(this post contains spoilers)
We’re four episodes into TNT’s new Shakespeare drama Will before we learn Ellen Burbage’s first name.
Between the boy players and Shakespeare’s absent wife and, you know, the general sexism of 16th century England, it’s easy to create stories about the early days of English drama that include no women at all. So Will deserves credit for its inclusion of James Burbage’s wife Ellen as a clearly integral part of the day-to-day running of the Theatre. But she’s Mistress Burbage, and Richard and Alice’s mum, and it’s not until four episodes in that anyone actually bothers to identify her by her first name.
It’s a little thing, but emblematic of Will’s not-quite-there treatment of its female characters. The show comes so close to finding a space for women in the tale of the early modern English theatre that it’s all the more frustrating that it falls short. The desire for interesting, important female characters is obvious, but the show stumbles in the execution, falling back on tired and disempowering period drama tropes.
Take Ellen Burbage. One of the best episodes gives her props as the power behind the throne, the real manager of her husband’s playhouse– but we never really see her doing this, and the idea is never quite mentioned again. Her real role is to alternately nag and support her family– and, in classic period drama mama fashion, push her daughter towards a sensible but loveless marriage and become furious when she refuses it.
It’s not nearly as bad as poor Anne Shakespeare, who of course Shakespeare does not love, and spends most of the series cheating on. Her role is only to realize that she is a fool for wishing her husband would be sensible and make money and help their three children, and instead must recognize his genius and– in her own words– “leave [him] free to succeed.” That is literally what she says. Literally. We’ll return to this idea.
Will gets points for including Emilia Bassano (and for casting her with a black actress), and loses them again for how she is used. There are a few striking scenes– and parallel scenes earlier, with Alice– in which Emilia makes key suggestions about the shape of Shakespeare’s works-in-progress. It might be an exciting example of someone finally depicting the collaborative nature of early modern playwriting– but it’s not. Shakespeare happily absorbs Emilia and Alice’s ideas without expectation of credit or acknowledgement on either side. He’s the writer, of course they have no use for their words or ideas (though Emilia’s own poetry is referenced, once) except to give them to him.
Obviously this is a slightly uncharitable reading– any writer knows that friends offer ideas and you duly steal them all the time. But it’s the positioning of both these women, both of whom claim to be artistic and ambitious in their own right, as having no real function except to serve Shakespeare. One suspects the writers think they are paying the women their due by having them make major contributions to famous works like Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and lines that will eventually go into Romeo and Juliet, but it only highlights their inferior position: they may make contributions, but the plays and the genius are still firmly Shakespeare’s.
Which brings us to Alice Burbage, Richard Burbage’s sister, Shakespeare’s love interest. To define her in any other terms is almost impossible, though there is a funny scene wherein she’s asked what she does at the playhouse, and she replies, “Not much,” before rattling off an endless list of scrivening, prop sorting, prompting, costume mending…
Like Ellen, the show fully accepts Alice’s role in the family business, though unlike Ellen, there are always hints that perhaps it’s inappropriate, perhaps she needs to marry. When Shakespeare firmly rejects her (at Ellen’s command), Alice turns to another idol, represented by another handsome young man: she converts to Catholicism under the guidance of Shakespeare’s cousin, the underground priest Robert Southwell. His luring of Alice smacks of nothing so much as the way cultists prey on the vulnerable, but by the end, the show tries to insist that we view this choice as Alice finally exercising her free will, that it has nothing to do with Shakespeare– though, of course, it has everything to do with him, as every single episode of the show has demonstrated. Even her departure has to do with him: she writes that she cannot be “part of [his] world”– even though it was her world first.
Alice, whose only wish has been to find a place for herself in the playhouse, is forced out to make room for Will, surrendering her piece of the Burbage family legacy in an act the writing attempts to frame as self-actualization, but just reads– ship voyage and all– exactly the same as Viola at the end of Shakespeare in Love, removing herself as a real, full person in order to become something more important: a character of Shakespeare’s, a piece of his mythology. Viola becomes Viola of Twelfth Night; Alice, associated throughout with lines from Romeo and Juliet, signs her final letter as Shakespeare’s “bright angel,” suggesting Shakespeare will use her as inspiration for Juliet. What better fate for a woman, these endings seem to say, than to be subsumed into a man’s legacy as a fictionalized, idealized version of yourself?
Joking discomfort with the fact of boy players means that, as Shakespeare conceives of and we see snippets of the plays performed, female characters are consistently erased or marginalized. The example I continually find most galling is Richard III. Even though Shakespeare and Alice earnestly discussed the character of Queen Margaret in previous episodes, no mention of her is made in that play, nor of the fact that Shakespeare’s only wholly original scenes, with antecedents in none of his sources, are those featuring the female characters.
The other female characters consist of a prostitute older sister who dies trying to flee with her younger brother; Richard’s friend/maybe-love-interest Moll, who gives him shit but ultimately believes in him; a love interest for Richard’s best friend, who is introduced and dies in a single episode; a tavern hostess/landlady; and a host of peripheral wives and children who are often, in traditional period drama fashion, used as the living emblem of the cost of whatever conflict their male relatives have become embroiled in.
The existence of Ellen, Alice, and Emilia alone put Will a step ahead of almost any other Shakespeare-related show or movie I can think of. But though it tries to make room for women, and deserves credit for the effort, it still can’t conceive of them as anything but satellites to men’s stories, defined primarily by their ability to advance or impede a man’s ambitions.