Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Articles Written For:

The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library & The Royal Shakespeare Company

Most Popular Posts:

1. Shakespeare's Shylock Solved 2. Shakespeare's Othello Finally Identified 3. Shakespeare In Love Sequel Solved 4. The Real Romeo and Juliet 5. Shakespeare's Malvolio Solved 6. Shakespeare's Real Petruchio

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Shakespeare Uncovered Antony and Cleopatra

I just watched the great Shakespeare Uncovered documentary about Antony and Cleopatra, hosted by Kim Cattrall.

It's fantastic, and you shouldn't miss it!

Kim Cattrall at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

Kim Cattrall, most famous for her role as Samantha in Sex and the City, makes a great host for this episode. In addition to her TV and film roles, she has been very busy on theatre stages.

In the course of the documentary, we get to see clips of Dame Janet Suzman, who was famous in the role of Cleopatra for a 1974 TV version. Dame Janet later would direct Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra in a 2010 stage version and then again in a revival in 2012, co-starring Michael Pennington as Mark Antony, and who was great as King Lear last year -- my review here. It's just a shame there are no video clips of Kim as Cleopatra.

Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra

with Michael Pennington as Antony

There are some nice moments where Ms. Cattrall interviews Dame Janet today, and her insights into the play are quite interesting.

Janet Suzman as Cleopatra, 1974

Of course there are film clips of other famous Marc Antony's and Cleopatras -- especially Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, but of course that was not an adaptation of Shakespeare.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra, 1963

There are some clips of Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart, who performed together for the RSC in 2006. He says that he had more fun playing Antony than any other Shakespeare character, and he has played quite a few. There are even some great shots of him as Enorbarbus in the Suzman 1974 TV version.

Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter, 2006

He has a great anecdote about how Cleopatra was really bad news for Mark Antony, and he should have just run away from her.

There are some scholars who add insights, such as Jonathan Bate, and Gail Kern Paster.

I really wish there was more of scholars like these, since they have some of the most interesting things to say. 

In this episode, however, I disagree with Jonathan Bate who thinks that the play was Shakespeare letting his hair down and writing about Cleopatra in order to comment on Queen Elizabeth, who had died only a few years before Shakespeare wrote the play. There is much more that Shakespeare is saying about King James and Queen Anne, than about Elizabeth.

King James and Queen Anne, were they the original Antony and Cleopatra?

Also, I was surprised that Jonathan Bate didn't mention the other Elizabethan plays about Antony and Cleopatra. Mary Sidney, one of the greatest and earliest female writers and poets, wrote her own play in 1592. In 1594, Samuel Daniel wrote a play about them, and his artistic patron at the time was the same Mary Sidney.

Mary Sidney

Much of the documentary is a search for the meaning to Shakespeare's play, and how closely Shakespeare modeled his characters after the real historical Cleopatra and Mark Antony. This is very interesting, and it is fun to travel from place to place as Kim Cattrall investigates these questions.

However, it would seem to me that Mary Sidney and Samuel Daniel, and their versions of this story, would seem to be far more worth investigating. I doubt very much that when Shakespeare wrote his own Antony and Cleopatra play, he was that concerned with making his play an authentic history, and was instead telling us something about the reign of King James.

There are also some great moments in the documentary between Kim Cattrall and a few actors at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre as they rehearse a new production of the play. It is one of the few times we get to see Kim Cattrall recite some of Cleopatra's lines, and it is clear how much she loves this character.

The documentary also examines the character of Mark Antony, and compares him to his portrayal in Shakespeare's earlier Julius Caesar play.

Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, in a Julius Caesar film, 1953

My favorite part of the documentary is when Kim Cattrall meets a famous speechwriter and political spinmeister, Alastair Campbell, who wrote speeches for Tony Blair, for example. As much as times may have changed, from the Roman empire, to Jacobean London, to today, political speech has changed very little, and Shakespeare was a master of language.

First, together they watch Mark Antony's "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech. Then they compare it to an early 2008 campaign speech by Barack Obama, who speaks about how his opponents are honourable people with good ideas, while of course he means the opposite. It is striking how much it sounds like Marc Antony when he says "Brutus is an honourable man."

Mr. Campbell says that in order for a speech to be truly moving, or manipulative, the speech has to be a performance, and the audience has to become part of the performance.

