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Review: BBC Shakespeare Collection (****)

The BBC’s Shakespeare Collection of 34 productions on 38 DVDs is available:
– For purchase as a collection from the BBC shop for £53 / ~$80
– For purchase as a collection from Amazon.co.uk for £72.38 / ~$110
– For purchase as a collection from Amazon.com for $200
N.B. all these versions are Region 2 / PAL, so make sure your TV can play that before purchase
Streaming versions of individual plays are also available. (See individual play reviews)

Our Bottom Line:

An exceptional value (around £1.50 / ~$2.25 per play from the BBC shop) collection of nearly all Shakespeare’s plays broadcast from the ’78 to ’85 in the UK. Great if you want/need to ‘study’ Shakespeare’s plays.  Not so good entertainment value as more modern productions from BBC / The Globe / RSC / etc.

Our Review (****)

You may have noticed that we’ve recently started reviewing productions from the BBC Shakespeare Collection. We won’t review all the plays in this collection, though we hope to cover the best eight or so. In this review, we  look at the collection as a whole.

The BBC Shakespeare Collection were produced from 1978 to 1985 by the BBC with the vision “to make solid, basic televised versions of Shakespeare’s plays to reach a wide television audience and to enhance the teaching of Shakespeare”.

We haven’t viewed all the productions in the collection, though we’ve watched quite a few. We’ve found two tools essential whilst we’re editing Shakespeare’s plays for our Modern First Folio Edition (MFFE): the Arden Edition of each play; and the BBC Shakespeare Collection production. Of course we use other resources as well, but these are the only two that we use for each play.

So what is it about the BBC Shakespeare Edition that makes it essential viewing? It has a number of disadvantages:

It’s around 35 years old now, and shows it’s age
Productions were designed for TVs of the time, small, 4 x 3. There are a lot of close-ups of 2, 3, or 4 actors, and not very much action.
The objective of the producers outlined above could be translated as ‘being boring’.

Compared with modern productions, designed for 16 x 9, large TVs, or even the cinema, or for the stage of The Globe, these productions tend not to be so entertaining.

So why are these productions  an essential tool for me for the MFFE? It could be because this Collection was my serious introduction to Shakespeare. I remember, in the 80s, sitting with the family watching a Shakespeare production once a week from this Collection, and we pretty well got through the whole set.

However, I think the attraction is more than just nostalgia. If we return to the BBC’s objective, perhaps we’ll get a clue: “to make solid, basic televised versions of Shakespeare’s plays to reach a wide television audience and to enhance the teaching of Shakespeare”.  The sting is in the tail! If we change “enhance the teaching of Shakespeare” to “enhance the study of Shakespeare”, I think  we’ve got to the essence of the value of this Collection, at least for me.

It is more than 400 years since Shakespeare’s plays were written. They come out of an alien culture: male / female relationships were based on completely different premises; people were burnt at the stake, or even more horrifically, hung, drawn, and quartered, for relatively minor differences in religious belief; dueling was still a sport of gentlemen; society was more hierarchically structured, with monarchs, aristocracy, and peasants. No doubt things were beginning to change: capitalism was emerging; the feudal system was decaying; a middle class was emerging; and England was moving from an agricultural society to becoming a trading nation. But this is a very different society compared with today’s.

It seems quite extraordinary that a playwright living in such different times could write plays which are still relevant today. Not only relevant, but plays that can move us more deeply than perhaps any other playwright, ancient or modern. How did Shakespeare manage to pull off this trick? Having ‘edited’ nineteen of the plays so far, it seems to me that there are three main techniques:

Have a way with words:

The plays are written in rather good English, and that helps to weave a magic spell which enchant the audience in the stories he tells. You can spend a good 3 or 4 years studying this doing an English Literature degree. But in addition to the wonderful language, there’s at least two other key aspects of the plays.

Steal your plots:

The plays usually contain ‘recycled’ plots. Most of the time,  folk and fairy tales are major sources of the plots of his plays. The importance of this borrowing from fairy / folk tales is that, as Bruno Bettelheim has pointed out in The Uses of Enchantment, fairy/folk tales are the repository of psychological folk wisdom, before there was psychology. So this borrowing adds an archetypal quality to many of the plots of the plays.

Don’t take sides:

In most of the plays, the characters are sympathetically drawn. Even the most notorious villains (Richard III, Edmund in Lear, Iago) are charming  with a good sense of humour (if rather cynical or Machiavellan).  Individuals are in conflict, but as in Greek tragedy, the conflict arises from the situation the characters find themselves in. Most everyone can be sympathised with.

So we end up with plays which explore archetypal situations, which, by definition, occur in generation after generation, written in enchanting language, and where most every character is sympathetically portrayed.

Of course our culture, and the cultures of the intervening centuries, have been very different cultures from Early Modern English times, so the scripts need to be interpreted in the light of the current cultures. So most modern productions interpret the plays in our  modern culture. This makes it easy for us to follow them, and when done well, is much more entertaining. However, they are not the plays as they were written.

The BBC Shakespeare Collection productions present the plays more closely to the way they were written: they stay, on the whole, closer to the original script; costumes are either Elizabethan or in the costumes of the time of the play (e.g. Roman togas for the Roman plays). This combined with the limitations of the televisions of the time, gives us performances which allow us to explore more closely ‘the plays what Shakespeare wrote’.

This, it seems to me, is what makes the BBC Shakespeare Collection, an important part of the tool-set of anyone who wants to develop their understanding of Shakespeare.

Of course, within the collection, some productions are better than others, though no doubt we could spend a happy evening arguing which productions should go into our ‘Top Ten’.

So, if you’re seriously interested in Shakespeare, and want to ‘study’ the plays, I have no hesitation in suggesting that, in addition to watching those great modern productions,  many of which we have reviewed on Players-Shakespeare.com, you invest in a copy of the BBC’s Shakespeare Collection. 34 plays for less than £1.50 / $2.50 a play – it’s a snip.



 ‘The Director’,

Find out what we do at our Home Page
To stream Globe Shakespeare productions to your home, see our Globe Player Help page
If you want to know those Shakespeare productions we recommend for watching at home  check out our Great Shows to Watch at Home page,
Or check out our Globe Player Help page – with over 1,000 ‘likes’ it points up which Globe theatre productions our readers prefer, and helps you stream them to your home – PC, tablet, or Internet-enabled TV.

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