restricted access Shakespeare: The King’s Man dir. by Steven Clarke (review)
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Reviewed by
Steven Clarke, dir. and prod. Shakespeare: The King’s Man. Athena, 2013. Host James Shapiro. Media. 177 minutes.

An intriguing learning series, Shakespeare: The King’s Man was intended for debut in North America via this past spring of 2013. Produced by Green Bay Media of the United Kingdom, this educational DVD was first released over the BBC in 2012. The film redefines the period under King James I, casting a different reflection on Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies and history plays while offering contemporary scenes of London as backdrop and modern theatre productions for reference to the Jacobean era. The Daily Mail (U.K.) newspaper called the series “rich and rewarding” while the Guardian deduced it simply to “excellent.”

The worthwhile DVD 2-disc set includes three episodes (177 min.), plus a bonus disc of the BBC’s 1983 production of Macbeth (148 min.) and a 12- page viewer’s guide featuring 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. The bonus disc also contains biographies of other prominent playwrights of Shakespeare’s day and of the host and scholar James Shapiro who has been a professor of English at Columbia University.

In this three-part series, Shapiro keeps Shakespeare in the driver’s seat of writing his plays, but the film offers an enriching scrutiny about James and his turbulent reign after the death of Elizabeth I. In spite of James’s [End Page 76] intellectualism and own scholarly writings, the film asserts that the king was an “ambiguous,” “dark,” and “contradictory” leader who was despised by many of his English subjects. The reign was plagued by conspiracy and plots against the king, the king’s constant conflicts with Parliament and sexual improprieties, and dynastic dysfunction and tragedy of the royal family.

As the “first-ever playwright belonging to a king,” Shapiro claims Shakespeare’s response was to write plays and experiment with genre. The settings of Shakespeare’s plays were strategically displaced and set in far-off, foreign places, and his plots were carefully structured by the dramatist to capture anxiety and passion and depict major characters set adrift under troubling politics and amid ambiguous leadership to obliquely resemble and reflect upon the real ironies and ills accompanying England under their king.

The series is definitely weighted to provide more Jacobean than Shakespearean enlightenment and reinforces that, in the wake of the queen’s death in March of 1603, left behind were a “golden” peace and assurances of a free England. Instead the age ushered in new speculations about the threat of foreign rule and a time of uncertainty that may not have been so deserving of the playwright’s genius and art. With departure of the fifth and last Tudor monarch, who died childless, Elizabeth’s successor, Scottish King James VI and King of England and Ireland as James I, was the only son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Damley were great-grandchildren of Henry VII of England through Margaret Tudor, the older sister of Henry VIII and aunt to Elizabeth I. Not lost on Shapiro and part of his focus is the impact of the loss of a clear Tudor heir and Elizabeth’s arrest and confinement of James’s mother, who was eventually found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth, and was subsequently executed in 1587. According to Shapiro, these were important factors in James’s attempts to “dramatically” rewrite Tudor myth. James sought to dispel the pesky and lingering nostalgia among the people for his predecessor’s charisma and popularity and instead, to create his own dynastic and approving legacy. Meanwhile, Shakespeare set about writing and producing new plays of subtlety and obliqueness like Measure for Measure, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens and Anthony and Cleopatra that encapsulated the complex and contradictory times, vice and corruption of James’s court, and England’s first stirrings of capitalism and march to becoming an empire that included efforts of colonizing the Americas.

Also, the Jacobean period generated some of Shakespeare’s finest among his 37...