BBC celebrates 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio’

With ambitious pan-BBC season

The BBC is celebrating this extraordinary anniversary with an ambitious season of content across TV, Radio, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds

PHOTO: Shakespeare: Rise of a Genius


BBC iPlayer

November marks 400 years since arguably the greatest work of English literature was created, the ‘First Folio’, published seven years after the death of William Shakespeare and without which much of his work would have been lost for future generations to enjoy today.

The BBC is celebrating this extraordinary anniversary with an ambitious season of content across TV, Radio, BBC iPlayer & BBC Sounds exploring why, 400 years on, Shakespeare's relevance and influence is as strong as ever. A wealth of programming featuring major actors and leading experts, including new documentaries, performance, music, drama, comedy, news coverage and the best of the BBC archive, as well as special items on flagship BBC shows, will celebrate the man, his world and his timeless writing.

Highlights include:

• Major three part boxset for BBC Two and iPlayer – Shakespeare: Rise of a Genius with an A-list cast of actors, including Dame Judi Dench, Dame Helen Mirren, Brian Cox, Adrian Lester, Lolita Chakrabarti, Martin Freeman and Jessie Buckley, alongside academics and writers including James Shapiro and Jeanette Winterson, bringing fresh insights into the story of our greatest writer. The series is narrated by Juliet Stevenson.

• BBC Four to feature star-studded selection of archive performances throughout October with specially filmed introductions from David Tennant, Sir Richard Eyre, Sir Simon Russell Beale, Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Janet Suzman, Gregory Doran, Russell T Davies, Dame Helen Mirren, Steven Berkoff and Hugh Quarshie; a brand new performance of Hamlet from the Bristol Old Vic with rising star Billy Howle in the title role; and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Modern Love Story includes performances from Rose Ayling Ellis, Eloka Ivo, Eben Figueiredo and Ioanna Kimbook.

• Shakespeare content across the airwaves in the run up to Folio Day – 8 November - on flagship BBC shows including Bargain Hunt, EastEnders and The One Show.

• On BBC Radio 4, there is new comedy drama, First Folio; Dame Judi Dench is John Wilson’s guest on This Cultural Life; and Greg Jenner presents a special edition of hit podcast You’re Dead to Me.

• BBC Radio 3 is dedicating a day exclusively to music inspired by Shakespeare as well as bringing audiences new dramas inspired by Hamlet.

• BBC Teach have created a brand new9-part animation of Romeo and Juliet for primary schools.

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, eighteen of his greatest plays would have been lost forever. 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 glover's son from Stratford upon Avon who became the greatest writer that ever lived. ”

Charlotte Moore, BBC Chief Content Officer, says: “The BBC has a rich history of showcasing Shakespeare and bringing his works alive to successive generations. The 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio is an important opportunity to build on this legacy with an ambitious array of programming across the BBC celebrating the genius of our greatest writer. With documentaries, performance, music, drama, comedy and educational content as well as the very best of the BBC’s extraordinary archive, this season demonstrates our commitment to offering audiences programming they wouldn’t find anywhere else.”

The centrepiece of the season is a gripping three-part documentary series for BBC Two and iPlayer, Shakespeare: Rise of a Genius, featuring an A-list cast of actors, including Dame Judi Dench, Dame Helen Mirren, Brian Cox, Adrian Lester, Lolita Chakrabarti, Martin Freeman and Jessie Buckley, alongside academics and writers James Shapiro, Jeanette Winterson, Lucy Jago , Jeremy O’Harris and Ewan Fernie - who provide fresh insights into the incredible story of our greatest writer, the place and time he inhabited and the work he produced. The series is made by 72 Films (a Fremantle company), the award-winning producers of Rise of the Nazis, Elizabeth’s Secret Agents.

Contributing to the series, Dame Judi Dench, says: “His understanding of everything, of love, of anger, of jealousy, of rage, melancholy – who did it better, who has ever done it better? I wish I’d met him, oh I wish I’d met him.”

Accompanying the series, BBC Four will feature a star-studded selection of archive performances with specially filmed introductions from David Tennant on Hamlet, Sir Richard Eyre on King Lear, Dame Janet Suzman on Wars of the Roses, Gregory Doran on the Shakespeare Gala from the RSC, Russell T Davies on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dame Helen Mirren on As You Like It, Hugh Quarshie on Othello, Steven Berkoff on Hamlet at Elsinore, Sir Simon Russell Beale on The Hollow Crown, and Sir Ian McKellen on All is True.

