Post image for DVD Review: SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED (Series 3)

by Dale Reynolds on February 27, 2019



In the English language, no playwright has had as much influence on the arts as William Shakespeare (or the nobleman who many think wrote his plays and sonnets, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford).

Thousands of performances of his works have been graced (and, if bad, debased) over four centuries, so there’re no definitive interpretations to be had, and since each generation is entitled to interpret these works with their current thinking, it’s grand to have this PBS-released series using actors of quality to describe their own experiences in portraying the lead characters, as well as having sensible interviews with knowledgeable scholars and academics.

Season Three contains six film-essays with famous stars who’ve explored them on stage and film. Academy-Award winner Helen Hunt shows us why Much Ado About Nothing worked for her in exploring Elizabethan feminism. With scenes from a wide variety of English productions of the 1598/99 comedy, we learn what the romance between the slyly wicked Beatrice and her purported love/hate friend, Benedict, is about and why it speaks to seemingly every generation.

The other American represented here, another Oscar-winner, is F. Murray Abraham dealing with the problematic role of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, a rude stereotype of a Renaissance Italy money-lender. Bound by the intense religious-hatred of Jews, Shylock lived in a ghetto. He was allowed to be a banker/lender as the Catholic Church forbade Christian’s from charging interest on loans (coupled with the fact that the laws of the day forbid Jews to do anything else). Murray, who is Jewish himself, explores what the Elizabethan audience thought of the tragedy, which should have been called Shylock as he is the real merchant of Venice.

Brit favorites in this intellectual/philosophical game of theatre include Julius Caesar with Brian Cox, from when he played Brutus (another suggested title name for JC as he is the character who has the pragmatic through-line. Caesar plays well in any year, including last year’s NYC production in Central Park, wherein Caesar was played contemporarily as Trump, causing no end of mewling from his supporters. Cox is quick to explore with and for us how Brutus’s murderous action within his character-arc makes him the protagonist of the play.

One of the more problematic plays explored is The Winter’s Tale, about a mad King Leontes of Sicily who demands that his faithful wife, Hermione, be executed for supposed infidelity. She isn’t; instead she is turned into a statue (don’t ask!) and their daughter, Perdita, is sent away. Twenty years later, all is turned on its head. It was originally labeled a comedy even as the first three acts are psychological drama, with the last two acts fitfully funny, and a romantic ending, leading some now to label it a Romance.

The brilliant — if strange — acting star, Simon Russell Beale, takes us through the difficulties of making WT logical and entertaining. While it strains reality for us, it has been taken seriously generations before, and in its favor does offer strong actors much to play with. Beale, who is undeniably one of Britain’s greatest contemporary actors, makes his case for it as a positive piece of indulgence.

Respected actress Romola Garai gingerly takes us on the road that Measure For Measure leads us to. First performed in 1604, the author wanted to explore how “mortality and mercy in Vienna” play out when the lead character, Isabella, has her reputation sullied when the temporary leader of Vienna, Angelo, demands she give in to his unscrupulous sexual demands (hello, #MeToo), exposing the theological and political fight between corruption and transparency.

Lastly, the great South African-born Sir Anthony Sher lets us into the real history of King Richard III of Richard III fame, the last of the Tudors and Plantagenets. Shakespeare was unkind to the historical warrior/monarch; his recently-found skeleton (discovered under a paved-over parking structure) showed no hunchback or even scoliosis. He may, however, have had the two child princes murdered, in order to secure his thrown. But the greatness of the writing in the historical drama allows trained actors much to chew on, entertaining us while explaining how the widowed Queen Anne married him in spite of his having slain her husband, King Edward IV, and his father.

This is third in the series, Shakespeare Uncovered, with all three contributing valuable interpretations of the classic plays explained by academics and artists. And great fun to boot.

Shakespeare Uncovered (Series 3)
documentary | 2 discs | 350 minutes
DVD release on November 6, 2018
available at PBS and Amazon

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