9:00pm Friday 22 June on BBC TWO
In Shakespeare and Us, Simon Schama will argue that it is impossible to understand how Shakespeare came to belong ‘to all time’, without understanding just how much he was of his time. In his histories and tragedies, Shakespeare explored questions we are all still asking ourselves today: What is this England? What makes this Nation? Behind the mask of royalty, who are our Kings and Queens?
Simon Schama explores how in his history plays Shakespeare created a vision of England that still rings true today. The Protestant Reformation had left the country bitterly divided, a fault-line which ran through Shakespeare’s own family, and left the countrty deeply unsure of its own identity.
Against this backdrop, Shakespeare began to dramatize English history and the English character in a new and unprecedented way. From his first blockbuster, Henry VI, he made sure that his England wasn’t just a place where King and Queens strutted and preened, but where ordinary Englishmen and women took centre stage.
It was an inclusive vision which Shakespeare expanded upon in his masterpieces Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, plays which presents England in glorious technicolour: kings and pickpockets, country squires and common prostitutes, corrupt knights and ragged soldiers. And at the centre of it all is the outsized figure of Sir John Falstaff, a character who transfixed Elizabethan audiences and still moves us today.
Falstaff is Shakespeare’s most stupendous creation; an outsized dream of Englishness who embodies more purely the essence of English irreverence, generosity and wit that any of the characters with whom he shares the stage.