All the world’s a TV, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. Yes it’s “that speech” from “that play” (the comedy As You Like It) by playwright, poet, and all round literary superstar (he’s like Elvis to us literature students) William Shakespeare. But, of course, Shakespeare referred to a stage, not a TV. Nevertheless it seems, particularly in recent years, the TV has become Shakespeare’s new theatre, reaching, rather fittingly for a man whose theatre was named the Globe, all corners of the world.
Whilst versions of many Shakespeare plays are still being performed in theatres across the country, and indeed the world, and films, such as last year’s Macbeth, continue to be made, television has increasingly become the new medium through which writers and actors continue the tradition of bringing the bard’s work to life. In recent years, we’ve seen a glossy, all-star cast BBC series adaptation of Shakespeare’s first history cycle in The
Hollow Crown, and this year Shakespeare’s second history cycle – Henry VI parts one, two and three, and Richard III, is due to air as series 2 of The Hollow Crown. And that’s not all: to celebrate Shakespeare’s life and career as the most influential writer in the English language on the 400th anniversary of his death, there’s going to be a whole host of TV shows and specials dedicated to his work, and to the man himself. So if you’re not a fan of the bard, maybe stay away from TV for a bit.
So, with all of these Shakespeare adaptations, to watch, or not to watch: that is the question. For starters, The Hollow Crown. Like the series before it which featured Ben Wishaw, Rory Kinnear, Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons, it features an all-star cast. The cast is headed up by Richard III’s own distant relative Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of Richard, and other well-known actors in the series include Hugh Bonneville, Michael Gambon, Sally Hawkins, Keeley Hawes, and Dame Judi Dench. The series is titled The Wars of the Roses, as the plays are
set during the civil war between the Yorks, such as Richard III, and the Lancastrians, for example Henry VI and Henry Tudor (i.e. Queen Elizabeth’s grandad) who overthrew Richard at Bosworth (yes, the “my kingdom for a horse!” bit).
If this slight bit of historical background puts you off – and the mere mention of ‘history plays’ send you to sleep – you may think it’s not for you. But the beauty of Shakespeare is that his dramatisation of historical events makes for an engaging plot and great characters. Let’s not forget that Shakespeare, of course, was a major Tudor propagandist, as he wanted to stay on the right side of Queen Elizabeth (better be a suck-up than get your head chopped off after all), and therefore his history plays, particularly Richard III, had a political agenda. When everyone thinks of Richard III, they think of the hunchbacked, withered arm, horse-losing villain of Shakespeare’s play, when, as recent historical studies – and carpark excavations – has shown, he wasn’t the deformed villain everyone believed him
to be (he might have killed his nephews, but, it was a different time). So when watching the Richard III in this series, even if you aren’t familiar with history at all, you can enjoy it as though he was complete fiction. Or just watch if Benedict Cumberbatch is your thing. Hey, otters are pretty handsome, right?
Also in the celebrations is a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on BBC One filmed by Russel T Davies, and David Tennant is hosting a celebratory show from the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace. And for those of you who aren’t keen on Shakespeare’s actual plays but love a good comedy, in the line-up is a sitcom for BBC 2 written by Ben Elton about Shakespeare’s life and works, called ‘Upstart Crow’, with David Mitchell as Shakespeare, and Harry Enfield as his dad. Not many more details have been revealed, but that’s enough for me to know it’s going to be great.
So, if TV be the food of love, watch on!