“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”
So wrote William Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice. Easy for him to say back then, given that he didn’t have a wrinkle of his own. He was probably in his early 30s when he penned those words—his own face unlined, his own star rising rapidly.
But 15 to 20 years later, according to All Is True, laughter for the now 49-year-old Shakespeare is harder to find.
In 1613, Shakespeare’s glorious Globe Theater burns to the ground—a fire sparked by a faulty prop cannon. With his stage gone, the Bard leaves London for home: to his grand house in Stratford-upon-Avon, where his wife and two daughters await him.
But if the Globe’s ashes are still warm, the wreckage of Will’s neglected family are cool to the touch. Susannah, his eldest, is married now, to doctor John Hall. But their marriage is less than blissful, and Will’s strict Puritan son-in-law disapproves of Shakespeare’s plays.
But Susannah still loves her father—an emotion not so easily seen in Will’s younger daughter, Judith. She lashes out at her distant dad, desperate for attention and validation. Judith believes that her father sees only a “useless, pointless girl,” and wonders, “Why did the wrong twin die?”
Yes, Judith was once part of a set: Hamnet was the other half—Will’s son who wrote poetry with, as the Bard himself says, “wit and mischief in every line.” But the lad died at age 11 while Will was away. When the playwright returned to Stratford-upon-Avon, the boy was already in the ground—a victim of the Plague, he’s told.
And his own wife’s love is, perhaps, just as dead. As Will tries to enter their bedroom his first night back, she bars the way.
“Twenty years, Will. You’ve seen us less and less,” she tells him. “You’re a guest. And a guest,” she adds, gesturing to another room, “must have the best bed.”
William Shakespeare never wrote another play. Praised in London, the Bard returns home to garden, to grieve for his lost son, and to die.
But before the great writer finds that “sleep of death what dreams may come,” perhaps he can pause a moment and make amends. Heal his most precious relationships. Find, in his most important work, a happy ending worth a bow.
Shortly after Will comes home, he begins working on a garden—a memorial to Hamnet, he says.
“Hamnet is in paradise,” Anne snaps. “He doesn’t need a garden.”
“Perhaps I do.”
That garden serves as the movie’s central metaphor, with Will toiling away (largely unsuccessfully) in the garden as he tries to bring new life to his family. It’s hard work, and Will admits that he’s not very good at it.
“I once uprooted an entire forest and moved it across the stage to Dunsinane,” he tells his wife (referencing Macbeth).
“It’s a bit different in real life,” she tells him.
And so it is. But with patience and, ultimately, with Anne’s help, the garden comes to life. The same could be said of Shakespeare’s relationships, too. Even in the autumn of his life, Will sees the bonds of affection with his wife and daughters (especially angry Judith) grow green again. And though the movie pays homage to Shakespeare’s formidable talent and success, a closing conversation he has with friend Ben Johnson suggests that worldly treasures are nothing compared to the love of family.
Will also recounts to Johnson how a guest of his suggested Will had lived a “little life” compared to those of his more hedonistic peers. Johnson says that’s poppycock, reminding Will of how many of those self-same peers had died alone or in disgrace. Shakespeare conquered England with his verse, Johnson insists, and still found the joy of quiet, familial love. “The second part [of Shakespeare’s life] is the best part!” Johnson insists. “You made it home, Will! How many conquerors can say the same?”
Early in the movie, Will has an interesting conversation with his zealously puritanical son-in-law, John. When John says that Will’s plays distract people from God, Shakespeare responds thusly:
“Does the larksong distract you from your God, John?”
“Of course not,” John says. “It is evidence of God.”
“Perhaps, for some, I was the lark,” Will says.
Two things I find interesting about this quick exchange. First, the movie makes an explicit link between the power of art to help us see and reflect on eternal, spiritual things. But second, Will’s reference to John’s God suggests that Will did not worship the same one.
