“Shakespeare Uncovered” Takes On Hamlet and The Tempest

John Barrymore as Hamlet in 1922, after Sigmund Freud analyzed the Dane as mother-fixated. Barrymore agreed and, as Hamlet, was the first to kiss Queen Gertrude in her bedroom.

PBS aired the final two episodes of “Shakespeare Uncovered” on Friday, with David Tennant discussing Hamlet, and Trevor Nunn The Tempest.

It was fun watching film clips of various actors playing the Prince of Denmark as Tennant gave a straightforward summary and analysis those new to the play should enjoy.

Viewers also got to see a rare copy of the “Bad Quarto” of Hamlet, the first printed version of the play that’s only about half the length of subsequent versions. Actually, depending on one’s perspective, the “Bad Quarto” is very bad, or not so bad after all.

One theme of the Hamlet episode was how actors bring different interpretations to the lead role. John Barrymore, for instance, was the first to play “the closet scene” between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude, in her bedroom, kissing her on the lips, thus conveying the taboo sensuality that Sigmund Freud said was at the core of their relationship. In what one might call a classic case of Freudian projection, Hamlet repeatedly accuses Gertrude of being “incestuous.”

Yet, despite being touted as “telling the stories behind the stories” of Shakespeare’s plays, this episode of “Shakespeare Uncovered” was oddly silent about the sources for Hamlet. Instead, it spent a few minutes attempting to link the play to its assumed author’s biography, an approach I found unhelpful not only because it skipped over the play’s sources, but because it relied on too many unproven assumptions about Will of Stratford, the man that many (including historian David McCullough and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor) doubt was Shakespeare in the first place.

Even though one may not get the “story behind the story,” this episode of “Shakespeare Uncovered” is worth watching. But as for the last episode in the series, which looks at The Tempest, well, that’s a different story.

Trevor Nunn’s discussion of what most consider to be the Bard’s last play is chockfull of biography about the man from Stratford, laden with qualifiers such “ we can’t be sure of this, of course,” that give his analysis a makeshift quality.

Nunn cites a particular event in Stratford Will’s relationship with his daughter, Judith, as a reference for Prospero’s relationship with Miranda in The Tempest. Besides not knowing precisely when The Tempest was written (or any of the plays for that matter), what we do know is that Judith was illiterate, an oft-cited reason why Stratford Will was not the author.

It’s unfortunate, because Nunn could have conveyed his feelings and emotions about Shakespeare’s farewell play, I think, without muddling his narrative with “biography” that smacks of fiction.

The episode also gets caught up in a contradiction of sorts. It relies on the orthodox theory about William Strachy’s account of a 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda as the source for the play (albeit with the qualifier “may have been”), but then spends a lot of time showing that the Mediterranean is the probable setting for “The Tempest,” staying silent about the appearance of the word “Bermoothes” in the play.

Indeed, recent scholarship about The Tempest demonstrates convincingly that it was written at least by 1603 for Shrovetide performance, and not derived not from Strachey but from Richard Eden’s 1555 Decades of the New World. It’s a shame that “Shakespeare Uncovered” doesn’t even touch upon this scholarship, suggesting a bias toward orthodoxy in a field that Shakespeare lovers ought to see as ripe for new discoveries.

All in all, I give “Shakespeare Uncovered” high marks. Here’s my ranking of the episodes (the links are to my reviews):

1. Richard II, with Derek Jacobi (Episode Three)

2. Henry IV and Henry V plays, with Jeremy Irons (Episode Four)

3. Macbeth, with Ethan Hawke (Episode One)

4. Hamlet, with David Tennant (Episode Five)

5. The Comedies, with Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave (Episode Two)

6. The Tempest, with Trevor Nunn (Episode Six)

You can watch the complete episodes on the “Shakespeare Uncovered” website.

 

On “Shakespeare Uncovered,” Derek Jacobi Uncovers Shakespeare as (Surprise!) Edward de Vere

Derek Jacobi has been fearless in espousing a controversial view about Shakespeare’s true identity.

Derek Jacobi is a brave man. The acclaimed Shakespearean actor, apparently unafraid of peers castigating him as a heretic, boldly argues on PBS’s “Shakespeare Uncovered” that the Bard was not the son of a glove maker from Stratford, but the nobleman Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Little more than half way through an episode of the program about the play Richard II, Jacobi explains that Oxford wrote the Shakespeare plays anonymously and allowed William of Stratford to take the credit.

Among other facts, Jacobi cites that the Stratford man’s children were illiterate, and that his will makes no mention of books, manuscripts of plays, or the theatre, strong evidence that the Stratfordian was not the playwright.

