12 of the Sweet Valley High Books' Most Ridiculous Plotlines

Many of the Wakefield twins' adventures in Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series are typical teenage stuff: Young love, drama at school, difficulty at home. Sometimes, though, the plotlines of the SVH books were, in a word, bonkers. Here are a few of our favorites.

Note: It’s impossible to cover every ridiculous thing that happened in these books, so some information has been left out. For more complete explanations, check out Shannon’s Sweet Valley High Blog.

1. ELIZABETH’S BEST FRIEND IS PARALYZED IN A PLANE CRASH ... THEN IS QUICKLY UNPARALYZED.

The Book: Crash Landing! (No. 20)

Enid, Elizabeth’s best friend, is dating George, who just got his pilot’s license. He takes her along on his first solo flight, where he plans to break up with her so he can date a girl named Robin—but before he can do that, the engine dies, and the plane crashes in a lake. Enid saves George, but in the process hurts her back and is paralyzed from the waist down. George decides not to break up with Enid while she’s hurt (how nice of him!). Enid gets an operation on her spine, and goes to the school dance in a wheelchair. As she watches George dance with Robin, she can tell they're in love—which of course bums her out.

A few days after the dance, Liz invites Enid over and asks her to watch a kid named Teddy while he plays by the pool. Teddy falls in, and Enid is able to stand up, jump into the pool, and save him. She can walk again! It was all part of a plan hatched by Elizabeth; Teddy was her accomplice. Liz receives a standing ovation at a restaurant for so brilliantly orchestrating Enid’s recovery. Enid, meanwhile, decides she just wants George to be happy, and sets him free so he can date Robin.

2. JESSICA JOINS A CULT.

The Book: Kidnapped by the Cult! (No. 82)

Jessica gets grounded for her awful grades for three weeks; on her first day out, she’s annoyed when her boyfriend, Sam, plans to go to a dirt bike race instead of spending the day with her. She goes to the mall to mope, where she meets some kids from a group called The Good Friends. They tell her that they, too, used to be sad and mopey—until they met Adam Marvel, who took them in. They invite Jessica to dinner, and it’s not long before she’s sucked in, ditching her flashy clothes for more subdued outfits and helping the group collect money for charity. Even when Jessica finds out that The Good Friends isn’t donating that money to charity, she still can't be convinced that the group, and dreamy Adam Marvel, are bad.

Concerned that Jessica is in over her head, Elizabeth poses as her sister and infiltrates The Good Friends, where one member, Susan, tells her to get out while she can. Not long after, Adam tells Jessica that Susan left, and the group is going to move to another town. He wants her to come with them. Jessica packs a bag and goes to The Good Friends’ house, but hesitates when Adam asks her to get in the van with the rest of the group. Just in time, Sam, Elizabeth, and Todd, Liz's boyfriend, show up to stop her; Sam finds Susan, who’s actually an undercover reporter, bound and gagged in Good Friends’ HQ, and Todd has called the police. Adam is arrested; everything returns to normal.

3. JESSICA SPIKES ELIZABETH'S PUNCH AT PROM; LIZ DRIVES DRUNK, CRASHES, AND KILLS JESSICA'S BOYFRIEND.

The Books: A Night to Remember (Manga Edition No. 2), The Morning After (No. 95), The Arrest (No. 96), The Verdict (No. 97)

Elizabeth and Jessica are both vying for queen of the jungle-themed prom. It's not just the title at stake: The winner will get a trip to Brazil. On prom night, Jessica wants Elizabeth to lose, so she spikes her punch with booze she charms from another student. Elizabeth gets drunk and withdraws from the race for queen, and Jessica wins. After a commotion is caused by some uninvited kids from a rival school, Liz and Sam leave the dance together, with Elizabeth behind the wheel of the twins’ Jeep. They get into a car accident, and Sam is killed.

