Saturday, February 9, 2013

Norwood reviews final "Uncovered" episodes: Hamlet and Tempest

David Tennant in 2012 National Theatre production of Hamlet

by James Norwood

The final program of the PBS series Shakespeare Uncovered explores the thesis that Hamlet and The Tempest are Shakespeare’s most personal plays.  

British actor David Tennant, who played Hamlet in a recent modern dress RSC production, asks why it is that Hamlet is so “unique.” But the program fails to locate the play in context in the Elizabethan age in order to identify why this play was special from the outset.  There was no discussion of the political world of the era and no mention of the court, including the key figure of William Cecil. The program never mentions the numerous resemblances of the character of Polonius to Cecil, which have been identified by such famous scholars as E. K. Chambers, A. L. Rowse, and Dover Wilson. The program’s narrative unfolds in a complete vacuum, relying on routine plot synopsis, as opposed to careful research and thoughtful critical analysis.

Unlike the other programs in the Shakespeare Uncovered series, the commentary of the actors in the Hamlet segment seemed pedestrian. The actors would typically discuss how playing the role of Hamlet triggered their own personal responses. Simon Russell Beale described the loss of his mother at the time he was playing Hamlet, but nothing about his acting process or preparation for the role. Jude Law struggled with articulating any main point about the actor’s discipline in interpreting the famous soliloquy (“To be or not to be”) other than thinking about himself during the performance. The discussion was so mundane and so generalized that it was difficult to understand how the formulaic revenge structure of Hamlet, as described by scholar Stephen Greenblatt, transcended such Elizabethan potboilers as The Spanish Tragedy.

When the producers attempted to link Hamlet to the life of the author, the scene shifted to Stratford.  We are told that the author “almost certainly learned Latin” at the local grammar school. After reaching adulthood and starting a family, the author lost his beloved son Hamnet, who died at age 11. The close resemblance of the names "Hamnet" and "Hamlet" leads Tennant and others to speculate that the author was writing a play to cope with the loss of his son. But the program does not explain why the author would write a play about a son who has lost his father—not vice versa--as appropriate to these tragic circumstances. And without delving deeply into Hamlet’s psychology, the program suggests that Hamlet is actually troubled not so much by the loss of his father, but much more profoundly by the actions of his mother Gertrude in sleeping with and marrying Claudius.  

The program’s conclusion about Hamlet is that “in the end, there is no other character like him.” This conclusion was drawn without the slightest examination of the essential sources (personal, historical, literary) that shaped the vision of the author. A good place to begin might have been with the Renaissance philosophy of stoicism and with the text of Cardanus Comfort as translated by Thomas Bedingfield with the preface of Edward de Vere. This study might have helped to inform the actors to understand the lines they were speaking.

In the program on The Tempest, director Trevor Nunn claims that “more than any of his other plays, it [The Tempest] leads us to the essence of the man who wrote them.”  But once again, the writers and producers fail to offer convincing parallels between the life of the Stratford man and the author of The Tempest. In attempting to explain what the play “tells us about Shakespeare himself,” the most specific detail provided was that the man from Stratford was concerned about his youngest daughter Judith in the same protective way that Prospero was guarding his daughter Miranda. But the marriage of Judith Shakespere to vintner Thomas Quiney did not occur until four years after the producers claim that The Tempest was written.  This connection is pure speculation, and the Judith Shakspere-Thomas Quiney relationship bears no resemblance to that of Miranda and Ferdinand.

For over a century in Shakespearean criticism, has been considered Shakespeare’s “farewell” to the theatre, and the program recycles that time-honored hypothesis.  Nunn asserts that The Tempest was Shakespeare’s “last complete play” and that “after writing The Tempest, Shakespeare left London for good.” But this point is contradicted in the standard Stratfordian biographies that describe in detail how the Stratford man continued to work in the theatre, collaborating on such plays as The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, and that he traveled frequently from Stratford to London to oversee investments and to purchse new properties long after the conventional dating of The Tempest in 1612. The entire six-part Shakespeare Uncovered series offers no convincing evidence from the life of the man from Stratford that The Tempest or any other play or poem in the canon was intended as a farewell of any kind or included any plausible autobiographical inferences, based on the known facts of the life of the Stratford man.

