Fact-Checking 13 Plot Points in All Is True, Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare Biopic
After being the face of Shakespeare film adaptations to a whole generation in films like Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Othello (1995), Hamlet (1996), and Love's Labour's Lost (2000), Kenneth Branagh has stepped into the shoes of the Bard himself. The British actor plays William Shakespeare in the new movie All Is True, which the five-time Oscar nominee also directed.
The film, which began rolling out in U.S. theaters on May 10, functions as a sequel of sorts to Shakespeare in Love. Call this one Shakespeare in Retirement. It depicts the Bard in the final few years of his life, which historians believe he mostly spent in Stratford-upon-Avon. Before his death in 1616, Shakespeare reunited with the wife and children he’d spent so much time away from while working in London.
All Is True takes its name from an alternate title used during Shakespeare’s lifetime for his play Henry VIII. The film frequently winks at its title, exploring the role of truth—or lack thereof—in the life of Branagh’s Will.
Spotty historical records leave many details about Shakespeare’s life in the realm of uncertainty, so filmmakers depicting the playwright must make use of broad artistic license to fill in the blanks. Mental Floss spoke with Harvard University professor and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare author Stephen Greenblatt to fact-check All Is True. It turns out that the film’s depiction of Shakespeare is a mix of truth, presumed truth, and pure imagination.
1. Partially true: Shakespeare retired to Stratford-upon-Avon after the Globe burned down.
All Is True opens with the striking image of Will’s silhouette in front of a massive, crackling fire that destroys his prized playhouse. A title card tells viewers that at a performance of Shakespeare’s Life of Henry VIII (a.k.a. All Is True) at the Globe on June 29, 1613, during Act 1 Scene 4, a prop cannon misfired, starting the blaze. The next title card states, “The Globe Theatre burnt entirely to the ground. William Shakespeare never wrote another play.”
A prop cannon likely did misfire, and the resulting fire did destroy the Globe; while there were fortunately no deaths or serious injuries as a result, the fire delivered a serious financial blow to Shakespeare and other shareholders in the King's Men, the company of actors who performed at the Globe. But "never wrote another play" is a stretch. “The movie suggests he rode out of London, as it were, in the wake of the fire,” Greenblatt says. “But actually, it’s widely thought that he retired to Stratford before but he continued to write for the theater.”
The Tempest, for example, was likely the last play Shakespeare wrote solo, without a collaborator, and some scholars theorize he wrote it at home in Stratford-upon-Avon, not in London. Academics are divided as to which play was the final play Shakespeare ever wrote, but the general consensus is that it was either Henry VIII or The Two Noble Kinsmen, both collaborations with John Fletcher, which were possibly written during return trips to London.
2. True: Shakespeare’s daughter was accused of adultery.
The film depicts a man named John Lane accusing Shakespeare’s eldest child, Susanna Hall, of adultery. That really happened, and the real-life Susanna Hall sued Lane in 1613 for slanderously saying that she had cheated on her husband with local man Ralph Smith.
As for whether Susanna Hall really did have an extramarital relationship with these men, that’s not known for sure, and the film leaves this somewhat up to viewer interpretation. But her real-life slander case did succeed in getting Lane excommunicated.
3. Likely true: Shakespeare had no schooling beyond age 14.
When a fanboy approaches Will with some eager questions, he says, “They say you left school at 14.” The line may be a bit misleading: Shakespeare did not quit school as a student would today if he "left school" at age 14. But it is true that boys in Shakespeare’s time completed grammar school at around age 14. They then could begin apprenticeships. Shakespeare’s schooling would have been intense, though: He would have been in lessons from 6 a.m. to as late at 6 p.m. six days a week, 12 months a year (getting an extra hour to sleep in only during the winter, when school started at 7 a.m. in the dark and cold months).
As Greenblatt wrote in Will in the World, “the instruction was not gentle: rote memorization, relentless drills, endless repetition, daily analysis of texts, elaborate exercises in imitation and rhetorical variation, all backed up by the threat of violence.”
No surviving records confirm that Shakespeare attended the school in Stratford-upon-Avon, but most scholars safely assume that he did. The grammar school there was free and accessible to all boys in the area, the exception being the children of the very poor, since they had to begin working at a young age.
Regarding the fanboy moment in the film, Greenblatt says, “The implication of that moment was precisely to remind us that [Shakespeare] didn’t go to university, as far as we know. I’m sure he didn’t. He would have bragged about it at some point" (as many of his contemporaries did).
4. Likely true: Susanna Hall was literate, while Shakespeare’s wife and younger daughter were not.
While boys received a formal education in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, girls did not. The film depicts Susanna as skillful at reading, unlike Will’s younger daughter, Judith, or his wife, Anne.