Mark Antony's speech, from the Brando film

This, of course, is at the root of my new approach to Shakespeare's plays. In my versions of the plays, the audience is as much a part of the play as the actors on stage, and speak with the actors very frequently.

I strongly recommend this documentary. It is one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, and this documentary does an excellent and entertaining job of exploring it.

Harriet Walter as Cleopatra

You can buy the DVD here:

And the first season is available here:


David B. Schajer

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Shakespeare Uncovered Othello with David Harewood

I just watched the Shakespeare Uncovered documentary about Othello, hosted by David Harewood.

Don't miss it! It's great!

David Harewood

David Harewood with Simon Russell Beale

Othello is a truly powerful play, one of Shakespeare's masterpieces. It is one I think many audiences overlook, perhaps thinking that the story is so old that there is nothing new in it to be found.

David Harewood does a terrific job of exploring the story, the characters, and the historical significance of the play, and giving us a fresh look at this 400 year old play.

Mr. Harewood, arguably most famous for his role as David Estes in the Showtime series Homeland, is a great guide for this documentary.

As Othello with Simon Russell Beale as Iago, 1997

He was the first black actor to play the part of Othello at the National Theatre in 1997, directed by Sam Mendes. 

As Othello, 1997

He played the Prince of Morocco in Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino as Shylock, in 2004. He was great as Oberon in Julie Taymor's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, at Theatre For A New Audience in Brooklyn, which I saw -- my review here.

As Oberon, with Kathryn Hunter as Puck, 2013

With Tina Benko as Titania

It's great to see him talk with actors like Simon Russell Beale, who played Iago with him in 1997, and Adrian Lester, who played Othello at the National Theatre in a rather disappointing 2013 production -- my review here

There are many clips of past Othello film and stage productions. This is one of my favorite parts of the Shakespeare Uncovered series, when you get to compare the actors through the ages, and see what choices they made in their interpretations of the roles.

The 1990 RSC TV production, directed by Trevor Nunn, with Willard White as Othello, Ian McKellen as Iago and Imogen Stubbs as Desdemona, is very simply staged, but the performances look excellent. 

Willard White with Ian McKellen, 1990

Ian McKellen, who is so good as the wise and righteous Gandalf, really excels at playing despicable characters!

Also included are clips of white actors who played Othello in blackface make-up, such as Orson Welles in his 1952 film, and Anthony Hopkins as Othello, with Bob Hoskins as Iago, in the 1981 TV production. 

Athony Hopkins with Bob Hoskins, 1981

I liked how David Harewood both complimented Sir Laurence Olivier's talent as an actor but also criticised his portrayal, in blackface, of Othello in the 1965 film version. It is refreshing to hear one artist review another artist's performance. 

Laurence Olivier with Frank Finlay as Iago, 1965

But it also shows that culturally the image we have of the character of Othello is evolving. It is never the same.

The production I would love to hear more about, and have seen footage of is from 1997. Patrick Stewart played Othello as white, with the black Patrice Johnson as Desdemona (she was great in the recent Tamburlaine at Theatre For A New Audience I saw) and all of the other white characters were played by black actors, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, in Washington, D.C. 

It was an idea of Stewart's, and a role he had dreamed playing since he was 14 years old! I think it might be the first race-reversed "photo-negative" production of the play.

Patrick Stewart as Othello with Patrice Johnson as Desdemona, 1997

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the documentary is the discussion of the actor Ira Aldridge, who was the first black actor to play Othello on a London stage, in 1825.

I don't want to ruin the story for you about his production of Othello. It is incredible.

Ira Aldridge, 1867

This part of the documentary is presented by Mr. Harewood and Adrian Lester, who portrayed Ira Aldridge in a play about his career, and I loved how these two actors discuss this not-so-ancient history on a theatre stage. It is a wonderful symbol of how these two great actors are carrying on such a historical and crucially significant theatrical tradition. 

David Harewood with Adrian Lester

My only criticism of this wonderful documentary is that it spends so little time on the original historical context in which Shakespeare wrote the play, and does not explore why he might have written it. 

It does mention that in 1600, an ambassador from Morocco, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud visited the court of Queen Elizabeth, and this exotic Moorish figure may have been inspired Shakespeare when he wrote the Othello play.