Over the next three books, the Wakefield family deals with the fallout: Elizabeth, who can’t remember anything about the crash, is arrested and spends the night in a holding cell with a prostitute; she’s eventually released, but is charged with involuntary manslaughter. Jessica, who wants Liz to go down for Sam’s death, alienates her from her best friend Enid and manipulates Todd into making out and going out on dates. Liz has nightmares about someone who looks just like Jessica, but with dark hair, who is trying to kill her (more on that later).

Eventually, Elizabeth goes on trial. The defense doesn’t have much of a case, because Liz can’t remember anything—but then, on the last day, a surprise witness named Gilbert comes forward to say he was out drunk driving that night and caused Elizabeth to crash. In the most unbelievable twist in the story, Liz—who was, in fact, driving with a lot of alcohol in her system—is acquitted. (Jessica’s role in the whole affair isn’t revealed until a few books later, when Liz has a number of dreams about the prom that show Jess spiking her punch. They eventually make up, despite the fact that Jessica is clearly the worst sister ever.)

4. A DOPPELGANGER PLOTS TO MURDER ELIZABETH—AND TAKE OVER HER LIFE.

The Books: The Morning After (No. 95), The Arrest (No. 96), The Verdict (No. 97), The Wedding (No. 98), Beware the Baby-Sitter (No. 99), The Evil Twin (No. 100)

Margo, like the Wakefield twins, is 16. She’s plotting her escape from her foster home in New York. Margo sets the house on fire to kill her foster sister—who saw not just the money Margo had saved up, but also the bus schedule Margo was reading—and takes off for Cleveland, where she gets a job as a nanny for a wealthy family. Eventually, she drowns the boy she’s been nannying for, steals money from his parents, and heads to California, where she thinks her real family lives. For some reason, the bus Margo is on heads to Houston, where Margo gets off and sees a newspaper with a photo of Elizabeth on the front, along with a story about her trial. Realizing she looks just like the girl on the newspaper, Margo comes up with a plan: Kill Elizabeth Wakefield and take over her life. (Never mind that this plan doesn't make a whole lot of sense if Elizabeth goes to jail. This chick is crazy!)

Margo heads to Sweet Valley, where she goes to the mall and buys a blonde wig. She befriends a dirt bike rider named James, who she pays to win a competition Jessica is putting on in Sam’s memory; he regularly gives her information on the Wakefields. Margo, meanwhile, kills a server at a catering company so she can get a job there and work the Fowler wedding—the better to observe the twins. Then she begins posing as Jessica and Liz regularly with their friends, boyfriends, and parents. This all culminates with Jessica, Liz, and Margo fighting over a butcher knife in the Fowler’s pool house. Margo is pushed through a window by the older brother of the little boy she killed in Cleveland—she framed him for the little boy’s death, but he’s been tailing her across the country. Her jugular is slashed by glass, and everyone thinks she’s dead.

5. THAT CRAZY DOPPELGANGER HAS A TWIN WHO IS ALSO CRAZY!

The Book: Return of the Evil Twin (Manga edition No. 6)

A year after the events of The Evil Twin, Nora, Margo’s twin, shows up in Sweet Valley to seek revenge for her sister’s death. But guess what: Margo’s alive! She managed to overpower (and presumably kill) the paramedics who took her “body” away, and hid for a year, spying on the Wakefield twins. These crazy twins hatch a plot to kill both Wakefield twins and take over their lives. They begin posing as the twins with their friends and boyfriends, with the main goal of making the twins hate each other, just like they did after the jungle prom. Eventually, Nora goes to the Wakefield house and kills a sleeping Jessica. Later, she finds out that Margo had kidnapped Jessica and was posing as her, sleeping in her bed, when Nora got all stabby. Nora killed her own twin! Jessica is alive and is saved by Elizabeth's heroics. Nora gets arrested, and all returns to normal.

6. LIZ FALLS IN LOVE WITH A “WEREWOLF” ...

The Books: Love and Death in London (No. 104), A Date with a Werewolf (No. 105), Beware the Wolfman (No. 106)

The twins head to London for one of their many newspaper internships. Murder victims keep popping up with their throats ripped out, and the twins are put on the crime beat to investigate. Though she’s still dating Todd, Liz goes out with a co-worker named Luke Shephard, who manages to convince her that werewolves are real. Jessica starts dating Robert Pembroke. His father, Lord Pembroke, is a werewolf expert. He also owns the newspaper where the twins are interning, and has been suppressing stories about the murders because he believes that Robert is the werewolf.

