Michael Wood: In Search of Shakespeare

Historians in the News

David Gritten, writing in the LAT (Feb. 3, 2004):

For the last 20 years on British television, Michael Wood has done for history what David Attenborough has done for natural history. Like Attenborough, Wood is erudite and authoritative, but with an infectious on-camera enthusiasm that prevents his subject matter from becoming dry.

In such series as "Legacy," "Conquistadors," "In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great" and "Art of the Western World," Wood, an author as well as TV presenter, blows the cobwebs off history. He addresses his TV audience in an earnest, almost pleading tone that commands attention.

He wears his learning lightly, and for his latest series, "In Search of Shakespeare" (8-9 p.m. Thursdays on PBS, through Feb. 19), which delves into the Bard's family background and life, one might assume he would need help. Literary critics have analyzed Shakespeare's life more thoroughly than historians. So did Wood need to read each play in his canon, looking for clues?

"Well, no, actually," said Wood modestly, leaning against a desk in the offices of Maya Vision, the production company of which he is a partner, near the British Museum. "I've been a Shakespeare man since I was 11. There are only two of his plays I've never seen on stage. At school and university I acted in Shakespeare a lot. I even toured the States as a student with the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company. We performed 'Twelfth Night' and 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' "

It shows. Wood enunciates as clearly as any Shakespearean actor, announcing his series (which in part aims to conclude whether Shakespeare really wrote all the plays credited to him) as "an historical detective story, an Elizabethan whodunit."

He is 55, but looks younger. There is nothing of the remote academic about him. He is friendly, approachable, with tousled hair and a taste for casual clothes: the series finds him clad mostly in sweaters and a leather jacket. Several scenes show him tramping across marshy land around Shakespeare's Stratford-on-Avon hometown in Wellington boots.

Wood admitted when he told academic colleagues he was researching the Bard's life, he encountered scepticism. "They said: 'This is not how we're taught to deal with William Shakespeare.' But I don't know why he should be treated differently from Wordsworth or Melville. There's an idea he's such a genius that you don't need to know the facts about him, that his biography doesn't matter. But you'd never say that about any other figure."

Consequently, Wood specifically concentrated his search around the Stratford area for clues to his early life: "It's logical. You're made by your mom and your dad, and where you grew up." He came away with a contentious theory -- that Shakespeare's family were Catholics, which imposed divided loyalties on them in Protestant Elizabethan England.

He also investigated Shakespeare's "lost years" from the age of 18, when he married Anne Hathaway and left his hometown, and 28, when he burst on to London's theater scene, an apparently full-fledged talent.

Wood is fascinated by this little-known period of the Bard's life, and typically likens it to the years the Beatles spent honing their skills night after night in obscure clubs in Hamburg, Germany, before returning home and achieving "instant" fame. "It's not a trivial comparison," Wood noted. "For me, the Beatles are among the most significant phenomena of the last century."

Above all, Wood aims to demolish vague popular notions about Shakespeare: "It's absurd, this idea that he's this balding guy in a ruff and a quill, an establishment figure who's safe and conservative. He's much more complex than that."

Wood studied history at Oxford as an undergraduate, then embarked on three years of a doctorate on 10th century England. He left without completing it, and entered journalism as a news reporter for the commercial channel ITV, then for the BBC as a current-affairs producer. Around 1980, he wanted to make a film about the Anglo-Saxons, and his supervisor suggested he present it himself. He did, and attracted favorable reviews; it was the turning point in Wood's career.

He had always loved seeing the world, and now relished doing so as a paid job. He traveled the whole length of the Congo for the BBC's "Great River Journeys," and enjoyed a long spell in the Mediterranean for a series on Bronze Age archeology, including such sites as Troy and Knossos. This was his first series that aired in America.

But Wood has drifted in and out of TV over the years to concentrate on writing -- one reason he is lesser known than, say, Attenborough. He quit the BBC in 1986, took time off and visited India. After he returned he made the "Legacy" series about the birth of civilization in Iraq (a country of which he is particularly fond), India, China and other ancient cultures. After that he became a frequent broadcast for Voice of America radio. In the mid-'90s, he returned to TV, fronting the Alexander and conquistador series.

Yet despite his skill in writing for the small screen, and his ease before the cameras, Wood feels TV has limitations: "I think it's a very important medium, especially for enthusing and exciting people. A TV presenter like me is a popularizer, a link between scholars and the general public. But it's not a medium for analysis."

Noting that his "In Search of Shakespeare," which accompanies the TV series, was published in October, he stressed: "The book has what I feel is the best available account of Shakespeare's background. The book's the place where you can provide all the supporting evidence."


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