Shakespeare Retro Reviews - TV: In Search of Shakespeare, ep. 1 “A Time of Revolution”

Jon Ciccarelli

Investigating past Shakespeare related movies, books, TV specials and theater productions that are still handy for the modern actor and theater company

In 2004, PBS and the BBC aired a four part series on discovering the man behind the works of Shakespeare that was presented and written by English historian and documentary host Michael Wood. Previously Wood had done a similar treatment with “The Secret Origins of Civilization” and “Conquistadors”. In his personal approach, Wood uses every tool at the disposal of a historian and documentarian by sifting and presenting ancient documents, historical reenactments and narration. Along with notable facts, the series camera work offers stunning footage of London, the Globe Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Hampton Court, The Swan Theatre and many a location in England that would make anyone who has visited the sceptered isle immediately book another trip. Wood’s aim is to get away from the “God of English” letters and present an accessible series that focused on fleshing out the man who wrote these works by placing Will in his own time and place.

Also, in the case of Shakespeare, Wood utilized theatrical presentation courtesy of Greg Doran and the Royal Shakespeare Company to make narrative points along with interviews with other scholars and historians. This notable mix of the scholarly and theatrical creates a lively series for anyone wishing to get to know the real Will Shakespeare but doesn’t have the time to sift through many a dry biography. The documentary approach brings to forefront many of the religious, political and social issues that Shakespeare and his contemporaries lived through and ultimately shaped the plays that have become part of our culture and preoccupy many a theater company.

In this Shakespeare Retro Review TV edition, I’ll be diving into the first episode, “A Time of Revolution” that sets the stage to show the world that Shakespeare was born into and the conditions that shaped his teen years and early adulthood. In true theatrical fashion Wood begins the series claiming that any search for history is a search for ghosts but he acknowledges that his life contains gaps that sometimes create an air of mystery around him.

It’s a historical who-dun-it and this detective sense is what drives the episode and the series. Wood starts with the question why go in search of the life a writer as opposed to a conqueror or politician? His answer is that because long after those who may the splashiest show are forgotten it’s the writers who are left. As Shakespeare himself said “they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” Shakespeare is the greatest writer and who wouldn’t want to know what made him tick. 

Wood’s journey begins in Stratford-upon-Avon in the heart of Old England. He shows the first record of Shakespeare’s existence in his baptismal record, on April 26, 1564. One of the notable features of the series is whenever possible Wood show himself pouring over the actual historical document even to showing passages on camera so the viewer can read it for themselves. This technique makes it all the more real for the viewer. Contrary to popular notion we really don’t know when Shakespeare was born but it’s was a practice to baptize children within a few days of their birth because of fear of the infant dying of plague and going to hell as such was the Catholic belief. This sets up two items that Wood continually returns to the tug of war between English Catholicism and its underground war against Queen Elizabeth and her Protestant agents and the times when plague would influence Shakespeare’s life and career. 

Starting with Henry VIII and his children, England was continually thrown back and forth between the two sects of Christianity depending on who was sitting on throne. In London the religious struggle was very palpable, but in the country towns like Stratford changed slowly and stressing Shakespeare’s country life. Here Wood showcases how much a lover of nature Shakespeare was and true to his Warwickshire roots by using colloquial phrases native to the county in the plays such as the bugs that infested cows were known as “The breeze”, the mound at the top of hill a “hayed land” and weeds were “dead men’s fingers”. He uses this connection to the land to segue into his family. Mary Arden, his mother, was from a prominent land owning family that traced their ancestors to before the Norman Conquest of 1066. He examines the will of Robert Arden, Shakespeare’s grandfather that aside from disposing of property made his teenage daughter Mary an executor. The will alos shows his Catholic leanings. Wood uses this framing device to investigate what few documentaries and books mention, the Catholic world that Shakespeare grew up in. Wood visits a ruined nunnery call Roxell where Robert Arden and members of his family were active and says “The story of someone’s life begins before they’re born”, making a case that Shakespeare always has a soft spot for the Catholic medieval past that cropped up many times in his plays.

However, this medieval Catholic world was becoming modern and a middle class was starting to take root in England – so enter Will’s father John. John Shakespeare was a tenant farmer for Mary’s father but did all he could to better his humble lot. Wood’s next stop is investigating John’s trade of glove making as he visits a recreated shop in the Shakespeare Birthplace house.