But it turns out that it’s Luke, not Robert, who is the “werewolf.” The product of an affair between a woman named Annabelle and Lord Pembroke, he’s been blacking out, dressing up as a werewolf, killing people, and framing his brother for the crimes—which we find out later, from his diary. There’s a climactic fight between Luke, Robert (who has a silver bullet to kill the werewolf, naturally), a cop named Bumpo, and Rene, a friend from when the twins went to France on Spring Break, who's interning at the French embassy for the summer and has been following Elizabeth to protect her. Luke is shot, his werewolf mask falls off, and he dies.

7. … AND JESSICA DATES A VAMPIRE.

The Books: Tall, Dark, and Deadly (No. 126), Dance of Death (No. 127), Kiss of a Killer (No. 128)

At the beginning of this miniseries, Jessica is digging through a dumpster, looking for a diamond earring, when she discovers a man’s body in the trash. There are bite marks in his neck, and his body has been drained of blood. The next Monday, a new guy starts at school: tall, dark, and handsome Jonathan Cain. Before long, SVH's entire student population, minus Elizabeth, has gone majorly goth, dyeing their hair black, painting their nails black, dressing in all black … you get the idea. 

Jessica decides that she wants to date Jonathan, but he ignores her. Jessica usually gets what she wants, though, and she's incredibly persistent: She gets a ride home from him, then later shows up at his house. He kisses her, and tells her she should have left him alone. There’s lots of making out and him telling her she should get out before it’s too late. (Sounds an awful lot like the plot of another vampire series, doesn’t it?) 

Jonathan decides he cares too much about Jessica to hurt her, so he invites Enid over instead. Jessica interrupts them, figures out what’s up, and gets mad. Jonathan is upset, but also relieved, because he didn’t really want to kill Enid.

Meanwhile, other people keep dying—including a girl named Katrina, who’s sucked dry during a party at Jonathan’s house. When Enid goes to visit her grave, she’s attacked and is in the hospital for the next week.

Jessica continues to see Jonathan, who Liz has figured out is a vampire based on some books she found at his house. She tells all the SVH kids, and they believe her. When Jonathan takes Jessica to his lair—a cave on the beach—Liz and Todd come to save the day, an angry mob on their heels. Jonathan turns into a bird and flies away. Vampires are real. The end.

8. STUDENTS SEARCH FOR TREASURE AND ARE ATTACKED BY CONVICTS IN THE DESERT.

The Books: The Treasure of Death Valley (No. 115), Nightmare in Death Valley (No. 116)

Liz, Jessica, Todd, Ken, Bruce, and Heather win a contest to go camping in Death Valley for four days with limited supplies. (Why anyone would enter a contest to do this is a mystery.) While hanging out near a mine shaft, one student turns on her portable TV and learns about some convicts who have escaped a prison. Meanwhile, Liz discovers a satchel full of gold nuggets, plus a map and a diary that discusses the “Treasure of the Scorpion,” in the mine. The group decides to hunt for the rest of the treasure, and are all soon carrying around their own bags of gold nuggets.

When the kids set up camp for the night, Jessica’s bag is stolen from her sleeping bag. She thinks Heather did it, but it was actually the three escaped convicts, who capture the kids, tie them up, and steal their gold. The kids manage to escape, but then they notice that one of the convicts is being swept away by a flash flood, so they rescue him. He turns out to be not so bad, but his buddies are pretty awful: They drag the kids into a cave, where they decide to kill them. The nice convict gets shot and dies; his killer leaves the cave, telling the other convict to kill the kids. Jessica convinces him not to do it, and he also leaves the cave—but not before firing six shots into the cave’s roof, which collapses, trapping the kids.

