the handling of the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Here, the show satirises the Anti-Stratfordian position via having the thing be cooked up whole-cloth by Shakespeare’s jealous rival, Robert Greene (Greene, of course, did nothing of the sort in real-life, but he did coin the phrase ‘upstart crow’). It’s a maniacally absurd plan, dreamt by a gloriously hammy pantomime villain, but the show’s handling of it really does get the point across, namely that the Anti-Stratfordian position is fundamentally based on snobbery. It’s also a joke that could only work in Upstart Crow’s setting, and indeed the show takes things a step further via inverting the Marlovian Theory – it has Shakespeare writing Marlowe’s plays, rather than Marlowe writing Shakespeare’s.
(That said, I take issue with the suggestion that The Jew of Malta is fundamentally more anti-semitic than The Merchant of Venice: https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2020/01/17/living-on-the-edge-the-works-of-christopher-marlowe/).
The other area of Comedy I feel Upstart Crow makes work is its use of language. The show uses a strange and amusing invented slang (‘Bollingbrokes,’ ‘Boobingtons,’ ‘Hugger-tuggery’, ‘Puffling Pants’), which at once separates the setting from the twenty-first century, while at the same time being easy to follow. It’s really a comment on reading Shakespeare today – if you put the work in, the archaisms don’t actually get in the way of the story. Credit for creativity, not to mention the occasional impressive use of iambic pentameter in the script.
So yeah. Upstart Crow. Good fun, if you are able to adjust your expectations, and even better fun if you are familiar enough with the plays themselves (including the less famous ones, like Two Gentlemen of Verona). It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, and occasionally slides into becoming a vehicle for Elton to rant about contemporary Britain… but despite the frustrations (and Kate) it’s far from bad. If it encourages people to read Billy on their own, or even to follow up with reading about Marlowe, Greene, and company, so much the better. There’s definitely enough material left un-mined (King Lear, The Tempest) for a fourth season.