BBC Four will be showing a number of acclaimed performances of Shakespeare's greatest plays including Hamlet from the Bristol Old Vic featuring rising star Billy Howle in the title role; Henry V from Shakespeare’s Globe with Jamie Parker in the lead role; the RSC’s Henry VI Part 1 with Sir Antony Sher in the role of Falstaff; and the RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Modern Love Story features actors Rose Ayling Ellis, Eben Figueiredo, Eloka Ivo and Ioanna Kimbook performing a collection of sonnets in a fresh and innovative way.

On BBC Radio 4 – Dame Judi Dench, one of Britain’s foremost Shakespearean actors will be John Wilson’s guest on This Cultural Life. A special edition of Front Row: 1623 Review Show will see the panel and guests go back in time to review the music, poems and plays from the year that the First Folio was published. In addition, First Folio, a new semi-fictionalised comic drama tells the story of the creation of the first book of Shakespeare’s plays and You’re Dead To Me, has a special edition recorded in front of an audience at the Shakespeare North Playhouse.

Radio 3 will dedicate a day exclusively to music inspired by Shakespeare, while Drama on 3: The Hamlet Season will feature three contemporary dramas based on Hamlet, the Shakespearean play that has been put on the most times around the world plus a new production of the hit Elizabethan play that inspired it, The Spanish Tragedy. Al-Hamlet Summit, Hamlette and Hamlet Unravelled and Sunday Feature: Shakespeare’s Rival. Meanwhile, Nandini Das explores the work and theatrical ideas of Shakespeare’s contemporary and hostile critic, Robert Crowe – famous now only for dismissing Shakespeare as the “Upstart Crow” in Sunday Feature: Shakespeare’s Rival.

In addition, BBC Teach will publish a collated collection of resources for primary and secondary schools to mark the anniversary, including a new nine-part video animation of Romeo and Juliet for primary schools.

TV Content Schedule


8 November

9pm - Shakespeare: Rise of a Genius - Episode one and boxset on iPlayer
10pm - Upstart Crow – series 1 repeat and complete boxset on iPlayer

BBC Four (from 1 October)


7 October - Michael Parkinson Interviews with Orson Welles and Richard Burton

14 October - The Hollow Crown – Series 1 (4 eps) and Series 2 (3 eps) across 6 weeks preceeded by an introduction from Richard Eyre

14 October - Simon Schama’s Shakespeare – 2 episodes


1 October - Hamlet - David Tennant and Patrick Stewart star in the critically lauded, award-winning 2009 production of Shakespeare’s great play, with introduction from David Tennant

1 October - The Wars of the Roses - Peter Hall’s 1966 production, adapted by John Barton, starring Ian Holm, John Barton, Donald Sinden, Janet Suzman and Peggy Ashcroft (for 3 weeks), with introduction from Dame Janet Suzman

8 October - Shakespeare Live! From the RSC – the 2016 gala took place in the presence of His Royal Highness the then Prince of Wales, featuring a star-studded cast, and new introduction from Gregory Doran

8 October - Much Ado About Nothing (2022) an afro-futuristic adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s best-loved romantic comedies

15 October - A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016) Russell T Davies’ television adaptation, starring Maxine Peake, Bernard Cribbins and Nonso Anozie, with introduction from Russell T. Davies

15 October - The Merchant of Venice (1972) - BBC adaptation, starring Maggie Smith, Frank Finlay and Charles Gray

22 October - Henry V - a new performance of the classic Historic play, performed at The Globe, with Oliver Johnstone in the title role.

22 October - Othello from the RSC (2020), with introduction from Hugh Quarshie

29 October - Shakespeare Sonnets: A Modern Love Story – performances of Shakespeare’s sonnets featuring Eloka Ivo, Rose Ayling Ellis, Eben Figueiredo and Ioanna Kimbook.