This is likely true: Greenblatt says that “the general sense is that Susanna was literate and that Judith and Anne were not,” though this is another area of Shakespeare’s family history that scholars cannot know for certain.
“This is a trickier matter than it looks,” Greenblatt says, “because lots of people in this period, including Shakespeare’s father, clearly knew how to read, but didn’t know how to write. This would be particularly the case for many women but not exclusively women in the period—that writing is a different skill from reading and that quite a few people were able to read.”
5. True: Shortly after his son’s death, Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor.
When Will insists that he did mourn Hamnet, his only son, who died in 1596 at age 11, Anne bites back, “You mourn him now. At the time you wrote Merry Wives of Windsor.”
It’s a gut-punch from Anne not just because Merry Wives (featuring the ever-entertaining character Falstaff) is a raucous comedy but also because it was, in the most cynical view, a cash grab. Shakespeare likely wrote Merry Wives after the Falstaff-featuring Henry IV Part 1 but before moving onto the grimmer Henry IV Part 2, “to tap an unexpected new market phenomenon,” scholars Martin Wiggins and Catherine Richardson wrote in British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue regarding the "humours comedy," which debuted to immediate popularity in May 1597.
There is another way to interpret this: Both parts of Henry IV deal with a troubled father-son relationship, and the conclusion of Part 2 depicts a son taking up the mantle of his deceased father. Perhaps Prince Hal and King Henry hit too close to home for Will (who in this film hopes his son will follow in his poetic footsteps), and a lighthearted comedy is what he needed.
6. Very unlikely: The Earl of Southampton visited Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, was one of Shakespeare’s patrons, and Shakespeare included a lengthy dedication to Southampton in his poem The Rape of Lucrece. Despite that affiliation, the idea that Southampton (played by Ian McKellen, yet another acclaimed Shakespearean actor) would have visited Shakespeare’s home in Stratford is just “a piece of imagination,” according to Greenblatt. He points out that “it’s difficult to imagine any longer the social abyss” between an earl and someone like Shakespeare but explains, “The difference in social class is so extreme that the idea that the Earl would trot by on his horse to visit Shakespeare at his house is wildly unlikely.”
It is more likely that fellow playwright Ben Jonson would have visited Shakespeare, as he does later in the film.
7. Uncertain: Shakespeare’s sonnets were published “illegally and without [his] consent”
This is what Will reminds the Earl of Southampton of in the film. Regarding that term illegally, it’s worth first noting that though copyright law as we know it did not exist in 16th century England, “there definitely were legal controls over publication,” Greenblatt says.
“This is a notoriously complicated matter—the publication of the sonnets,” he explains. “It is still very much open to question. It’s not a settled matter as to whether Shakespeare did or did not have anything to do with the publication of those sonnets.”
8. Uncertain: Shakespeare wrote some of his sonnets for and about the Earl of Southampton.
One juicy debate about Shakespeare that endures is the question of who (if anyone) is the subject of his sonnets. Some speculate that his poems that describe a fair youth refer to the Earl of Southampton.
The film imagines a slightly more complicated—and perhaps more believable—situation than the idea that Southampton and Shakespeare had a fling: Will harbors feelings for Southampton, unrequited by the Earl, who reminds Will, “As a man, it is not your place to love me.”
“There is no way of achieving any certainty,” Greenblatt wrote in Will in the World regarding whether the sonnets were written as love tokens for anyone in particular. “After generations of feverish research, no one has been able to offer more than guesses, careful or wild.”
9. True: 3000 attendees could fit into the Globe for one performance.
In an elaborate, impressive clapback directed at Thomas Lucy, a local politician who repeatedly insults Will, the celebrated playwright cites his many responsibilities in London, then says he somehow “found time to write down the pretty thoughts you mentioned.”
It’s true that Shakespeare was both a businessman and poet. His status as a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) was actually unprecedented: “No other English literary playwright had ever held such a position,” Oxford professor Bart van Es wrote in Shakespeare in Company, adding that becoming part owner of the Globe, “the most impressive venue in London … placed him in a category entirely of his own.”
Among the accomplishments Will lists for Lucy is filling the Globe with “3000 paying customers per afternoon.”
“That is the upper end of the size of those public theaters, as far as we now know from archaeological evidence,” Greenblatt says. “Three thousand is at the high end, but yes. Whether they actually got 3000 people every afternoon is another question.”
Meanwhile, the reconstruction of the Globe that opened in London in 1997 has a capacity of about half that. Its dimensions are the same as the Globe of Shakespeare’s day but modern fire codes don’t allow playgoers to be packed in quite so tightly.
