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.