Will later tells Anne that his talents were gifts from “God Almighty,” suggesting that his differences with John are more stylistic than involving core Christian belief. But Will’s faith and religion, like those of the real Shakespeare, feel a bit enigmatic here. While the film makes mention of his family’s rumored links to Catholicism (a big no-no in a time when any whiff of “Popery” in England could get one blackballed or even executed), it largely minimizes them—presenting Will as a reluctant Anglican. (When he returns home, Will’s exasperated that regular church attendance is expected there; his wife notes that it’s not like London, where he could skip services all the time.)
John’s Puritan faith, meanwhile, comes across as quite rigid and unforgiving (even as the movie hints that he purposely pushes his wife into infidelity, in order to have her bear son and thus secure his and Susannah’s inheritance from Will). The sexual scandals that both Will’s daughters fall into are largely a product of the religious attitudes of the day, it’s suggested. And in one scene, we see a number of scandalized citizens voice their displeasure.
But religion isn’t roundly lambasted. The movie makes Anne out to be a woman of great faith—a faith critical to her kindness and character. When Judith angrily rails on about life and her own unworthiness, Anne says, “Judith, if you can’t forgive yourself, how do you expect God to forgive you?” (“I don’t,” Judith says.) She expresses faith that Susannah would never cheat on her husband, because she’s a “God-fearing woman.”
We hear references to how a baby that’s not given a name (and who thus went unbaptized) will not get into heaven. Someone suggests that Shakespeare is a “god of poetry, god of truth.” An Anglican minister tells his congregation to be generous toward the judgmental Puritans in their midst: “Remember Corinthians,” he admonishes. “These Christians act from an upright faith.” We hear about someone being excommunicated. Hamnet’s ghost appears to Will on occasion.
[Spoiler Warning] Will initially believes Hamnet died from the Plague, but he grows suspicious. When he asks Anne and Judith how he really died, Judith tells him that he was found drowned in a lake—likely a suicide, even if Judith takes the blame for his death on himself. Anne, though, continues to insist it was the Plague—in part because if the boy did kill himself, she believes he’d be barred from paradise. “It was the Plague,” she insists. The priest said so, and “God accepted it. Jesus would never have denied him a place in spite of what Judith said we saw.” She later adds, “It was only a little lie. He was only a little boy.”
Shakespeare’s sonnets are among his most beautiful and best-known works. And because some of those sonnets referenced a man, many scholars have wondered about Shakespeare’s sexual inclinations.
All Is True takes a strong stance on the matter, revealed when the Earl of Southampton—to whom Shakespeare dedicated some of his work—announces a visit. In advance of the visit, Will and Anne fight over Will’s suggestive sonnets (published, he says, against his “knowledge or consent,” and which some say were written for the earl), with Anne adding that she doesn’t want Will to tell him what they actually mean. But she does tell Will that the sonnets scandalized her. “All these years, Will, [you were] worried about your reputation. Have you even once considered mine?”
The private conversation between the effeminate lord and Will crackles with romantic and sexual tension, but stops well short of physical relationship: The earl rejects such a union as an impossibility due to his station. “As a man, Will, it is not your place to love me,” the earl says. “And [a purchased knighthood, which Will bought for himself and his family] will never make it so.”
The two talk about the more hedonistic sexual habits of many of Shakespeare’s peers, especially Christopher Marlowe. “Oh, what a man he was,” the earl says. “Boys? Girls? Boys and girls? He knew how to live.” He later notes that “booze and passion, sex and violence killed them all.” (The two men use some pretty ribald language referencing sex and procreation, too.)
As mentioned, both of Will’s daughters are enmired in scandal. A cloth merchant openly flirts with Susannah, and their conversation suggests that they’ve done more than flirt. She is also spied buying mercury—thought to be a treatment for syphilis back in the day—which leads to her being called out as an adulteress. (Crude synonyms are hurled in her direction.)
Tom Quiney, a man-about-town, flirts madly with Judith, proposing marriage to her every time they see each other. Judith eventually agrees to share a cup of wine with him, which turns out to be either a euphemism, or at least an excuse, for them to have sex. (We see them kiss before falling out of sight behind a store counter.) The Puritan John is scandalized by the rumors of their goings-on. “Sinning will not make her happy,” he says. His wife, Susannah takes a different tack. “If only those without sin were allowed to marry, there would be precious few weddings,” she says.
