Gripping three-part documentary traces Shakespeare’s life story and the 'rise of a genius'

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Wednesday: Shakespeare: Rise of a Genius (BBC Two, 9pm)

It is 400 years since one of the most influential works of English literature was created.

The First Folio was published in 1623, seven years after the death of William Shakespeare.

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Brought together by two of his friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, ‘Mr. VVilliam Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. Published according to the true originall copies’ is a collection of 36 of the Bard’s works, and without it, much of his work would have been lost for future generations.

Henry CareyHenry Carey
Henry Carey

To mark the anniversary, the BBC is broadcasting a range of programmes in which major actors and leading experts celebrate how the glover’s son from rural Stratford became the greatest writer who ever lived.

Suzy Klein, Head of BBC Arts and Classical TV, says: “Shakespeare lived in a dangerous age of plague, violence, vicious rivalries and political assassinations and his very survival is something of a miracle.

“His work was almost lost to history, and without the First Folio being published in 1623, some of his greatest plays would have been lost forever.

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“We would have none of those immortal characters such as Cleopatra and Marc Anthony, Macbeth or Malvolio, Prospero and Ariel.

“Shakespeare changed the way we talk, the words we use, our films, books, catchphrases and memes, the very way we think – and yet we know very little about him.

“This major new season pieces together the clues from his life and work to reveal the driving forces behind the greatest writer that ever lived.”

The most exciting of the new shows is gripping three-part documentary series Shakespeare: Rise of a Genius.

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Narrated by Juliet Stevenson, it takes a deep dive into the places and time Shakespeare inhabited to show how they ignited and nourished his creative genius.

Cinematic drama vignettes depict the playwright’s life alongside a host of stars, including Dame Judi Dench, Brian Cox, Adrian Lester, Lolita Chakrabarti, Helen Mirren, Martin Freeman and Jessie Buckley, alongside academics and writers James Shapiro, Ewan Fernie, Jeanette Winterson, Brenda Hale, The Baroness Hale of Richmond, Gordon Brown, Jeremy O’Harris and Professor Farah Karim-Cooper.

Tracing Shakespeare’s life story, each episode follows the triumphs and setbacks of his writing life, revealing how the people he met and the world he witnessed found their way into his work.

Intercut through the series is archive of some of the world’s best screen adaptations of the featured plays.

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We begin tonight in 1587, as William Shakespeare leaves behind the small rural town of Stratford and his father’s struggling glove business to pursue his dreams of becoming a playwright in London – at that time a dangerous, burgeoning metropolis.

Public theatre is the new art form, and Shakespeare begins his journey at the bottom, as a stagehand and occasional actor.

He grabs an opportunity and writes a gory Roman revenge play, Titus Andronicus, which does well.

That’s followed by a teenage romance between two Italian youths from feuding families that he flips to end in tragedy.

Entitled Romeo and Juliet, it would change his life, and the world, forever.