Simon Schama's Shakespeare

This England

Series 1 - Episode 1 This England

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Review

Historian Simon Schama’s message here is a big and simple one, that it was Shakespeare who “gave us a sense of who we are”. The “us” in that sentence is explicitly, I’m afraid, the English and not the Scots, the Welsh or the British in general.

This two-part documentary is about how Shakespeare painted a picture of England in his history plays and in the process didn’t just record the nation (absorbing Elizabethan vernacular and street slang onto the stage for the first time), but also helped to create it.

Being Schama, the presenter makes his case with double-cream diction and lush turns of phrase (he describes Henry VI as “Kill Bill in tights”.) But he also calls on a classy coterie of actors to perform speeches, and in the end they steal the show. You can’t really compete with the wonderful Roger Allam as Falstaff.

Summary

Simon Schama presents the first of two documentaries tracing Shakespeare's enduring popularity back to his own times, to discuss how he dramatised the world around him. He begins with the history plays, such as Henry IV, in which the Bard created an England where royals and lords shared the stage with pickpockets, squires, prostitutes and ragged soldiers. They all surrounded the memorable character of Sir John Falstaff, the fat knight who transfixed Elizabethan audiences and still moves people today with his English irreverence, generosity and wit. Schama's thoughts are mirrored by performances from actors including Judi Dench, Simon Russell Beale and Harriet Walter.
Documentary