Jeremy Irons in a scene from PBS' "Shakespeare Uncovered." (Alex Brenner, PBS )
Loving Shakespeare with a love so immoderate it would take a Shakespeare to describe it, I was pretty well pre-sold on "Shakespeare Uncovered," a six-part analytical-historical gambol through several of his plays, beginning Friday on PBS. By the same token, I am liable to be more critical of the product; but as it turns out, it's a treat.
Each episode has a different host, and each represents a personal journey through the play (or in some cases, plays), telling the story from beginning to end, but embroidering it with clips and commentary to explore the meaning of the work in its time and our time. The story's told with old manuscripts and iPads, in art galleries and libraries, on ancient hillsides and, most especially, within the rebuilt Globe theater, where the heat never seems to be on and where, in one lovely moment, snow falls through its open "O" and on to the stage.
David Tennant, who was the 10th Doctor in "Doctor Who," takes you through "Hamlet," in which he played Hamlet; Derek Jacobi explicates "Richard II," declaring along the way his belief that it was not Shakespeare who wrote Shakespeare but the 17th Earl of Oxford (a minority opinion); Jeremy Irons, whom it is a kind of relief to see back in this context, handles "Henry IV" (Parts 1 and 2), which he recently filmed for the BBC, and their sequel "Henry V." (PBS will broadcast it anon.)
PHOTOS: Shakespeare on screen
Joely Richardson covers the cross-dressing comedies "Twelfth Night" and "As You Like It," to explore Shakespeare's love of strong women; she visits with her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, who became a star at age 24 in the latter play. Director Trevor Nunn explores "The Tempest," which he regards as autobiographical and not only Shakespeare's last play (and an "experimental" one at that) but also quite possibly his last performance. And Ethan Hawke, the American cousin, looks for the roots of "Macbeth," which he would like to play someday.
We visit the fields where the Battle of Shrewsbury ("Henry IV, Part 1") and the Battle of Agincourt ("Henry V") took place, and Dunsinane Hill, where Shakespeare's Macbeth made his last stand, and Shakespeare's grammar school, now with a picture of Shakespeare on the wall. Tennant walks down along the Thames, Irons rows across it, Hawke prowls the streets of New York, whose graffiti-covered walls are called upon to convey a little "Macbeth"-like dread.
There are historians and scholars of literature and a forensic psychologist to compare the speech patterns of Macbeth to those of murderers she has met and the Archbishop of Canterbury on the character of Prospero. But as the poet was primarily a playwright, the bulk of the work is taken up by theater people, and one of the marvelous things about the series is the glimpse it gives you into the process.
We watch Tennant and Jude Law compare notes on the rigors and rewards of playing Hamlet ("It remained until the final performance utterly terrifying," says Tennant), are present at rehearsals, peer over players' shoulders to their hand-annotated copies of the text — texts that have been discussed and argued over for four centuries without any sort of final decision being made or their possibilities exhausted. And because the plays continually require inquiry, and because they touch on so much of what it means to be human, their study can make as good a moral, philosophical or spiritual education as might possibly be had.
It is the world and a way of looking at the world that takes nothing at face value, which makes his heroes difficult and his villains sympathetic: "Shakespeare being Shakespeare," says Irons, "nothing is simple."
Indeed, the study of Shakespeare is in its way as thrilling and moving and entertaining as the plays themselves — made, after all, to thrill and to move and to entertain — and "Shakespeare Uncovered" gives you a sense of the energies they continue both to generate and to enlist.
When: 9 and 10 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
GRAPHIC: Faces to watch in 2013
VIDEO: Winter TV preview
PHOTOS: Best TV of 2012