The Moroccan ambassador, painted in 1600

In the process of writing my forthcoming version of Othello, I have found much more to the story of why and when Shakespeare wrote this play. In fact, I have discovered what might be the true reason why Shakespeare invented the name Othello -- a name with no historical or literary precedent before Shakespeare -- in the first place. I wrote about my theory here.

I think the story behind the play is as fascinating as the play itself, and it's a shame there was not more time spent on that angle.

But, I do strongly recommend this documentary. Even if you are very familiar with Othello, it has much to offer, and may surprise you.

The Shakespeare Uncovered series is available here on DVD:

And you can get the first season of Shakespeare Uncovered here:


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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Shakespeare Uncovered Taming of the Shrew

I just watched the fantastic Shakespeare Uncovered documentary about Taming of the Shrew, hosted by Morgan Freeman.

Don't miss it!

One of my favorite parts of these documentaries is the footage of past stage productions, and this one is fantastic. Not only do you get to see Tracey Ullman and Morgan Freeman from their New York City Shakespeare in the Park production from 1990, you also get to see clips of the Shakespeare in the Park production with Meryl Streep with Raul Julia from 1978.

Taming of the Shrew, 1990

Meryl Streep in 1978

These are amazing video clips, and the whole documentary is worth seeing just for those.

Morgan Freeman introduces the documentary by comparing his own humble Mississippi country origins with Shakespeare's own humble Stratford beginning, and he compares Hollywood of today with London of 1590 or so, when Shakespeare first arrived to begin his career.

He is an excellent host, and one of the most enjoyable parts of the documentary is watching him as he watches other actors perform parts of the play. He delights in John Cleese's performance from the 1980 BBC television version and it's fun to see the joyous look in his eyes when he watches Elizabeth Taylor with Richard Burton (from the 1967 Franco Zeffirelli film) or Samantha Spiro with Simon Paisley Day in the 2012 Shakespeare Globe production (which I reviewed here).

John Cleese, 1980

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, 1967

Samantha Spiro and Simon Paisley Day, 2012

He obviously loves this play, and considers it Shakespeare's most compelling play. He is such a compelling actor, and he is no stranger to Shakespeare, having even played Coriolanus in 1979, also for Shakespeare in the Park:

Coriolanus, 1979

When he did it in 1990, the production transplanted the play to the American Wild West, and I don't want to ruin the video clips of him from 1990, but his Wild West six-shooter Petruchio is marvelous. It totally fits.

Mr. Freeman guides us through some of the history of the play, that it may have been Shakespeare's very first play, and many of the productions made for stage and screen -- and even makes a great point about how almost every romantic comedy, and especially screwball comedies (like Philadelphia Story with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant or It Happened One Night with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable), all owe a debt to Taming of the Shrew.

There are several eminent scholars who add insight, such as Jonathan Bate, Stephen Greenblatt, Farah Karim-Cooper, and Laurie Maguire and many actors who have performed in the play, such as Sinead Cusack and Brian Cox, and Julia Stiles who was in the famous 1999 film adaptation 10 Things I Hate About You, co-starring Heath Ledger, which was his American film breakthrough.

The documentary explores the matter of sexism, misogyny and Shakespeare's handling of the battle of the sexes. Was Shakespeare sexist or subversive?

There is an excellent point that is made about how the Shrew is one of the oldest character types, and when Shakespeare was writing his own Shrew play, he was challenging the audience's expectations about how a Shrew should behave. Ms. Maguire also translates the word "shrew" as a woman who talks too much.

I have to admit that I don't personally think the play is sexist, nor do I think Shakespeare was trying to insult or denigrate women. Some people may disagree, and I don't want to belabor the point.

However, I would like to say that Taming of the Shrew was my father's favorite Shakespeare play. He loved the Elizabeth Taylor version. He could watch it endlessly. He also loved Disney's animated Beauty and the Beast film. The stories do have their similarities, and Richard Burton did look like a beast with that beard and mustache:

My father taught me that in order to tame the shrew you must first love the shrew. In his opinion, without love, there is no reason why Petruchio would put up with Kate. By the end of the play, he has rescued her from her father, and she has rescued him from a life without love. They both win.

