From: George Mason’s University’s History News Network http://www.hnn.us
Michael Wood Interview
Michael Wood (#14918) by Editor on July 9, 2003 at 10:06 PM
Copyright 2003 Times Newspapers Limited Sunday Times (London) June 22, 2003, Sunday SECTION: Features; Culture; 17 LENGTH: 892 words HEADLINE: Shakespeare sifter BYLINE: Sally Kinnes BODY: Michael Wood has turned detective to demystify the Bard, discovers Sally Kinnes It seems to be one of television's unwritten rules - don't make a biography of Shakespeare. That way madness lies. It is not that there is not enough to intrigue, it's just that the trail keeps going cold. However many paths you follow, you are still left with the same questions: was he a Catholic? Why did he go Awol between 1582 and 1592, and just what sort of man bequeaths his second best bed to his wife? None of this has put off the award-winning film-maker and historian Michael Wood. His new four-part series, In Search of Shakespeare, is, he claims, the first-ever television biography of Shakespeare - though some tried to put him off. "John Barton, the Stratford director, warned me to be careful," he says. "Everybody has a stake in Shakespeare, and the slightest error becomes like a monster." If the scholars were terrifying, the reading was immense, even for someone like Wood who reads Renaissance scholarship for pleasure. But his lifelong interest is what made it viable: "To have done all the research from scratch would have been impossible." Once known for his boyish looks, Wood was an early example of television historian as crumpet. Erudite but enthusiastic, he is an Anglo Saxon specialist who has diversified to make almost 100 history films.
Wood goes after Shakespeare like a bloodhound, uncovering what he promises will be an Elizabethan detective story. His style, honed in films like The Conquistadors and In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, is to walk where his subject walked, to examine locations, to do the equivalent of a house-to-house search. But he doesn't do dramatisations. Nobody dresses up in doublet and hose. Instead, he uses living witnesses: Stratford's town councillors, the royal herald, or the glover who still works the way Shakespeare's father did. Gradually, street by street, tavern by tavern and play by play, you enter Shakespeare's world. This is a police state, dangerously torn between its Catholic past and Protestant future, where whispered betrayals send men to their deaths. "Shakespeare was absolutely poised between two worlds, but his obsession was with our history, the old kings and queens, the good old friars and the nuns. It's old friars, like the one in Romeo and Juliet, who are the sympathetic characters. It's not Protestant curates." But television can be treacherous. In its voracious appetite for images, Wood feeds it big chunks of the controversial theory that Shakespeare spent his missing years working as a teacher for wealthy Catholics in Lancashire. On TV you're left with the impression that he believes it, but he doesn't, and he barely mentions it in the accompanying book. "It's fantastic footage," says Wood in his defence. It's a lame, if understandable, excuse. It's obvious that Wood wants to like Shakespeare. "Everyone who bumps into him says what a likeable guy he was." So what sort of man was he? "A diffident provincial - he constantly goes on about his provincial status - who was terribly conscious that his dad had been ruined. His father had failed to become a gentleman 20 years before, and Shakespeare, only weeks after the death of his only son, goes to the College of Arms to get his dad the status of gentleman. I almost wonder if he had a psychological thing about having to restore the family fortunes." Shakespeare comes across as a clever opportunist, who in 25 years in London manages never to appear in the parish registers, even when it was compulsory. "I think he led a double life between London and Stratford, and the religious thought police could never pin him down." In Wood's book-strewn London study, where a photocopy of a possible portrait of Shakespeare looks down on us from the fireplace, Wood makes a strong case for the sonnets as autobiography. "A few scholars think these are literary exercises, but they are incredibly naked," he says. In Wood's reading, they grew out of a midlife crisis suffered after the death of his son, and his passionate affair with a married woman. "The poems to the woman are obscene, at times misogynistic, obsessed with erections and how threatening she is." If Wood has joined the dots about Shakespeare's life in a new way, he has also discovered new dots to join. He found Victorian photographs of the now destroyed Bishopsgate area where Shakespeare first lived in London. "I've worked out where he was living, who his neighbours were, his way to work, who was murdered in which street." From the well-known but little-used book of Warwick's town clerk in the 1580s, he has pieced together Shakespeare's social world. Following a literary hunch, he has even rediscovered a song from Shakespeare's lost play, Cardenio, which the RSC performs in episode four.
So, inch by inch, Wood creeps closer. "I'm absolutely sure this is the right way to go. By looking at the Warwickshire background, the family and the neighbours." Shakespeare remains elusive, but Wood has retained his sanity. One day, he says, a proper biography will be possible. In the meantime, this is the next-best thing. Heaven only knows why it's on BBC2, not BBC1. In Search of Shakespeare, BBC2, Saturday, 9.10pm In Search of Shakespeare by Michael Wood, BBC Books, Pounds 20