Shakespeare: The King’s Man


Shakespeare: The King’s Man

[aka: “The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History"]

Written & Presented by James Shapiro

Camera: Chris Openshaw

Editor: Alex Boyle

Music: Uncredited

Executive Producer: Phil George

Produced & Directed by Steven Clarke

First Aired on BBC 4, April 2012



James Shapiro

Royal Shakespeare Company

- Roxana Silbert, RSC

- Lucy Bailey, RSC

- David Farr, RSC

- Michael Boyd, RSC

Ralph Fiennes, Director

Elizabeth Kenny, Lutenist

Farah Karim-Cooper, The Globe

Peter Barber, British Library

Dora Thornton, British Museum

Prof Pauline Croft, Univ of London

Prof Gordon McCullan, King’s College London

Catherine MacCleod, National Portrait Gallery


Production Studio:

Theatrical: Green Bay Media

Video: Athena Learning



Aspect ratio: 1.78:1

Resolution: 480i

Codec: MPEG-2

Disc Size: DVD x 2

Bit Rate: High (ca. 8 Mbps)

Runtime: 178 minutes

Region: 1



English Dolby Digital 2.0



Optional English (documentary)

Optional English (Macbeth)


Bonus Features

  1. Bonus Disc: Macbeth – the 1983 BBC production (147 min.)

  2. Biographies of Shakespeare's contemporaries

• 12-page Viewer’s Guide Booklet 



DVD Clamshell Case: DVD x 2

Street Date: April 16, 2013

Overview [DRG.TV]

King James I, King of England and Scotland, had the bad luck to succeed one of the most popular monarchs in British history,  and yet his first decade on the English throne, from 1603 to 1613, marks a period arguably unsurpassed in British culture. It was an age of bold geographical imagination and exploration, You could throw a rock in London’s crammed streets and probably hit a major writer. The downplaying of this huge cultural activity even extends to the great genius himself, for literary historians have tended to label Shakespeare as an Elizabethan rather than a Jacobean writer. In this landmark reassessment of the first Jacobean decade and Shakespeare’s career, the leading American scholar James Shapiro, brings back to life a strangely neglected period in Britain’s cultural and political history and reveals Shakespeare as its brightest star, his works providing the keenest of insights into this moment.



Interview with James Shapiro (excerpts)

What was the inspiration behind “Shakespeare: The King’s Man?”

“The executive producer Phil George approached me about making the documentary because he knew I was working on a follow-up to my book 1599. I was starting to research Jacobean Shakespeare, which I had all but ignored up until that point. People think of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan writer when in fact the Tudor line ended in 1603 when the Stuart’s rose to power. I had some knowledge of Jacobean Shakespeare but I wanted to learn more. So I spent about six to eight months going through the archives and I produced about 300 pages of material. I was very fortunate to gain access to rare documents, artifacts and experts that would have been off-limits to me if I hadn’t been accompanied by a film crew. But my main motivation was to learn more about Shakespeare’s work from the period between 1603 and 1613.”


Over the course of the series, you clearly demonstrate that many of Shakespeare’s plays had underlying “Ripped from the headlines” type themes. Did he aim his plays at contemporary audiences or do you think he also had an inkling that people would be watching these plays years and decades if not centuries later?

“By this point in time, Shakespeare had been writing plays for over 25 years. He was very careful not to weigh his plays down with too many contemporary references. Other contemporary writers, such as Ben Jonson, tied in lots of topical references into plays, especially in comedies. Shakespeare tended to avoid doing that. I think Shakespeare was very aware that he was writing for posterity but I strongly believe that elements of his plays were shaped by what was happening around him. . . In the second episode, I dealt with Macbeth and the topic of “equivocation” and I think that is a good example of how a play could resonate with the preoccupations of Shakespeare’s day yet also feel timeless.


Your book “Contested Will” has been described as the definitive argument against the so-called Oxfordian theory that calls into question Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays. What are your thoughts on the conspiracy theories?

“We started working on this documentary not long after the film Anonymous was released. It purported to show how Shakespeare didn’t really write his plays (and not surprisingly was a box office disaster). I have immersed myself in the archives and know how and why Shakespeare wrote his plays. I live in a universe of facts and truth while the doubters live in a world of truthiness and fantasy. Currently, the leading alternative theory is that the Earl of Oxford wrote these plays. The biggest problem with that theory is the fact that Oxford died in 1604—before most of Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays were written. Oxford could not have drawn on the food riots of 1607 to write Coriolanus if he had died three years before it was even written! With the exception of Measure for Measure, all of the plays explored in the documentary were written after the death of Oxford.


What is your favorite Shakespeare play?

“When I was younger, Julius Caesar was the play for me but as I get older, different plays become more meaningful to me–such as King Lear. When I see a really great production it really opens a play up in fresh ways and becomes a new favorite. At the minute I am working with the RSC on a production of Anthony and Cleopatra that will be on in Stratford-upon-Avon, New York and Miami. It is a brilliant version of the play. So my thoughts on the plays change over time; it’s kind of like the ‘seven ages of man’ speech in As You Like It—with each new stage of life I suppose I have a new favorite play.”


Critical Press

Best British TV

Shakespeare: The King’s Man is one of the most engaging scholarly documentaries that you are likely to watch. The three part series is written and presented by Columbia University Professor James Shapiro whose award winning book 1599 now serves as a prelude to this critically acclaimed expose of the story behind the Jacobean era Shakespeare plays. The hit movie Shakespeare in Love proved that the Bard could appeal to a mainstream audience that is more used to special effects and CGI than sonnets and soliloquies. However, that movie took huge liberties with the truth whereas Shakespeare: The King’s Man sticks to the facts whilst shedding new light on the previously unknown or ignored events and motivations that shaped Shakespeare’s plays.


