‘Will’ on TNT: Seminarian Views Racy Series About a Catholic Shakespeare

This summer at Family Theater Productions, we have Holy Cross seminarian Brogan Ryan visiting from Notre Dame, so I asked him to take a look at “Will,” the new Monday-night TNT drama about William Shakespeare, which premiered last week. I reviewed it here, but in short, it’s a fast-paced, racy (for sexual content mostly) look at young Shakespeare in London, complete with punk-style costumes, hair and makeup, and modern music woven in.

But, writer Craig Pearce has done his homework, and much of the background info for his historical characters does have basis in fact. He’s also included, as fact in the series, the long-held belief of many scholars that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic — which put him in peril in the stridently Protestant England of Elizabeth I.

“Will” is definitely late-teens and adult fare, but under the more sensational elements, Ryan has found a deeper meaning.

From the beginning of Saint Augustine’s Confessions: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Many might not know the line that precedes it: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord.” This often forgotten, possibly overlooked, statement places the well-known one that follows it in its proper theological and spiritual context. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (1.1) It is true that we as human beings are seekers who often find ourselves wandering the earth chasing our passions, looking for love and meaning and purpose, but Saint Augustine knows the end for which we as humans were created: God made us for Himself. God is the source and proper end of all of our human restlessness. Our passions come from Him and properly followed lead to Him.

In Will, Craig Pearce seizes on and caricatures this very human reality.

In the opening scene of the first episode, we see young Will Shakespeare leaving his family to move to London and pursue a writing career – his heart’s desire. Even though he has a wife and children, his life as a glove maker is not cutting it. “I dreamt this for us,” Will says to his wife as he leaves. “You dreamt this for you,” she responds.

What makes Will such a compelling character, and why I will continue to watch, even through some of the gratuitousness that the first four episodes contains, is that I believe that Will is also trying to live God’s dream for him. Will is not a perfect person and makes missteps aplenty. His passions are raw and unrefined. They need to be directed, guided and purified.

We see (and I was edified by!) Will seeking out his cousin and underground Catholic priest, Robert Southwell, for spiritual guidance and sacramental reconciliation. It becomes clear that Will believes he is serving a larger purpose and working towards a greater end than his own personal wealth, fame and glory. These fascinations of the world are personified in the character of Christopher Marlowe, who has similar passions to Will and possibly even similar abilities, but Marlowe uses them to serve himself. Marlowe’s passions rule him instead of serve him and end up stifling his creative spirit rather than freeing it – a fact we see in Marlowe’s attempt to use pleasure and sensuality to cure his writers block. (It does not!)

Most of the action and drama in the series stems from the conflict and tension that arises from people acting out of their passions. The Catholic-Protestant struggle is a very obvious example of this (the vicious and cruel torture by Richard Topcliffe is in conflict with the stubborn faith and refusal to yield by the underground Catholics. Both hold deep, deep convictions about the rightness of their faith convictions).

Examples of the struggle between good and bad, right and wrong, and grace and evil abound in the series, with Will and others often ending up on the disappointing side of the equation. While these struggles can make for entertaining television, most will find the less obviously answered spiritual and personal tensions more compelling. Struggles with faith, family issues, fidelity, freedom, and finances all work to portray Will as a character who is truly passionate, but also restless.

In what seems like the final, damning straw in a pretty rapid decent for Will’s moral character, Will tells Southwell that he will not help with Southwell’s underground Catholic publishing project. Will wants to focus on his playwriting craft. If we were to hold Marlowe and Southwell as opposite extremes in Will’s moral sphere of influence, it seems like Will has chosen the path of Marlowe – his career and the temporal world over God and the spiritual world, serving his own passions rather than using his passions to serve the Lord.

Whether this is actually the case remains to be seen.

If done well, Will could be a series which captures well the spirit of Augustine. Will’s struggles all point toward a man trying to discern and follow his vocation – God’s dream for him and the proper end for which his passions exist. This is intriguing because it could lead to a story line that we Catholics do not expect. Acknowledging that God has made Will for God’s self means that Will’s ultimate rest – the realization of who God created him to be – might actually lie in writing beautiful plays and poems that bring others to God. His vocation might take him to a place where he is serving the Church indirectly rather than directly. It is possible that Will is not turning his back on God by declining Southwell’s invitation but rather is remaining faithful to God by responding in a different way, like a woman or man who might discern marriage over the religious life or seminary.

Will’s vocation is to be a playwright, not a glove-maker nor a fugitive author. He is restless and at times wayward, for sure, but is also learning that his restlessness is moving him more and more towards the God who made him.

This is my hope, at least, and why I’ll keep watching.

Have you seen the show? Are Ryan’s hopes well-founded? Let us know …

Image: Courtesy TNT

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