Jacobi acknowledges that the Shakespeare authorship question is “hugely controversial.”

The PBS show includes a rebuttal by Oxford University professor Jonathan Bate. Bate asserts that the “middle class grammar school boy” from Stratford who became an actor could understand “courts and kings and politics” because he performed at court, and “courts and kings and politics are things you can read books about.”

I imagine Bate’s remark elicited chuckles from “Oxfordians,” those who believe Edward de Vere was Shakespeare.

I find it surprising that Jacobi was allowed to express his opinion about Shakespeare’s authorship on “Shakespeare Uncovered,” given that its producer, Richard Denton, considers it “nonsense.”

It’s also interesting to me how some folks belittle the view that Shakespeare was de Vere’s pseudonym, given that many serious people – such as the esteemed historian David McCullough – have concluded there’s convincing evidence to support that view.

I found Jacobi’s discussion of Richard II, which included clips from a 1978 production featuring him in the lead role, fascinating, making me want to see again the only play Shakespeare wrote completely in verse.

In the subsequent installment of “Shakespeare Uncovered,” Jeremy Irons provides an analysis of the Henry IV and Henry V plays that’s well-worth watching. Irons is an Oxfordian, too. However, unlike Jacobi, he steers clear of the authorship question.

PBS will broadcast the last two installments of “Shakespeare Uncovered” on Friday, February 8. They will feature David Tennant discussing Hamlet, and Trevor Nunn discussing The Tempest.

Ethan Hawke is Engaging in “Shakespeare Uncovered”

Hawke

In the first part of “Shakespeare Uncovered,” the new PBS series which tells “the story behind the stories of Shakespeare’s greatest plays,” Ethan Hawke delivers an engaging narrative about his desire to understand Macbeth and play its lead character.

Hawke’s study of Macbeth is worth watching. He focuses on how the character’s mental state evolves throughout the play, and even consults with a forensic psychoanalyst to better comprehend the criminal mind. His discussion is light on topical references to Macbeth, with only a passing mention of King James I and his interest in witches.

Nor does Hawke look to Shakespeare’s biography for help in interpreting the play. Instead, we watch him struggling to connect with Macbeth on a personal level, as an actor. In the end, he seems ready to take on the part and one hopes he does.

The second part of “Shakespeare Uncovered” features Joely Richardson discussing Shakespeare’s comedies, with an emphasis on “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night.” For me, Richardson delivers a surprise.

First, a bit of background. Richardson played the young Queen Elizabeth I in Roland Emmerich’s 2011 film, “Anonymous,” which depicts Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the playwright using the pseudonym William Shakespeare. Richardson’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave, played the older Queen. The controversial film shows the Queen and de Vere (alias Shakespeare) as lovers who have a child together.

In a 2011 interview, Richardson stated that it’s “highly improbable” that William of Stratford-upon-Avon was Shakespeare, and that the Earl of Oxford “easily” could have been Shakespeare. With some justification one could have called Richardson an “Oxfordian.” But now, listening to her on “Shakespeare Uncovered,” it sounds like she has shifted her position 180 degrees.

Her analysis of Shakespeare’s comedies is full of allusions to William of Stratford’s putative biography. For example, we hear that the loss of his son, Hamnet, influenced his writing of “Twelfth Night,” in which Viola thinks her brother Sebastian has drowned at sea.

Redgrave also appears in “Shakespeare Uncovered,” conversing with daughter Joely about the Bard’s comic heroines. Interestingly, however, Redgrave says nothing to support her daughter’s apparent new thinking that Stratford Will was Shakespeare. I, for one, was surprised to hear Richardson espouse that view, although I guess it’s possible she hasn’t changed her position but is merely reading the script written for her for “Shakespeare Uncovered.”

The next two installments of the series air on Friday, February 1. In the first hour, Sir Derek Jacobi will discuss Richard II. According to one advance review, Jacobi will observe that the Earl of Oxford was Shakespeare.

Jeremy Irons will host the second hour, which covers the Henry IV and Henry V history plays. Irons, too, is known as an Oxfordian. Will he surprise us?

