Fact-Checking 13 Plot Points in 'All Is True', Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare Biopic
Mental Floss, 24 May 2019
After being the face of Shakespeare film adaptations to a whole generation in films like 'Henry V' (1989), 'Much Ado About Nothing' (1993), 'Othello (1995), 'Hamlet' (1996), and 'Love's Labour's Lost' (2000), Kenneth Branagh has stepped into the shoes of the Bard himself. The British actor plays William Shakespeare in the new movie 'All Is True', which the five-time Oscar nominee also directed.
The film, which began rolling out in U.S. theaters on May 10, functions as a sequel of sorts to 'Shakespeare in Love'. Call this one 'Shakespeare in Retirement'. It depicts the Bard in the final few years of his life, which historians believe he mostly spent in Stratford-upon-Avon. Before his death in 1616, Shakespeare reunited with the wife and children he’d spent so much time away from while working in London.
'All Is True' takes its name from an alternate title used during Shakespeare’s lifetime for his play 'Henry VIII'. The film frequently winks at its title, exploring the role of truth — or lack thereof — in the life of Branagh’s Will.
Spotty historical records leave many details about Shakespeare’s life in the realm of uncertainty, so filmmakers depicting the playwright must make use of broad artistic license to fill in the blanks. Mental Floss spoke with Harvard University professor and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare author Stephen Greenblatt to fact-check 'All Is True'. It turns out that the film’s depiction of Shakespeare is a mix of truth, presumed truth, and pure imagination.
1. PARTIALLY TRUE: SHAKESPEARE RETIRED TO STRATFORD-UPON-AVON AFTER THE GLOBE BURNED DOWN.
A prop cannon likely did misfire, and the resulting fire did destroy the Globe; while there were fortunately no deaths or serious injuries as a result, the fire delivered a serious financial blow to Shakespeare and other shareholders in the King's Men, the company of actors who performed at the Globe. But "never wrote another play" is a stretch. “The movie suggests he rode out of London, as it were, in the wake of the fire,” Greenblatt says. “But actually, it’s widely thought that he retired to Stratford before but he continued to write for the theater.”
'The Tempest', for example, was likely the last play Shakespeare wrote solo, without a collaborator, and some scholars theorize he wrote it at home in Stratford-upon-Avon, not in London. Academics are divided as to which play was the final play Shakespeare ever wrote, but the general consensus is that it was either 'Henry VIII' or 'The Two Noble Kinsmen', both collaborations with John Fletcher, which were possibly written during return trips to London.
2. TRUE: SHAKESPEARE’S DAUGHTER WAS ACCUSED OF ADULTERY.
As for whether Susanna Hall really did have an extramarital relationship with these men, that’s not known for sure, and the film leaves this somewhat up to viewer interpretation. But her real-life slander case did succeed in getting Lane excommunicated.
3. LIKELY TRUE: SHAKESPEARE HAD NO SCHOOLING BEYOND AGE 14.
As Greenblatt wrote in Will in the World, “the instruction was not gentle: rote memorization, relentless drills, endless repetition, daily analysis of texts, elaborate exercises in imitation and rhetorical variation, all backed up by the threat of violence.”
No surviving records confirm that Shakespeare attended the school in Stratford-upon-Avon, but most scholars safely assume that he did. The grammar school there was free and accessible to all boys in the area, the exception being the children of the very poor, since they had to begin working at a young age.
Regarding the fanboy moment in the film, Greenblatt says, “The implication of that moment was precisely to remind us that [Shakespeare] didn’t go to university, as far as we know. I’m sure he didn’t. He would have bragged about it at some point" (as many of his contemporaries did).
4. LIKELY TRUE: SUSANNA HALL WAS LITERATE, WHILE SHAKESPEARE’S WIFE AND YOUNGER DAUGHTER WERE NOT.
This is likely true: Greenblatt says that “the general sense is that Susanna was literate and that Judith and Anne were not,” though this is another area of Shakespeare’s family history that scholars cannot know for certain.
“This is a trickier matter than it looks,” Greenblatt says, “because lots of people in this period, including Shakespeare’s father, clearly knew how to read, but didn’t know how to write. This would be particularly the case for many women but not exclusively women in the period—that writing is a different skill from reading and that quite a few people were able to read.”
5. TRUE: SHORTLY AFTER HIS SON’S DEATH, SHAKESPEARE WROTE 'THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR'.
It’s a gut-punch from Anne not just because 'Merry Wives' (featuring the ever-entertaining character Falstaff) is a raucous comedy but also because it was, in the most cynical view, a cash grab. Shakespeare likely wrote 'Merry Wives' after the Falstaff - featuring 'Henry IV Part 1' but before moving onto the grimmer 'Henry IV Part 2', “to tap an unexpected new market phenomenon,” scholars Martin Wiggins and Catherine Richardson wrote in British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue regarding the "humours comedy," which debuted to immediate popularity in May 1597.
There is another way to interpret this: Both parts of 'Henry IV' deal with a troubled father-son relationship, and the conclusion of Part 2 depicts a son taking up the mantle of his deceased father. Perhaps Prince Hal and King Henry hit too close to home for Will (who in this film hopes his son will follow in his poetic footsteps), and a lighthearted comedy is what he needed.
6. VERY UNLIKELY: THE EARL OF SOUTHAMPTON VISITED SHAKESPEARE IN STRATFORD-UPON-AVON.
It is more likely that fellow playwright Ben Jonson would have visited Shakespeare, as he does later in the film.
