Discussion Thread: Shakespeare Uncovered

The recent import from the BBC 4, Shakespeare Uncovered, is a six-part series in which one well-known public face of the theatre each episode gives an in-depth, personal walk-through a selection from Shakespeare’s plays. Four examine a single play, the other two look at more than one, related by genre. The Beeb’s website has outlines and clips from each episode, but doesn’t offer the whole thing. The PBS version has lots of fun peripheral material.

To recap, the episodes were:

Joely Richardson on Twelfth Night and As You Like It

Ethan Hawke on Macbeth

Derek Jacobi on Richard II

Trevor Nunn on The Tempest

Jeremy Irons on the Henry IV and V plays

David Tennent on Hamlet

Only one woman, and the comedies (which have the larger female roles) given less individual attention, which is typical. Still worse, on the website the episode is listed as Richardson discussing “Shakespeare’s Women”, which is not what she did; she talked about Rosalind and Viola. I would rather have the episode listed by play like the others. I don’t like the sense that women are a separate group, that all female characters can be lumped in together, or that a female narrator is only qualified to talk about women, not plays. But seeing Joely Richardson talk to her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, about the latter’s phenomenally famous Rosalind – priceless!

Trevor Nunn was the only director to narrate an episode, although others made appearances for commentary. It made me curious about the process used in drawing up the plan for the episodes. Did the producers just ring around their chums until they could pin down six big enough names? Or did they start out with a strategy resembling, “Let’s see if we can get one director, one American and one woman”?

It was obviously going to be glorious to watch David Tennant sit down with Jude Law to discuss Hamlet, but the unexpected, very super-special bonus for me was seeing Tom Hiddleston give the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. Joy!

They gave Derek Jacobi the space to trot out his belief that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays, but I thought the response they included from Jonathan Bate was exactly the right approach. He pointed out that the plays were written for a working theatrical company, with a very specific group of actors, and it is impossible to imagine that someone not involved right in the thick of it, in the day to day business of getting a play up, could have written something that worked for those people in those circumstances.

I enjoyed the additional opinions brought in very much, and think the producers did a great job of sourcing a range of voices. For example, I find Stephen Greenblatt too hyperbolic for my taste, but Bate balanced that nicely. It is quite an impressive thing to do, to create a series on Shakespeare that will be appealing for the novice or the casually interested, but that still provides thoughtful material for those who already know something of this field. So what did everyone else find for themselves in the series?

P.S. A special note to Trevor Nunn: when you think you’ve discovered the character who speaks with Shakespeare’s own voice, what you’ve actually done is found the character who most reminds you of yourself.

David Tennant in a suit, tie undone, with a crown tipped over one eye, offers his fellow player a recorder.

David Tennant as Hamlet

Categories: arts & entertainment, fun & hobbies, language

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17 replies

  1. I’ve seen the Tennant/Hamlet episode which was indeed wonderful, and a bit of the Jeremy Irons one. Very keen to watch the whole lot!

  2. Sounds wonderful, sorry I missed it. Hopefully someone will put it out on DVD.

  3. I saw these patchily (all of some episodes, pieces of others, completely missed one or two) but I really enjoyed them. The Tennant/Hamlet one was great. They were on kind of late here and I had to struggle with that ‘I really need to go to bed but I can’t stop watching this’ syndrome a lot.

  4. Methinks I need to put the DVD set on my birthday wishlist.

  5. As the Series Producer of Shakespeare Uncovered I have enjoyed this. Your criticisms are pretty apt I think – although the idea that we had the luxury of choice when it came to selecting our hosts, belies the very difficult process it was to persuade people to do it. The naming of Joely’s episode was wrong and had it’s origin with the BBC actually – it was a mistake we should have corrected. But I am pleased that people who know something of the subject have found things of interest while at the same time I am pretty sure that those who didn’t know anything will still have found the programmes fun. I shall keep an eye on further comments and respond if I can The DVD’s are now available in the US I think.

  6. I can find a US DVD but unless you have an unlocked DVD player you won’t be able to watch it as it is coded Region 1. Nothing at the ABC Shop yet.

    • I will have to set up an alert or something for it. I really want to see that takedown of the De Vere theory, because I do find truly depressing this idee fixee that the history plays in particular can only have been written by a courtier. Despite their humanist and polemical brilliance, these plays are essentially soap opera versions of the actual history, full to the brim with gossipy titbits rather than being displays of authoritative historical/political analysis. Rather like the Cate Blanchett films about Elizabeth I, a whole bunch of actual facts are fecklessly elided and gloriously conflated to make for a better story.
      I don’t see this elision/conflation as a bad thing in terms of entertainment nor literary merit. It’s exactly the sort of thing one would expect a jobbing theatre to want to present in order to get bums on planks, and there’s nothing wrong with that for its own sake. When some want to argue that cherry-picked quotes indicate special courtly knowledge while ignoring all those elisions and conflations and outright howlers though, they’re starting to rationalise their biases in an unedifying way.

  7. Orlando, when I read the intro to this post I was thinking, it’d be hilarious if an anti-Stratfordian got an episode. ’Shakespeare – AS WE HAVE COME TO KNOW HIM – was an absolute genius with words, his – OR SHOULD I SAY HER – plays still resonate with us today. They’re just so full of enigmatic meanings – INCLUDING THE REAL MYSTERY SURROUNDING THE IDENTITY OF THE WRITER OF THESE PLAYS – ahem – and I don’t think it’s really possible that we’ll ever fully comprehend his genius – BUT IT WAS CLEARLY SOMEONE FROM AN UPPER-CLASS ARISTOCRATIC BACKGROUND AS REFLECTED IN THEIR MASTERY OF THE’ etc etc etc.

  8. Oh Tim, don’t get me started. I’m already in the middle of an argument over at the Ms online magazine about why we know for sure that Mary Sidney didn’t write the plays.
    Tigtog, that’s pretty much exactly what Bate finished with, if I recall correctly. Something like, “As for knowledge of court life, you can get that from books.”
    Richard! Nice to have you here. Thirsty for any insights into how you rounded up the talent. Though personally I find it hard to imagine anyone turning down the opportunity to give lots of opinions on their favourite Shakespeare play to the world. Maybe that’s just me.
    Since most people seem to have missed it, let’s shift to a game of who we would like to see in which role, and why. I saw Judy Davis in a cafe last year, and only just restrained myself from seizing her to say how much I would love to see her play Constance in King John. I have also long had a yearning to see Billy Boyd play Hamlet, because he’s so good at giving a sense of someone naturally good natured, battered by circumstance (thinking Pippin convinced he’s about to die on the walls of Gondor).

  9. Hi guys. Absolutely right on the authorship. It’s all misplaced snobbery. The plays are so obviously written by a dyed-in-the-wool theatre man – which is why (incidentally) they are sometimes a bit bodged here and there. I think the question the Oxfordians and the rest need to ask themselves is – genuinely – how many great “aristocratic” artists have there been? Great artists, more often than not, come from the excluded sections of society, that’s why they have their unique perspective and that is why they have something to say. As regards how difficult it was to get contributors – I suppose when we started no-one knew what the films would be like and so it was a risk if you are a high profile figure. I hope that the next films will be easier to find people for.

  10. Ooh, ooh, if you’re doing another season can I put in my vote for Othello? And also King Lear. I would love to see an actor take apart that role.

    • Hi Angharad
      Both of those are on my list for the next series so keep an eye open for it next year – plus The Dream, Merchant, and possibly Much Ado and the Shrew

  11. Oh, Taming of the Shrew would be an interesting one to have an actress do. Much Ado as well.

    • Oh pleeese, if you have an Othello, ask Chiwetel Ejiofor to do it. I would show up to hear him read from the phone book.
      Richard, I’m very interested in your take that great artists tend to come from excluded groups, because it’s something I’ve noticed about Shakespeare’s “truthspeakers”. It seems to me the characters he charges with speaking great or uncomfortable truths are usually marginalised figures: fools, (presumed) lunatics, and shrews. I’ve wondered if it comes out of his own marginalised status as an actor.
      What a coincidence that you speak of Much Ado and the Shrew together, as I have Beatrice and Kate grouped, along with Adriana from Comedy of Errors in the one chapter of (ahem) my book. Obviously you want to focus on the best known of the plays, but I wish I could see such in-depth treatment of Measure for Measure, which is such an extraordinary work of art. Simon McBurney would do an amazing job of it, although in truth I would rather hear Juliet Stevenson take it on.

  12. Heh heh. I think I know him.

  13. I’ve just bought the DVD and it’s playing fine on our cheap player here in Australia. I bought it at fishpond.com.au
    As a person who has a fairly good knowledge of EngLit I really loved this series, and so did my partner who has no background at all. I hope there will be another series. Like Orlando, I’d vote for Othello – I haven’t seen Chiwetel Ejiofor but I saw Nonso Anozie play the part here in Sydney from the second row – I saw every bead of sweat on his magnificent face and would love to know about the emotions that part engenders in the men who play it.

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