When Richard Gere sweeps Debra Winger off her feet at the end of An Officer and a Gentlemen, she has saved him as much as he has saved her. When Patrick Swayze as Johnny Castle dirty dances with Jennifer Grey as Baby, they rescue each other.

As far as beastliness goes, Petruchio, or the Beast, or Johnny Castle must be beastly. In order to fall in love, they too must be tamed, and become civilized.

In any case, I find it very interesting that Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew play would be considered sexist, and demeaning to women, at the same time that Fifty Shades of Grey has sold over 100 million copies in print, and is making millions at the box office.

I hope that women would rather have a Petruchio than a Christian Grey.

Overall, I think this documentary handled this controversial matter very well. It is arguably the best presentation of the matter I have ever seen.

Morgan Freeman's reminds us of that old proverb: "A man chases a woman until she catches him." That sums it up nicely.

Morgan Freeman with Tracey Ullman

Also, make sure to watch the first season, available on DVD:


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Friday, February 13, 2015

Shakespeare Uncovered King Lear

Don’t miss the Shakespeare Uncovered documentary about King Lear, hosted by Christopher Plummer.

It’s a great documentary series, and this episode is very entertaining.

Christopher Plummer, one of the greatest stage and screen actors of all time, and who has performed many of the greatest Shakespeare roles, guides this documentary and reflects on his celebrated performance of Lear, from 2002-4.

He also discusses and shows video footage of other productions, most notably Ian McKellen’s performance for the RSC, in 2007. 

Ian McKellen in 2007

Ian McKellen also provides some insight into Lear, as does Simon Russell Beale, who recently performed Lear, directed by Sam Mendes, at the National Theatre, in 2014 (which I reviewed here).

Simon Russell Beale in 2014

Throughout the documentary, there are clips from the rehearsal of the Globe’s production, with Joseph Marcell as King Lear, which I saw while it was on tour (my review here).

Joseph Marcell in 2014

One of my favorite parts of these documentaries is when they show clips of previous film versions of the Shakespeare plays. In this case, they have clips from the first King Lear on film, a silent film from 1910.

from 1910

You can even see the full film here on YouTube. It's only 16 minutes long:

Mr. Plummer’s favorite film Lear is the Russian black and white film version from 1971, directed by Grigori Kozintsev. I have never seen that version, but it does look very impressive, and the cinematography looks fantastic. Mr. Plummer is particularly impressed by the actor Jüri Järvet, whose Lear he describes as “always on the edge of madness.”

Juri Jarvet, on the right, from 1971

There is also some scholarly discussion of the play, by Jonathan Bate, Stephen Greenblatt and Jerry Brotton.

There is an interesting point they make about how politically dangerous it was for Shakespeare to write a play about a king who divides his kingdom at a time when King James, who had only recently become King of England, was pushing for Union.

As is unfortunately the case with these documentaries, in my humble opinion, there is too little time devoted to the scholarship view of these plays. But what little there is at least is provocative, and may help inspire viewers to learn more about the play from a historical and scholarly perspective.

One of my favorite parts is when we get to see, backstage at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, how they make the sound effects for the storm on the heath scene. It is very interesting to see what work goes into making that pivotal scene.

I really enjoyed the whole discussion about how the King Lear play, as we know it today, and as Shakespeare originally wrote it — with the tragic ending, Lear dying while holding the dead Cordelia — was not the version of the play that the world ever saw for 150 years!

From 1681 to 1838, the only version of the play that was seen by audiences was the version by Nahum Tate. In that version, there is a happy ending! Lear does not die. Cordelia does not die.

It was only until William Macready, in 1838, that the world would see the original, and tragic King Lear, again.

Christopher Plummer as Benedick in 1961

There is a fantastic part of the documentary when the Globe actors perform the happy-ending King Lear, where Lear and Cordelia are in prison and about to die, and when the dashing Edgar rescues them (and will go on to marry Cordelia). It’s hilarious!

Of course, Shakespeare’s tragedy of King Lear ends tragically, with the deaths of King Lear and Cordelia. As hard as it is to watch that on stage, or on screen, it is fascinating to listen to Mr. Plummer, and Mr. McKellen, discuss how we can understand Lear’s death as something less than tragic.

It is perhaps the best part of the documentary, and it holds a lesson for us all, in how to live our lives more fully, and appreciated our lives more.

