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Shakespeare Uncovered Preview: Measure for Measure with Romola Garai and Julius Caesar with Brian Cox

I’ve always considered myself a fan of Shakespeare, but I have to admit that Shakespeare Uncovered allows me to geek out on a whole new level. I love that Shakespeare’s work is so enduring and as this series proves, there’s always a contemporary angle. Just because his original works were written centuries ago, doesn’t mean they don’t reflect and comment upon the world we live in today.

What I may love most about the show is how they examine many different stagings of each work and talk to experts in various fields about what Shakespeare’s work meant when he wrote it and also the contemporary ramifications of what he was trying to say and show.

Photo Credit: Rory Mulvey

Measure for Measure

“Measure for Measure” takes an astonishingly timely look at sexual morality, hypocrisy and harassment. Shakespeare asks us to “measure” the price of liberty against the moral and social cost of libertinism. It’s a play about vice, the law and sexual corruption at the highest levels and, for nearly two centuries, it was considered too racy to be produced on the English stage. Romola Garai explains why there is no light-hearted happy ending in this play, but something much darker and more complex — truly a sexual tale for our time.

Some highlights:

  • This is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays.
  • A new monarch, King James I, was coming to the throne, so this play reflects the political and social upheaval that was happening at the time — but Shakespeare set it in a foreign city so the new king wouldn’t think it was about him.
  • The central question of the play: Will power change purpose?
  • When the 18 year-old Shakespeare makes his 26 year-old girlfriend pregnant, they have to get married. In the play, Claudio is sentenced to death for making his girlfriend pregnant. One hopes Shakespeare isn’t likening marriage to death, but he is able to write about his own predicament through Claudio.
  • Our main character, Isabel, is a nun — but Shakespeare wouldn’t have ever known or met a nun in his time; monasteries and nunneries had been abolished for 60 years before the play was written.
  • Are women ever believed when they accuse powerful men of sexual misconduct? Even Shakespeare knows they weren’t. The most chilling line in this play is, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?,” and it still resonates today.

  • Even though Isabel has been morally compromised, in a sense she’s still accomplished what she set out to do — until another powerful man makes a different kind of proposal. But Shakespeare has given her no lines. How are we to know what she decides?

Photo Credit: Patrice Gilbert

Julius Caesar

Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is a play that upholds liberty against tyranny. But what is tyranny? And who decides? Shakespeare doesn’t make it simple. In order to preserve the freedom of the Roman Republic, Julius Caesar, an “over-mighty” leader, is assassinated by Roman Senators led by Caesar’s friend Brutus. Caesar wanted to become an emperor. Is Brutus a traitor or a great hero and defender of liberty? Brian Cox explores how “Julius Caesar,” for many years, was seen to represent the American experience: the birth of a Republic. The play explores how easy it is for a free republic to fall into corruption. More than that, the play challenges us to think about who or what to trust and what values we want to live by — and to look inside and wonder how well we even know ourselves.

Some highlights:

  • The central question of the play: What is a tyrant and who decides?
  • The scale is epic, but the play is intimate and hinges upon the relationship between a small group of men.
  • Can the people of Rome trust their leader? Could Caesar become a dictator? This uncertainty is reflected in Shakespeare’s life as well. It’s coming to the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and she’s produced no heir.
  • Julius Caesar is an ideal and Rome, at the time, meant good government, civilization and law & order. Rome was something to aspire to.
  • How can you know the truth of something that happens offstage? Can you believe someone else’s recounting of an event if you don’t know their motives or motivations?
  • If you see yourself as a good person, how can you justify committing violence?
  • “Et tu, Brute?”
  • Actor John Wilkes Booth was obsessed with Brutus and in the history of America, 4 Presidents have been assassinated.
  • Marc Anthony, not particularly well-known for his rousing speeches, proves the power of rhetoric by inflaming the crowd’s emotions. Sound familiar?

  • Too late, Brutus has a final reckoning and realizes the error of his ways.

“Measure for Measure” and “Julius Caesar” premiere Friday, October 19th on PBS and Saturday, October 20th at pbs.org/shakespeareuncovered.

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