“We have such a disadvantage with Shakespeare,” says actor and one host of the new PBS series Shakespeare Uncovered Jeremy Irons, “because everybody teaches it badly at school, and so you leave school — like the French leave school, and they never want to hear about Proust again. The Americans and the English, if they are lucky, they get taught a bit of Shakespeare. They probably see a bad production, and they think, ‘Right. Fine. School is over. Shakespeare, thank you very much. That’s the end of you for my life.’ And so we — I mean, as an actor, I realize that Shakespeare is gold dust. Shakespeare is the best writer. He can allow you to do more with an audience than any other writer before or since.”
But how to convey that to audiences who may be scared off by the very idea of Shakespeare as something out of their dreary school days? Shakespeare Uncovered should help. It’s a vibrant, six-part series in which hosts like Irons — along with Ethan Hawke, Trevor Nunn, Derek Jacobi, Joely Richardson and David Tennant, all professionals who have acted and/or directed The Bard’s works — tell the stories behind some of his greatest plays.
History, biography, scenes from iconic performances, new analysis and the passion of the hosts help bring excitement into the viewer’s mind where perhaps it may not have been before in regards to Shakespeare and his works. Also helpful are visits to some of the sites featured in the plays, as in Irons’ episode (an exploration of “Henry IV” & “Henry V,” airing Feb. 1) when the host visits the site of the Battle of Agincourt, location of the famed speech spotlighted in Henry V. There are also clips in that episode from upcoming Great Performances adaptations of both plays, starring Irons.
“[Producer Richard Denton] said, ‘Would you like to make a documentary about these plays? You will be part of it.’ And I said, ‘Oh, that may be interesting if we can find the time. What do you want to do?’ And he said, ‘Well, I want to put you in a boat. I want to put you on a horse. I want to take you to Agincourt.’ And I said, ‘This sounds very interesting,’” says Irons.
And it is interesting, as Irons and the other hosts are very active in their explorations of the plays that inspire their — and countless others’ — passions.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time that Irons has perhaps inspired an audience toward an interest in Shakespeare in an exciting, and less-than-traditional way. After all, he did provide the voice for Scar in Disney’s animated classic The Lion King, which was basically a retelling of Hamlet.
“Well …” Irons says with a laugh, when that point is brought up. “They say there’s only eight stories, don’t they, in the world, and that every story is an adaptation of that particular one of those eight. So, yeah, I mean, I’m not sure I would say to somebody, ‘You’ve seen The Lion King, don’t bother with Hamlet.’ But, yeah, that’s another — it’s a retelling of a story that’s been retold a few times. It’s a great introduction. I mean, I am known to many people who are now sort of in their teens as Scar. It’s very difficult if one has had a career full of fairly interesting things to be remembered for that, but there we are.”
Shakespeare Uncovered airs Fridays on PBS from 9-11pm ET (check local listings) Jan. 25-Feb. 8, with two episodes per night as follows:
Macbeth With Ethan Hawke – Ethan Hawke embarks on a quest to play Shakespeare’s murderous Thane of Cawdor. (Jan. 25 at 9pm)
The Comedies With Joely Richardson – Joely Richardson investigates Shakespeare’s heroines in two cross-dressing comedies. (Jan. 25 at 10pm)
Richard II With Derek Jacobi – Find out from Derek Jacobi, who once played Richard II, why this play could have cost Shakespeare his life. (Feb. 1 at 9pm)
Henry IV & Henry V With Jeremy Irons – Jeremy Irons uncovers the enduring appeal of Shakespeare’s “history plays.” (Feb. 1 at 10pm)
Hamlet With David Tennant – Meet with David Tennant and fellow Hamlets who compare notes on the challenge of playing this iconic role. (Feb. 8 at 9pm)
The Tempest With Trevor Nunn – Director Trevor Nunn, who has directed 30 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays and is determined to complete them all before he retires, takes viewers through the magical world created in The Bard’s last complete play. (Feb. 8 at 10pm)
Courtesy of Alex Brenner