Sir Kenneth Branagh’s new film, All is True, arises out of his life-long passion for Shakespeare. From his early days of hitch-hiking to Stratford-upon-Avon, Branagh’s love of Shakespeare (and it is a deep honest-to-God and open love) has infused his entire career.
All is True is a brave and beautiful film which treats the past and the telling of history rather like Shakespeare himself did. Whilst it collapses time-frames and portrays imaginary events, its central subject (Shakespeare the man) is presented with a spirit of truth, understanding and affection.
I have the honour of being credited (along with the Shakespeare film and theatre expert Russell Jackson) as one of Branagh’s Shakespeare Consultants. He came to visit us at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in the summer, told me about his project, and asked me to comment on the script. During the filming, Russell Jackson and I were both on standby to answer questions.
I’ve been asked to compile an All is True top-ten, ten claims made by the film, some of which are more true than others.
Each instance is illustrated by evidence from the archives, library, and museum collections here at The Shakespeare Centre. Most of the material included here can be found via our online catalogue or you might like to come along to the Shakespeare Centre and see the items for yourself.
1. Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died aged 11 in mysterious circumstances.
Hamnet Shakespeare was the twin brother of Judith. They were baptised on 2 February, 1585, and 11 and a half years later, on 11 August 1596, Hamnet was buried in the churchyard at Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon. Causes of death were not recorded in parish registers, which allows the film poetic license to imagine how Hamnet died.
2. Shakespeare’s family home, New Place, was large with extensive grounds.
Shakespeare purchased the largest house in the borough of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1597. It was in the centre of town and had five gables, two barns, two gardens, two orchards, between 20 and 30 rooms, and was the only house in the borough with a gatehouse and a courtyard. Set towards the back of the courtyard was a large, medieval hall, very similar to the one used in the film; Dorney Court, which is set in parkland near Windsor. The grounds of New Place would certainly have allowed ample scope for gardening, and, judging from his works, Shakespeare certainly knew his flora. Shakespeare’s family lived in New Place from 1597. He was only ever an intermittent lodger in London, and it was in Stratford-upon-Avon where he put down his roots.
3. Shakespeare displayed his family’s coat of arms at his home, New Place.
Shakespeare obtained a coat of arms for his father in October 1596. It has been estimated that he might have paid as much as £20 for it. Between 1570 and 1630, there were 45 'gentlemen' in Stratford-upon-Avon out of a population of around 2,200 (in 1595). 28 had been born into the title; the other 17 were tradesmen who, like Shakespeare, successfully applied for the status. All of them were entitled formally to display their coat of arms above the entrance to their homes, to have it set into windows, and carved into their furniture. Shakespeare valued his social status and would have appropriated the family’s right to display the coat of arms on the death of his father, John, in September 1601.
4. Anne Shakespeare ran the household at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon.
While Shakespeare was away working in London, his wife Anne was the permanent manager of New Place, overseeing and running the household. Recent archaeology on the site unearthed many artefacts from Shakespeare’s period, including domestic items (pins for clothing, pottery, utensils, the remains of high-status foods), and evidence of cottage industries (including bobbins and button-making). One constant job at New Place, as it was for many households, was to maintain good malt supplies for the brewing of ‘small beer’ (the water was not always safe to drink!). New Place was listed as containing 10 quarters of malt (4,800lb) on 4 February 1598, during a time of scarcity and after devastating fires. It was valued at the large sum of £25, a lot of responsibility for Anne Shakespeare. But the local schoolmaster, Alexander Aspinall, just across the road, was storing even more. 67 other men were listed as keeping 1,000 quarters of malt, 100 times more than the Shakespeares.
5. Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna Hall, was involved in a sex scandal.
On 15 July 1613, John and Susanna Hall journeyed to the church court in Worcester to sue their Stratford-upon-Avon neighbour, John Lane, for defamation of character (slander). Lane had accused Susanna of adultery with a local haberdasher, Ralph Smith, who was also married, and contracting venereal disease from him — ‘the running of the reins’. Lane did not turn up as the defendant, and the judgement was ruled in Susanna’s favour, and her name was cleared. In the film, Susanna is shown ordering a supply of mercury, a treatment for syphilis, and the affair between herself and Smith is presented as being all too true. Susanna’s husband, John, the much-respected local physician died before her, and on his gravestone we read of his ‘fidissima conjux’ — that is, Susanna, his ‘faithful wife’.
