Sunday, February 3, 2013

Jacobi sets fur flying in PBS series on Shakespeare

Sir Derek Jacobi in PBS series Shakespeare Uncovered, Richard II episode
by Linda Theil

In a new six-part PBS series, Shakespeare Uncovered, elucidating the glories of the Bard’s plays, Sir Derek Jacobi “ . . . sets the fur flying”, as he says in his one-hour segment on the play, Richard II, by advocating Edward de Vere  as the author of the work known under the pseudonym William Shakespeare. The Richard II segment aired February 1, 2013 on PBS stations and is available on DVD and for viewing online from the Shakespeare Uncovered site at

Retired humanities professor James Norwood of St. Paul, Minnesota has given Oberon permission to publish his commentary on the Shakespeare Uncovered series that Norwood originally posted to the late Robert Brazil’s private authorship discussion list, Elizaforum. Professor Norwood taught a course on the topic of Shakespeare authorship at the University of Minnesota for over a decade and he was a friend of former Oberon chair, the late Tom Hunter.

“I was a close friend of Tom Hunter,” Norwood said.  “I think of him often with wonderful memories of our Shakespeare discussions. I'm planning on writing a third review next week after the final segment of “Shakespeare Uncovered” on Hamlet and The Tempest  has aired (February 8, 2013) on PBS.”

Professor Norwood’s commentary is published below in the chronological order in which it was written. His comments on Jacobi’s segment appear in the second post which was published in Elizaforum on February 2, 2013.

Review of “Shakespeare Uncovered”  Part I (posted originally to Elizaforum on January 26, 2013) by James Norwood
The PBS series Shakespeare Uncovered is a lively and informative set of programs. The strength of the series is in the area of production history and performance studies. In the early programs on Macbeth and the comedies, there was good background on famous Shakespearean actors (Orson Welles as Macbeth; Charlotte Cushman as Rosalind; and the Redgrave clan). There were also clips from a terrific production of As You Like It that was presented recently at the Globe in London.
The major weakness of the program is the inability to come to terms with the Shakespeare authorship question. It was especially disappointing that Joely Richardson, the narrator/hostess of the program on the comedies, offered a routine summary of the standard Stratfordian biography. There was no mention of alternative candidates. Didn't she learning anything from participating in the Anonymous film?'
Another shortcoming of the series was the commentary. The remarks of the professors (Stephen Greenblatt, Marjorie Garber, Gail Kern Paster, et al) were cringe-worthy. Jonathan Bate discussed the motif of the author's use of twins in such plays as Twelfth Night. Speaking with conviction, Bate informs the viewing public that the recurring use of twins derives from the fact that "Shakespeare" was fondly recalling his own twins (Hamnet and Judith), which inspired Viola and Sebastian. Once again, a Stratfordian has crossed the Shapiro "line" by discussing the autobiographical implications of the plays.
Unless the scholars come to terms with authorship, their criticism will inevitably be shallow, flawed, and, in the case of Jonathan Bate, utterly ludicrous. In next week's program, we have Derek Jacobi's program on Richard II. Because Jacobi will be confronting the authorship issue, that program should be a breath of fresh air.
Review of “Shakespeare Uncovered”  Part 2 (posted originally to Elizaforum on February 2, 2013) by James Norwood
The second broadcast in the PBS series Shakespeare Uncovered addresses the history plays, specifically the tetralogy of Richard II, Henry IV (1), Henry IV (2), and Henry V.  Once again, there is outstanding commentary from British actors and directors. There are also excellent clips from theatre and media productions, including a pouty, adolescent Ian McKellan performing Richard II in a rare television adaptation.
Derek Jacobi and Jeremy Irons are the narrator-hosts of the two programs. The two stalwart actors provide incisive analysis of their experiences in playing the respective roles of Richard II and Henry IV. In a scene filmed at Castle Hedingham, Jacobi goes out on a limb by suggesting that Edward de Vere is the most likely candidate as the author of the plays. Unfortunately, the segment was so brief that no background was provided on de Vere’s life and the evidence pointing to his qualifications for authorship. As a doubter, Jacobi comes across as a harmless eccentric, especially when Jonathan Bate asserts with authority that the actor Shakespeare wrote his plays from the inspiration of working in the theatre and from observing the world of the court as an outsider when his theatre company gave royal performances.
But the interviews with the actors in the program actually undercut Bate’s argument.  A young actor who performed Richard II recently at the Globe, describes how Richard is undergoing an “identity crisis,” as apparent in the prison soliloquy of Act V. Instead of relying on a nearly verbatim transcription of Holinshed, as the author does for the description of the French Salique law in Henry V, the prison scene of Richard II is the author’s original, heartfelt interpretation. Of course, the theme of identity crisis is at the heart of Charles Beauclerk’s study Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, as he explores how the author was writing about his own crisis in the plays. The filmmakers fail to follow through in examining how the most original psychological insights of the author (and the most memorable moments in Shakespeare’s plays) could only have derived from personal experience—not from the world of the imagination and not from casually observing the the life of the court from a distance.
In one of the defining moments of the program, Jeremy Irons raises the question of the motivation of the author for writing the English history plays. The program’s superficial response is that as a commercial playwright, the author realized that the history plays would be popular in the public theatres of London.  But there was enough research apparent in the program to indicate that the author’s motivation was in fact much deeper. The reality of a Tudor writer presenting risky, subversive topics in a public forum was underscored when the program stressed that Richard II offered “a ringside seat to one of the scandalous and shocking moments in English history” and that when it was first performed and published, the play was “deeply threatening to Elizabethan politics and threatening to the man who wrote it.” For Bate, “Shakespeare could have been thrown in the Tower or even executed.”
But the film never addresses why the author of the deposition scene of Richard II was never challenged by the authorities even when the notorious scene was apparently presented for the public at the time of the Essex Revolt.  The only way to come to terms with this issue is to dig into the authorship question through a careful scrutiny of the evidence. But the series producer Richard Denton categorically dismisses alternative views of authorship. In a January 25interview for Zap2it, Denton states that "conspiracy theories are enormous fun, but there has to be a really plausible explanation why everybody kept quiet about it…. It's an absurd idea.  It's like 'The Da Vinci Code'”*
In a documentary film with the goal of “uncovering” Shakespeare, there could have been a better effort to examine the “plausible explanations” that have been advanced by the Oxfordian scholars for nearly a century. It is obvious that Denton and his writers have not read the books or even seen the recent film Last Will & Testament. One of Denton’s goals in the series was to inspire his children with a love of Shakespeare’s plays. It is unfortunate that he was not more open-minded about the authorship question. If he were to probe deeper and begin to uncover the layers of evidence, his kids would have a greater understanding of the Tudor age and a greater appreciation of the literary works in the Shakespearean canon.

Addendum (LT) -- In a teachers' guide on the Shakespeare Uncovered site, the following is offered for student discussion on the Jacobi episode:
For centuries, folks have been talking about who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. (DeVere is only the latest idea. Francis Bacon and Queen Elizabeth I are a couple of others." In order to believe someone else wrote the plays, you first have to be convinced that Shakespeare himself was not the writer. What say you? Did the guy from Stratford write the plays? Why? Why not? Does it matter that we know who really wrote them? Why? Why not?