If you can get through the first 10 minutes of In Search of Shakespeare without gagging, there’s a fair chance you’ll end up watching all four one-hour episodes. But those first moments are tricky, because you’ll need to immunize yourself to Michael Wood, the presenter and creator of this BBC series (PBS, Wednesday, 8 p.m.) about the enigmatic Elizabethan dramatist. Far from camera-shy, Wood bubbles over with so much “infectious” enthusiasm that you may soon start to grind your teeth and scowl. “Can the life of a writer ever be as interesting or exciting as the life of a conqueror?” he asks breathlessly (he’s made documentaries about Alexander the Great, among other mythic action heroes). “Yes, it can!”
If Wood were discussing a writer-adventurer like William Burroughs or Arthur Rimbaud, or even Shakespeare’s rival, the playwright Christopher Marlowe, who was gay, a spy, and died after being stabbed to death in a tavern, he’d have a pretty good case. But the life of the man who wrote Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear is mostly a blank. Put simply, we don’t know much about him. On official Elizabethan documents — court records, property purchases and the like — he sometimes appears as Shakespeare, but just as often as Shaxspeare or Shakestaff. Are those misspellings? Feeble attempts at disguise? Or references to someone else altogether? We don’t know, and the problem is, Wood doesn’t either.
Not that this deters him for an instant. Early on we find him standing outside the reconstructed Globe Theater on the River Thames, his breath clouding the chill night air. Wearing gloves and a black leather jacket, he looks like a cat burglar preparing to break into someone’s apartment. He’s not just going to talk about history; he’s going to raid it, plunder it. He’s also going to walk through it, as is proved by subsequent scenes in which he crosses snowy fields, fords rivers and trudges gamely through the obscure muddy lanes of ye olde Englande.
Wood isn’t just a peripatetic narrator, however; he’s arguably an unreliable one. Promising a historical detective story, an Elizabethan whodunit, he ends up with a biographical history formed mostly of conjecture. Showing us a portrait of a young man who “might” be Shakespeare, he will, seconds later, assume for the sake of convenience that he is Shakespeare and proceed accordingly. But his evocation of Elizabethan England — a time when Catholics mounted clandestine rebellions, Jesuit missionaries hid from their persecutors in the sewers of grand Tudor country estates, and papists and Protestants lobbied for men’s souls — is superb. His central thesis is that Shakespeare was a Catholic sympathizer in a militantly Protestant time, and thus what we would call a member of a persecuted minority. This fits our own preoccupations a little too neatly, but it’s fun to listen to.
Although he dutifully quotes Ben Jonson on Shakespeare’s being “a poet for all time,” Wood hedges his bets by making him seem as contemporary as possible. Shakespeare’s book of sonnets was a “best-seller,” his plays the talk of London’s “show-biz” world, and Prince Hamlet the original “rebel without a cause.” When Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, died at age 11, the playwright suffered a “midlife crisis.” Near the end of her reign, Elizabeth became a “lame duck” queen, and James I’s ascension to the throne in 1603 ushered in a “cool Britannia” phase, while the shock of the Gunpowder Plot and the attempt to blow up the houses of Parliament amounted to “nothing less than a Jacobean 9/11.” The updating becomes particularly strained when Wood tries to convince us that Othello was written in response to race riots in London, as if the Swan of Avon had morphed into the Swan of Notting Hill Gate.
Wood is on firmer ground when he makes the case for Shakespeare’s being a relatively unlettered country boy rather than (as some have alleged) his “really” having been the Earl of Oxford or the university-educated Marlowe. Over gorgeous footage of the Warwickshire countryside, he explains how Shakespeare knew the names for dozens of wildflowers, and used dialect words a city slicker like Marlowe would almost certainly have been unfamiliar with.
We learn a surprising amount about John Shakespeare, the poet’s father, who was the mayor of Stratford before he fell out of favor, as well as about Shakespeare’s schooling, his love for the Roman poet Ovid, and the way in which he was probably introduced to theater. The landscapes of Warwickshire, Lancashire and London are brought to life, the Royal Shakespeare Company dramatizes scenes from the plays, and a recently discovered cache of 19th-century photographs reveals an area of London much as Shakespeare would have known it.
Nonetheless, most of the really important information remains elusive. About Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway, for instance, or the identity of the “dark lady” of the sonnets, or even Shakespeare’s day-to-day existence, we still know next to nothing. Perhaps it’s better that way, even if Wood ultimately proves it’s possible to make an enjoyable program out of the historical scraps.