10. True: Shakespeare wrote Thomas Quiney out of his will.
The film depicts the retired playwright adding his son-in-law-to-be, Thomas Quiney, to his will in anticipation of Quiney's marriage to Will's youngest daughter, Judith. A couple of months later, Shakespeare amends his will again after it’s revealed that Quiney fathered a child by another woman before marrying Judith.
This may have really happened. Shakespeare summoned his lawyer in January 1616 to write Quiney into the will. Then in March, a month after his wedding, Quiney confessed in the vicar’s court to being responsible for the pregnancy of unmarried Stratford woman Margaret Wheeler, who had just died in childbirth (along with the child). Shakespeare then met again with his lawyer to strike out Quiney’s name and insert Judith’s name instead. However, some historians dispute that Shakespeare made this change as a result of the scandal; they instead suggest that it was due to practical concerns about Judith’s financial future.
All Is True reverses scholars’s common assumption that Shakespeare had a better relationship with Susanna’s husband, physician John Hall, than with Judith’s. It depicts Will’s removal of Quiney from his will as a reluctant necessity. “What the movie does is suggest [that John] Hall is an obnoxious, Puritan prig and that Thomas Quiney is actually a very nice fellow,” Greenblatt says.
One aspect of Shakespeare’s relationship with Hall that the film leaves out entirely is scholars’ assumption that Hall would have tended to the playwright during any sickness that led to his death. The cause of Shakespeare’s death is unknown, however, and Hall’s surviving casebooks date back only to 1617, the year after Shakespeare’s death.
11. Unlikely: Shakespeare’s family recited his verse at his funeral.
At what appears to be Will’s funeral, Anne, Judith, and Susanna (all with varying levels of literacy) read aloud the words of a dirge sung for the supposedly dead Imogen in Cymbeline. “Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun,” they quote, “Thou thy worldly task hast done … All lovers young, all lovers must / Consign to thee and come to dust.”
The words are evocative of Scripture. (“Be not afraid” / “Have no fear” is said to be the most repeated phrase in both the Old Testament and the New Testament—and of course there’s the Genesis passage often read at funerals: “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”) Greenblatt says it is “very unlikely” that verse not from the Bible would have been recited at a funeral at the time of Shakespeare’s death, adding, “but I found that moment quite touching.”
SPOILER WARNING: The remainder of this article includes spoilers about some major twists in All Is True.
12. Uncertain: Shakespeare’s offspring wrote poetry.
In All Is True, when Will voices grief for his son who had died 17 years prior, he often references Hamnet’s apparent talent as a poet. “He showed such promise, Anne,” Will cries.
Branagh’s film imagines that Hamnet wrote poems full of wit and mischief. Then Judith drops the revelation that she actually crafted the poems, dictating them to her twin brother, who knew how to write. All Is True thus displaces the controversial authorship question from Shakespeare to his children.
“There’s no historical trace of any of this,” Greenblatt says. “That is just an invention.”
13. Uncertain: Hamnet Shakespeare died of the plague.
The other revelation that stuns Will in All Is True is about Hamnet’s death. Will looks at the record noting young Hamnet’s death and becomes suspicious about whether his only son really died of the plague. He confronts Anne and Judith, pointing out the small number of deaths in Stratford in the summer of 1596, saying that the plague strikes with “a scythe, not a dagger.” At this point, Judith confesses that her twin took his own life after she threatened to tell their father about the true author of the poems. She then tearfully recalls Hamnet, who did not know how to swim, stepping into a pond and drowning.
Though the historical record doesn't supply a cause of death for Hamnet, many historians assume he died of the bubonic plague. For the film's revelation about Hamnet’s suicide, which Greenblatt deems as another imaginative invention, Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton seem to have taken inspiration from the real parish register recording burials at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, which lists no more than two dozen burials between June and September 1596. Meanwhile, a plague epidemic hit Shakespeare’s hometown shortly after the poet’s birth in 1564 and lasted about six months, killing more than 200 people in Stratford, which was about a sixth of the population.
As Greenblatt points out, the storyline about Judith’s poems and Hamnet’s death serves as a commentary on Virginia Woolf’s compelling essay, “Shakespeare’s Sister,” which appears in A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929. The essay imagines a tragic story for Shakespeare’s fictional sister who is as gifted as her successful brother but is not permitted to go to school and whose parents scold her each time she picks up a book. “She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was,” Woolf wrote.
Greenblatt observes that the central theme of All Is True seems to be “the tragic cost of not having full access to literacy if you were a woman.” He notes, though, that in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, “there were actually quite a few [literate] women, and the work of the last generation, particularly feminist scholars, have recovered a much larger field than Virginia Woolf could have understood or than the movie suggests, of women who were reading and writing in the period.”
Kenneth Branagh’s All Is True is in theaters now.