Shakespeare: The King’s Man is one of the most engaging scholarly documentaries that you are likely to watch. The three part series is written and presented by Columbia University Professor James Shapiro whose award winning book 1599 now serves as a prelude to this critically acclaimed expose of the story behind the Jacobean era Shakespeare plays. The hit movie Shakespeare in Love proved that the Bard could appeal to a mainstream audience that is more used to special effects and CGI than sonnets and soliloquies. However, that movie took huge liberties with the truth whereas Shakespeare: The King’s Man sticks to the facts whilst shedding new light on the previously unknown or ignored events and motivations that shaped Shakespeare’s plays.
James Shapiro was new to TV when BBC4 first broadcast this show in 2012. However, Shapiro has been teaching the topic for over 25 years and his knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject more than make up for his lack of prior TV experience. Shapiro is like a story teller of old, carefully and cleverly relaying real facts in a way that captivates and engages his audience. He also makes clever use of modern day London to create a back drop for his story. The people may look different and the buildings may be sturdier but you can feel the energy of Jacobean era London oozing through the TV as Shapiro explains how the political intrigues and social upheaval of Shakespeare’s day had a direct impact on what he wrote and how he wrote it. (Continued below)
Most of us are familiar with MacBeth having studied it in high school but how many of us ever tied the events in the play to the ill-fated Gunpowder plot that nearly killed the British King? The Winter’s Tale is less well known but Shapiro stirs our interest in this obscure play by linking it to real-life events that scandalized the nation during the reign of King James. We get to see snippets of both these plays and the dialogue makes much more sense when you understand the meaning behind it. Aside from providing some context to Shakespeare’s plays, Shapiro also firmly squashes any lingering doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship of these works.
The DVD set also includes a 148 minute, 1983 BBC dramatization of MacBeth. Renowned Scottish actor Nicol Williamson takes on the title role and his illustrious cast mates include Ian Hogg (Rockcliffe’s Folly) and Tony award winner Jane Lapotaire. However, James Bolam (New Tricks) arguably steals the show with a very earthy performance as the porter. It is surprising that this production is offered as a free extra because it would have been well worth releasing as a DVD in its own right. Other extras include “A Theatre for Every Age” – a brochure with a viewer’s guide and timeline, and a number of articles about topics that are covered in the documentary such as the Gunpowder Plot.
Shakespeare: The King’s Man is being released in the U.S. by Athena on 16 April. The two discs containing the 177 minute, three-part documentary plus bonus features are available for just $39.99. It is amazingly good value for several hours of thoroughly entertaining TV. Education is rarely this much fun.
If you want to learn more about this show and the man behind it then click the link below to read Best British TV’s interview with James Shapiro.