Close to four centuries after his death, the unrivaled playwright and poet William Shakespeare continues to enjoy the stature of a colossus in world literature. Yet he remains a strangely elusive figure about whose life -- and literary intentions -- maddeningly little can be said with certainty.
"Shakespeare Uncovered," an absorbing six-part miniseries examining the enduring legacy of some of the Bard's greatest works, premieres with back-to-back episodes on PBS stations Friday, Jan. 25, 9-11 p.m. EST (check local listings). The series continues with dual installments Fridays, Feb. 1 and 8, 9-11 p.m. EST each night (again, check local listings).
Hosted by such well-regarded actors as Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Irons and Derek Jacobi, "Shakespeare Uncovered" features interviews with scholars as well as excerpts from a variety of Shakespearean film adaptations.
In the initial episode screened, Hawke explores the tragedy "Macbeth" -- which was first performed, research suggests, circa 1605-06 -- by imagining how he would prepare himself for the title role. Viewers are thus introduced, in an enjoyably accessible manner, to the historical background of the play and to the cultural and political context in which it was written.
In discussing the three witches who first provoke Macbeth's ambition by prophesying his rise to the Scottish throne, for instance, Hawke uncovers the fact that witchcraft was a subject of very real -- and deadly serious -- concern in the Britain of Shakespeare's day. The reigning monarch of the time, King James I (also a Scot), wrote an entire book on the topic while, among the public at large, fear of the occult was associated with a dread of Catholicism.
Hawke also analyzes the moral subtleties of the so-called "Scottish play" and turns to a forensic psychotherapist to confirm the accuracy of its characters' emotions and reactions.
While the educational value of the program is undeniable, the gory violence at the heart of "Macbeth" -- goaded on by his wife, the titular nobleman murders his way to the top, then goes on killing in his struggle to stay there -- is extensively discussed and its aftermath briefly glimpsed. Additionally, Hawke showcases a modern-dance version of the play that involves only partially obscured male nudity.
Nonetheless, the series will likely prove enlightening for mature students, lessening the intimidation factor that often accompanies a first classroom brush with the Bard. Adults too will appreciate this briskly paced but informative survey.
"Shakespeare Uncovered: Macbeth with Ethan Hawke" is rated TV-14 -- parents strongly cautioned. Subsequent episodes will focus on two of Shakespeare's comedies, "Twelfth Night" and "As You Like It," three of his history plays, "Richard II," "Henry IV" and "Henry V," perhaps his most famous tragedy, "Hamlet," and the late romance or tragicomedy "The Tempest."