They take a path that goes deeper into the cave, and eventually they begin to walk through rapidly-rising water. It gets up to their necks, and they all think they’re going to die—then, miraculously, the water recedes. They realize that the cave walls are shale, so they kick and punch the walls away until they come out near the rendezvous point and head back to Sweet Valley. The kids are disappointed to learn the gold was pyrite, and the map and diary were fakes from a movie set.

9. THE TWINS BECOME NANNIES FOR A ROYAL FAMILY.

The Books: Once Upon a Time (No. 132), To Catch a Thief (No. 133), Happily Ever After (No. 134)

The Wakefield twins are very experienced babysitters, but who knew they were good enough to nanny for royalty? They travel to France for a month to be nannies for the de Saint-Maries. Liz (who was dumped by Todd for the summer) and Prince Laurent fall in love, but he has to get engaged to a horrible countess’s daughter. Jessica, meanwhile, is canoodling with Jacques, a guy she met on the train from the airport who claims to be a Duke’s son, but is actually a jewel thief. When Jessica wears an emerald he gave her—which was stolen from the countess whose daughter is promised to Prince Laurent—to a ball, the twins are thrown in a dungeon. They’re not there for long, though, before they’re rescued by their royal charges. The twins run into the woods and hide out there.

Laurent’s parents tell him they can convince the countess not to prosecute the twins if he agrees to marry her daughter, and he says he’ll do it. Meanwhile, Jacques finds the twins, and they convince him to confess to being the jewel thief. Laurent asks Liz to marry him; she’s so taken aback she can’t answer right away. Later, Jacques’s father comes to the castle and convinces Laurent to help him break his son out of the dungeon. Jacques and his father go free, Elizabeth turns Laurent down, and the twins head back to Sweet Valley, where Liz reunites with Todd. Happily ever after, indeed—except for Laurent, who now must presumably marry that awful countess’s daughter.

10. ELIZABETH IS ALMOST MURDERED BY HER BOSS.

The Books: Cover Girls (No. 129), Model Flirt (No. 130), Fashion Victim (No. 131)

The twins get an internship at a fashion magazine called Flair. Liz’s supervisor, Leona, tries to steal her idea for a column called “Free Style.” Lix tells the editor-in-chief of the magazine, but Leona accuses Liz of being the one to steal the idea, and Liz is fired. You’d think that Leona would feel pretty secure in her job, having eliminated the potential source of trouble and all, but instead, she goes to extremes and tries to kill Liz, first by hiring someone to run her off the road, then by aiming a gun at her in the Flair offices—but before she can pull the trigger, the police show up, and she’s arrested. Hope the column idea was worth it, Leona.

11. LIZ IS HELD HOSTAGE BY A GUY WITH A BOMB.

The Book: Deadly Summer (Super Thriller No. 4)

The twins are working at Sweet Valley News, where they learn that a man named Donald Redman has escaped from a psychiatric hospital. Liz is assigned to find out about Donald; she discovers that he was a Sweet Valley High student who kidnapped a classmate he had a crush on. Later, he plants fake bombs at the local movie theater and the high school football stadium, shows up where Liz is babysitting, and then starts to believe that she’s the same girl he kidnapped back when he was in high school.

Donald is building a real bomb in the utility closet at the football stadium when Liz and Bruce show up to have a talk on the tennis courts; not long after, Liz’s boyfriend, Jeffrey, shows up, pretty angry that Liz and Bruce are hanging out. Liz wanders away from the guys and is grabbed by Donald.

Jessica and Lila figure out that Liz is in danger—first because they’re told by a Ouija board they’ve been using to trick Liz into thinking Bruce has a terminal illness is triggered by Jessica’s twin ESP, and second after Donald’s sister comes to the Wakefield house to tell them Liz is in danger. They call the police, then head to the football stadium.