6. Shakespeare’s daughter, Judith, was also involved in a sex scandal.
The Shakespeares’ surviving twin, Judith, married a local wine merchant, Thomas Quiney, on 10 February 1616, but all was not quite right. It emerged that Thomas had already made Margaret Wheeler pregnant. Just over a month after the Quineys’ wedding, Margaret Wheeler and her baby were both buried in the churchyard. They had died during childbirth. Thomas pleaded guilty to ‘carnal copulation’ but escaped having to perform the humiliating public penance, which involved being dressed in a white sheet in front of the church congregation on three consecutive Sundays, and was able to pay a small fine instead. Judith herself became pregnant just into the marriage. Shakespeare Quiney was named in memory and honour of William, and the family’s name, but died just six months later.
7. Judith Shakespeare wrote poetry.
The film suggests that Judith was a powerful poet, but, as far as we know, she couldn’t even write. On 4 December, 1611, she was asked to witness the sale of a house belonging to her future mother-in-law and brother-in-law, Elizabeth and Adrian Quiney. She signified her presence at the signing of the deed by making her mark. She represented her initials, rather than wrote her name, where the scribe has written ‘signum Judeth Shackespeare’. Judith’s not being able to write, however, did not mean that she was unable to read, as literacy and penmanship were separate skills.
8. Ben Jonson visited Shakespeare at New Place.
William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were friends and rivals, gifted with very different kinds of genius and dramatic visions. The variety of Jonson’s output far surpasses Shakespeare’s (he wrote many more poems as well as court masques). It was clearly a close friendship: ‘I loved the man this side idolatry’, Jonson told Sir William Drummond of Hawthornden. Jonson is mentioned by John Ward, the vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon, in his notebook of the early 1660s, which contains the earliest, recorded account of the manner of Shakespeare’s death. Ward writes, ‘Shakespear, Drayton, and Ben Jhonson, had a merry meeting, and itt seems drank too hard, for Shakespear died of a fever there contracted'. Drayton was another poet and playwright with connections in the locality of Stratford-upon-Avon. It seems that this ‘merry meeting’ took place in the spring of 1616, and almost certainly at New Place.
9. Shakespeare bequeathed his 'second best bed' to his wife.
Shakespeare’s lawyer friend, Francis Collins, drew up Shakespeare’s will, the latest draft of which inserts a bequest to Anne Shakespeare of the ‘second best bed with the furniture’ (that is, with the bed-curtains, linen, and hangings). This has been variously interpreted as anything from a put-down to a romantic gesture (as the film would have us believe), since the ‘second best bed’ is likely to mean the marriage bed. But wills are not usually sentimental documents and it is more likely to be a straightforward bequest, indicating something over and above Anne’s automatic inheritance of one third of Shakespeare’s residual estate, as his widow, and beds were expensive! A late 16th/early 17th century bed on display in Anne Hathaway’s Cottage has long been associated with the site. It has even been suggested that it is the second best bed, taken by Anne to New Place, later inherited by granddaughter Elizabeth, and then returned to the cottage in Shottery, Stratford-upon-Avon, from which it originated and where is has been ever since.
10. Shakespeare’s song 'Fear no more' was read at his funeral.
'Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun' is a funeral song in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline (Act 4, Scene 2), and one which is often heard sung or read at funerals today. In the film it is read alongside Shakespeare’s coffin by his widow, Anne, and his daughters, Susanna and Judith. It is a touching moment, but Shakespeare’s funeral would only have included the words appointed to be read for the service in The Church of England’s liturgy, as set down in The Book of Common Prayer. Investigations into Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church have revealed that he was buried directly in the earth, without a coffin, wrapped only in a woollen shroud, a regular burial practice.
About the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is the independent charity that cares for the world’s greatest Shakespeare heritage in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. It is the global centre for learning about and experiencing the works, life and times of the world’s best-known writer. Through the five historic Shakespeare family homes (Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Shakespeare’s New Place, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Mary Arden’s Farm, Hall’s Croft), internationally designated museum, library and archive collections, award-winning learning programmes and digital channels, it provides imaginative, immersive and interactive opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds to get up-close-and-personal with Shakespeare.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is a self-sustaining charity which generates 98% of its income through the support of visitors, donors, volunteers and Friends. In April 2018 it was granted National Portfolio funding from Arts Council England for the first time, enabling new creative and outreach programmes with a particular focus on communities which are currently less engaged in arts, culture and heritage. For more information, visit www.shakespeare.org.uk or follow us on social media @ShakespeareBT.