At the end of the program, Nunn expresses his astonishment at the staggering achievement implied by the Shakespearean canon. According to the experts, the vast majority of the plays and poems were written in the timeframe of a single decade. For Nunn, “I can’t begin to understand how he could have worked at such a pitch, at such a scale, in such a short span of time.”  Indeed! But Nunn never entertains the possibility that such an artistic output is not humanly possible and that the true author undoubtedly spent several decades revising his works many times over. This would help to explain the major textual discrepancies among the three variant editions of Hamlet, as witnessed by David Tennant in the British Library.  It would also explain why the pattern of authorial self-revelation for the Stratford man makes no sense, as lamely examined in this program.  

The Shakespeare Uncovered series asks the right questions and correctly identifies Hamlet and The Tempest at the heart of the author’s self-portrait in two of the major dramatic works.  But the answers to those questions are not “uncovered” in these programs. Much more plausible answers are provided in the articles, lectures, books, and films of Oxfordian scholars. The answers are there for any interested students -- if they are only willing to invest the time.

UPDATE 2/13/2013 Additional James Norwood commentary originally emailed to Elizaforum Feb. 10, 2013:

Regarding the final program in Shakespeare Uncovered, there was another unsuccessful attempt by orthodox scholars to nail down the dating of The Tempest to the year 1612.  In my opinion, the question of dating Shakespeare's works is the single most important hurdle to overcome in raising awareness of the authorship topic.   Of course, the Strachey letter was used as the principal evidence to establish the dating of The Tempest.

But in the middle of the program, there was an intriguing comment by Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr. Williams described the author of The Tempest as wrting about ametaphorical (as opposed to literal) island. The uses of allegory were employed as well in the Utopia of Sir Thomas More.  Written in Latin and published in 1518, More was extrapolating from a fictional island in the Americas to write a satirical commentary on Tudor England. Even the famous, original frontispiece illustration for Utopia depicts an island shaped in the form of Great Britain. Like Utopia, The Tempest is clearly not about colonialism or sensational shipwrecks in the New World. Rather, the play is set on an island in the Mediterranean, and, as described in the opening scene, the storm/shipwreck is merely the pretext for the literal and metaphorical exile of Prospero.

The analysis of Dr. Williams underscores the significance of how outsiders like all of us on Elizaforum may bring fresh insights to the study of Shakespeare. If the academic commentators (Bate, Greenblatt, Kern-Paster, Garber, and Champion) were removed, the Shakespeare Uncovered series would have been a better program.

Right now, the academics (almost exclusively, the faculty in English Departments in the United States and the UK) have hegemony on Shakespearean biography and criticism. American historians exerted the same control over biographies of Thomas Jefferson, insisting with the same doctrinaire ferocity as the Stratfordians that Jefferson did not sire children with his slave Sally Hemmings, the half-sister of Jefferson's wife Martha. For nearly two centuries, there was absolutely no room for disagreement with the experts, despite substantial evidence to the contrary. But when DNA evidence conclusively demonstrated that Jefferson had a longstanding relatonship with Sally Hemmings, the history was finally changed. Eventually, we had a much more balanced and human view of perhaps the greatest intellect among the Founding Fathers.

Like Thomas Jefferson's life story, history will also be rewritten for the "Shakespeare" biography. There will come a time when today's academicians will be long forgotten. An entirely new approach to Shakespeare studies will shift the focus away from the public theatres to the world of the court for a deeper, richer understanding of the Shakespearean plays and poems. It is just a matter of time.

James Norwood is a retired humanities professor from the University of Wisconsin who resides in St. Paul, MN. Norwood's commentary originally appeared on the Shakespeare authorship email forum, Elizaforum, and is shared here with the permission of the author.

See also: "Jacobi sets fur flying in PBS series" at

Hamlet uncovered:
Tempest uncovered: