Shakespeare Uncovered

Shakespeare Uncovered is a bit of a misnomer for this documentary series transferred over from BBC Four to PBS. Though it will focus on individual plays, cycles, and genres in vary degrees of detail, it would be more helpful to think of it as Shakespeare Introduced. This series isn’t going to shed light on unknown details for any of Shakespeare’s plays, but it does provide some interesting tidbits of personal connection to the plays from the episode hosts. Put it this way: if you’re a substitute teacher who has to walk into a middle or high school English class during the Shakespeare unit, these hour-long documentaries will be a godsend.

These first two episodes air out of order, but that’s not much of a problem since there’s very little background information in them anyway. As long as you’re familiar with the general history around Shakespeare, the time period in which he wrote his plays, and the big name plays (though there are certainly a lot of them), the first five or ten minutes of each episode is an easily skipped summary.

Ethan Hawke is an interesting choice to host the Macbeth episode, especially as the only American host for the series. He is the most notable American actor to play the title role in a film version of Hamlet, the defining role for English speaking actors, and yet he’s incredibly jazzed up when talking about “The Scottish Play.”  It’s one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, and timed right for the Scottish King James II at the time. As with many introductions to the play, Hawke’s hour navigates the plot at a nice clip, highlighting the supernatural elements.

There are plenty of talking heads, from actors who’ve been in the play to Harvard professors to forensic psychoanalysts, who break down the themes of murder, greed, jealousy, madness, and guilt within the play. The best moment is a discussion of the Macbeths as a married couple within Shakespeare’s tragedies, and how intriguing it is that this couple is probably the most loving portrayal of a married couple he wrote in a tragedy. Think about it: Romeo and Juliet are only married for half the play, Othello and Desdemona don’t have the healthiest marriage, to put it lightly, the same goes for Hamlet and Ophelia’s courtship, and the list goes on. A bloodthirsty couple hell-bent on seizing the throne by force is actually the strongest marriage—until the murderous act, at which point steely Lady Macbeth and unsure Macbeth diverge and react very differently to murder. Macbeth bathes in his bloodlust, letting it consume him with no other option, and Lady Macbeth completely unravels. If you’ve never seen or read the play and want to spend the least possible amount of time gearing up for the second season of Slings And Arrows in a few weeks’ time, this isn’t a bad place to start.

Hawke is very interested in breaking down the big speeches within the play, and he goes to various actor friends to help with breaking them down. The dagger soliloquy, “Out, damned spot,” and Macbeth’s monologue after Lady Macbeth’s final action are all discussed, taken apart, examined in a way that seems enlightening, but only if you’ve never heard them before, or written them in an essay during high school.

Since Hawke is a film actor, there are clips of the various film version of Macbeth over the past century. Orson Welles has a memorably humble bit of egotism while preparing for his role. And if you’ve never seen Polanski’s version, which significantly meddles with the text, go see it now. He made it in the aftermath of the Sharon Tate murder, and basically threw everything crashing around in his head at the screen. Hawke is fascinated by it all, but he’s so eager that it seems like this is one hour-long audition for some director to cast him in the role.

Shakespeare’s women (for the most part in comedies), on the other hand, are relegated to one episode. The beginning of the Joely Richardson hosted hour almost apologizes with a talking head who states the obvious: Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories get more attention than the comedies, which have the largest female roles in Shakespeare’s canon. But with Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsuummer Night’s Dream, The Taming Of The Shrew, and others, perhaps Richard II doesn’t need to get its own episode. (I like Richard II a lot—plus Derek Jacobi will host that hour—and I’m guessing the reason it got its own episode is that there was a new production going on in London while these were broadcast in the UK, but still.) The focus is squarely on two big female leads: Viola from Twelfth Night, and arguably the largest “female” part Shakespeare ever wrote—there’s a digression to cover the standard historical background information on all-male acting troupes until more than 50 years after Shakespeare’s death—Rosalind in As You Like It.

Twelfth Night is the more intriguing segment, since as the original first episode, it covers Shakespeare’s early life, early writing career with comedies like The Comedy Of Errors, and then digs deeper into the possible connection between his twin children and the twin in Twelfth Night. Viola believes her brother to be lost in a shipwreck, echoing the famous story of Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet dying at age 11.

Richardson is a great host for this hour because she comes from a legendary acting family, and the ability to set up a lounging couch conversation with her mother, Vanessa Redgrave—who played some of these parts on stage and in BBC recorded productions—allows for comfortable yet surprisingly thorough analysis of the roles from an actor’s perspective.

With two plays shoved into one hour, there’s not a lot of time to discuss each one in detail, especially when the format of the show demands a voiceover summary of the plot to move the analysis along. Clips of Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave playing these characters is quite delightful, but the women, and the comedies that have the best female roles, are shortchanged. There’s no easy way to select six hours of programming from Shakespeare’s canon—Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Othello, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Henry V are the first six that popped into my head, and you could switch out any of those but Hamlet and have a worthwhile series. But this series doesn’t have much of a purpose to anyone who’s ever taken a course on Shakespeare or read up on his plays.

I didn’t learn that much I didn’t already know about the plays discussed in these first two episodes, but they’re fun to watch if you’re a Shakespeare fanatic. The host’s commentary is worthwhile—and later episodes hosted by Derek Jacobi, David Tennant, and director Trevor Nunn should offer some more intriguing insights—and some of the talking heads do provide little factoids or theories that aren’t as well publicized as others, Shakespeare Uncovered is the right kind of series to use when someone who loves these plays wants to share them with someone else, a child, a friend who’s into history, anything like that. But anyone with a good amount of knowledge in this area won’t find much to see here.

Stray observations:

  • Look, I know we should probably cut Vanessa Redgrave some slack since she’s amazing—but reading Merchant Of Venice at seven? Even if you’re British I don’t think you come away from that understanding the language, much less blown away by the writing. I’m sure that in an acting family she came to Shakespeare early, but that seemed a bit embellished.
  • A great little adaptation of Macbeth is Scotland, Pa., which sets the action around a fast food restaurant in 1970s Pennsylvania. Not the best, but certainly a clever staging.