The man behind the plays is the elusive subject of a four-part BBC series on the Bard. Victoria Neumark is intrigued
"Not for an age, but for all time": it's a tricky endorsement, Ben Jonson's tagging of Shakespeare in the eternal. Too reverential to relate to at the back of the class. Yet pinning the playwright down in what the man himself called "the dark backward and abysm of time" runs the risk of sealing him in a capsule of peculiarity: all those Warwickshire loan words, Latin sources for plots and minute variations between Folio and Quarto publications that encrust educational editions of the plays trigger one big yawn.
In the BBC's four-part series on the life, times and achievements of our greatest writer, historian Michael Wood uses all his considerable energy and charm not only to track Shakespeare's biography through the documents of 16th-century England, but also to link up literary clues in the plays and poems and trace out a living personality. Sit up, this is interesting.
Wood, who, in tune with the "in search" theme, is shown delving with gusto into libraries and records of ecclesiastical courts and squinting happily at squiggly Elizabethan writing, has picked out a compelling theme from what is known and guessed about Shakespeare's family.
Like many in the Midlands, the Shakespeares were, Wood argues, Catholics, when to belong to the Old Faith was to risk the penalties imposed by acts of uniformity: ostracism, fines, imprisonment and, sometimes, death. Did Shakespeare, despite walking in James I's coronation procession, retain his family's faith until his death? Was his feeling for subtle and many-layered meanings honed by his family's subterfuges? In sonnets and speeches that mask their bitter criticism of tyranny under metaphor and historical allusion, was Shakespeare not only giving voice to a human concern but also to his own clan's complaint at religious intolerance?
Our picture of a Tudor golden age is largely the result of Tudor propaganda. In fact, after an early period of prosperity and tolerance, Elizabeth's reign was turbulent. Famines, enclosures and changes in commerce caused deprivation and social unrest, hinted at, for instance, in King Lear and Henry IV part 2. Foreign governments attacked overtly and stirred up rebellion covertly; government spies and informers fomented as many plots as they uncovered; religion was a focus for dissent.
The history plays and Macbeth show how acute Shakespeare's observation of Machiavellian politics was. His early contemporary, Marlowe, was in the web of intrigue up to his neck, dying supposedly in an argument over a pub "reckoning" (bill). In As You Like It, Shakespeare refers to this: "It strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room", echoing Marlowe's famous line about "infinite riches in a little room" (The Jew of Malta).
Was this observation sharpened by his being an outsider, not just as a writer but as a member of a persecuted group? Wood suggests it was. In the 18th century, a workman in Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon found a document hidden in the attic rafters. That parchment, now lost, was a standard profession of Roman Catholic faith, in a form propagated by the Catholic missionary Edmund Campion, one of the best-known of the wave of Spanish-financed Catholics who tried to infiltrate England in the second half of Elizabeth's reign. It was signed by John Shakespeare, William's father.
The Catholic connection makes sense, in a detective-story kind of way, just as identifying the Dark Lady of the Sonnets with Venetian-born Emilia Lanier makes sense, just as it makes sense to suppose Shakespeare may have first become enamoured of the theatre at one of the touring propaganda performances of the Queen's Men. Wood is brilliant at dramatically assembling such theories from tiny scattered fragments of the past - signatures in a lawsuit, a horoscope cast for Emilia, images from Ovid's Metamorphoses, today's seedy ruins of the house where Marlowe died. He approaches Shakespeare, in line with his earlier series such as Conquistadors, televisually, as "the explorer of human imagination": tailor-made for today's TV teenagers.
In Search of Shakespeare does a good job of bringing 16th-century England to life. Panning over Warwickshire spring flowers or modern Catholic pilgrims, interviewing descendants of Shakespeare's patron and today's Stratford town council, watching a master glover at work (Shakespeare's father was a glover), or tracking down the site of the old Curtain theatre through old maps and under a modern factory, we are caught up in a journey to times past.
Some of the most gripping sequences come with young actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company, who perform plays by Shakespeare and contemporaries in customised settings. Whether in a Gloucester inn-yard or in Stratford town hall, the actors revel in the intimacy and melodramatic style Richard Burbage and his company are said to have used. Watching on the small screen, it is easy to see how, with little scenery and less in the way of technical effects, the actors have to push their personalities ever harder.
The impact on the audience, person to person, is huge. Easy to imagine, then, how in 1587, as tradition has it, Shakespeare could have become bedazzled by this extraordinary gaudy display and packed in the life of a provincial merchant's son for the razzmatazz of showbiz.
So much the series shows us, vividly and well. Shakespeare the person: child, lover, father, Catholic, actor, merchant. As for the writer, who knows? As the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote (in Everything and Nothing): "No one was ever so many men as that man: like the Egyptian Proteus he was able to exhaust all the possibilities of being." You can only find that Shakespeare in his work.
In Search of Shakespeare is available as a book (pound;25), video (pound;14.99) or DVD (pound;19.99) from July 7. We have 10 copies of the video to give away. To win a copy, simply answer the following question: What are the names of the two warring families in Romeo and Juliet? Send your answer on a postcard with your name and address to: Shakespeare competition, Room AG250, BBCWoodlands, 80 Wood Lane, London W12 OT