James Shapiro was new to TV when BBC4 first broadcast this show in 2012. However, Shapiro has been teaching the topic for over 25 years and his knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject more than make up for his lack of prior TV experience. Shapiro is like a story teller of old, carefully and cleverly relaying real facts in a way that captivates and engages his audience. He also makes clever use of modern day London to create a back drop for his story. The people may look different and the buildings may be sturdier but you can feel the energy of Jacobean era London oozing through the TV as Shapiro explains how the political intrigues and social upheaval of Shakespeare’s day had a direct impact on what he wrote and how he wrote it.

Most of us are familiar with MacBeth having studied it in high school but how many of us ever tied the events in the play to the ill-fated Gunpowder plot that nearly killed the British King? The Winter’s Tale is less well known but Shapiro stirs our interest in this obscure play by linking it to real-life events that scandalized the nation during the reign of King James. We get to see snippets of both these plays and the dialogue makes much more sense when you understand the meaning behind it. Aside from providing some context to Shakespeare’s plays, Shapiro also firmly squashes any lingering doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship of these works. – Kieran Kinsella


LensView: 9

And all this time I had this idea that the Bard was Elizabeth’s man. End of story. Not all, James Shapiro reminds us. Shakespeare went on to write another 15 plays after the last of the Tudors was laid to rest: several among his darkest and most extraordinary – Macbeth, The Tempest and King Lear.


James I, King of Scots, did not tolerate criticism of his reign, and made certain that he kept the most popular of the playwrights close to home by making Shalespeare’s company, previously known as “The Chamberlain’s Men,” his company in residence, re-titling them: “The King’s Men,” the first of their kind among Western Civilizations, Professor Shapiro points out. Shapiro takes his time laying out the historical context in which William and James came together. He seems knowledgeable about the social and religious politics of the day as he is about theatrical practice, and he brings them together in a cogent and absorbing lecture, frequently with the help of a curator of this or that area of historical interest or artifact and The Royal Shakespeare Company players and the directors of the plays under examination. In this way he can discuss what is known about seventeenth century tradition and how that does or doesn’t fit with modern interpretation.



Our host is as intense and earnest as he is enthusiastic, though, I confess I am a little tired of narrator/guides in such documentaries walking about city streets as if there was something meaningful in the juxtaposition. The simple truth is that there is no surviving newsreel footage, no newspapers or tweets from Shakespeare’s day and precious few locations intact, so producers try to persuade us that the visual background is relevant.


The three-hour feature is divided into three equal parts:



When Queen Elizabeth died without an heir, the English throne passed to the Scottish King James I. He was elusive, intellectual, and a foreigner with Catholic sympathies. Shakespeare responded with Measure for Measure, a play about regime change and political and religious tensions; Timon of Athens, about money, greed, and corruption; and King Lear, about a united England about to be divided.




After the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 attempted an assassination on King James’s life, England entered a new age of conspiracy, anxiety, and equivocation. Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus, a tragedy about a leader who cannot equivocate; Antony and Cleopatra, reflecting England’s nostalgia for Elizabeth; and Macbeth, about the worst crime imaginable: the murder of a king.



Shakespeare’s late plays are often viewed as mellow swansongs. But during the last years of his life, Shakespeare was still experimenting and writing about subjects close to home. The Winter’s Tale features a seemingly happy royal family that suddenly unravels. The Tempest bristles with dynastic politics. And in Henry VIII, the bard reflected one final time on the transformational nature of leadership.



Video: 9

Filmed only yesterday, just about, in pretty darn good resolution, the series is transferred with care onto DVD. Of course, there is no archival footage to speak of, so everything should looks good, whether London street scenes today, museums, castles, artifacts, theaters and stages old and new, – you name it. Professor Shapiro has a photogenic and determined look, though he doesn’t vary it much.


Audio & Music: 8/7

The audio design is not complicated: monologue and conversation, occasional music, environmental sounds, all in a well balanced, 2-channel array. Shapiro is always crystal clear, but subtitles are optional if it helps with names and places. I was unable to find a credit for the music, which I thought was apt and unobtrusive.



Bonus: 9

• Bonus disc (courtesy of Ambrose Video) containing the BBC’s 1983 production of Macbeth, directed by Jack Gold and starring Nicol Williamson, Ian Hogg, Jane Lapotaire and James Bolam. Not at all shabby looking and sounding, color and acuity quite good, considering the age and its made-for-TV circumstances.

• 12-page viewer’s guide with a timeline, “A Theatre for Every Age” by Mark Olshaker, and articles on the arts of the Jacobean era, the history of London theatre, the Gunpowder Plot, and Shakespeare’s source material

• Biographies of other prominent playwrights of Shakespeare’s day and of host James Shapiro

  1. Discussion questions at


Recommendation: 8

Yes, there was life after Elizabeth, and while James the Sequel may not have left much of an impression, his theatrical company did. While hardly exhaustive - what could be? – James Shapiro navigates waters previously little explored, and we are the beneficiaries. The bonus disc of an entire play (Macbeth, no less) is an unexpected pleasure, old hat though it may be. A good introduction to the Bard’s late period. Don’t miss it.  

Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

April 20, 2013

Return to Top

Score CardScore_Card.htmlScore_Card.htmlshapeimage_3_link_0
About MeAbout_Me.htmlAbout_Me.htmlshapeimage_4_link_0