29 October - As You Like It - BBC Television adaptation from 1978, featuring Helen Mirren, Brian Stirner and Richard Pasco, introduced by Helen Mirren

29 October - Macbeth -BBC Television adaptation from 1983, featuring Nicol Williamson, Jane Lapotaire and James Bolam

29 October - Henry V – a new performance of the classic Historic play, performed at The Globe, with Oliver Johnstone in the title role

29 October - Othello produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and starring Hugh Quarshie, proceeded by an introduction with Hugh Quarshie

5 November - Talking Shakespeare - from Peter O’Toole to David Tennant, this new BBC archive compilation pulls together the insights from leading acting talent on their experience of performing Shakespeare

5 November - Hamlet - new performance from Bristol Old Vic, featuring Billy Howle, directed by John Haidar

5 November - Dame Judi Dench – This Cultural Life, one of Britain’s foremost Shakespearean actors of the post-war era, in conversation with John Wilson

5 November - Hamlet at Elsinore (1964), with introduction from Steven Berkoff - The 1964 drama features early performances from Christopher Plummer, Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland.

Wednesday (Folio Day)

8 November - The Secret Life of Books: First Folio
8 November King Lear (2016), with introduction TBC


Thursday Film Club will be taken over from 12 October with Shakespeare adaptations:

12 October - Film: Henry V (1988) starring Kenneth Branagh and Derek Jacobi
19 October - Film: Richard III (1956) starring Laurence Olivier
26 October - Film: Julius Caesar (1953) starring Marlon Brando
2 November - Film: All is True (2018) starring Laurence Olivier and Judi Dench

BBC iPlayer

BBC iPlayer will showcase the season by bringing all the television programmes together in one place, making them easy to find and available to watch, when and where our viewers choose.

Radio Schedule

BBC Radio 4

Saturday 4 November

You’re Dead to Me

Radio 4’s hit history podcast You’re Dead To Me is recording a special episode to explore the life, work and legacy of William Shakespeare. Host Greg Jenner and his guests will be exploring what we know of the man behind the work in front of a live audience at Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot, Merseyside. Greg will be joined by Farah Karim-Cooper, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London, and the comedian and writer, Richard Herring.

The Shakespeare episode will be broadcast on Radio 4 in the week of the 400th anniversary of the First Folio, and a full hour long version will be available on BBC Sounds

This Cultural Life

Judi Dench is John Wilson’s guest on This Cultural Life. She talks about her formative influences and the experiences that led her to become one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of our age, and why she still regards Shakespeare as the guiding force of her creative life.

Wednesday 8 Nov

Front Row

1623 Review Show, presented by Tom Sutcliffe. Front Row’s panel of guests make a change from their usual review of the week’s arts and instead go back in time and review the music, poems and plays from the year that the First Folio was published.

Saturday 11 November

First Folio

A comedy-drama to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the 'definitive' work that made Shakespeare's reputation. Writer Mike Harris imagines the process of publishing the First Folio. Produced by Brill Productions for BBC Radio 4.

BBC Sounds

Radio 4 will promote content on Sounds that has already broadcast earlier this year as part of the anniversary including: Taking Issue with Shakespeare: 5 part series in which Gordon Brown, Michael Gove and other public figures discuss issues that matter to us and mattered to Shakespeare too – populism, levelling up, the monarchy, masculinity and rural/urban divisions

BBC Radio 3

Wednesday 8 November

Shakespeare Day

On the 400th anniversary of the first publication of his First Folio, a day of music on Radio 3 inspired by Shakespeare, Radio 3’s Breakfast, Essential Classics, Composer of the Week, Afternoon Concert and In Tune will be dedicated exclusively to music with strong links to Shakespeare – from composers across the ages inspired by his plays, to music that features in his great works, to the famous scores created for film adaptations. Some of classical music’s greatest figures – Prokofiev, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, Verdi and Britten have created works in homage to Shakespeare – Radio 3 spends a day in their company.

Drama on 3: Inspired by Hamlet

Sunday 22 October

The Al-Hamlet Summit

The Al-Hamlet Summit is a new production of Kuwaiti-British writer Sulayman Al-Bassam’s powerful reimagining of Hamlet. Shakespeare’s story of a reluctant revolutionary pitted against a corrupt authoritarian regime is transplanted from Denmark to a modern Arab state in trouble. There’s an enemy on the border, a crumbling dictatorship and civil war in the air… First performed at the Edinburgh Festival in the wake of 9/11, the play won awards both there and in Cairo.

