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Norwood reviews PBS series Shakespeare Uncovered

James Norwood, presenter at 2014 Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship conference at Overture Center, Madison, WI

James Norwood, PhD

James Norwood, PhD says PBS series “Shakespeare Uncovered” inadvertently reveals inadequacies of Stratfordian attribution of Shake-speare’s plays. Norwood examines episodes on Lear and Dream; “Shakespeare Uncovered” episodes on Shrew, Othello, A&C, and R&J will be shown on PBS in February. See “Shakespeare Uncovered” for more information.

Review of Shakespeare Uncovered, second season premiere
by James Norwood, PhD

The second season of Shakespeare Uncovered had its premiere on PBS on January 30, 2015. The content of this series lays bare the shortcomings of the Stratford biography. The clear objective is to uncover the secrets of the brilliant plays of Shakespeare.  But the producers never actually assess the author’s connection to these incomparable works. The series ultimately fails because it eschews the most basic conditions of literary creativity in the environment and personal experience of the author.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The first episode of the 2015 season focuses on A Midsummer Night’s Dream (full episode link), as hosted by journeyman actor Hugh Bonneville.  The familiar Stratfordian commentators include Stephen Greenblatt, Gail Kern Paster, and Jonathan Bate, plus a sampling of actors and directors.

The program traces the production history of Dream with film footage and commentary on such landmark productions as the 1970 Peter Brook postmodernist concept in an empty space. But the moment of truth arrives when the program attempts to address the very first production of Dream, which is identified as “a play commissioned to be performed for a wedding.”  And the specific wedding is that of that of Sir Thomas Heneage and the widow Countess of Southampton on May 2, 1594, at Copped Hall.  An acting company from the Globe of London is filmed on a location shoot in the forest outside of Copped Hall.  The program does not mention what is possibly the second most likely venue for the premiere of Dream:  the wedding of Elizabeth de Vere to the Earl of Derby on January 26, 1595.

Scholar Jonathan Bate suggests that Dream is “the first mature masterpiece” of Shakespeare.  Yet there is no attempt to suggest how a tyro playwright would have been invited to write a play expressly for the nuptials of a pair of Elizabethan aristocrats.

The program begins with actor Bonneville stating that “I want to take you under the skin of the play.”  Such a probing never occurs because the author is conspicuously absent from the discussion.  Bate begins to touch on an essential issue when he asserts that “at some level, Titania is Elizabeth.”  But there is no follow-through to examine what is the precise allegory.  Wouldn’t Titania’s dalliance with Nick Bottom with the head of a donkey be somewhat demeaning to the Virgin Queen?

Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World—How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare has been listed by Amazon as the #1 bestseller in the category of theatre biographies. The producers of this program have drawn upon Greenblatt’s fanciful notion that in 1575, the eleven-year-old William of Stratford might have been able to sneak in to a gala celebration at Robert Dudley’s Kenilworth estate.  It was there that the young lad witnessed a spectacular theatrical display that eventually resulted in the metaphor of a “mermaid on a dolphin’s back” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the inference that Titania and Oberon might stand for Elizabeth and Dudley. That is the extent to which the program is able to draw a connection between Elizabeth and Titania.

King Lear
The program on King Lear (full episode link) is worth viewing for the commentary of distinguished actor Christopher Plummer. Plummer discusses his own performance of Lear, plus a basic production history, including his personal favorite, the stunning 1971 Russian film version directed by Grigori Kozintsev and starring Yuri Yarvet as Lear. There is also an unforgettable clip of Ian McKellan’s recognition scene when Lear is reunited with Cordelia.

Professor Jerry Brotton of the University of London astutely observes that King Lear has overtones of political allegory that would have been “a very dangerous game for Shakespeare to be playing.” But the potentially subversive subtext of the play is never addressed in the program. Professor Brotton only notes in passing that James I was in the audience for a court performance of the play.

A startling omission in a program that seeks to uncover the essence of this complex play is the absence of discourse on the text of King Lear. The viewer is given the impression that Shakespeare knocked off this play in one sitting in 1605. But the enormous textual variants are never addressed. Based on the discrepancies in the different quartos and Folio editions, the obvious conclusion is that King Lear was written over a considerable period of time with the author making substantial revisions. The textual situation is so complicated that in the Norton Shakespeare, two complete versions of the play are published. The principal editor of the Norton Shakespeare is Stephen Greenblatt, who appears once again as one of the commentators and makes no mention of the text. No one in this program is willing to acknowledge the evidence that Shakespeare’s plays were works-in-progress and that the author returned to them over and over through many years in the revisionary process.

For this program, a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Gwen Adshead, appears on camera to analyze the author’s portrayal of Lear’s descent into madness. But there is no attempt to assess how the author knew so much about medicine in general and the science of the human mind in particular. In one of the most psychologically profound plays in the canon, there appears to be no interest in how the author derived insights that are so stunning that it requires a prodigious effort on the part of the actor to enact these human realities for audiences.

The series had unlimited potential to unlock the secrets of the literary, theatrical, and intellectual genius of Shakespeare. The main shortcoming was that it failed to direct the audience to the sophisticated world of the court where the plays had their genesis. For this reason, the series would be more appropriately titled, “Shakespeare Covered Up.”

James Norwood  holds a PhD in dramatic art from the University of California at Berkeley. Norwood taught humanities and the performing arts for twenty-six years at the University of Minnesota where, for a decade, he also taught a semester course on the Shakespeare authorship question. Norwood’s paper titled “Mark Twain and ‘Shake-speare’:  Soul Mates” that he presented at the 2014 SOF conference in Madison, WI will be published in the 2015 edition of the SOF journal, Brief Chronicles.

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