‘Shakespeare Uncovered’ explores Hamlet

The PBS series “Shakespeare Uncovered” continues tonight with the episodes “Hamlet with David Tennant” at 9 a.m. (Check local listings) and “The Tempest with Trevor Nunn” at 10 p.m. Unlike the opening episodes, these two are less about star power and more about exploration of the plays.

You might be wondering who is David Tennant unless you’re a fan of Dr. Who. He’s the tenth incarnation of Doctor Who. Harry Potter fans might know him as the tragic Barty Crouch Jr. from the 2005 “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” movie. Don’t worry. Tennant seems none the worse for his Harry Potter adventure and his lovely Scottish accent makes him even more charming as our guide into Hamlet.

Hamlet, as Tennant notes, is Shakespeare’s most famous play–everyone knows the line “To be or not to be” and that line as well as the skull holding scene about Yorick are used for marketing pencil boxes and T-shirts and toys. We see segments of Monty Python examining the angst of the Prince of Denmark. On a more serious note, we also get to see clips from the 1990 Franco Zeffirelli film with Mel Gibson as Hamlet, Glenn Close as his mother Gertrude and Alan Bates as the evil King Claudius.

There’s a bit of retread here on the  history and background of Shakespeare in case you haven’t watched the previous episodes. We can’t ignore that Shakespeare’s play is about fathers and sons and his own son, Hamnet, died before Shakespeare wrote this play. As with Macbeth, we’re reminded that ghosts for the Elizabethan audience would be very real and a fact of life. For this reason, the tendency for some modern productions that suggest the ghost of Hamlet’s father is a hallucination fail to understand the urgency and psychological problems of the play. Hamlet is receiving instructions and urgent messages from his father beyond the grave.

Unlike the episode on Macbeth with Ethan Hawke, this episode doesn’t seem tinged with narcissism–something that seemed to plague Hawke’s turn as Hamlet in the movie set in modern times. Perhaps that’s because Tennant is a noted Shakespearean actor. He performed Hamlet in 2008 for the Royal Shakespeare Company production with Patrick Stewart as Claudius. Except of a lapse when he left due to medical problems, he performed the role until 2009. In 2011, he was immortalized as Hamlet on a postal stamp. We’ve already seen Tennant preparing for his turn as Richard II in a previous episode.

Tennant takes us into his process and the history as with other episodes, but what makes this episode is how charming a host he is. “Shakespeare Uncovered: Hamlet with David Tennant” airs tonight, 8 February 2013 on PBS at 9 p.m .

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