What did Shakespeare think about during his fallow final years? The playwright’s retirement remains a mystery. We find it hard to imagine that one of humanity’s greatest literary minds could be content with the fatted life of a gentleman farmer. But that seems to have been the case: After quitting the theater, Shakespeare repaired to his hometown to live off rents, commissioning a family crest and settling into middle-class respectability.
We’ll never know why Shakespeare quit, or how he spent his time once he did. All we have to go on is the plays—and the odd legal document, like his will, in which for some reason he left his wife of decades only his second-best bed. (Most scholars agree that the bed was probably his spouse’s favorite, and he intended his daughter to provide for her, according to Elizabethan custom.) But inferring the playwright’s own psychology from his dramas is a slippery business—Shakespeare was a notoriously symphonic writer, and it’s a dicey proposition to imagine that you can definitively locate the Bard’s true voice in the orchestra. He thought in chords, not individual notes.
Robert Brustein’s The Last Will, a strange confection, tries to fill in the biographical gaps by assuming that Shakespeare spent most of his retirement actually quoting himself. In his imagining, the Bard—played by Austin Pendleton, who also directs the production for the Abingdon Theatre Compan—by now old, tired, cranky, and VD-ridden (a legacy from the Dark Lady of his sonnets, apparently), has lost his grip on the difference between life and art. Raging with misplaced jealousy and patriarchal pique, he mistakes his wife for Desdemona, his daughters for Cordelia and Goneril, his brother for Claudius, and so on, trotting out the citations from his greatest hits. In PBS-special style, no Shakespeareana cliché remains unaired: Globe Theatre fire? Check. Amusing sexual exploits? Check. Backstage anecdotes? Check.
Shakespeare in Love’s screenwriters had great fun with this kind of conjectural pastiche, wedding the literary samples to a romantic fantasy worthy of the playwright himself. But in order to explain Shakespeare’s troubling last testament—in which he appears to disinherit his wife in favor of his older daughter—Brustein resorts to a creaky melodramatic contrivance. The sneaky, theater-despising Puritan daughter was secretly in league with the family lawyer! Shakespeare wanted to change the will, but it was too late! This kind of nonsense doesn’t help anybody understand Shakespeare better.
At the end of Brustein’s work, a performer playing the famous Elizabethan actor Richard Burbage distributes facsimile quartos to the audience, reminding us that Shakespeare’s true legacy to the world was his writing. But we knew that already.