In Shakespeare’s Life Story, Not All Is True. In Fact, Much Is Invented.

A new film by Kenneth Branagh is a textbook case of how portraitists of the bard spin a paucity of fact into fairy tale.

A scene from All Is True (Robert Youngson / Sony Pictures Classics)

How do you tell the story of the world’s greatest literary career when the literary part is a gaping hole, “a jigsaw puzzle for which most of the pieces are missing,” as one scholar put it? You get inventive, to put it charitably. All Is True, a new film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, is the latest installment in a long line of highly creative Shakespeare portraiture. In his novel Nothing Like the Sun (which Harold Bloom, the Yale critic, judged the most astute biography of Shakespeare), Anthony Burgess portrays the bard as a bisexual engaged in affairs with the Earl of Southampton and a black female prostitute, his poetic powers entwined with his immense virility. Shakespeare in Love, one of the highest-grossing films of 1998 and the Academy Award winner for Best Picture, envisions him as a besotted heterosexual with writer’s block. Literary scholars, too, join in the imaginative quest to explain “how Shakespeare became Shakespeare,” as Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt writes in Will in the World. He proceeds to conjure Shakespeare the schoolboy falling in love with language, and Shakespeare watching his first play—“imaginative leaps” that earned the book scholarly censure as “biographical fiction.”

In the star-studded yet curiously stagnant All Is True, Branagh gives us Shakespeare in retirement, returning to Stratford-upon-Avon to garden and bask in his success. The film is a textbook case of how portraitists of the bard spin a paucity of fact into fairy tale. Shakespeare’s acting and business activities are amply documented, but the vacuum that is his literary life makes mythologizing inevitable. Unlike other writers of the period, he left no paper trail in the form of educational records, letters, manuscripts, or records of payment for writing—though writing was, presumably, his main profession. Francis Beaumont, who died in 1616, was eulogized by his fellow poets and buried at Westminster Abbey. When Shakespeare died just seven weeks later, the literary world was silent—not a word, and no Westminster burial, though the plays and poems published under the name “Shakespeare” were by then widely known and praised.

The mystery has spawned a centuries-long quest for other possible authors of the plays—a quest that has focused on male writers until recently. Spurred on by a fascination with the playwright’s uncanny insights into women, doubters are now exploring female candidates, one of whom I examine in “Was Shakespeare a Woman?” The mystery has also forced biographers of the long-enshrined bard to resort to speculation, using the plays, court politics, and general descriptions of Elizabethan England to elaborate the recorded facts of Shakespeare’s life into the narrative of his presumed literary life. The subjunctive voice is everywhere: Shakespeare “could have,” “probably,” “surely,” “perhaps,” “must have,” and so on. Any problems that arise along the way are made to surrender to that which is unfathomable, his genius. In Soul of the Age, the Oxford scholar Jonathan Bate turns the absence of literary evidence into proof of the bard’s superior character: He had an “instinct for caution,” Bate argues, and a “track record of staying out of trouble” (a claim at odds with evidence of Shakespeare’s numerous run-ins with the law). In The Truth About William Shakespeare: Fact, Fiction and Modern Biographies, the British scholar David Ellis laments that all these speculations come at the risk of “a general lowering of intellectual standards and the degradation of the art of biography.”

All Is True, a bookend of sorts to Shakespeare in Love, sticks closely to the biographies and to the familiar narrative of Shakespeare (played by Branagh) as mythical, romantic genius. “Your soul has the whole world in it,” his daughter Susanna (Lydia Wilson) exclaims, in tune with the hagiographic spirit that pervades the film. After the Globe Theatre in London burns down in 1613, Shakespeare is shown abjuring his pen and returning to his hometown, where the locals greet him with reverence: “Such an honor!” (According to historical records, no townspeople actually recognized him as the great poet—not his friend Thomas Greene, who kept a diary while he stayed at Shakespeare’s home, and not even John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law, who wrote excitedly in his diary about a visit from the poet Michael Drayton yet neglected to mention his own father-in-law.)

Shakespeare settles into his grand home, sharing awkward family dinners with two grown daughters, Susanna and Judith, and a wife he’s barely seen in years. He stares fondly at his coat of arms, an allusion to one well-known drama in his life—his status-seeking ambition to become a gentleman. He laps up the praise of the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), who arrives hailing him as “God of poetry! God of truth!” (There is no evidence they ever knew each other.) Then he stomps around and moans a lot about his wife and daughters being ungrateful. “I have raised this family up! Through my genius I have brought fame and fortune to this house! Yes, my genius!”

Where did that genius come from? Or, as a starstruck boy asks him, “How do you know” everything? Geniuses tend to leave some trace of their intellectual formation. Mozart and Milton did. Even poets who predated Shakespeare, such as Petrarch and Dante, left records of their education. Scholars compensate for the lack of information in Shakespeare’s case with appeals to the wondrous power of his imagination. “Shakespeare was superhuman,” insisted Samuel Schoenbaum, a leading 20th-century Shakespeare scholar. The film repeats the scholarly refrain. “What I know … I have imagined,” says Branagh’s Shakespeare. Never mind that no one, however miraculous, can imagine his way into the range of book-learning that underpins the plays.

Sadly, resting on laurels doesn’t generate much plot momentum, so Branagh invents a subplot, reaching for ways to get literary themes into a life otherwise bereft of them. His Shakespeare becomes absorbed by grief for his son, Hamnet, who died nearly two decades earlier. “At the time, you wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor,” his wife (Judi Dench) reminds him. (That play was followed by another comedy—a notorious awkwardness for biographers.) Hamnet, viewers learn in the film, was a promising young poet, eager to emulate his father. Shakespeare carries around scraps of his son’s poetry, and in the twilight of his own career becomes ever more obsessed with them. “What a talent Hamnet could have been,” he keeps saying, until Judith (Kathryn Wilder), sick of being disparaged by her father, angrily reveals that the poems are actually hers. She let Hamnet take credit for them because Shakespeare wanted so badly to see genius in his boy. “So are they worthless now?” she asks her father. “They aren’t his,” he responds gloomily.

The twist displaces the authorship controversy surrounding Shakespeare onto an invented authorship controversy surrounding his children—and gives Branagh his chance to at least allude to the very relevant issue of how female authors get erased. The real Judith couldn’t so much as write her name; she signed documents with her mark. Branagh’s portrait of Shakespeare the blinkered father and husband, an egotist who disdains his daughters, inadvertently highlights perhaps the deepest puzzle in the mystery of his authorship, noted by readers for centuries now: How to account for his remarkable empathy for women?

No biographer has yet managed to explain how the playwright came to write such startlingly feminist works, sympathetic to women’s perspectives and to their defiance of male authority—not occasionally, but structurally and systemically across the oeuvre. Inevitably, they fall back on that mystical catchall: his genius. As the Cambridge scholar Juliet Dusinberre writes in Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, “Where in every other field understanding of Shakespeare’s art grows, reactions to his women continually recycle because critics are still immersed in preconceptions which Shakespeare discarded about the nature of women.”

For evidence of just such staleness, All Is True is worth seeing, but not for much else. The chasm the film opens up between Branagh’s Shakespeare—the Shakespeare of biographical myth—and the mind one encounters in the plays is yet another reminder of the incongruities at the heart of the reigning account of the playwright. Where is the intelligence brimming with knowledge of philosophy and astronomy, theology and the law, foreign languages, music, and diplomacy? The one that laughs at self-important men, lays bare the structures of misogyny, chides those who underestimate clever women? Branagh succeeds where he least intends to—in revealing that it’s nowhere in this film.