‘Shakespeare Uncovered’ explores the Bard’s greatest plays

The fascinating history behind Shakespeare’s greatest plays continues with a third series of “Shakespeare Uncovered,” airing Sundays at 2 p.m., beginning Sept. 8 on Arizona PBS. The ambitious series concludes with celebrated new hosts Helen Hunt, F. Murray Abraham, Romola Garai, Brian Cox, Simon Russell Beale and Sir Antony Sher, who seamlessly weave their personal passions with history, biography, iconic performances and new analysis to tell the stories behind the stories of Shakespeare’s famous works.

Each episode reveals the extraordinary world and works of William Shakespeare and the still-potent impact his plays have today. The films combine interviews with actors, directors and scholars, along with visits to key locations, clips from some of the most celebrated film and television adaptations and illustrative excerpts from the plays staged specially for the series at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Each host has a personal connection with the play presented: Helen Hunt received rave reviews for her portrayal of Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing” at Los Angeles’ Kirk Douglas Theatre; F. Murray Abraham starred as Shylock in a touring production of “The Merchant of Venice;” London’s Young Vic production of “Measure for Measure” saw Romola Garai portray a 21st-century version of Isabella; Brian Cox’s Brutus in the 1977 London National Theatre production of “Julius Caesar” remains a gold standard; Simon Russell Beale drew acclaim for his role of King Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and Sir Antony Sher gave a breakthrough performance in “Richard III” for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984.

“Shakespeare Uncovered” reveals not just the elements in the play, but the history of the play itself. What sparked the creation of each of these works? Where did Shakespeare find his plots and what new forms of theater did he forge? What cultural, political and religious factors influenced his writing? How have the plays been staged and interpreted from Shakespeare’s time to now? Why at different times has each play been popular — or ignored? Why has this body of work endured so thoroughly? What, in the end, makes Shakespeare unique?

Sept. 8: “Much Ado About Nothing” with Helen Hunt

“Much Ado About Nothing” is one of 13 plays that Shakespeare set in Italy, a country that was warm, sensuous and inviting for any 16th-century Englishmen writing about lovers. Claudio and Hero are the conventional lovers, too tongue-tied to speak to each other; Beatrice and Benedick are the skeptics, too busy insulting each other to realize how much they are in love. Hunt explores this exquisite comedy of comparison and contrast, as well as what the ultimate “ado” about “nothing” really means. Watch via Passport.

Sept. 15: “The Merchant of Venice” with F. Murray Abraham

Shakespeare probably never met a Jewish person. Three centuries before “The Merchant of Venice” was written, England became the first country in medieval Europe to expel its Jewish population. Abraham addresses the ubiquitous anti-Semitism that characterized Europe in Shakespeare’s time. Comparing Shylock to the stock Jewish villain of the day, the episode looks at the efforts over the years to interpret him as both villain and victim. Watch via Passport.

Sept. 22: “Measure for Measure” with Romola Garai

“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. 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.

Sept. 29: “Julius Caesar” with Brian Cox

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.

Oct. 6: “The Winter’s Tale” with Simon Russell Beale

A “winter’s tale” was Jacobean slang for something fanciful and unreal — a campfire story. Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” written during the period 1609-1611, is classified as one of his late romances. This is a play driven by passion and obsession, by the uncontrollable jealousy of King Leontes, who recklessly rejects his wife’s love and accuses her of an affair with his old friend. Acting like a man possessed, he orders his friend killed and his pregnant wife imprisoned. In 17th-century marriages, even royal ones, a wife believed guilty of adultery could indeed be brutally punished. The play’s second half, something of an idyllic comedy despite the stark and brutal first half of the play, returns the people Leontes thought he lost through one of the greatest theatrical coups of all time — a magic trick that uses no magic. Beale shows that in this play Shakespeare offers something for which everyone longs: to reverse time, to make amends for an irreversible mistake.

Oct. 13: “Richard III” with Sir Antony Sher

Shakespeare’s Richard III is one of the most infamous villains of all time — and one of the most relished. Sher explains how Shakespeare created both a loathsome and brilliant manipulator, as well as a real man. Shakespeare’s history play is at least as much play as history. They hinge on character, on strength and on frailty, and explore what humans will resort to in order to achieve power. While historians still debate the merits and vices of the real King Richard, there is no truly reliable evidence that he was the villain Tudor historians described; but Shakespeare’s character is larger than life and for this reason stands for all times.

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