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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: February ::
More on "In Search of Shakespeare"
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0283  Monday, 2 February 2004

From:           Peter Bridgman <
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Date:           Friday, 30 Jan 2004 15:53:25 +0100 (CET)
Subject: 15.0256  More on "In Search of Shakespeare"
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0256  More on "In Search of Shakespeare"

Michael Wood's 'In Search of Shakespeare' was screened here in the UK
last year.  I thought it was an excellent series.  And the accompanying
book which was published by the BBC is even better.

Not everyone was as impressed as me though.  Here is a review from
Oxford editor Gary Taylor...

THE HEAVEN OF INVENTION

In Search of Shakespeare claims to uncover the real Bard - the
politically correct genius who led a thrilling life and created modern
theatre. How unconvincing, says Gary Taylor

Saturday July 12, 2003

The Guardian

"Can the life of a writer ever be as interesting or exciting as the life
of a conqueror?" asks Michael Wood near the start of In Search of
Shakespeare, the latest BBC investment in the cash-cow of the heritage
industry.

Well, no. Not if the writer was Shakespeare, anyway. Cervantes,
Rousseau, Byron, Wilde, Conrad, Colette - they could give us enough
footage for four hours of hot documentary. But Shakespeare? You've got
to be kidding. The inkblots of William the Bard can't compete with the
footsteps of Alexander the Great.

But Wood, in the best traditions of British gallantry, won't be deterred
by insurmountable odds. The perfect enthusiastic sixth-form teacher, he
treks yet again up some ancient road or other, toting his signature
backpack as though he didn't have an army of off-camera attendants to
carry it for him. He is searching, he explains - looking over his
shoulder at the rest of us, dragged along on this latest field trip -
"for ghosts". Ghosts tend to avoid TV crews.

"But it's the 'place' that's interesting," he exclaims at one point, and
he's right. Places last longer than people, and television likes places
better than speeches. "This is where they hid," he assures us, squeezing
into "the main sewer" of a Tudor house, where Robert Southwell and other
Jesuit missionaries hid from their Elizabethan Protestant persecutors.
Walking down a church aisle, or fording a Lancashire estuary at low
tide, he puts himself in Shakespeare's shoes, and tempts us to believe
that an electronic medium can be a spiritual channel.

It's moving, at such moments, precisely because he's moving around,
making biography a three-dimensional art form. At his best, Wood is a
walking head. The estuary and the sewer don't translate into print, but
Wood's book to accompany the series does let you savour some splendid
Victorian photographs of old London innyards like the Green Dragon
("Shakespeare would have drank here"), which flit by too quickly on the
TV screen. The videos and the book both give us such magically preserved
places as the parish church of St Helen's Bishopsgate, which somehow
"escaped the Great Fire, the developers and the bombers".

"Here" is the most important word of the script: "They must have been
living here in Henley Street... The Elizabethan watergate is still
here," etc. The poetry of place usurps the place of poetry. An actor
quotes the opening soliloquy of Richard III - "And all the clouds that
loured upon our house" - and the screen fills with time-lapse
photography of massive, accelerated cloudscapes rolling over the snaky
Thames. Dark swirling skies and deck-washing storms compete with lines
from The Tempest.

What Wood and the BBC do best, Shakespeare didn't do at all. He wrote
plays for an empty stage. No sets, no attempt to re-create this
particular aristocratic mansion in Lancashire, or that amazing view from
a hill in Warwickshire. Shakespeare's theatre erased space, and replaced
it with people. He imagined - and asks us to imagine - human beings
exquisitely free of the influence of their physical environment.

Wood's medium contradicts Shakespeare's message. Wood goes "on the road"
with the Royal Shakespeare Company, "to do his first shows in the places
he played them": places like the New Inn in Gloucester, "the last
surviving galleried inn". Here's authenticity for you. But when
Shakespeare played such venues they weren't listed buildings to gawk at.
They were just ordinary public accommodation, places so familiar that
the spectators could forget about their surroundings and immerse
themselves in what the actors said and did.

The opening of the Globe Theatre, we're told, was "the beginning of
modern theatre". Wrong: the Globe was just a remake, on another site, of
an earlier theatre, using the same boards. What comes to mind, when we
think "theatre" began with the elaborate stage sets in the masques of
Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, or with Thomas Middleton's 1624 smash hit A
Game at Chess (the first example of "designer" theatre on the commercial
stage), or with the introduction of actresses in 1660. Actually, all
those things began in Italy long before they reached England.

Mr Enthusiasm is often married to Misinformation. "The women in the
audience" loved The Two Gentlemen of Verona, he assures us, and later
"the women in the audience wanted to go to bed with Hamlet". Maybe, but
there is absolutely no historical evidence for either claim. The one
character of Shakespeare's that we know that at least some female
spectators found sexy was the bad boy, Richard III. "For all we know,"
Wood says of Shakespeare's relationship with his wife, "he loved her
till the end." For all we know, they loathed each other.

Wood promises to show us Shakespeare's plays "the way they were first
performed" - and immediately cuts to a black actor. Ray Fearon not only
repeats bits of Othello (kissing then strangling the white woman), but
also Duke Orsino (which lets Viola say she loves a man of his
"complexion") and the Duke of York (persecuted by a white lynch mob, and
talking about tigers). Fearon is a fine actor, but here he's a
poster-boy to illustrate what Wood calls Shakespeare's "ability to see
things from both sides".

Shakespeare's theatrical company, of course, did not contain any black
actors. Even the RSC didn't start casting black people in white roles
until the 1980s, when Hugh Quarshie broke the colour barrier. But it's
becoming increasingly difficult to peddle the old white racist bard to
the new global market. So BBC Worldwide Ltd has supplied Shakespeare
with new multicultural credentials.

The negative portrayals of black men in Titus Andronicus and The
Merchant of Venice aren't mentioned. The scene Shakespeare wrote for Sir
Thomas More dramatises (says Wood) "a race riot, an anti-immigrant
riot", in which More rebukes "the racist mob" for its inhumanity. (The
immigrants were French and Dutch, and Shakespeare never mentions race.)
In Othello, Wood says, Shakespeare told the story of a black man who
murders an innocent white woman in order to protest Queen Elizabeth's
plans to expel all blacks from England. Funny form of protest, even if
the dating was right - which it isn't.

This new politically correct Bard belongs to the documentary's larger
answer to the problem of how to get an audience to sit through four
hours of tax records and property purchases. From the outset, Wood
dangles before us the lure of "a historical detective story, an
Elizabethan whodunnit". Shakespeare, it turns out, did not lead a boring
existence. He very cleverly constructed the appearance of a boring
existence, as a cover for his exciting! dangerous! and courageous! life
as a member of Elizabethan England's persecuted Catholic minority.

I have been saying since 1984 that Shakespeare was Catholic, and that
fear of arrest motivated his seeming inscrutability. So I should be
delighted that what was, 19 years ago, just another example of my
eccentricity has become BBC Worldwide orthodoxy. I should be thrilled
that Wood calls Henry VIII by the original title that I restored in the
Oxford Shakespeare, All is True, and agrees with me on the significance
of that cryptic title.

I should be, but I'm not. There's something obscene about using the
political assassination of Christopher Marlowe, or the legal torture and
public execution of martyrs like Edmund Campion, Edward Arden, and
Robert Southwell, to spice up someone else's dull biography. Shakespeare
never sacrificed anything for anybody.

So the next time that enthusiastic sixth-form teacher natters on about
Shakespeare as "the greatest... the most famous... the best thing ever",
ask yourself whether you really want to keep following him down those
ancient roads.

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