Engraved from the “Chandos” portrait by H.S. Sadd, 1860
Historian Michael Wood, with help from the Royal Shakespeare Company and others, plunges into the world of Elizabethan England to explore the society that created the English speaking world’s greatest dramatist and poet. Shakespeare lived through extraordinarily turbulent times, the reign of Queen Elizabeth I bringing with it a great cultural flowering but also unprecedented threats both internally and externally, from the Gunpowder Plot through to the Spanish Armada. This terrific series presents the great man within this vibrant, dangerous and chaotic environment, making him very much a man of his time.
Part travelogue, part love letter to The Bard, this series sees Venetian Francesco da Mosto somewhat optimistically suggest that Shakespeare must have travelled to Italy at some stage, given the Italian locale and subject matter of so many of the plays. Now I’m not about to wade into these contentious waters here, but whether or not you can make that leap of faith there is much to enjoy in this search for the people, places and stories that populate so many of his greatest works.
Speaking of Italy, Romeo and Juliet would have to be the most famous of the plays set in that country and the story of these “star crossed lovers” has exerted its spell over countless artists over the centuries. French composer Hector Berlioz was a devotee of Shakespeare, going so far as to marry the famous English actress Harriet Smithson after seeing her perform the roles of Juliet and Ophelia in Paris in 1827. Unfortunately the marriage was a disaster, but his love of Shakespeare was not and led to his wonderful Romeo et Juliette symphony, which contains some of his most romantic and exhilarating music. You can listen to this splendid performance conducted by Riccardo Muti at home if you are one of our Victorian registered members.
It would be difficult to say exactly how many operas have been based on Shakespeare’s plays, but one of the more recent and successful attempts is The Tempest by English composer Thomas Adès. Premiered in 2004 at Covent Garden to tremendous acclaim, it has since been performed at most of the major opera centres around the world and shows no sign of flagging in its popularity. To a skillfully adapted and reworked libretto by Meredith Oakes which stays true to the spirit of the original text, Adès has created an extraordinarily rich and lyrical score which seems almost tailor-made for this most magical of plays.
If you are only familar with the marvellous Ian McKellen dressed in Gandalf’s robes in The Lord of the Rings films you are in for a pleasant surprise with this one man show from 1982. Alone on a bare stage (save for a chair) he traverses many of the great Shakespearean roles, interspersed with personal anecdotes and sometimes curious historical asides; his fabulous impersonation of the great David Garrick performing the final monologue he wrote himself for Macbeth as he descends to Hell is one of many must-see moments. You can also enjoy Sir Ian, along with Dame Judi Dench, in this splendid 1979 production of the Scottish play, directed by Trevor Nunn for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
You can watch these and many other performances and documentaries here at the Library, so why not create your own Shakespeare Festival?
To end, something from the man himself; Kenneth Branagh and that speech from Henry V.