“…there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie.”
These lines appeared in a pamphlet written by Elizabethan dramatist Robert Greene and are assumed to be critical of the then up and coming playwright William Shakespeare.
They provided Ben Elton with a title for his comedy series Upstart Crow. Series 2 has just finished and the clips on its BBC microsite are a treasure trove for teachers who want to give their students an irreverent, but sometimes fairly accurate insight, into the world of the Bard.
Neither Shakespeare not Elton hold back on the language, which is robust as well as imaginative (and which may need to be vetted to ensure it is age-appropriate), but there is plenty of authenticity and ideas for discussion. In ‘Teenagers! Never off their books of sonnets!’ Will is rejoicing at having finished his poems and gloats that when they are published, he will be regarded as a serious writer – and superior to ordinary playwrights whose work is simply entertainment for the groundings.
Elizabethan attitudes to women and other nations are also regularly explored, most notably in ‘An alluring young posh bird’
when Will explains that a female part in a play must be played by a male actor, and also gives an insight into racial stereotyping, 17th-century style.
Series 1 dealt with Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice, and series 2 focused on Othello, Henry VI Part 2, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, and back to the now-completed Romeo and Juliet . Series 3 has been commissioned .
The BBC Shakespeare Archive Resource is available for schools and Colleges in the UK. The site contains hundreds of TV and radio programmes from the BBC’s Shakespeare collection, as well as more than a thousand photos from classic Shakespeare productions.