The stories behind the bard’s greatest plays.

The PBS series Shakespeare Uncovered promises fresh new looks at the Bard’s famous plays. The idea here is that a well-known actor spends an hour walking us through a Shakespeare play, with time spent on each play’s story, themes, and its history. This two-disc DVD set contains six episodes:

*The Taming of the Shrew
Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption) explores one of Shake’s most raucous comedies. Freeman once starred in a “Wild West” interpretation of the play alongside Tracy Ullman (Tracy Takes On). Archive footage includes Meryl Streep as Katherine in New York, and John Cleese as Petrucchio on the BBC.

*Romeo and Juliet
Joseph Fiennes of Shakespeare in Love revisits the most well-known of Shake’s plays. Archive footage includes a young Alan Rickman (Die Hard) as Tybalt, as well as the Franco Zefferelli and Baz Lurman film versions.

*Othello
David Harewood (Blood Diamond) takes on the controversial moor, with an unflinching look at how the play has been used to reflect race relations over the years. Archive footage includes a shocking interpretation of the title character from the otherwise great Lawrence Olivier.

*A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) heads out into the woods for Shakespeare’s high fantasy comedy, where actors recreate the story in and around the forest location that likely inspired the story.

*Antony and Cleopatra
Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City), who has played Cleopatra twice on stage, compares the historic Egyptian queen with Shakespeare’s fictionalized version…not to mention Liz Taylor’s.

*King Lear
Christopher Plummer (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), who returned to the stage in his ’70s to play the title character, walks us through one of Shakespeare’s most complicated and challenging works. Archive footage includes Ian McKellan (X-Men) as the aging king.

Each episode follows roughly the same formula. It’s an hour-long summary of play’s story, which pauses from time to time to discuss the play’s origins, and the many ways it has been interpreted over the years. Within this basic framework, though, each host makes the series his or her own for the hour, and the specific themes and personalities of each play makes each episode feel distinct from the rest. For A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we’re in the sunlight woods. For Othello, we’re walking through shadowy back alleys. For Taming of the Shrew, we’re in American cowboy country. This gives the series a sense of fun and adventure, so it’s more than just stuffy academics and their books. It’s a reaffirmation of why these plays are great and why they matter.

The archive footage is definitely a highlight. Seeing Meryl Streep just bring it as Kate in Shrew will thrill any viewer. Similarly, John Cleese makes it look easy as he takes the part of Petrucchio and recreates it in his own signature style. Admirers of Sir Lawrence Olivier will find their admiration challenged after seeing him in a hugely uncomfortable performance as Othello. Another bonus is seeing alternate versions of play in action. Actors at the Globe Theater in London perform scenes added to the plays decades after Shakespeare’s death (Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending? What?) and the earlier plays that Shakespeare based his work on.

I enjoyed the show greatly, but it has its negatives as well. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has so much plot and so many characters that most of the episode is the plot summary, with not as much time devoted to the bigger picture history stuff. Kim Cattrall wants to make the Cleopatra episode about her personal journey as much as it is about the play, and at times she seems to be unofficially auditioning to play the role a third time. The show also benefits from viewers coming to it with a previous knowledge of each play, as it throws so much information at the audience at once, so that Shakespeare newbies might be lost.

The full frame picture is clean and clear in the new footage, while the archive footage is, not surprisingly, in worse shape. The audio had a weird drop for about a minute in one episode, but other than that, it was free of defects. No extras. The English subtitles will help take in all of Shakespeare’s rich language.

Shakespeare’s plays are a bottomless research well — the more you learn, the more there is to discover. With that in mind, Shakespeare Uncovered could never be the final word on these important works, but it is a fun and engaging look at them.

verdict
“They are Not Guilty, since nature cannot choose his origin.”—Hamlet

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PBS, 360 minutes, NR (2014)

A/V
1.78:1 Anamorphic
Dolby 2.0 Stereo (English)

SUBTITLES
English

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