As Henry V, in 1956

The documentary will become available on DVD soon, and you can order it here:

The first season of this series is already available, here:


David B. Schajer

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Monday, February 9, 2015

Shakespeare Uncovered A Midsummer Night's Dream

I just watched the Shakespeare Uncovered documentary episode about A Midsummer Night's Dream.

It's an excellent documentary, and well worth watching.

The episode was hosted by Hugh Bonneville, who is arguably most famous for his role on Downtown Abbey, and whose personal favorite Shakespeare play is Midsummer.

Hugh Bonneville

He is a great guide, and his love of the play is very clear. 

I really enjoy this Shakespeare Uncovered series, which is now in its second season. It is a fun introduction to the play for those people who are unfamiliar with the play. Even for people who are very familiar with the play like myself, it has some delightful moments and some surprises, like showing us a clip from the very first film version of the play -- a silent film in 1909 which is only 11 minutes long.

It is also fun to see a picture of a young Hugh Bonneville in 1986 working as an understudy for Lysander at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. It was his first professional job, and he would go on to play the part on tour.

Hugh Bonneville in Midsummer, on the left, 1986

The actor for whom he understudied is quite a funny surprise, and I don't want to ruin it for you. But it is great to see these two actors together discuss a play that means so much to them.

There are other great film clips, including Helen Mirren as Titania from a 1981 TV movie version, and James Cagney as Bottom in the first sound film version from 1935.

The scholars who add insight to the play include Jonathan Bate, Stephen Greenblatt, Michael Dobson from the Shakespeare Institute and Gail Kern Paster from the Shakespeare Folger Library in Washington, D.C. 

Helen Mirren as Titania, 1981

There are many clips from Dominic Dromgoole's production of Midsummer at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and from Julie Taymor's recent production at Theatre For A New Audience (which I saw on stage, my review here). Both Ms. Taymor and Mr. Dromgoole also add some commentary to the documentary. Also included are some clips and behind the scenes interviews with Michael Grandage and David Walliams, as Bottom, for their 2013 production.

Julie Taymor's production, 2013

As much as I enjoyed this episode, I do wish there was more discussion of the historical context in which Shakespeare wrote the play, and why he wrote this play.

They do mention that one theory is that Shakespeare wrote the play for the second wedding of the widowed Countess of Southampton, the mother of his artistic patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.

There is very little exploration of this theory in the documentary, nor are other theories mentioned. I happen to disagree with this theory, and prefer theory that the play was written for the marriage of the daughter of the Lord Chamberlain George Carey, Shakespeare's official patron.

But what's curious about the theory they do mention is that while they talk about how Midsummer and Romeo and Juliet were written in the same year, and how Midsummer's Pyramus and Thisbe scene is a comical homage to Romeo and Juliet, they don't stop to comment on the fact that Romeo and Juliet was written for the Earl of Southampton. In other words, they don't stop to consider the significance that the plays might have been written for the mother and the son.

Also, Romeo and Juliet was written at a time when the Earl of Southampton promised himself to his future wife, Elizabeth Vernon. I wrote about this at greater length here.

In any event, I didn't expect too much scholarship in this documentary, but what little there was really was far from enough.

The Lovers in Dominic Dromgoole's Globe production, 2013

Perhaps my favorite part of the documentary is when Mr. Bonneville visits Kenilworth Castle, 12 miles from Stratford. 

He discusses the idea that an 11 year old Shakespeare may have seen Queen Elizabeth in person. I wrote about this myself, here.

In the play, Oberon speaks a line: "Since once I sat upon a promontory, And heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back." 

This line refers to part of the entertainment Queen Elizabeth saw in 1575 at Kenilworth, when an artificial lake was created, across which a mechanical dolphin swam.

This is a fascinating moment in history, when the queen visited Kenilworth, and it is also quite fascinating and curious that Shakespeare would mention that exact moment in his play, 20 years later.

I do wish the documentary would have explored this in more depth, but nevertheless it was fun to see Mr. Bonneville discuss this as he traveled to Kenilworth.

Dominic Dromgoole's Globe production, 2013

I highly recommend this documentary series, and if you miss it on TV, don't worry, it will be on DVD this month, 24 February. You can order it here:

And don't miss the first series, available here:


David B. Schajer

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