Tom admits that he’s known other women, and one of them is pregnant: When the girl, Margaret, and her family suggest he should own up to his responsibilities, Tom tries to cast doubt on whether the baby is absolutely his (“Margaret has many friends at the tavern,” he says suggestively). Tom’s up-front about this difficulty with Judith, and the two marry anyway. But when Margaret and the baby both die in childbirth, Tom’s parentage becomes widely known, and Will reluctantly removes Tom from his will because of it.
We should note that the movie acknowledges that Will himself married Anne when she was three months pregnant—a minor scandal that one of Will’s critics regularly reminds him of. We briefly see a painting depicting a bare-breasted woman. Judith takes off Tom’s shirt in their bridal chamber as they prepare for their first “legal” union as a married couple.
We see a drowned body in a lake. Will’s theater burns down. We hear someone narrate a violent, bloody passage from one of Shakespeare’s plays (Titus Andronicus), which Shakespeare uses to intimidate someone. Will knocks over a chair. We hear about how the Plague is a “scythe, not a dagger.” People rip up and burn poems.
For a story that takes place in Elizabethan England, All Is True contains a surprising number of contemporary curses. We hear one f-word (a word that, admittedly, first found its way into print in 1528), two s-words and a sprinkling of other profanities, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n” and several uses of the British profanity “bloody.” God’s name is misused at least once, and Jesus’ name is arguably abused about three times.
Characters drink wine, and some ancillary figures seem to drink to excess. Anne puts out beer to drown the slugs that are eating the hollyhocks. Will calls for ale.
Will lies and threatens someone to protect his daughter’s reputation. Many of his family members lie and mislead as well—sometimes keeping painful secrets for years. We hear about how Will’s father was a thief—avoiding church not because he was a secret Catholic, but because he owed half the people in the sanctuary money. Will warns his pet dog not to urinate on his garden plants.
There’s a certain paradox in the title All Is True: This movie about William Shakespeare is largely speculation. Very little of it is necessarily “true” at all.
‘Course, Shakespeare himself might’ve understood the movie’s departures. As Will says in the movie, “I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Shakespeare had no idea what speeches Brutus and Antony really made after the death of Julius Caesar. He couldn’t have known whether Macbeth consulted with three very witchy witches. Even his so-called “histories” took wild liberties with what had actually happened. But Shakespeare would still twist the facts to get at deeper meanings. Through his not-so-true-to-life characters, he sunk deep into mankind’s true soul and spirit.
All Is True seems to have a similar motivation, this time using the Bard himself as inspiration. Naturally, writer Ben Elton and director/actor Kenneth Branagh aren’t the equal of Shakespeare (as I’m sure they’d both readily admit). So the results here won’t likely land in an English lit class anytime soon. And some of the historical leaps the film takes—its musings on Shakespeare’s sexuality, for instance, or its speculation on its daughters’ scandals—feel unnecessarily tawdry and, frankly, distracting.
And I’m still enough of a history buff to lament that the movie’s myth-making threatens to obscure our best guess about what Shakespeare was reallly like. (Many scholars, for instance, believe Shakespeare’s controversial sonnets didn’t indicate same-sex attraction, but rather should be taken as paeans to strong male friendships, fictional stories or even Christian metaphors akin to modern worship songs that embrace romantic language.)
But we do find heartening truths in here, too: the truth that even broken families can be mended. That old mistakes and lies can be made right. That love and family are ultimately more valuable than honor and praise and money.
Old wrinkles come unbidden, always. Most of our lives are filled with tragedies and mistakes and moments of deep suffering. But All Is True suggests that even amid life’s struggles, we can still make good on who God wants us to be—or a little better, at least. And with that comes if not mirth and laughter, at least a sense of peace. And that’s a good truth to remember.
Raising a family is like cultivating a garden. Both must be tended to intentionally if they are to thrive. If you find that your family, like Shakespeare’s, needs a little help, Focus on the Family offers some great “gardening” tools for dads and moms to make that job a little bit easier:
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.