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Shakespeare the King’s Man

Release Year:         2012
Studio:         Acorn Media
Format:         Colour; Widescreen (bonus Full Screen); NTSC
Rated:         Not Rated
# of Discs/Episodes:         2 Discs / 3 Episodes
Running Time:         177 minutes plus bonus
DVD Release Date:         April 16, 2013
Presenter:         James Shapiro
Director:         Steven Clarke
DVD Features:         SDH subtitles
E:Top Picks Rating:         9/10

Acorn Media Write-up:  
Shakespeare’s life and work are sometimes romanticized as a product of the golden age of Elizabeth I. But the bard produced some of his finest plays after the Virgin Queen’s death. In this illuminating BBC series, American scholar James Shapiro examines the plays Shakespeare wrote during the turbulent reign of Elizabeth’s successor, King James I.

One of the new king’s first official acts was to name Shakespeare a “king’s man.” Overnight, the dramatist attained security, prestige, and an up-close view of the Jacobean court. Shapiro convincingly argues that the dark, complex plays of Shakespeare’s last decade–King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest, among others–mirrored both royal life and the era’s profound social changes.

Visiting sites that Shakespeare would have known, scouring archives, and consulting leading historians, literary experts, and directors, Shapiro reveals a Shakespeare we’ve never seen.

BONUS FEATURES
Bonus disc with the BBC’s 1983 production of Macbeth (148 min.)
12-page viewer’s guide with a timeline, A Theatre for Every Age: by Mark Olshaker, and articles on the arts of the Jacobean era, the Gunpowder Plot, and Shakespeare’s source material.
Biographies of other prominent playwrights of Shakespeare’s day and of host James Shapiro
Discussion questions at athenalearning.com

Jon Ted Wynne Review:    
Professor James Shapiro has done the seemingly impossible and found a new light to shed on the life of William Shakespeare and his later plays. Although he makes a few assumptions here and there, (as when he says, most convincingly, that Shakespeare did such and such a thing at such and such a place), his opinion is nonetheless well-informed and his theories, for the most part, are impressively believable. We must remember though that Shakespeare’s actual life and career is very poorly documented, and while it is tempting to place the world’s greatest playwright in any number of circumstances, there is nothing to actually prove these imaginings.

I’m willing to concede many of Shapiro’s major surmises, however, such as how events of the day may have impacted Shakespeare’s writings, for they mostly make perfect sense; but one must view this program with just a pinch of salt, at least when it comes to Shakespeare’s biography.

But the play’s the thing, is it not? And Shapiro’s knowledge of the time and key events in the reign of King James I is the real meat of the story, drawing us in with a fresh perspective on Shakespeare’s works that has rarely, if ever, (to my knowledge) been considered before.

And that consideration is Shakespeare as Jacobean playwright (meaning he wrote during the reign of King James) as opposed to being solely a product of the Elizabethan era, which many people assume. As Shapiro delves deep into the events and changes of the time, the significance of this “discovery” becomes fascinatingly apparent.

This is the ultimate value of this outstanding three episode series: how it provides new insight into some of the most important plays in world literature. Not an easy task.

While he isn’t the most absorbing on-camera host in an Athena-released documentary (Shapiro’s readings tend to over-emphasize key words which has the effect of sounding like Captain Kirk got an education), this is truly a fine example of content over style carrying the program. Many of Shapiro’s conclusions and observations are truly ground-breaking. And even with some mediocre performances of scenes from Shakespeare’s later plays (was the RSC slumming – especially their horribly-performed bits from King Lear?), the layer upon layer of significant observations about Shakespeare as a Jacobean author pile up so high that the cumulative effect is that of a significant contribution to Shakespearean scholarship. (Bits from Ralph Fiennes’ recent film of Coriolanus make up for some of the shoddy stage excerpts, so that helps, too).

As a very special bonus feature is an outstanding (for the most part) production of Macbeth from 1983, part of the BBC Shakespeare series that ambitiously presented all of Shakespeare’s plays produced for television from the late seventies to the early nineteen-eighties. Nicol Williamson is in fine form as Macbeth and the shamefully little-known (in North America) Jane Lapotaire explodes in a technically astounding performance as Lady Macbeth. Note how she ascends several staircases without looking down, as one small example of her powerhouse technique.

This two disc set from Athena is a keeper, something every fan of Shakespeare simply must own. Despite a few false notes, it is truly impressive and bound to set you thinking about some of Shakespeare’s late masterpieces in a new way.

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