The most famous speech in all literature does not begin, ‘What I’m wondering is, is it all worth it? Or should I just do myself in? I mean, life’s been chucking all sorts at me, like, it’s just shocking, innit.’
What Hamlet actually says is: ‘To be or not to be, that is the question,’ before he starts grumbling about slings and arrows and outrageous fortune. On the one hand, the original language is stirring and magical. On the other, it’s quite difficult to decode, as any 14-year-old who is studying Shakespeare at school for the first time would testify.
That’s why most TV dramas set in Tudor and Jacobean days are written in modern English, with the odd ‘prithee’ and ‘zounds’ sprinkled around for flavour.
So it was a bold gambit to tell the story of a 400-year-old plot to murder the king and all his ministers, using the original 17th-century language of the conspirators, in Gunpowder 5/11: The Greatest Terror Plot (BBC Two).
It seized on a technique that has already delivered moving documentaries this year, marking the centenary of the First World War. All the script was drawn from historic letters and diaries, read by actors — allowing the voices of the dead to speak directly to us.