There, the police tell Donald to give himself up, but he won’t—so Jeffrey tackles him, knocking the remote control out of his hand. Bruce runs away with the ticking bomb. Jeffrey tells Liz to smash the remote and take out the wires, which she does. The timer stops. Disaster averted, right? Wrong! A few seconds later, they hear an explosion. But it’s not Bruce who was blown up; it was Donald, who grabbed the bomb from him, ran away, and died when the bomb exploded.

12. AN OLD CLASSMATE TRIES TO STEAL ALICE WAKEFIELD’S FACE.

The Book: Murder in Paradise (Super Thriller No. 8)

Being prone to finding yourself in perilous situations must run in the Wakefield DNA. In this super thriller, which was published in 1995, Momma Wakefield Alice wins a trip to a Paradise Spa. She brings along the twins and their best friends, Enid and Lila (whose mother also tags along; Enid’s mom can’t get off work). The owner, Tatiana, is disfigured, and there are no mirrors at the spa at all because inner beauty is all that matters, according to the spa's staff.

Tatiana hypnotizes Enid, making her believe that her mother doesn’t love her. Later, one of the staff members confesses to Alice how much she wants to leave, but can’t; soon after, she’s found dead in the steam room. Then, Alice disappears. Liz goes looking for her, and gets pulled into a cave, where Tatiana is waiting. She spills her evil plan: To get plastic surgery to look like Alice, and then kill her.

Tatiana, we discover, is an old college classmate of Alice’s, who was so ugly that the students—including Alice—called her Tatty Mule. When she was 23, she got plastic surgery, but the surgeon was so terrible that Tatiana was disfigured. She started the spa and took in runaways, hypnotizing them and practicing her plastic surgery techniques on them. But before she can pull off her dastardly plan, Enid, Lila, and Jessica show up and save the day with the help of some of the staff, who come out of their trances just in time. Tatiana is arrested, and the staff is free. What a happy ending!

Fact-Checking 13 Plot Points in All Is True, Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare Biopic

Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All Is True (2019).
Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All Is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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.

Left to right: Jack Colgrave Hirst as Tom Quiney, Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare, Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway, Clara Ducz- mal as Elizabeth Hall, Lydia Wilson as Susanna Hall
Left to right: Jack Colgrave Hirst as Tom Quiney, Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare, Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway, Clara Duczmal as Elizabeth Hall, and Lydia Wilson as Susanna Hall in All Is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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.

Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway and Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in 'All Is True'
Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway and Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All Is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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.

Ian McKellen as Henry Wriothesley in 'All is True'
Ian McKellen as Henry Wriothesley in All is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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.

Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All is True (2019)
Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare and Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare in All Is True (2019).
Robert Youngson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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.

25 Famous Authors' Favorite Books

David Cheskin-Pool/Getty Images
David Cheskin-Pool/Getty Images

One key to being a good writer is to always keep reading—and that doesn't stop after you've been published. Here are 25 authors' favorite reads. Who knows, one of these books might become your new favorite.

1. ERNEST HEMINGWAY

American writer Ernest Hemingway
Central Press/Getty Images

Papa Hemingway once said "there is no friend as loyal as a book," and in a 1935 piece published in Esquire, he laid out a list of a few friends he said he would "rather read again for the first time ... than have an assured income of a million dollars a year." They included, he wrote, "Anna Karenina, Far Away and Long Ago, Buddenbrooks, Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, A Sportsman's Sketches, The Brothers Karamazov, Hail and Farewell, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Winesburg, Ohio, La Reine Margot, The Maison Tellier, Le Rouge et le Noir, La Chartreuse de Parme, Dubliners, Yeats's Autobiographies, and a few others."

It wasn't the first reading list he'd made; just a year earlier, Hemingway had dashed off a list of 14 books for an aspiring writer who had hitchhiked to Florida to meet him. It included a few of the same books above, plus two short stories by Stephen Crane.

2. JOAN DIDION

Joan Didion
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

In an interview with The Paris Review in 2006, novelist and creative nonfiction scribe Joan Didion called Joseph Conrad's Victory "maybe my favorite book in the world ... I have never started a novel ... without rereading Victory. It opens up the possibilities of a novel. It makes it seem worth doing."

