Shakespeare Uncovered Returns with Six New Stories behind Shakespeare’s Greatest Plays
Murray Abraham, Helen Hunt, Brian Cox, Simon Russell Beale and Romola Garai host the third season, premiering 2018 on PBS
The fascinating history and analysis behind Shakespeare’s greatest plays continues with a third season of Shakespeare Uncovered, premiering 2018 on PBS. The ambitious series returns with celebrated new hosts F. Murray Abraham, Helen Hunt, Brian Cox, Simon Russell Beale and Romola Garai, who seamlessly weave their personal passions with history, biography, iconic performances and new analysis to tell the stories behind the stories of Shakespeare’s famous works. The new season investigates The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar, The Winter’s Tale, Measure for Measure and Richard III.
Produced by Blakeway Productions, 116 Films and THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET in association with PBS and Shakespeare’s Globe, each episode reveals the extraordinary world and works of William Shakespeare and the still-potent impact his plays have today. The films combine interviews with actors, directors and scholars, along with visits to key locations, clips from some of the most celebrated film and television adaptations and illustrative excerpts from the plays staged specially for the series at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.
Each host has a personal connection with the play presented: F. Murray Abraham starred as Shylock in a touring production of The Merchant of Venice; Helen Hunt received rave reviews for her portrayal of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at Los Angeles’ Kirk Douglas Theatre; Brian Cox’s Brutus in the 1977 London National Theatre production of Julius Caesar remains a gold standard; Simon Russell Beale drew acclaim for his role of King Leontes in The Winter’s Tale at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and London’s Young Vic production of Measure for Measure saw Romola Garai portray a 21st-century version of Isabella.
Shakespeare Uncovered reveals not just the elements in the play, but the history of the play itself. What sparked the creation of each of these works? Where did Shakespeare find his plots and what new forms of theater did he forge? What cultural, political and religious factors influenced his writing? How have the plays been staged and interpreted from Shakespeare’s time to now? Why at different times has each play been popular – or ignored? Why has this body of work endured so thoroughly? What, in the end, makes Shakespeare great?
Season 3 features six new episodes that cover the following:
“The Merchant of Venice” with F. Murray Abraham
Shakespeare probably never met a Jew. Three centuries before The Merchant of Venice was written, England became the first country in medieval Europe to expel its Jewish population. Abraham addresses the ubiquitous anti-Semitism that characterized Europe in Shakespeare’s time. Comparing Shylock to the stock Jewish villain of the day, the episode looks at the efforts over the years, for better or worse, to treat him more as a victim and rescue Shakespeare from any taint of anti-Semitism.
“Much Ado About Nothing” with Helen Hunt
Much Ado About Nothing is one of 15 plays that Shakespeare set in Italy, a country that was warm, sensuous and inviting for 16th-century Englishmen writing about lovers. Claudio and Hero are the conventional lovers, too tongue-tied to speak to each other; Beatrice and Benedick are the skeptics, too busy insulting each other to realize how much they are in love. Hunt explores this exquisite comedy of comparison and contrast, as well as what the ultimate “ado” about “nothing” really means.
“Julius Caesar” with Brian Cox
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a play that upholds liberty against tyranny. But what is tyranny? And who decides? Shakespeare doesn’t make it simple. In order to preserve the freedom of the Roman Republic, Julius Caesar, an “over-mighty” leader, is assassinated by Roman Senators led by Caesar’s friend Brutus. Caesar wanted to become an emperor. Is Brutus a traitor or a great hero and defender of liberty? Brian Cox explores how Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s “American” play, showing how easy it is for a “free” republic to fall into corruption. More than that, the play challenges us to think about who or what to trust and what values we want to live by – and to look inside and wonder how well we even know ourselves.
“The Winter’s Tale” with Simon Russell Beale
A “winter’s tale” was Jacobean slang for something fanciful and unreal – a campfire story. Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, written during the period 1613-14, is classified as one of his late romances. This is a play driven by passion and obsession, by the uncontrollable jealousy of King Leontes, who recklessly rejects his wife’s love and accuses her of an affair with his old friend. Acting like a man possessed, he orders his friend killed and his pregnant wife imprisoned. In 17th-century marriages, even royal ones, a wife believed guilty of adultery could indeed be brutally punished. The play’s second half, something of an idyllic comedy despite the stark and brutal first half of the play, returns the people Leontes thought he lost through one of the greatest theatrical coups of all time, a magic trick that uses no magic. Beale shows that in this play, Shakespeare offers something for which everyone longs: to reverse time, to make amends for an irreversible mistake.
“Measure for Measure” with Romola Garai
Measure for Measure takes an astonishingly timely look at sexual morality, hypocrisy and harassment. Shakespeare asks us to “measure” the price of liberty against the moral and social cost of libertinism. It’s a play about vice, the law and sexual corruption at the highest levels, and, for nearly two centuries, it was considered too racy to be produced on the English stage. Garai explains why there is no light-hearted happy ending in this play, but something much darker and more complex – truly a sexual tale for our time.
“Richard III” (Presenter TBA)
Shakespeare’s Richard III is one of the most infamous villains of all time – and one of the most relished. This episode explains how Shakespeare created both a loathsome and brilliant manipulator, as well as a real man who speaks to every age. Shakespeare’s history plays are at least as much play as history. They hinge on character, on strength and on frailty, and what humans will resort to in order to achieve power. While historians still debate the merits and vices of King Richard, there is no evidence that he was the villain Tudor historians described; indeed, his reign of only two years brought some positive changes.
For Blakeway Productions, Richard Denton and Nicola Stockley are series producers. For THIRTEEN, Bill O’Donnell is series producer, with David Horn as executive producer. Stephen Segaller is executive in charge.
Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, The Polonsky Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the Wilson Family, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, Jody and John Arnhold, and PBS.
WNET is America’s flagship PBS station and parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21. WNET also operates NJTV, the statewide public media network in New Jersey. Through its broadcast channels, three cable services (KidsThirteen, Create and World) and online streaming sites, WNET brings quality arts, education and public affairs programming to more than five million viewers each week. WNET produces and presents such acclaimed PBS series as Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS NewsHour Weekend, and a range of documentaries, children’s programs, and local news and cultural offerings. WNET’s groundbreaking series for children and young adults include Get the Math, Oh Noah! and Cyberchase as well as Mission US, the award-winning interactive history game. WNET highlights the tri-state’s unique culture and diverse communities through NYC-ARTS, Reel 13, NJTV News with Mary Alice Williams and MetroFocus, the daily multi-platform news magazine focusing on the New York region. In addition, WNET produces online-only programming including the award-winning series about gender identity, First Person, and an intergenerational look at tech and pop culture, The Chatterbox with Kevin and Grandma Lill. In 2015, THIRTEEN launched Passport, an online streaming service which allows members to see new and archival THIRTEEN and PBS programming anytime, anywhere: www.thirteen.org/passport