‘I am / At war ‘twixt will and will not’ (Measure for Measure) Or Why I’ve been advising the writing team of the new TV series Will

Grace Ioppolo writes:

As some of you may know, I’m the founder and Director of a theatre history digitisation project that offers free access to 2000 pages of original records from Shakespeare’s time (www.henlsowe-alleyn.org.uk). The records belong to Philip Henslowe, a theatrical entrepreneur who built the Rose and Fortune playhouses and financed several acting companies, and his son-in-law Edward Alleyn, who with Richard Burbage was the most famous actor of the age. Alleyn was shrewd enough to ensure that this huge archive would survive in perpetuity at the school he founded, Dulwich College. Shakespeare and his colleagues did not manage to keep their records intact, and their papers were scattered and largely destroyed.

Since I published the Henslowe-Alleyn website and archive in 2009, it has received a lot of attention, both from scholars and from the much wider community. According to Google Analytics, we receive up to 28,000 hits per month on Google (which I still find hard to believe), with about 2000 visitors to the site each month. I’ve been contacted by a surprisingly large range of people, including actors, directors, journalists, dramaturgs, comedians, archaeologists, London community activists (!), and even government officials, as well as a man who claims Henslowe as his ancestor, who want further information. I also tweet about the project @ProfShakespeare.

But in August 2016, I had a very exciting email from Sarah Byrd, who introduced herself as part of the London-based writing team of ‘Will,’ a new TV series commissioned by the TNT network in the US, offering a look at the ‘dark’ subculture of Shakespeare’s world in the late 1580s and early 1590s. Sarah told me that she’d found the Henslowe-Alleyn website through Google and thought that I might be able to help her devise ideas for the show. When I rang her, she and I were each very surprised to discover that the other was from Los Angeles and that we’d both been to University there. I went to UCLA and she went to USC; of course, UCLA is much higher-ranked than its cross-town rival USC, but I didn’t hold that against Sarah! She has degrees in English literature and knew quite a lot about the early modern age (and has proven to be an excellent and energetic researcher), and she invited me to meet the creative team. So, off I went to their offices in Soho.

I can honestly say that it was the most enjoyable afternoon of my life in terms of creative thinking and exchanging ideas and information. The writers’ room was papered with photos of all the actors cast in the show (many of them had been in ‘Game of Thrones’ and other popular shows), and Sarah’s colleague David Rambo, a playwright and screenwriter also from Los Angeles, explained how the team worked. I learned that ‘Will’ was created by Craig Pearce and is the culmination of his ten-year effort to get the series on the air.

What they and I anticipated would be a short meeting turned into quite a long one as I answered their questions about the famous historical figures Shakespeare might have encountered, as well as the factual events captured in theatre history, such as the construction of playhouses, interventions and censorship by the government and what daily life was like in London (a subject about which I know a lot, as I’ve studied Henslowe’s famous ‘Diary’ and Alleyn’s lesser-known daily diary). I also gave them a list of historical figures with quite juicy backstories, including Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and his infamous sister Penelope Rich, on both of whom I do research. I offered some gossip of the age, including Ben Jonson’s claim that there was something anatomically wrong with Queen Elizabeth I (you can Google that one). But above all I told them that they should make Henslowe and Alleyn recurring characters in the show (they appear in Shakespeare in Love, after all), and they agreed! Sarah, David and the others on the team took copious notes of my comments (and especially enjoyed all the Tudor gossip), and I left their offices feeling ecstatic. The show will take a lot of liberties with the truth and seems to be a kind of Shakespeare meets Game of Thrones (a show that borrows repeatedly from Shakespeare’s plays and from medieval epics), but as Shakespeare took a lot of liberties with the truth, that seems fitting.

Since last year, I’ve had further conversations and emails with Sarah and David and was quite proud to accompany them and David’s husband Ted to Dulwich College, where Calista Lucy, the Keeper of Archives, and I showed them the originals of Henslowe’s and Alleyn’s papers, as well as the P. G. Wodehouse Library and the James Caird, the boat used by Ernest Shackleton in his Antarctic expedition. If a second series of ‘Will’ is commissioned, Sarah and David hope to return to London and their reconstructed and imaginative world of Shakespeare.

‘Will’ premieres in the US in July, so here’s hoping that it turns up on a UK television channel soon afterward. You can watch a trailer for the show here:

You can read about the show here:



About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
This entry was posted in Department of English Literature news and events and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.