By Kristin Battestella
Alas, who's still celebrating the Shakespeare 400th here at the year's end? Join in with this trio of Bard focused documentaries debating everything from if Shakespeare is really Shakespeare to where he's buried and if his skull is still there. Oh yes.
The Shakespeare Conspiracy Presented by Sir Derek Jacobi – Is the 17th Earl of Oxford Edward de Vere the true author of Shakespeare's works? Sir Derek narrates and appears on location to address the questionable Shakespeare facts – experts interviewed even pronounce the names of Willm Shakspere, gent wanted for tax evasion who left no mention of manuscripts in his will, and the famed ever living poet differently. Beyond basic records and tourism perks for Stratford-upon-Avon, the evidence doesn't seem to favor the former's leap from country business and acting on stage to the latter's literary glory. From the original tomb depiction of a bag of grain and the subsequent quill poised monument to the breakdown of the name William Shakespeare as a “poet playwright” pseudonym with a debatable hyphen, the case against The Bard is stacked with similarly named relatives, posthumous poetry references, and physical oddities in known Shakespeare portraits. Who had the scholarly and courtly characteristics needed to write such plays but had to hide behind the Elizabethan taboo of nobles not being able to write under their own names for the low end theater? Did de Vere with his aristocratic background meet the criteria to write Shakespeare as we know him? Dramatic play examples, early film footage postulating the Oxford theory, and references to the 1920 book Shakespeare Identified punctuate de Vere's biography, his surviving documents, and the mirroring of his turbulent life in some of Shakespeare's plots. While apparently new to video and streaming, this hour seems much older with poorly mixed dialogue drowned out by medieval music. Most of the experts are also dubbed into English, which is somewhat surprising when considering why this thoroughly English topic wouldn't go to their own local authorities first. Likewise the documentary name is generic enough that Sir Google gives you more information about the authorship question itself. At times, the rough, one-sided presentation is tough to follow with a convoluted and windblown focus on academic minutiae that's not shocking but now readily available information. I'd like to see Jacobi present his claims anew, but this is a neat place to start for those interested specifically in the Oxfordian case.
The Shakespeare Enigma – Pseudonym possibilities, persecution fears, and evidence not adding up anchor this hour long documentary focusing on Christopher Marlowe as a potential candidate in the Shakespeare authorship question. Background reenactments and Stratford-upon-Avon footage add Elizabethan flavor alongside the lack of Shakespeare documentation and the suspicious death of Marlowe giving rise to Shakespeare's success. From humble origins, sixteenth century civil records, and Catholic versus Protestant strife, the historical information explains the court intrigue of the time – setting the scene for the sometime actor and apprentice known as Shakespeare versus the well educated Marlowe excelling in the London theater scene when not employed in Sir Francis Walsingham's spy service. The gaps in Shakespeare's life and Marlowe's rebellious, even treasonous nature provide room for faked death supposition despite anything concrete to support the cover ups, pardons, and Italian exile. Did Shakespeare fill the tense court vacuum left by the late Marlowe with a comedic stage, theater patronages, new acting troops, and eventual Globe renown? Or was there a hidden collaboration between the two? The elaborate and somewhat preposterous subterfuge is presented here in a concise, fun manner with brief comments on De Vere's candidacy and behind the scenes moments from the recent film Anonymous. Why is there no mention of Shakespeare's manuscripts in his will? Have audiences been bemusingly subjected to the good business that is the big Bard fraud? Perhaps the more interesting question is whether who actually wrote what really matters, and expert interviews punctuate the friendly narration and paired down possibilities here. While not super academic or technical and simplistic to the well versed anti-Stratfordian, this presentation takes what can be a very difficult topic and offers a linear, basic overview on one angle in the case – making it perfect for classroom supposition or an introduction to the authorship debate.
Shakespeare's Tomb – Helen Castor (She-Wolves) hosts this 400th anniversary PBS special taking an archaeological approach to The Bard's final resting place with on location cameras at the Holy Trinity Church and new technology scans contrasting the candlelit medieval mood. Recent excavations at Shakespeare's New Place and at the scene conversations with historians detail the odd burial facts, unusual curse epitaph, confusing tomb design, and how little we really know. Looking at Shakespeare's will shows interesting changes to his bequeaths, but how did he die – syphilis, fever, typhoid, murder? Praying for the sins of the dead and gruesome period background on overcrowded graveyards, digging up bones, and skulls stacked in Charnel Houses add to the possibility of later phrenology crazes being potentially responsible for the apparent disturbance of Billy's bones. Is Shakespeare really there? Why a burial at his local parish and not something more grand? Do the grave markers cover a hidden vault beneath? Why is William's stone different from the rest of his family? Are Victorian tales of his skull being stolen true? Despite the church's policy against evasive, intrusive investigations, radar experts can use innocuous GPR data to reveal the size, shapes, depth, and simplistic placement of the Shakespeare family graves. Instead of shovels and dirt, this almost futuristic archaeology scanning of the aged stones gives amazing answers alongside dusty medieval registrars – but these also raise more intriguing clues and possibilities. Stories of nearby vaults and rumors of reburied skulls behind hidden staircases and forgotten ossuaries invoke more mystery. It's a neat fantastic meets science mix, with tiptoeing amid family skeletons while trying to use modern laser scanning equipment in cramped crypts. Unfortunately, the church's restoration history, challenging 3D models, and detailed forensic reconstruction of the purported to be Shakespeare Beoley Skull may not give the answers this scientific endeavor wants. Naturally, we won't know the truth until Holy Trinity Church is willing to open the grave – and of course it is in their best interests to respect the dead. However, it is surprising this new information didn't make more news. This presentation has a fun, personal perspective with friendly layman explanations rather than super academia, making it pleasant for the classroom and older scholars alike.