Shakespeare Uncovered is a six-part BBC series broadcast in the US on PBS, in which Shakespeare plays are presented and commented upon by actors who have acted the roles under discussion. For the most part, it’s a winning formula: hearing Jeremy Irons discuss Henry IV and V, or Joely Richardson talk about Rosalind from As You like It with her mother Vaness Redgrave, or director Trevor Nunn provide insights into The Tempest is a rare treat.
At its best, the series provides a window into Shakespeare as seen by the men and women (mostly men) most intimately involved in the presentation of the plays in the modern context. Of course, the series isn’t always at its best, and there are one or two clunker episodes, but we’ll get to them later.
The good news first: Irons is every bit as charming as you remember from Brideahead Revisited, and his charisma is well suited to his role as elder statesman of British theatre. I must admit, the history plays were never terribly compelling to me, but Irons makes a good case for rediscovering them. The triology of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 followed by Henry V is much more than a bit of patriotic trumpet-blasting; Shakespeare raises serious questions, as he always does, about nationalism and honor, violence and loyalty. Along the way he introduces one of his best-loved characters, John Falstaff, and then proceeds to break the audience’s heart with him. Oh yes, there are some battles and things, but as ever, these outwardly exciting action scenes are far less important than the battles going on within the characters’ hearts.
If kings aren’t your thing, then maybe the comedies are. Joely Richardson explores two in particular, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, with an eye toward exploring Shakespeare’s relationship toward his female characters. Her conclusion is that Rosalind and Viola represent some of the strongest women roles ever penned for the stage, which was a surprise to me, given that most of the tragedies contain women who are incidental or, at the very least, significantly less important than their male counterparts. The obvious exception is Lady Macbeth, but Othello‘s Desdemona is pathetic, Hamlet‘s Ophelia is a cipher, Lear’s daughters are paper-thin and Julius Caesar lacks women altogether. It was refreshing, therefore, to hear people like Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave going on convincingly about how multidimensional the comedic women are.
Richardson also spends considerable time discussing the cross-dressing women (and men) of the comedies. Both plays under review contain significant plot developments in which women dress as men, falling in love with men in the process (but unable to declare their love openly for fear of giving away their disguises) while simultaneously finding themselves the objects of love from unsuspecting women. Much comic fodder comes from these complications, of course, but also some serious thematic undertones regarding women’s freedoms, including freedom of movement and expression.
Director Trevor Nunn is a man who has directed several Shakespeare plays, including The Tempest, and his discussion of this play includes time given over to the historical circumstances that may have led Shakespeare to write it. He also considers at some length the idea that this was the Bard’s farewell play and also his most autobiographical; the 50-year-old Prospero with a teenage daughter was something of a stand-in for the 50-year-old Shakepeare with a young daughter, according to this reading, and Prospero’s famous farewell speech is in fact the playwright’s farewell to his life on the stage. Nunn considers it likely that Shakespeare may have even played Prospero in the show’s original run.
The series is slick and stylishly done, with pithy talking-head contributions from scholars interspersed with more glamorous contributions from actors like Mirren, and numerous clips taken from film versions such as Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet and Julie Taymor’s Tempest. It’s great fun to see Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind from the BBC’s 1963 version of As You Like It, or the perennially lovely Mirren in the ‘70s version of the same play. In addition to the movies, there is also footage of rehearsals by the Royal Shakespeare Company as they prepare the various productions at their facsimile Globe Theatre in London. These backstage rehearsals are as fascinating as anything in the series, all the more so when compared to final stage presentations in front of an appreciative audience.
There are a couple of missteps. American actor Ethan Hawke seems entirely lost in presenting Macbeth, a role he has never played. His ignorance is greater than a typical college student’s. Reading through a speech from the play, he is forced to ask someone what “murther” means—answer: murder—and seems startled at the reply. In a way it’s interesting to hear an actor talk about what steps he would need to prepare for a role he’s never done, but it’s not nearly as engaging as hearing someone talk who has had actual experience playing the part.
The other unfortunate bit is the inclusion of Derek Jabobi—a terrific actor, both onstage and in film (he was Claudius in I, Claudius)—and his pet theory that Shakespeare never existed and/or never wrote the plays. This bit of nonsense gained some currency back in the ‘70s and ‘80s but never had much traction due to the absolute lack of evidence for it. It gets trotted out every so often when someone wishes to claim that the plays are just too damn good for one guy to have written—especially a glover’s son from the sticks. Jacobi offers no new evidence here, merely rehashing the claim that some member of the aristocracy must have penned the plays. It’s unfortunate that the BBC had to give time to this nonsense, but maybe the was the price to pay for Jacobi’s involvement.
Don’t let this put you off, though; the series is well worth a viewing even for those with only mild interest in Shakespeare. Casual fans are sure to learn something new, and will probably be inclined to seek out a fresh production to watch; more serious scholars will, at the very least, enjoy seeing the actors and directors going through their paces to bring the plays to life. There are no bonus features on the 2-disc set, but they’re not missed. Who needs bonus features with Shakespeare, anyway? The play’s the thing, as Hamlet said.