3. RAY BRADBURY

US science fiction writer Ray Bradbury
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Sci-fi author Ray Bradbury's favorite books, which he discussed during a 2003 interview with Barnes & Noble when he was 83, are somewhat unexpected. Among them, Bradbury said, were "The collected essays of George Bernard Shaw, which contain all of the intelligence of humanity during the last hundred years and perhaps more," books written by Loren Eisley, "who is our greatest poet/essayist of the last 40 years," and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick: "Quite obviously its impact on my life has lasted for more than 50 years."

The books that most influenced his career—and are presumably favorites as well—were those in Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter: Warlord of Mars series. "[They] entered my life when I was 10 and caused me to go out on the lawns of summer, put up my hands, and ask for Mars to take me home," Bradbury said. "Within a short time I began to write and have continued that process ever since, all because of Mr. Burroughs."

4. GEORGE R.R. MARTIN

George R.R. Martin
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

It's probably not surprising that Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin has said that J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which he first read in junior high, is "still a book I admire vastly." But he recently found inspiration in a newer book, which he recommended in a Live Journal entry: "I won't soon forget Station Eleven," he wrote. Emily St. John Mandel's book about a group of actors in a recently post-apocalyptic society, he said, is "a deeply melancholy novel, but beautifully written, and wonderfully elegiac … a book that I will long remember, and return to."

5. AYN RAND

The Atlas statue in New York City seen from below
Sean P. Anderson, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

"The very best I've ever read, my favorite thing in all world literature (and that includes all the heavy classics) is a novelette called Calumet K by Merwin-Webster," Rand wrote in 1945. The book was famous then, but if you haven't heard of it, allow Chicago magazine to outline the plot: "Calumet K is a quaint, endearingly Midwestern novel about the building of a grain elevator ... It's a procedural about large-scale agricultural production." If that sounds like something you'd want to check out, you can read it for free here.

6. GILLIAN FLYNN

Author Gillian Flynn
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

When Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn was asked about her favorite books in a 2014 Reddit AMA, she called out her "comfort food" books—the kind "you grab when you're feeling cranky and nothing sounds good to read"—which included Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.

7. VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov
Keystone/Getty Images

During an interview with a French television station in the 1950s, the Lolita author—who wrote all of his own books on note cards, which were "gradually copied, expanded, and rearranged until they [became his novels]," according to The Paris Review—shared a list of what he considered to be great literature: James Joyce's Ulysses, Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Andrei Bely's Petersburg, and "the first half of Proust's fairy tale, In Search of Lost Time."

8. JANE AUSTEN

English novelist Jane Austen
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The author of classics like Pride and Prejudice and Emma was herself a voracious reader of books, poetry, and plays, including The Corsair by Lord Byron, Madame de Genlis's Olimpe and Theophile, and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe. A clear favorite, though, was Samuel Richardson's book Sir Charles Grandison.

9. MARK TWAIN

Mark Twain
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

In 1887, Twain responded to a letter from Reverend Charles D. Crane, a pastor in Maine, which likely asked for Twain's recommendations for both young boys and girls as well as the authors' favorite books (Crane's letter, unfortunately, is lost). Among his favorites, Twain said, were Thomas Carlyle "(The French Revolution only)," Sir Thomas Malory's King Arthur, and Arabian Nights, among others. He also included his own B.B., which he said was "a book which I wrote some years ago, not for publication but just for my own private reading."

10. MEG WOLITZER

Meg Wolitzer
Rich Polk/Getty Images for Sony Pictures Entertainment

The Interestings author loves the novel Old Filth by Jane Gardam. "It's a thrilling, bold and witty book by a British writer whom I discovered rather late," she told Elle in 2014. "I can't say I've read anything else like Old Filth, which stands out for me as a singular, opalescent novel, a thing of beauty that gives immense gratification to its lucky readers."

11. ERIK LARSON

Author Erik Larson
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

The acclaimed author of The Devil in the White City calls The Maltese Falcon his "all-time personal favorite":

"I love this book, all of it: the plot, the characters, the dialogue, much of which was lifted verbatim by John Huston for his screenplay for the beloved movie of the same name. The single best monologue in fiction appears toward the end, when Sam Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy why he's giving her to the police."

