IN SEARCH OF SHAKESPEARE (DVD): He doth bestride the world . . .

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IN SEARCH OF SHAKESPEARE (DVD): He doth bestride the world . . .

My favourite story is the one about the guy whose wife tells him to murder his boss and grab the top job. He does, but then he’s got to kill a few others to keep it. Along the way, as the body count rises, his wife goes crazy with guilt and commits suicide. But instead of giving it all away at this point the guy decides “ah what the hell” and fights it out to the bloody end.

Then there’s the one about the student who comes back from university to attend his dad’s funeral only to find his mum has already remarried his dead dad‘s brother. He plots to do in her new husband and while planning it kills off a few others and drives his girlfriend nuts.

Or there’s the one about the old guy who goes insane. There are corpses littered along the way in that one too.

Yes, when it comes murder, mayhem and madness you can keep Sam Pekinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) and the Sergio Leone spaghetti-westerns. Shakespeare has got it all over them.

Four hundred years ago William Shakespeare was just hitting his stride in what we now call the great tragedies: he’d already knocked off Julius Caesar and Hamlet, and Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra were just around the corner.

Shakespeare -- despite what some 4th formers will have you believe -- is never uncool when it comes to murder stories.

Any school teacher trying to win over a reluctant class need only show Roman Polanski’s muddy, bloody and brilliant Macbeth or Baz Luhrmann’s ghetto-chic Romeo and Juliet to get the kids baying for even more gore and drama from the greatest writer in the English language.

Shakespeare himself is a tantalising enigma -- at school I was told we know nothing about him, which is a considerable exaggeration. But layer by layer his life is being revealed in film. Shakespeare in Love pulled a huge and curious audience, and the four part tele-series In Search of Shakespeare (now on double-disc DVD) is engrossing.

Presented by the enthusiastic and engaging Michael Wood who delivers his speculative but scrupulously researched biography like a detective story set against the politically turbulent times in which Shakespeare wrote.

This was a period when England was alternately Protestant then Catholic then Protestant again, when the Spanish Armada arrived on the doorstep, and when spies and informers were everywhere.

Wood takes us from Shakespeare’s upwardly mobile middle-class family in Stratford Upon Avon (his father was mayor for a while), through their declining fortunes when his father’s business went bust, and onto him being a young man who, at 18, married a pregnant woman some years his senior.

Young Bill had a colourful and unpredictable early life. It’s like a E! Hollywood True Story at times.

In Search of Shakespeare is history made flesh as Wood stalks the small towns, chapels, and backstreets of sleazy London tracing this remarkable life.

Along the way he reminds us that at the time when Shakespeare rose to become England’s greatest, most gifted and wealthy playwright that the theatre was a newer form to his audience than television is to us today. Yet the guy’s prequel -- yes, he wrote a prequel centuries before George Lucas -- to his history plays pulled in thousands.

And because the theatre was up against public executions as an entertainment they were often pretty bloody. And sometimes pretty funny too just to keep people amused.

In Search of Shakespeare is an exceptional piece of story-telling spread over almost four hours, but Wood’s breathless narrative never flags and, with the assistance of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the context of the plays live again.

Shakespeare ceases to be that bald, middle-aged guy in a ruffled collar but emerges as a street-smart, politically astute writer whose life was sometimes lived on the edge.

Shakespeare’s plays can be thrilling and brutal, or clever and subtle. They have their humour and pathos, their oddball characters and flawed heroes.

It would seem only natural to want to know more about the man who shaped them, made a fortune in very difficult times, and left a legacy which is alive today as it was in his own time.

In Search of Shakespeare is the thoroughly entertaining quest for that man.

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