TV That's Better Than Downton Abbey

In Shakespeare Uncovered, Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, and others tell us about the man who invented show business, created gender-bending characters, and wrote plays that leave Downton Abbey in the dust.

BY Trudy Ring

January 25 2013 8:00 AM ET

Jeremy Irons

Everyone seems to be a fan of a certain high-class British soap opera these days. But Downton Abbey is a Ford Fiesta compared to the Aston Martin–style ride offered by the works of a guy from Stratford-upon-Avon, in the opinion of distinguished actor Jeremy Irons.

Irons and other interpreters of William Shakespeare’s plays will explain why the Bard is so great in a new PBS series, Shakespeare Uncovered, premiering tonight.

The series and other upcoming PBS offerings will show audiences “that actually television doesn’t end with Downton Abbey,” Irons said while promoting Shakespeare Uncovered at this month’s Television Critics Association gathering in Pasadena, Calif. “If you think that’s good, then watch the Shakespeare productions. You’ll see what real writing, what real stories, what real characters are about.”

Shakespeare Uncovered consists of six one-hour installments, and PBS will show two of them tonight and the remainder the next two Fridays. Tonight’s premiere has one episode with Ethan Hawke dissecting Macbeth, followed by Joely Richardson dealing with the cross-dressing comedies Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Next week will have out actor Derek Jacobi discussing Richard II and Irons guiding viewers through Henry IV and Henry V. The final week will feature David Tennant on Hamlet and director Trevor Nunn on The Tempest.

They and various guests will tell the stories behind Shakespeare’s stories, which often reflected aspects of his life, retold (or rewrote) history, or commented on the politics of his times. Guests appearing in the series include Richardson’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave, who will join her daughter to talk about the strong women characters in Shakespeare’s work; Jude Law, who will speak to the challenges of playing Hamlet, a role both he and Tennant have essayed; and Helen Mirren and director Julie Taymor, who collaborated on the 2010 film of The Tempest, with Mirren playing a female version of the lead character, wizard Prospero.

Scholars have noted that there’s ample gender-bending in Shakespeare’s work and pointed out that the playwright, a man of sophistication, was certainly aware of same-sex love. Some think he had gay relationships, and most recognize that there are gay characters in his plays. The series will touch on the latter, said producer Richard Denton, in dealing with Twelfth Night, in which one character, Antonio, is obviously in love with another man, Sebastian, and some other characters form relationships while disguising their true gender. Denton, who joined Irons at the TCA event, said he’d like to do another set of Shakespeare Uncovered episodes, in hopes of featuring The Merchant of Venice, which strongly suggests a sexual relationship between two men, Bassanio and (another) Antonio. Whether more installments are to come will depend on the popularity of the current series, he said, although with the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth coming in 2014 and the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016, there’s likely to be more interest in the Bard than ever.

Tags: television

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