“Shakespeare Uncovered” is currently airing its second season on PBS. It pairs the Bard’s plays with a host connected to the material, and then examines the work’s history, themes and various incarnations.
Cick here for a story at my Patheos blog, Pax Culturati, about “Romeo and Juliet,” featuring a conversation with host Joseph Fiennes (“Shakespeare in Love”). It airs on Friday, Feb. 13, on most PBS stations (check local listings), after “Antony and Cleopatra,” with host Kim Cattrall.
Next year, we mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, on April 23, 1616, his 52nd birthday (possibly after a long bout of partying with actor Ben Jonson), and he remains as relevant today to understanding the complexities of the human heart as he was to his London audiences.
Producer for “Shakespeare Uncovered” is Brit Richard Denton, whose credits include “The Atheism Tapes,” “Brief History of Disbelief,” “Did Jesus Die?,” “The Kalashnikov and the Koran,” “Cathedral Calls” (a tour of British churches), and “Everyman” (a weekly religious-affairs program).
I sat down with him in January, at a press event in Pasadena, California. Earlier in the day, at a large press conference, he decidedly addressed the persistent questions about whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays attributed to him, or whether it was an educated member of the British aristocracy.
“If you know the stuff,” he said, “the one thing that’s clear is it was written by a man of the theater who worked with the company, because half the time the names of the actors appear instead of the names of the characters in the script. There’s not a shred of evidence that it was not written by Shakespeare, which is a weird 19th-century idea started by a disappointed religious man with the the lovely name of Looney.
“So we don’t really need to go into it.”
(By the way, the man’s full name was J. Thomas Looney, a schoolteacher from the northwest of England who abandoned Methodism for the short-lived, cultish Church of Humanity.)
When we began our one-on-one chat, Denton marveled at the working actor, theater manager, husband and father, who still managed to pen deathless art in his free time.
“The odd thing is,” he said, “in a way, the plays make more sense when you realize they are written by a man who’s not entirely in control of his own gift. He sits down to write a play, for instance, ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ which we haven’t done [on ‘Shakespeare Uncovered’].
“He knows that writing an anti-Semitic play is going to be really good for business, a big scandal. Christopher Marlowe’s play, ‘The Jew of Malta,’ is doing stonking business in the next theater. So, he says, “I’m going to do that.’
“And he sets out to write it and fails catastrophically to write an anti-Semitic play, because as soon as he gets into the character, he goes, ‘Yeah, but, I mean, they called him a dog, so, could a dog lend money?’ And suddenly he writes a play that’s completely different, not the one he wanted to do.”
When I commented that Shakespeare relentlessly insists on seeing his characters as full human beings, Denton said, “He does. I think he self-hypnotizes, because he’s an actor. He self-hypnotizes himself into a role, and then he just writes. It’s inspirational writing.”
British writer and Catholic scholar Joseph Pearce made the case that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, in his biography “The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome.”
After Henry VIII broke with the pope to make himself head of the new Church of England, loyalty to the Holy See was tantamount to treason, especially during the reign of Henry’s younger daughter, Queen Elizabeth I. So, one’s public religiosity was a matter of life and death, and if Shakespeare was Catholic, he would kept it well under wraps.
Denton, though, has his doubts.
“It’s a very interesting question, actually,” he said. “There is some evidence that his father was a Catholic and didn’t go to church for that reason. That would have been quite dangerous, and it may well be the reason his father’s administrative career in Stratford-on-Avon took a dive in the middle.
“I think Shakespeare himself was a skeptic, which was almost as dangerous as being a Catholic.”
But there is one religious figure — nearly extinct in England after Henry VIII seized and looted Catholic monasteries — that Shakespeare is quite fond of, and that’s the humble friar. They figure in several of his plays, most notably with the kindly Franciscan Friar Laurence in “Romeo and Juliet,” who winds up marrying the doomed Italian teen lovers (and there are several Franciscan characters in “Measure for Measure”).
“I’ll tell what Shakespeare clearly does like,” says Denton. “He likes friars. All of his friars are quite good characters. … whereas his archbishops are almost always idiots.”
Denton returns to the idea that Shakespeare wasn’t a polemicist or an evangelist — he was a storyteller.
“You go back to that thing,” he said, “where sometimes he’ll sit down, and he’ll write a play, and even he doesn’t know quite know how it’s going to end, or what it’s going to mean, but it will work. It will work as drama. What you take from it in series one, Jeremy Irons had a wonderful line. He said, ‘Shakespeare won’t tell you what to think; he tells you to think.’ That’s the difference.
“He just says, ‘For God’s sake, think.'”
Here’s a peek at “Romeo and Juliet”: