Bard to get PBS documentary treatment

  • Derek Jacobi delves into "Richard II" the PBS documentary series "Shakespeare Uncovered."

    Derek Jacobi delves into "Richard II" the PBS documentary series "Shakespeare Uncovered."

  • David Tennant takes on "Hamlet" as part of "Shakespeare Uncovered," airing over three weeks on PBS.

    David Tennant takes on "Hamlet" as part of "Shakespeare Uncovered," airing over three weeks on PBS.

By Kate O’Hare

Saying his name evokes images of silver-tongued actors in elaborate costumes, stage sword fights, long-winded speeches, lofty language and august academics. But in reality, the resolutely middle-class, grammar-school-educated William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was a hardworking dramatist. poet and sometime actor who juggled writing what turned out to be immortal sonnets, dramas, histories and comedies with performing, running an acting company, managing a theater, and sending money back home to support the wife and kids.

There's a persistent belief among some enthusiasts that the Bard of Avon, as he came to be called (having been born and raised in Stratford-on-Avon), didn't actually write his plays, which were instead the work of one or another university-educated nobleman of the same period.

Richard Denton, producer of the documentary series "Shakespeare Uncovered," airing Fridays, Jan. 25 through Feb. 8, on PBS (check local listings), takes a dim view of this assertion, especially considering the inherent competitiveness of the Elizabethan Age's leading dramatists.

"I think that's nonsense," he says. "Conspiracy theories are enormous fun, but there has to be a really plausible explanation why everybody kept quiet about it at the time, why all his friends decided to put together a book of all of his collected works, including one of his great rivals.

"Ben Johnson would never have put his name to the complete works of Shakespeare -- he probably did it through gritted teeth anyway -- if he hadn't written it.

"It's an absurd idea. It's like 'The Da Vinci Code' and the fact that the world didn't end" on Dec. 21.

"They're irresistible, but they're just all rubbish."

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Of course, some argue that a man without a great deal of advanced education couldn't possibly have written such high-minded works as "Hamlet," "Macbeth," "Henry V" and "King Lear." Denton thinks that's, well, much ado about nothing.

"That's their problem," he says of the doubters, "and they have to ask themselves why they feel that. In the end, what's special about Shakespeare isn't his scholarship; it's his heart. It's his understanding of human nature. It's his ability to put that into words, but none of those things depends upon a great education."

The six films that make up Season 1 of "Shakespeare Uncovered" aim to look behind the stories of some of the Bard's most celebrated plays, with the help of some of today's most celebrated actors and directors. They are:

• Jan. 25: "Macbeth" (Ethan Hawke), "The Comedies: 'Twelfth Night' and 'As You Like It'" (Joely Richardson, with her mother, Vanessa Redgrave)


• Feb. 1: "Richard II" (Derek Jacobi), "The Histories: 'Henry IV' and 'Henry V'" (Jeremy Irons)

• Feb. 8: "Hamlet" (David Tennant, with Jude Law, Simon Russell Beale and Ben Whishaw) and "The Tempest" (director Trevor Nunn, with Helen Mirren and director Julie Taymor).

As to where the idea for the series came from, Denton says, "I suppose it originated in my role as a father. I wanted to introduce my children to Shakespeare, and I wanted to make sure they didn't say, 'I hate Shakespeare, Dad,' because I would have killed them. And people frown on that. They don't think the fact that children didn't like Shakespeare was a justifiable reason for ending their lives.

"That's a bad joke, but anyway ... it was truly that I wanted to infuse my children."

Denton started by showing Baz Luhrmann's 1996 "Romeo & Juliet," with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, which transposes the play's original language into a contemporary setting. Later, on a ride to school, Denton's teen son -- who, his father says, "obviously wanted something" -- professed his affection for the movie. Denton recalls that the lad, pressed to come up with a favorite line, "said, 'When she woke up in the tomb, and she finds the bottle (of poison) that he's used, and she says, 'You left no friendly drop for me.' And I nearly crashed the car.

"I thought, here's something written 400 years ago, that traveled through time and burst into the consciousness of a 13- or 14-year-old boy in the 21st century -- and means something. I thought, Shakespeare isn't difficult, from that point of view.


"The heart of Shakespeare is that he understands how people feel and how people think and how people work, and that works. I thought to myself, 'This is worth doing, to break through the prejudices, just the idea that Shakespeare's too difficult and too old and not really worth it.'

"He isn't too difficult, he isn't too old, and he really is worth it."

But you'll have to wait for a second season to see Denton's take on "Romeo & Juliet" and even longer for the rest of Bard's portfolio of almost 40 plays.

"I still want to do the complete works," Denton says, "but it'll take about 20 films to complete the job."

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