Is this a dagger I see before me? Oh, wait, it’s just a Twinkie.
Much has been written (and speculated) about William Shakespeare’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth I, but that only covers the first half of the playwright’s career. The three-part documentary Shakespeare: The King’s Man takes a look at Shakepeare’s later years, drawing parallels between his plays and the tumultuous reign of Elizabeth’s controversial successor, King James I of Scotland.
This episode list was left out of the First Folio:
James I takes the throne after Elizabeth leaves no heir. England doesn’t know what to make of him, with his radical ideas about the country’s finances, reflected with talk of money in Measure for Measure and Timon of Athens, and his dream of uniting England and Scotland, mirrored by Lear’s desire for his daughters to each take a third of his kingdom in King Lear.
The Gunpowder Plot has England talking about conspiracy, murder, and regicide, all of which makes it into Shakespeare’s notorious “Scottish Play.” Unification debates and economic woes continue, leading to similar themes in Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus.
The king tries to strengthen his rule through arranged marriages in his family, which don’t go well, much the same for characters in The Winter’s Tale. England extends across the sea to the New World, as sailors land on a magical island in The Tempest. Shakespeare then makes with the pageantry in his final word on monarchy in Henry VIII.
Theater nerds and history nerds will find a lot of delicious trivia to chew on here. These three episodes cover a lot of ground. The gist of it is that first we learn about important aspects of James I’s reign, and from there we turn to Shakespeare’s plays, and see how the stories reflect the times. We get some tidbits about Shakespeare’s life and what theater was like back then, but the emphasis is more Shakespeare’s writing compared to the king’s life.
Author and educator James Shapiro, who’s written several books on the subject, is our host and guide. This guy is one cool customer, both brainy and enthusiastic. His love for this era of history feels genuine, and viewers will end up feeling it too. James I is not an easy figure to pin down. He was incredibly intelligent and a lover of the arts, and he constantly ruffled feathers in government and among the people. He seemed to make smart decisions, and yet every choice he made merely angered those around him. Was he ahead of his time, or did he merely just not fit in? Who’s to say? Shakespeare was equally—and equivocally—contradictory, in that a lot what he wrote seems to praise James on surface while slyly satirizing him at the same time.
As is the case with most documentaries, the question is always raised, “What aren’t we seeing?” It’s easy to see a parallel between King Lear‘s undivided kingdom and the tensions between England and Scotland, but there is a lot more going on in Lear. Themes of pride, war, and growing old are all addressed, and much more. Simplifying one of Shakepeare’s most complex works just to make one point isn’t doing it justice. The background about Shakespeare’s inspiration for The Tempest was fascinating, but there’s no mention of how Shakespeare intended it to be his final play, and how the magician Prospero’s words were meant to be the playwright’s big goodbye. I understand that you can’t cover everything in the run time, but it’s nonetheless frustrating to keep asking, “Why doesn’t he mention [important historic fact]?”
Video/audio is solid, bright and colorful picture, with clean and clear sound. The highlight of the extras is a bonus disc containing a 1983 television performance of the “Scottish Play.” The deal here is that back in the day, the BBC staged and aired productions of every one of Shakespeare’s plays, which were then sold as a set from Time Life Video. This is one of those. It’s a simple but still good retelling, more like watching a stage play than a feature film. Nicol Williamson (Spawn) brings a ton of energy to his performance as the title character. For other extras, there are a few text biographies to read on screen, and a 12-page booklet with additional essays and a timeline of James I’s reign.
Don’t mind my nitpicks—that’s just equivocation. This is a fascinating watch for casual viewers, and a must-own for Shakespeare fans.