Feature Interview – James Shapiro on Shakespeare: The King’s Man
On April 16, Athena Learning are set to release the BBC documentary Shakespeare: The King’s Man on DVD in the U.S. This fascinating three part series chronicles the work of Britain’s greatest writer during the reign of King James I. Columbia University professor James Shapiro researched, wrote and presented the show. I recently had the opportunity to speak with him about this groundbreaking documentary.
What was the inspiration behind Shakespeare: The King’s Man?
“The executive producer Phil George approached me about making the documentary because he knew I was working on a follow-up to my book 1599 which won the Samuel Johnson award. I was starting to research Jacobean Shakespeare, which I had all but ignored up until that point. People think of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan writer when in fact the Tudor line ended in 1603 when the Stuart’s rose to power. I had some knowledge of Jacobean Shakespeare but I wanted to learn more. So I spent about six to eight months going through the archives and I produced about 300 pages of material. I was very fortunate to gain access to rare documents, artifacts and experts that would have been off-limits to me if I hadn’t been accompanied by a film crew. But my main motivation was to learn more about Shakespeare’s work from the period between 1603 and 1613.”
Tell me about the process of actually producing the series.
“It was a lengthy process. The director, Steven Clarke reviewed my research material and produced the script which we revised together. Generally, documentaries feature people like Simon Schama, who is a great presenter but who often talks about topics that are outside his field of knowledge so isn’t always an expert on the subject matter. Others feature leading actors in search of the meaning of a particular play or subject. I wasn’t interested in producing either of those types of documentaries. I have been teaching this material for over 30 years and have long immersed myself in Shakespeare’s life and times. I also have learned a lot working with the Royal Shakespeare Company so I wanted to share my knowledge of Shakespearean drama with a wider audience. My book 1599 was very successful but it reached perhaps 200,000 people. By producing a documentary, I could share cutting-edge research with a much larger audience. It was a very difficult process because I am not used to memorizing and following a script or talking on TV for three hours. I found that frequent shots of caffeine helped my memory! I was also fortunate to have a great support team around me.” (Continued below)
Over the course of the series, you clearly demonstrate that many of Shakespeare’s plays had underlying “Ripped from the headlines” type themes. Did he aim his plays at contemporary audiences or do you think he also had an inkling that people would be watching these plays years and decades if not centuries later?
“By this point in time, Shakespeare had been writing plays for over 25 years. He was very careful not to weigh his plays down with too many contemporary references. Other contemporary writers, such as Ben Jonson, tied in lots of topical references into plays, especially in comedies. Shakespeare tended to avoid doing that. I think Shakespeare was very aware that he was writing for posterity but I strongly believe that elements of his plays were shaped by what was happening around him. Consequently, it was very difficult to make a case in the documentary that his plays transcended the Jacobean era even though the stories related to the events of his time. In the second episode, I dealt with Macbeth and the topic of “equivocation” and I think that is a good example of how a play could resonate with the preoccupations of Shakespeare’s day yet also feel timeless.
We also tried to help viewers connect with history by filming around London in the streets where Shakespeare and his contemporaries lived and worked. The Occupy movement was in full swing when we were there so we tied that into the show because it helped to illustrate the riots that influenced Coriolanus. The buildings from the Jacobean era were destroyed either by the fire of London or the Nazis but the modern day glass and steel structures still capture the same feel. ”
Many people think of Shakespeare as a guy whose spirit lurks in dusty libraries but over the course of the series you showed us that he wasn’t just someone who wrote plays but also someone who staged performances.
“I was given incredible access to performers and rehearsals by the RSC. Most people don’t get an opportunity to watch actors in the rehearsal process. The viewers also got to see enacted a spectacular scene from Macbeth—the Porter scene–that helped to bring the story to life.
Our culture today is very visual but for his time Shakespeare was also very aware of how things looked. We saw that when we went to the indoor theater at the Globe, currently under construction, and worked with Farah Karim-Cooper, the leading expert on make-up from the Shakespearean era. Setting foot on the stage at the rebuilt Globe Theatre was for me like walking out on the field at Yankee Stadium. It is amazing when you experience that for the first time.”
Your book Contested Will has been described as the definitive argument against the so-called Oxfordian theory that calls into question Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays. What are your thoughts on the conspiracy theories?
“We started working on this documentary not long after the film Anonymous was released. It purported to show how Shakespeare didn’t really write his plays (and not surprisingly was a box office disaster). I have immersed myself in the archives and know how and why Shakespeare wrote his plays. I live in a universe of facts and truth while the doubters live in a world of truthiness and fantasy.
Currently, the leading alternative theory is that the Earl of Oxford wrote these plays. The biggest problem with that theory is the fact that Oxford died in 1604—before most of Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays were written. Oxford could not have drawn on the food riots of 1607 to write Coriolanus if he had died three years before it was even written! With the exception of Measure for Measure, all of the plays explored in the documentary were written after the death of Oxford. I quietly tried to inflict another blow on the Oxfordians by showing how these plays were influenced by events that took place after their candidate for the authorship of the plays had died.”
What is your favorite Shakespeare play?
“When I was younger, Julius Caesar was the play for me but as I get older, different plays become more meaningful to me–such as King Lear. When I see a really great production it really opens a play up in fresh ways and becomes a new favorite. At the minute I am working with the RSC on a production of Anthony and Cleopatra that will be on in Stratford-upon-Avon, New York and Miami. It is a brilliant version of the play. So my thoughts on the plays change over time; it’s kind of like the ‘seven ages of man’ speech in As You Like It—with each new stage of life I suppose I have a new favorite play.”
James Shapiro Bio:
James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
His major works include:
Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?,
A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (Won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006)
Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World’s Most Famous Passion Play
Shakespeare and the Jews
Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare
Shakespeare: The King’s Man (Shortlisted for Grierson Award for the Best Historical Documentary 2012)