Apart from being a fantastic dramatic writer, capable of capturing the very essence of what it is to be human, William Shakespeare was, for the most, a rebel and a risk taker. He wrote King Lear firmly with the knowledge that it would be performed in front of James I, who famously liked to be flattered. The play, however, with its naked, ranting king, was quite the contrary.
Imagine, suggests historian Simon Schama in his latest documentary, if the Queen were to attend a West End show about an insane parody of herself. As Her Majesty watches from her balcony, she sees an actress on the stage portraying her in the very worst possible light: sheâs screaming, wailing, ranting; sheâs naked, stomping, rubbing her own excrement on the walls perhaps.
There are song and dance numbers taking place, confetti falling from the roof and maybe Justin Lee Collins is there. He could be like the comic relief or something.
Anyway, I digress.
Simonâs point: picture the outrage and inevitable swarms of people who would flock to watch such a production. As Simon says himself, there has been no playwright, before or since, who has got under the skin of the nation quite like William Shakespeare.
This, the historian believes, coupled with his popularity with both gentlemen and groundlings alike, is why Shakespeare defined so much about what itâs like to be English. In fact, he goes even further, telling us that the Bard was responsible for creating the very idea of what England is.
âShakespeareâs audience could see England on the stage almost before it existed in reality,â? he insists. âEngland needed to know who they were, what made them unique.â?
Shakespeare was the man to do it, weâre told. He gave his mostly illiterate audience an understanding of past and present England like nobody before him, and for this, Simon considers him the keeper of our national identity.
The documentary focuses primarily on the writerâs best-loved history plays, which, coincidently, are the ones that have been adapted by the BBC for Shakespeare season. Itâs all wrapped up very nicely and Simon even calls on some top-class actors (including Roger Allam) to bring these revolutionary plays to life in modern setting.
Itâs an incredibly insightful programme and Schama speaks with great affection for the playwrightâs work as well as English history. He makes some very bold claims, but fortunately never ceases to back them up, doing so with commendable excitement. The whole thing acts as the perfect introduction to the BBCâs Shakespeare season and it shouldnât be missed.