 

PBS Shakespeare Series Has “Oxfordians” Onstage

Vanessa Redgrave

Sir Derek Jacobi

Jeremy Irons

Joely Richardson

 

 

 

 

 

 

For three consecutive Fridays beginning January 25, PBS is treating Shakespeare lovers to “Shakespeare Uncovered,” a new series that “tell the story behind the stories of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.” Each night will include two 1-hour episodes with different hosts (check local stations for airtimes). Here’s the line-up:

  • January 25:  Macbeth with Ethan Hawke (1st hour); As You Like It and Twelfth Night with Joely Richardson and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave (2nd hour)
  • February 1: Richard II with Sir Derek Jacobi (1st hour); Henry IV and Henry V with Jeremy Irons (2nd hour)
  • February 8: Hamlet with David Tennant (1st hour); The Tempest with Trevor Nunn (2nd hour)

It’s interesting to me how PBS enlisted “Oxfordians” – those who think “William Shakespeare” was the pseudonym used by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford – to narrate several episodes.

Richardson, Redgrave, and Jacobi all appeared in Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s controversial 2011 film that presented Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans) as Shakespeare. Irons, too, is an Oxfordian.

Indeed, if one counts the number of narrators and plays they discuss, Oxfordians have a slight edge: 5 plays and 4 hosts, versus 3 plays and 3 hosts for non-Oxfordians — those who maintain William of Stratford-upon-Avon was the Bard, or who remain neutral on the question of authorship.

PBS has not been lily-livered when it comes to the controversy over whether Shakespeare was a pseudonym. “The Shakespeare Mystery,” a PBS program broadcast in 1989, is described on PBS’s website as making “a strong case that the most celebrated writer in the English language was not the man from Stratford. Rather, ‘Shakespeare’ was a clever nom de plume used by Edward de Vere, a learned Elizabethan court insider, to publish his incomparable, but often politically scandalous, writings.”

Given that probably over ninety percent of the theatrical world still believes that William of Stratford was Shakespeare, I’m sure PBS could have found plenty of “Stratfordians” to host all the episodes of “Shakespeare Uncovered.” It striketh me that somebody made the conscious decision to include hosts holding the minority opinion about Shakespeare’s true identity. Or it could be just a coincidence.

In any event, how much difference can an Oxfordian perspective make when telling “the story behind” a Shakespeare play?

Without previewing the first “Shakespeare Uncovered” episode, one can only guess what Ethan Hawkes, who I assume is in the non-Oxfordian camp, will say about Macbeth.

Hawke invites viewers to join him “in his quest to play Shakespeare’s murderous Thane of Cawdor by uncovering the true story that served as inspiration, immersing himself in some of the most memorable and innovative productions and discovering Shakespeare’s extraordinary insights into the criminal mind.”

The orthodox (Stratfordian) view generally holds that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth around 1607, several years after Oxford’s death when Will of Stratford-upon-Avon was still in his forties. According to this view, the play was intended to flatter James I, who had reached the top of the career ladder by going from King of Scotland to King of England. James narrowly escaped death in the infamous Gunpowder Plot, in which Catholic radicals tried to blow up Parliament. Stratfordians see in Macbeth topical references to the Gunpowder Plot. In his book, “Will of the World,” Stephen Greenblatt writes that, “Some playwright affiliated with the King’s Men [the acting company] — perhaps Shakespeare himself — grasped that this story would make an exciting play.”

Oxfordians hold a very different view about Macbeth. Besides believing Shakespeare wrote the play much earlier than 1607, they think a grim drama involving witches and multiple murders would hardly be one to flatter James who, if he saw the play (there’s no documentary evidence he did) might have felt that it cast doubt on his own succession. You can read more about the Oxfordian view of Macbeth here: http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com/?p=533.

On “Shakespeare Uncovered,” I expect Ethan Hawke will stick to the Stratfordian view and likely mention connections to King James and the Gunpowder Plot, in addition to delving into the Bard’s sources for the play and history about Scottish royal succession.

With Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave discussing As You Like It and Twelfth Night, one shouldn’t expect any references linking those plays to Stratford Will, such as those Greenblatt describes. Greenblatt emphasizes Stratford Will’s “folk” environment, connecting his father’s vocation as a wool dealer and glove-maker to lines in As You Like It such as, “we are still handling our ewes; and their fells, you know, are greasy.” Greenblatt’s take on Twelfth Night includes linking Count Orsino’s advice that “the woman take an elder than herself” to Stratford Will’s marital unhappiness after being dragged to the altar by an older woman.

As Oxfordians, Richardson and Redgrave, in my opinion, will dispense with such linkage. Instead, they’ll likely focus on the personalities of Rosalind in As You Like It, a character Harold Bloom calls “first in poise of all Shakespearean characters,” and on Viola, the female heroine in Twelfth Night, arguably the best of Shakespeare’s comedies.

In sum, one can expect the Oxfordians featured on “Shakespeare Uncovered” to leave out any discussion of topical references and links between the author’s life and his work, and instead take the approach that “the play’s the thing.”