I was looking for something to watch on Netflix last night and after looking for a long time, I came upon Shakespeare Uncovered. It’s a six-part PBS series that dives into (more or less) one play per episode with a famous actor. The first was about Macbeth, which is probably my favorite Shakespearean play. It is certainly the play that works the best. But it was hosted by Ethan Hawke. I don’t know what it is about him, but he annoys me. And after five minutes, I was done with it.
So I switched to the third episode with Derek Jacobi doing Richard II. I figured that would be good. To begin with, the play is one of the better histories. What’s more, Jacobi is not only a great actor but quite a thoughtful analyzer and director of Shakespeare. Plus, I’ll admit, I just like him. And he did not disappoint. In addition to providing a good overview of the dynamics in the play, there was a lot of “inside the actor’s studio” stuff. Usually, I hate this kind of stuff, but it was great here. I don’t doubt this is largely due to the fact that the British take acting much more seriously as a craft than Americans.
There was one really strange part of the episode. Jacobi talks about how he doesn’t think that Shakespeare wrote Richard II or any of the other plays. He thinks that it was really Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who wrote the plays and Shakespeare was a director and “front” for de Vere. It just goes to show that you can be brilliant at some things and be totally clueless about others. Still, I find the belief rather charming. But what’s especially interesting is why Jacobi thinks this. He seems to have got it in his head that it couldn’t have been Shakespeare who wrote the plays. So he went shopping and the de Vere theory seemed the most reasonable.
The reason that he doesn’t think that Shakespeare wrote the plays is because there is so little documentation of his life. There are many ways to counter this. To begin with, we know just as little about Christopher Marlowe, who was as popular in his life and Shakespeare was during his life. We know more about Ben Jonson, but that’s due to one big thing: Jonson wrote a lot about himself. I’m afraid that Jacobi is falling into the trap of thinking that because we highly value Shakespeare today they must have valued him a lot back them. But it’s very clear that for Shakespeare it was all just a way to get money and status. Once he attained that he retired. All he was by the end of his life was another member of the nouveau riche. That’s great, but hardly something that the world is going to worry about documenting.
Anyway, the whole thing got me to find the BBC production of Richard II starring Jacobi. I found it on YouTube and it is quite good. Much better than most of those BBC productions:
I also watched the episode on Hamlet with David Tennant. It was interesting because it focused on many of the glaring holes in the play. But as always, instead of admitting that it just isn’t a well written play, these problems are taken as an indication of Shakespeare’s brilliance. Still, it was nice to see the play treated seriously enough for these problems to even be acknowledged.
If there is one thing that most harms Shakespeare it is the tendency to approach it as fundamentalists do the Bible. If all of Shakespeare is wonderful, then none of it is. To me, the highs and lows of Shakespeare are often sitting one right next to the other. In Much Ado About Nothing, we get a wonderful scene with Benedick and Beatrice following by the most insipid drivel from Claudio and Hero. We also gets loads of sexism and racism and Shakespeare’s signature suck up to the aristocracy. And mostly we get incredibly two-dimensional characters, or in the case of Hamlet, zero-dimensional characters. But still, much of it is transcendent. And Shakespeare Uncovered provides an easy and enjoyable entry into Shakespeare at his best. Or the 17th Earl of Oxford. Take your pick.
Update (20 March 2014 8:48 pm)
I have a cold so I laid down and watched another episode. This one with Jeremy Irons on the Henry IV plays and Henry V. It was pretty annoying. At one point, he interviews a young film director who just made Henry V. She said (roughly), “When I told people I was making the film, they all ask, pro-war or anti-war? I don’t see it that way. People do go to war.” And I thought, “Oh! Pro-war!” Indeed, Henry V is quite pro-war regardless of the epilogue. Consider how the Battle of Agincourt is done. It goes from the St Crispin’s Day Speech right before the battle. And then the battle is over and the French messenger comes by and says, “You won!” Get that? Rousing patriotic speech followed by victory. No despot could ask for better propaganda.
It does bug me that Shakespeare is fairly straightforward, yet people want to imbue him with so much complexity. He was not a man who questioned authority. This is largely why he became such a big export of the British Empire. Any given production can change the plays to fit its wishes. One can indeed create a production that is anti-war or pro-war with the same play. But that play, on the page, is pro-British, pro-empire, and pro-war.