TV Review: Upstart Crow (2016-2018)

This very funny BBC comedy series that ran for three seasons of six episodes each (plus Christmas specials) is about William Shakespeare. The writer is Ben Elton and David Mitchell plays Shakespeare and is supported by an excellent cast. The action shifts between three locations: His home in Stratford-upon-Avon where his wife Anne, parents, and three children live, his lodgings in London that he shares with his servant Bottom, the landlady’s daughter Kate, and his friend Kit Marlowe, and the Globe theater in which Richard Burbage’s company performed his plays.

Each episode has allusions to at least one of his plays.

The first series follows the writing and preparation to stage Romeo and Juliet after William has gained some early career recognition for his poetry, as well as his plays Henry VI and Richard III. Events in each episode allude to one or more Shakespeare plays and usually end with Will discussing the events with Anne and either being inspired to use, or dissuaded from using, them in a future work. Along with the many Shakespearean references (including the use of asides and soliloquies) there are also several references to the television shows Blackadder and The Office. There are running gags in many episodes: the casual sexism towards Kate’s attempts to become an actress, Shakespeare’s coach journeys between London and Stratford which refer to modern motorway and railway journey frustrations, and are delivered in a style that references the 1970s sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Shakespeare (and in one episode Marlowe) demanding ale and pie from his servants or family, and Shakespeare frequently claiming credit for common turns-of-phrase that predate Elizabethan times (many of them now commonly misattributed to Shakespeare).

The series takes aim at classism, racism, nativism, and sexism and much of the humor stems from anachronistic references, where current controversies and issues are woven into those times. It also pokes fun at the length of his plays, their convoluted and often absurd plots, and the fact that Shakespeare had little compunction about using ideas for stories and language that he obtained from those around him and passing them off as his own. It also pokes fun at his elaborate metaphors.

As with many satires and parodies, it is funnier the more familiar you are with the source material, in this case Shakespeare’s life and plays. But so much of that have seeped into common knowledge that almost anyone should be able to enjoy this series.

Here is a compilation of some of the funny bits.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Brilliant show, brilliant cast. A bit of a change of pace for Gemma Whelan, who plays Kate. She was, at the time, also playing badass warrior Yara Greyjoy on Game of Thrones.

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