12. F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

A studio portrait of American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1936—four years before his death—Fitzgerald was living at the Grove Park Inn in North Carolina. After he fired a gun as a suicide threat, the inn insisted that he be supervised by a nurse. While under Dorothy Richardson's care, he provided her with a list of 22 books that he deemed "essential reading." It included Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, The Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan, Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

13. EDWIDGE DANTICAT

Award winning writer Edwidge Danticat visits Capitol Hill, October 21, 2015.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

This MacArthur Fellow and award-winning author of Claire of the Sea Light, The Dew Breaker, and Brother, I'm Dying told Time.com that her favorite summer read is Love, Anger, Madness, by the Haitian writer Marie Vieux-Chauvet. "I have read and reread that book, both in French and in its English translation, for many years now," she said. "And each time I stumble into something new and eye-opening that makes me want to keep reading it over and over again."

14. SAMUEL BECKETT

Irish playwright and author Samuel Beckett
Reg Lancaster/Express/Getty Images

Winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature and author of Waiting for Godot, Beckett was always a private individual, even after garnering acclaim for his writing. In 2011, a volume of the author's letters from 1941 to 1956 was published, giving the world a glimpse into his friendships and reading habits. Beckett wrote about many books in his correspondence: He described Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne as "lively stuff," wrote that his fourth reading of Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane caused "the same old tears in the same old places," and that he liked The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger "more than anything for a long time."

15. R.L. STINE

R.L. Stine
Andy Kropa/Getty Images

In a 2012 piece for The Washington Post, Goosebumps and Fear Street author R.L. Stine praised Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, calling it "one of the most underrated books ever. Bradbury's lyrical depiction of growing up in the Midwest in a long-ago time, a time that probably never even existed, is the kind of beautiful nostalgia few authors have achieved."

16. AMY TAN

Author Amy Tan
Will Ragozzino/Getty Images

The Joy Luck Club author Amy Tan's favorite piece of classic Chinese literature is Jing Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase), penned by an anonymous scribe. "I would describe it as a book of manners for the debauched," she said in a 2013 interview with The New York Times. "Its readers in the late Ming period likely hid it under their bedcovers, because it was banned as pornographic. It has a fairly modern, naturalistic style—'Show, don't tell'—and there are a lot of sex scenes shown. For years, I didn't know I had the expurgated edition that provided only elliptical hints of what went on between falling into bed and waking up refreshed. The unexpurgated edition is instructional."

17. J.K. ROWLING

Author J.K. Rowling
John Phillips/Getty Images

For her favorite book, Harry Potter and The Silkworm author J.K. Rowling (she wrote the latter under a pseudonym) went with a classic: Jane Austen's Emma. "Virginia Woolf said of Austen, 'For a great writer, she was the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness,' which is a fantastic line," Rowling said, according to Oprah.com. "You're drawn into the story, and you come out the other end, and you know you've seen something great in action. But you can't see the pyrotechnics; there's nothing flashy."

One of her favorite books as a child was The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit, whom Rowling called "the children's writer with whom I most identify … The Story of the Treasure Seekers was a breakthrough children's book. Oswald is such a very real narrator, at a time when most people were writing morality plays for children."

18. MAYA ANGELOU

Maya Angelou
Steve Exum/Getty Images

The poet and author had a number of favorite books, including Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, the Bible, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. "When I read Alcott, I knew that these girls she was talking about were all white," Angelou told The Week in 2013. "But they were nice girls and I understood them. I felt like I was almost there with them in their living room and their kitchen."

19. LYDIA DAVIS

US author Lydia Davis
Will Oliver/AFP/Getty Images

Reading John Dos Passos's Orient Express was "a turning point for me," award winning novelist Lydia Davis said in 1997. "That was one of the first 'grown up' books that made me excited about the language."