Sunday 29 October

Hamlet Noir

In Hamlet Noir, Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy takes on a thrilling Scandi-Noir twist, skilfully interweaving the original text with a gripping detective narrative. Set in present-day Denmark, with an all-Scandinavian cast, the story unfolds against a backdrop of brooding landscapes – with the opening scenes recorded at Kronborg - and intense power struggles. Prince Hamlet, torn between madness and grief, is on a relentless quest to avenge his father’s murder. Meanwhile, a tenacious detective, Eva, investigates the suspicious deaths at the Danish Court. But as Eva slowly unearths the truth and Hamlet edges closer to ultimate catharsis, both find themselves entangled in a web of treachery and corruption.

Sunday 5 November


In Tamsin Oglesby’s radical re-imagining of the story of Hamlet, the protagonist is a young MP, Harriet (Jeany Spark) who, rather than contemplating revenge for the death of a father, is consumed by the question of how to avenge the rape of her sister. Her dilemma: to speak or not to speak. To confront the rapist, to lose her job, possibly her career, to make her sister relive the trauma, to avenge her suffering, to take on systemic misogyny, and by opposing, end it? Also starring Natasha Little, Matthew Gravelle and Jasper Britton.

Sunday 12 November

The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd

Hieronimo pursues the murderers of his son Horatio and takes revenge. Known as the first Revenger's Tragedy, it speaks, like Hollywood Westerns, to questions about private revenge versus public justice. Hamlet was heavily influenced by this great play, which powerfully explores the morality of revenge, the stages of grief, and violence, and the poetry of extreme emotion.Spain is in the middle of a peace treaty with Portugal, when Marshall Hieronimo is forced down a brutal path of vengeance from which there is no return.

The Spanish Tragedy was the most popular play of the entire Elizabethan period; if people hadn't seen it, they knew about it, and now it's been almost forgotten. Adapted and abridged by Pauline Harris and Emma Smith, and intercut with contemporary music, here is a unique opportunity to experience a play that has never been broadcast on BBC Radio. This is the play Shakespeare, like everyone else of his generation, couldn't get out of his head, and Hamlet is his way of responding to it.

Sunday 5 November

Sunday Feature: Shakespeare’s Rival

William Shakespeare didn’t appear from nowhere, ready to write the world’s favourite plays. A half generation before him, a group of young, ambitious and well-educated playwrights took the Elizabethan stage by storm. Lead among them was Robert Greene, who wrote the run-away best seller of the period and pushed the boundaries of what theatre was or should be. Now, he’s mostly remembered for accusing Shakespeare of being an ‘upstart crow’. But what made Greene’s writing stand out at the time, and how much did his university education contribute to his blaze of fame? Professor Nandini Das revisits a time when the value and purpose of theatre was all to play for to explore what English drama might have been. And, Nandini asks, if it was Greene’s name up in lights, might our very understanding of the value of the arts be different?

Sunday 5 November

Words and Music: Shakespeare

With specially recorded readings by Tracy-Ann Oberman, currently starring in the RSC’s production “The Merchant of Venice 1936”, plus archive Shakespearean sonnets and speeches performed by Richard Burton, Dame Edith Evans, Marlon Brando and Carrie Fisher, alongside music by composers and performers including Verdi, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Walton, Amy Beach, Ned Rorem, Cleo Laine and Rufus Wainwright.

Monday 6 – Friday 10 November

Composer of the Week: Berlioz & Shakespeare

Berlioz burst onto the musical stage of 19th century Paris determined to break the mould of France’s elegant and refined classical style. He wanted to create music that could be bombastic, barbaric and grotesque, as well as sentimental, scintillating and sorrowful. In this, he was inspired by writers as much as fellow musicians. He was captivated by stories and crowded his imagination with the tales of Virgil, Scott, Goethe and, most of all, William Shakespeare. This week, Donald Macleod traces the tangled literary connections in Berlioz’s life and music, including the profound spell cast by Shakespeare over the composer’s art and personality.

Wednesday 8 November

Free Thinking: Shakespeare as inspiration

Matthew Sweet is joined live by guests Professor Preti Taneja – author of a novel We That Are Young which sets the King Lear in Delhi, by Dr Iain Smith who studies films from around the world, by Research Fellow Michelle Assay who has studied Shakespeare, music and Hamlet in Russia, and by Andrew Dickson, journalist and author of Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe. As Radio 3’s day of music inspired by Shakespeare nears its end, Free Thinking looks at paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites, at films from Bollywood and Japan, and at the way Shakespeare’s plays resonate in political hot spots and conflict zones across the world from South Africa to Ukraine.

Source BBC iPlayer

October 11, 2023 4:00am ET by BBC iPlayer  


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