Upstart Crow Facts
A very affectionate look at the Upstart Crow episodes by Chasqui Penguin and Jazzy Janey
Each episode has a theme, usually revolving around one of Will’s plays, and in this series of articles our aim is to give a little more background to those and the Upstart Crow storyline surrounding it, together with the facts, deliberate anachronisms, and the characters involved.
Episode 1 – Star Crossed Lovers
Upstart Crow was written by Ben Elton with David Mitchell in mind for Shakespeare but in the pilot Mel Giedroyc played Anne.
- This episode is set in 1592, opening in Will’s family home in Stratford-upon-Avon.
- It is based on Shakespeare’s tragic play Romeo and Juliet, the phrase star crossed lovers being a reference to their love flourishing despite the feud between their families.
- The story is not a Shakespeare original and is taken from an old Italian story and his version seems to be have been based on two books, English translations of the tale, published in the 1560s: The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke (written in verse) and The Palace of Pleasure by William Painter (in prose) but The Bard would have had other influences as the story was well-known.
- Shakespeare lengthened and elaborated on the original, adding characters and making it one of his most popular plays, not only in his day but also through the centuries.
- Although Susanna is shown reading the part of Juliet because she and the character are both 13, this is an anachronism as Susanna was only 8–9 in that year and would almost certainly have been unable to read at that time but it does offer us an excellent introduction to Will and his family in Stratford. In real life the actress who plays Susanna, Helen Monks, was 23 years old at the time of filming the first series.
- Shakespeare’s mother and father really did live with him, in their house on Henley Street. Shakespeare was one of 8 children and his youngest brother, who is never seen or mentioned in Upstart Crow, was an actor, Edmund…an unusual coincidence that ties in with Blackadder.
- Will gives the first of his famous transport rants in this episode, on returning to London from Stratford.
- We also hear the first reference to his sonnets and those dedicated to an attractive boy.
- There are also a few examples of Will’s conversational use of obscure descriptions which tend to puzzle all who hear them.
- While Robert Greene did exist, his nephew Florian is an invented character who provides Will with inspiration for the play’s main male character.
- The insult word ‘arsemongle’ is introduced to the series in this episode when Bottom describes Florian as such!
- The term ‘puffling pants’, a phrase invented by Ben Elton for the breeches worn in the Tudor era, also receives its debut in this episode.
- The line, ‘what dead farmyard animals you rogered at university’ was almost cut! The scene was retaken with an unknown alternative line, which it was reported didn’t get a laugh – so the original line was left in.
- The line ‘Hey ho, the wind and the rain’ in the song sung by Mistress Sauce-Quickly (her name based on Mistress Quickly who appeared in a few Shakespeare plays) is from a song in Twelfth Night.
- Will’s visit to the apothecary, who stocked some modern-sounding products, is another example of the 16th and 21st centuries merging in Upstart Crow and provides an excellent situation whereby Kate is persuaded by Will to drink a ‘proprietary brand’ potion. As a result she becomes seemingly lifeless but recovers, though not in time to prevent Florian’s suicide (a scene which Will later writes into R&J). Despite the entire first episode being based on Romeo and Juliet, and includes a number of quotes from this play, the line Shakespeare uses when Florian dies is actually taken from Hamlet, well it’s actually a parody of the line.
- The acting troupe is based on ‘The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’, a company of actors led by Richard Burbage, who performed most of Shakespeare’s plays. Burbage’s Theatre troupe frequently mention performing Gammer Gurton’s Needle which is the second earliest English comedy (author unknown).
- The frequent references to women not being allowed to have a career in acting are correct. It was illegal till 1660 when Charles II passed a law permitting them to appear on stage. Kate was ahead of her time!
- Kate’s story closely follows the film, Shakespeare in Love, with the obvious omittance of a romance between her and Will.
- In this episode we have our first glimpses of the interior of the Red Lion Theatre where Will’s plays are all performed by Burbage and co. In reality, these were mostly performed at The Theatre, a few at The Rose and, post-1599, at The Globe.
- Condell, whom we see in Upstart Crow as the lead actor of female roles, was a huge fan of William Shakespeare. Condell helped to publish The First Folio with John Heminges after Shakespeare’s death. They wrote of Shakespeare: ‘Read him therefore, and again and again, and if then you do not like him, surely you are in manifest danger not to understand him’.
- William Kempe really was a famous clown of his day; however, he eventually left the troupe – some believe he was dropped due to ‘improvisational clowning’. He also famously ‘danced from London to Norwich’.
- The line ‘…and make your codpiece cry woof woof?’ is a reference to Lord Flashheart, from Blackadder, played by the late, great Rik Mayall.
- There is a character in Richard II and Henry IV called Henry Bolingbroke. Perhaps inspiring the popular ‘Bolingbrokes!’ phrase.
- The final scene is one which becomes familiar through all the series – Anne and Will alone in their Stratford living room having a late-night chat in which she shows perception and common sense, while Will often misses the point! He must have heeded her words eventually though as he did write the potion/suicide plot into R&J!
We have yet to be introduced to Christopher (Kit) Marlowe – this pleasure awaits us in Episode 2!