The house is the one that Will grew up in but not exactly the same dwelling however, it does give a good indication of the style of living that a middle class family would have obtained.

John didn’t only spending his time making gloves and the next stop of Wood’s tour is the council chambers of Stratford as he examines the Corporation records showing John Shakespeare’s career as a councilman, justice of the peace and mayor. However, along with the power and trappings political office, John and his fellow councilman had to uphold Queen Elizabeth’s directives, one of which was to remove any Catholic iconography from public buildings. Given that Elizabeth’s sister Mary was Catholic and not sure if the country would ever swing back, the council simply white washed the images. The images of saintly battles against evil were later rediscovered in 19th Century and now investigated by Wood. He mentions that it wasn’t just a simple covering up of images but removing the shared memory of the town.

Wood shifts to Will’s schooling and shows scenes of the still existing King Edward VI School.

Grammar school was only for boys and they had a hard curriculum to follow such as reading and translating Latin and drilling in classic authors, one of which Ovid, Shakespeare would use again and again as a source and inspiration. He says that in Elizabeth’s time 161 new schools were opened and it was a drive to reshape the English youth. One of the other more interesting ways that Elizabeth tried to shore up English Protestantism and patriotism was perhaps Will’s first foray into the theater. It was a common practice to have the boys perform school plays.

Wood shows that the all-boys school continues the tradition and shows the boys putting on a production that Shakespeare could possibly have done called “Ralph Roister Doister”. He implies that here was the first place where Will was introduced to the idea of marrying stage spectacle with classic poetry. 

Wood then shifts back to John’s dealings and that he was also making money on the sly in the black market dealing in wool. Everyone in England wore wool clothes and only certain people were legally allowed to deal, however many people bought and sold it illegally. A single deal could score tons of money but it was a risky practice. Wood examines what essentially is a police report on John Shakespeare’s wool dealings. The record is interesting in the window it shows on how John got caught. He was informed by a man who was employed by the government to squeal on his neighbors. 

Briefly returning to the theater side, Wood visits a reenactment of the Coventry mystery cycle, religious plays sponsored by the church and put on town unions for religious holidays, usually for Easter celebrations. The mystery plays were the forerunner of the theater that Will would work in and they were banned when he was a teenager. In Will’s teen years, the life he knew would change drastically as his affluent father fell on hard times and Wood sees something more in this sudden downfall than just bad debts but possibly John being persecuted for being a secret Catholic. Will didn’t go on to university as a result and Wood speculates that he helped in his father’s business. Wood examines the curious case of the spiritual will of John Shakespeare. A pamphlet smuggled in by Catholic missionaries brought a testament that those who kept to the old Catholic faith could bury with them. John’s was found in the rafters of his house 100 years after he died so its been thought to have been a forgery but Wood uses the history behind the pamphlet to illustrate the Catholic underground that surrounded Stratford.

So what appears to be a forgery isn’t so easily dismissed. Wood uses a court case between John Shakespeare and others as a possible connection to this underground and a trip to a holy priory that still stands today, St. Winifred’s priory.

Wood last segment tackles Will’s young adulthood and his budding relationship with Anne Hathaway. The woman he would marry at 18 and have three kids with. Wood acknowledges that the information is sparse on Anne as he examines a supposed portrait of her. He notes that Sonnet 143 speaks of a woman who saved the life of the poet in some fashion. Wood, unlike many other Shakespeare biographers, takes a more sympathetic slant on Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife and speculates one of mutual attraction and benefit. He examines their marriage license and the strange evidence of “another woman” by the name of Anne Whately having a marriage license with Will Shakespeare. However, it turns out there was no other woman and it was just a clerical error. Despite this straight forward mistake, its led many to speculate about some lost love of Shakespeare’s.

The episode ends shortly after discussing his wedding and moving into a possible occupation and hints the next episode will explore the missing years of Shakespeare’s work life and his start in the theater. Overall, Wood whets the viewer’s appetite with mixing a detailed perusal of documents with lively theater reenactments. This exploration of Shakespeare’s early years shows gives a nice tour of his possible early exposure to theater and a connection to Ovid and Latin so prevalent in the plays. 

In future Shakespeare Retro Reviews, I’ll review the other three episodes in this interesting series.

To see more information about the series and purchase the series click here

To see past Shakespeare Retro Reviews TV click below:

John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare – The Two Traditions