20. HENRY MILLER

HENRY MILLER
Central Press/Getty Images

The Tropic of Cancer author wrote an entire book that, he explained in the preface, "[dealt] with books as a vital experience." The Books in My Life included an appendix titled "100 Books Which Influenced Me Most." Classics like Wuthering Heights, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Les Miserables, and Leaves of Grass all made the cut.

21. JOHN STEINBECK

US novelist John Steinbeck
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden author's favorite books later in life was Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, but his first favorite book was Le Morte d'Arthur, a collection of Arthurian tales by Sir Thomas Malory, which Steinbeck received as a gift when he was 9. It was a major influence on the author's writing, and ultimately led to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, which Steinbeck hoped would be "the best work of my life and the most satisfying." He had completed just seven chapters of the book when he died in 1968; it was published posthumously eight years later.

22. CHERYL STRAYED

Wild author Cheryl Strayed
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for American Lung Association

When the author of the bestselling memoir Wild set off on her journey up the Pacific Coast Trail, she only had room to take two books. One was a book of Adrienne Rich's poetry, The Dream of a Common Language. She had already read it enough times to almost memorize it in its entirety. Explaining in Wild the choice to bring along the extra weight in her pack, she writes:

"In the previous few years, certain lines had become like incantations to me, words I'd chanted to myself through my sorrow and confusion. That book was a consolation, an old friend, and when I held it in my hands on my first night on the trail, I didn't regret carrying it one iota—even though carrying it meant that I could do no more than hunch beneath its weight. It was true that The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California was now my bible, but The Dream of a Common Language was my religion."

At one point during her arduous hike, she considers burning the book to save weight in her pack, as she did with other books she read along the trail. "There was no reason not to burn this book too," she writes. "Instead, I only hugged it to my chest."

23. JOYCE CAROL OATES

Author Joyce Carol Oates speaks onstage
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for The Norman Mailer Center

In a 2013 interview with The Boston Globe, the prolific author Joyce Carol Oates revealed Dostoevsky as one of her favorite authors. When asked for her all-time favorite book, she said:

"I would say Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, which had an enormous effect on me. I think young people today might not realize how readable that novel is. The other book that I worry no one reads anymore is James Joyce's Ulysses. It's not easy, but every page is wonderful and repays the effort."

In honor of the publication of her latest book, Dis Mem Ber in June 2017, Oates also shared her current reading list with The Week. It included Anthony Marra's books A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and The Tsar of Love and Techno, Atticus Lish's award-winning Preparation for the Next Life, Whitney Terrell's Iraq War novel The Good Lieutenant, T. Geronimo Johnson's satirical Welcome to Braggsville, and the time-travel sci-fi novel Version Control by Dexter Palmer.

24. GEORGE SAUNDERS

George Saunders speaks at The 2009 New Yorker Festival
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for The New Yorker

In 2014, Saunders—one of the most famous short story writers of our time—detailed some of his favorite books for Oprah Winfrey's O magazine. On the favorites list for the author of bestsellers like Tenth of December and Lincoln in the Bardo?

Tobias Wolff's In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (a book that convinced Saunders to study with Wolff at Syracuse University, where Saunders still works today), Michael Herr's Vietnam memoir Dispatches, Stuart Dybek's short story collection The Coast of Chicago, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, and several classics of Russian literature—Isaac Babel's The Red Calvary, The Portable Chekhov, and Nicolai Gogol's Dead Souls.

25. JUDY BLUME

Author/activist Judy Blume
Evan Agostini/Getty Images

In 2016, beloved author Judy Bloom shared some of her favorite books with The Strand, a bookstore in New York City. Madeline, the classic children's book by Ludwig Bemelmans, she explained, was "the first book I fell in love with at the Elizabeth [New Jersey] public library." She wrote:

"I loved it so much I hid it so my mother would not be able to return it to the library. I thought it was the only copy in the world. To this day I feel guilty. It was the first book I bought for my daughter's library when she was born."

For professional inspiration, she turns to Philip Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral. "It never fails to amaze me," she writes.

This article first ran in 2015.

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