7. UNCERTAIN: SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS WERE PUBLISHED “ILLEGALLY AND WITHOUT [HIS] CONSENT”
“This is a notoriously complicated matter—the publication of the sonnets,” he explains. “It is still very much open to question. It’s not a settled matter as to whether Shakespeare did or did not have anything to do with the publication of those sonnets.”
8. UNCERTAIN: SHAKESPEARE WROTE SOME OF HIS SONNETS FOR AND ABOUT THE EARL OF SOUTHAMPTON.
The film imagines a slightly more complicated—and perhaps more believable—situation than the idea that Southampton and Shakespeare had a fling: Will harbors feelings for Southampton, unrequited by the Earl, who reminds Will, “As a man, it is not your place to love me.”
“There is no way of achieving any certainty,” Greenblatt wrote in Will in the World regarding whether the sonnets were written as love tokens for anyone in particular. “After generations of feverish research, no one has been able to offer more than guesses, careful or wild.”
9. TRUE: 3000 ATTENDEES COULD FIT INTO THE GLOBE FOR ONE PERFORMANCE.
It’s true that Shakespeare was both a businessman and poet. His status as a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) was actually unprecedented: “No other English literary playwright had ever held such a position,” Oxford professor Bart van Es wrote in Shakespeare in Company, adding that becoming part owner of the Globe, “the most impressive venue in London … placed him in a category entirely of his own.”
Among the accomplishments Will lists for Lucy is filling the Globe with “3000 paying customers per afternoon.”
“That is the upper end of the size of those public theaters, as far as we now know from archaeological evidence,” Greenblatt says. “Three thousand is at the high end, but yes. Whether they actually got 3000 people every afternoon is another question.”
Meanwhile, the reconstruction of the Globe that opened in London in 1997 has a capacity of about half that. Its dimensions are the same as the Globe of Shakespeare’s day but modern fire codes don’t allow playgoers to be packed in quite so tightly.
10. TRUE: SHAKESPEARE WROTE THOMAS QUINEY OUT OF HIS WILL.
This may have really happened. Shakespeare summoned his lawyer in January 1616 to write Quiney into the will. Then in March, a month after his wedding, Quiney confessed in the vicar’s court to being responsible for the pregnancy of unmarried Stratford woman Margaret Wheeler, who had just died in childbirth (along with the child). Shakespeare then met again with his lawyer to strike out Quiney’s name and insert Judith’s name instead. However, some historians dispute that Shakespeare made this change as a result of the scandal; they instead suggest that it was due to practical concerns about Judith’s financial future.
'All Is True' reverses scholars’s common assumption that Shakespeare had a better relationship with Susanna’s husband, physician John Hall, than with Judith’s. It depicts Will’s removal of Quiney from his will as a reluctant necessity. “What the movie does is suggest [that John] Hall is an obnoxious, Puritan prig and that Thomas Quiney is actually a very nice fellow,” Greenblatt says.
One aspect of Shakespeare’s relationship with Hall that the film leaves out entirely is scholars’ assumption that Hall would have tended to the playwright during any sickness that led to his death. The cause of Shakespeare’s death is unknown, however, and Hall’s surviving casebooks date back only to 1617, the year after Shakespeare’s death.
11. UNLIKELY: SHAKESPEARE’S FAMILY RECITED HIS VERSE AT HIS FUNERAL.
The words are evocative of Scripture. (“Be not afraid” / “Have no fear” is said to be the most repeated phrase in both the Old Testament and the New Testament—and of course there’s the Genesis passage often read at funerals: “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”) Greenblatt says it is “very unlikely” that verse not from the Bible would have been recited at a funeral at the time of Shakespeare’s death, adding, “but I found that moment quite touching.”
SPOILER WARNING: The remainder of this article includes spoilers about some major twists in 'All Is True'.'
In 'All Is True', when Will voices grief for his son who had died 17 years prior, he often references Hamnet’s apparent talent as a poet. “He showed such promise, Anne,” Will cries.
Branagh’s film imagines that Hamnet wrote poems full of wit and mischief. Then Judith drops the revelation that she actually crafted the poems, dictating them to her twin brother, who knew how to write. All Is True thus displaces the controversial authorship question from Shakespeare to his children.
“There’s no historical trace of any of this,” Greenblatt says. “That is just an invention.”
13. UNCERTAIN: HAMNET SHAKESPEARE DIED OF THE PLAGUE.
Though the historical record doesn't supply a cause of death for Hamnet, many historians assume he died of the bubonic plague. For the film's revelation about Hamnet’s suicide, which Greenblatt deems as another imaginative invention, Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton seem to have taken inspiration from the real parish register recording burials at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, which lists no more than two dozen burials between June and September 1596. Meanwhile, a plague epidemic hit Shakespeare’s hometown shortly after the poet’s birth in 1564 and lasted about six months, killing more than 200 people in Stratford, which was about a sixth of the population.
As Greenblatt points out, the storyline about Judith’s poems and Hamnet’s death serves as a commentary on Virginia Woolf’s compelling essay, “Shakespeare’s Sister,” which appears in A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929. The essay imagines a tragic story for Shakespeare’s fictional sister who is as gifted as her successful brother but is not permitted to go to school and whose parents scold her each time she picks up a book. “She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was,” Woolf wrote.
Greenblatt observes that the central theme of 'All Is True' seems to be “the tragic cost of not having full access to literacy if you were a woman.” He notes, though, that in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, “there were actually quite a few [literate] women, and the work of the last generation, particularly feminist scholars, have recovered a much larger field than Virginia Woolf could have understood or than the movie suggests, of women who were reading and writing in the period.”
Kenneth Branagh’s All Is True is in theaters now.