As preparation for watching the six episodes of “Shakespeare Uncovered” on PBS which begins tonight, 25 January 2013, I’ve been watching “In Search of Shakespeare.” This four-episode adventure into religious tensions and personal problems that surrounded Shakespeare gives you a great background for understanding the man who wrote these plays and the times he lived in or rather survived. “In Search of Shakespeare” also aired on PBS in 2004. If you missed it, the four full episodes are available live streaming on Netflix.
My first Shakespeare college professor wore a sweater vest and tie on a Southern California campus where other professors surfed before, between and after classes. His tidy dress contrasted his wild white hair which wasn’t abundant, but never well behaved. He insisted that Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen and the words of his plays and sonnets meant to be spoken aloud. We were required to memorize a sonnet for recite in class and to see videos of different interpretations of the same play.
I hope your first experience with Shakespeare was as lively. And the team that brought you “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great” and “Conquistadors” also make this history series. Our host, Michael Wood is obviously excited about our journey of discovery.
Wood takes us into the wild wilderness of treacherous kings and queens and their religious politics that Shakespeare’s family was, as all of the people of England, simply helpless pawns. From a well-to-do family, they suffered under King Henry VIII’s policies and the subsequent rule of his daughters.
“A Time of Revolution” sets the stage. His father was a prosperous maker of gloves and lent money and even dealt in wool trade. His eldest son and first child to live was privileged with a nice house, servants and a good education. He had a love for mystery plays, but they were banned when he was 15.
But during his early teens, his family’s fortunes are reversed. Elizabeth is now queen and the official religion is the Anglican church. Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s family was loyal to the Catholic church and his family is persecuted. If his cances of attending a university are ruined, Shakespeare further darkens the horizon of his future by becoming involved with an older woman and getting her pregnant.
Written as a detective story, Wood leads us to discoveries about Shakespeare’s family and a certain family feud.
“The Lost Years” is the second episode which attempts to answer: What was Shakespeare doing between his marriage to Anne Hathaway and his sudden appearance on the London theater scene. Little is known about those ten years besides the couple had three children.
Wood follows up several theories including the possibility that he served in a Catholic family’s house or was part of Queen Elizabeth’s propaganda machine (The Queen’s Men). Wood forces us to consider the kind of world Shakespeare lived in–the time of the Spanish Armada and the death of his great rival Marlowe.
“The Duty of Poets” brings us back to Shakespeare’s family and the problem of religious loyalties. Imagine having one of those embarrassing cousins, who is public enemy number one, searched for by police and taking the time to write a long treatise about the duty of poets and singling out William Shakespeare. Was that man, Robert Southwell a ranting lunatic, a foolish revolutionary or a brave man of principle? Shakespeare, of course, doesn’t write religious poetry. He’s like Paul McCartney to Southwell’s John Lennon. Shakespeare prefers to write about love, but Shakespeare does experience his own tragedy: He falls in love and his only son dies. These experiences and other political problems deepen his emotional intelligence and he writes “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Shakespeare chooses “to speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
In the final episode, “For All Time” London is entering a new age under King James I. Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna becomes the focal point of a religious inquiry after she refused to take Protestant communion. And although King James I is Scottish and domestic terrorism is exposed in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Shakespeare responds with another Scottish problem as posed by “Macbeth.” His daughter Susanna will marry and Shakespeare confronts aspects of the father-daughter relationship in “King Lear” and “The Tempest.” But now looking back on the high drama and cost of religious persecution in England, Shakespeare writes about the treacherous “King Henry VIII” and how “mightiness meets misery.” Would that make Southwell proud? With all that, there’s still the question of Shakespeare’s mysterious will.
Throughout the series, young members of the Royal Shakespeare Company travel and perform scenes of Shakespeare’s great plays as they might have been done during his time (under the direction of Olivier Award for Achievement winner Greg Doran).
“In Search of Shakespeare” is available as a DVD set through PBS or for instant streaming on Netflix.