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.