Like many whose introduction to William Shakespeare has come through the dry instruction of an English class James Shapiro was no fan of the Bard while growing up. “I was turned off by it in junior high and high school and I never took a college course on Shakespeare so I came to it late through seeing hundreds of productions,” the Brooklyn native tells ArtsNash.
It is perhaps a sentence worthy of British understatement to say those productions changed his American mind – the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University is now on the boards of both the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. and the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK as well as advising New York’s The Public Theater on the Bard’s works. “It is a very strange trip,” he says, “and one that surprises me every morning when I get up and realize that’s been my journey.”
The recent Athena DVD release of Shakespeare: The King’s Man (which aired in the UK as a BBC4 three-hour documentary with the title “The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History” in 2012) is the latest leg of that journey. The author of such illuminating works as “1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare” and “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” now turns his enthusiasm and expertise to the subject of Shakespearean works written in the reign of King James.
“It’s a bit of penitence on my part for promoting the Elizabethan Shakespeare in (“1599”)…and really not paying attention to his Jacobean (plays),” Shapiro explains. “The book I’ll be finishing in 2016 looks at 1606, the year Shakespeare finished King Lear (which was first staged at King James’ court) and the year he wrote Macbeth.
“The reason I agreed to do this documentary is I felt I really needed to understand the Jacobean Shakespeare before I wrote about one of those Jacobean years. It was both an act of contrition and a way of steeping me in that 10-year period from 1603 to 1613 when Shakespeare was a King’s Man writing under King James.”
Some have looked for the author in his plays; others have questioned what relevancy these 400-year-old dramas have for today. Happily Shapiro hasn’t fallen into either of those narrow-minded camps – he’s not reductive about the elements that created such masterworks as Measure for Measure (“It is terrifying…a brilliant, brilliant play that speaks as much to America in 2013 as it did to England in the early 17th Century” says Shapiro), King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Henry VIII among others, and he clearly understands how the Bard’s tales could just as easily dovetail with today’s headlines as yesterday’s history.
“My job as a cultural historian is to go back 400 years and, to pick just one example from this documentary, to imagine the great terrorist threat of the Gunpowder Plot in which half of London was going to be blown up along with Parliament by Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators,” Shapiro says. “What effect could that have had on Shakespeare and King James and on the culture of the day, and how did it make its impact felt in Shakespeare’s next play Macbeth?
“That’s the challenge I felt – it’s hard enough to try and understand the repercussions of 9/11 or more recently the attacks in Boston on our culture. It’s much tougher doing it for 400 years ago when there were fewer facts that survive. So I try to spend as much time as I can patiently going through the evidence, patiently going through Shakespeare’s plays and seeing where (the plays and the events that shaped the Jacobean period) connect.
A sequence in part two, “Equivocation,” makes the connection between then and now very clear – Shapiro and the crew led by producer/director Steven Clarke were filming at the time the Occupy London movement had a tent city next to St. Paul’s Cathedral. “That was fun to do,” Shapiro noted. “We did a lot of shooting there, and it gave a much more vivid backdrop to the subject we were looking at (that included the Midlands Rising food riots of 1607) and Coriolanus (the doc includes footage and related interviews for Ralph Fiennes’ excellent 2011 film version).
“Here once again were public protests and the opening scene of that play really resonated with the anger and passion of crowds outside St. Paul’s. It was a nightmare shooting because there so many police and layers of authority to get to the film site that we lost a day’s shoot one day, but it was worth it.”
Some other sights in the series are sensational as well, though admittedly for very different reasons. “A lot of expressions I wore on my face making this documentary were shock and surprise simply (for instance) because I didn’t know someone was going to put into my hands a diamond-encrusted jewel that King James had given in an act of patronage (known as the Lyte Jewel and housed at The British Museum)…That’s not feigned surprise. I was shocked they let me anywhere near that jewel while making this film,” Shapiro says with a good-natured chuckle.
In addition to the social upheaval present in the Jacobean Age the contradictions in King James – a brilliant man who could lead the way toward a new translation of the Bible but not avoid a myriad of personal and political pitfalls – provide important components to the series. In looking at the complex era and the fascinating royal who reigned over it, though, Shapiro is also quick to note the crucial difference between Shakespeare and other members of the Jacobean playwright fraternity such as John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton and Ben Jonson. “It’s why we’re having this conversation about Shakespeare and not Jonson,” he notes. “It’s not that Jonson wasn’t a great writer of his day; but Shakespeare had one foot in his age and one foot that wiggles around in ours as well as every culture for the last 400 years.
“It is the connection between our moment and Shakespeare’s text that matters. Brilliant directors with great actors can find that spark. That is why I keep going to see the plays – not just to learn about Shakespeare in his day but also to gain insight into our own cultural moment. That’s also why I teach my students and write my books – not to live in the past in a kind of Williamsburg, Va., recreate-the-past way, but to try to figure out how to make this past available so we understand ourselves and our lives a little bit better.”
And that’s one of the most exciting components of “Shakespeare: The King’s Man” – we see actors from the RSC and Shakespeare’s Globe bringing the Bard’s words to modern audiences. There’s even a magical moment from The Winter’s Tale where we get to see Hermione as she comes back to life (“When it’s done right you never forget it” as Shapiro says) that was made more poignant during filming by the fact that the actor who played the role “was considerably pregnant. Of course her character is pregnant at the beginning of the play and not the end…and her clothing masked the fact…but it’s part of making this such a special experience,” says Shapiro, adding that their hosts at the Globe – where the new indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opens in 2014 – “could not have been nicer about allowing us into the space and providing actors and the atmospherics.”
Shapiro and other scholars appear in the series, but this is no on-camera equivalent of a musty library filled with long-forgotten volumes: It is living, breathing history that transforms before our eyes and ears into contemporary culture and a timeless treatise on the human condition. “There are many smart Shakespeareans in this country who spend a lot of their time speaking to each other,” the down-to-earth Shapiro observes. “The role I’ve taken on…is to speak to people who just like me didn’t get it, didn’t understand it, felt bullied by Shakespeare, or didn’t understand what the excitement was.”
One thing he’s excited about is the plan the Folger has to take copies of the 1623 First Folio to all 50 states and four US territories on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016 so that more people can see the legendary book for themselves. “I want everybody in America to have the experience,” Shapiro says, “…and I’m really happy the Folger is going to be taking some of their 82 First Folios on the road.”
He’s no less excited about continuing to seek out exemplary productions of Shakespeare accompanied by his wife and 16-year-old son. That’s an important part of his daily walk with the Man from Stratford. “It’s what I get up and enjoy doing every day. I’m blessed in that respect.
“I’ve lost a half-step on the basketball court,” he adds with a laugh, “but everywhere else it’s kept me young.”
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 history of London theatre, the Gunpowder Plot, and Shakespeare’s source material; Biographies of other prominent playwrights of Shakespeare’s day and of host James Shapiro; $39.99; DVD 2-Disc Set – 3 episodes, plus bonus disc – Approx. 177 min., plus bonus – SDH subtitles; click here to buy.
*Photos courtesy Athena except for Larry D. Horricks/Weinstein Company photo from Coriolanus and the image of the Lyte Jewel courtesy The British Museum.