Sunday, February 27, 2011
If anyone in the Portland area is interested in seeing this production of The Comedy of Errors, it'll be running through March 6th - AND it's next week's play! Perfect timing, right? Both Emma and I enjoyed this production, which captured the silly farcicalness of the story excellently. Though nearly all the cast are student actors, and as such I didn't expect them to be as polished as professionals, there were several strong performances and the whole cast seemed to be fully committed to and take delight in the rollicking tale of separated twins and mistaken identity.
The production had some puzzling aspects - why, for example, was the goldsmith Angelo played by a girl coiffed, bespectacled and costumed to be a Harry Potter look-alike? Was it to play into the play's references to sorcery? If so, why was just one character - who was not, after all, a sorcerer -"wizardy"? In addition, the cast gamely struggled with a set that consisted solely of multiple doors that shook and clanged whenever opened and closed.
However, this production also has THE BEST, most convincing stage twinning that I have EVER SEEN. The two sets of twins really look A LOT alike!
Each of these productions we've seen in the last weeks, with their various concepts - Shrew set in the '60s, Lear set in an empty box with quasi-medieval/Victorian/Japanese costumes, this Comedy of Errors costumed as a modern/Edwardian mishmash with nearly everyone in bare feet - has reminded me that Shakespeare and his stories are so strong that they can support these interpretations. I'm a super picky and critical audience member, but I (nearly) always find a lot of things to appreciate in any production I see. I'm reminded of a Shakespeare in the Park production of the Comedy of Errors I saw last summer, where the entire cast spent most of the play in Edwardian bathing suits. And it was completely delightful!
So hie thee to the theater, and see what Shakespeare says today - on stage.
Saturday, February 26, 2011
The Guardian ran an article about this first painting a few years ago: "[The actor] David Garrick transfixed London in 1741 when he played Shakespeare's Richard III as a human being instead of a stagy monster. No one had seen acting like it..." Look at that extended hand - there's some commitment in movement! I think we can assume this is the scene in Act 5, Scene 5 when Richard dreams about being visited by the ghosts of all of his victims.
In the belief that many features of the traditional accounts of the character and career of Richard III are neither supported by sufficient evidence nor reasonably tenable, the Society aims to promote, in every possible way, research into the life and times of Richard III, and to secure a reassessment of the material relating to this period, and of the role of this monarch in English history...A whole society dedicated to vindicating and defending King Richard! Interesting, hm? Their website is here.
Richard’s infamy over the centuries has been due to the continuing popularity, and the belief in, the picture painted of Richard III by William Shakespeare in his play of that name. The validity of this representation of Richard has been queried over the centuries and has now been taken up by the Society.
The Society has over 3,500 members worldwide. It operates on many levels and is open to laymen and historians alike...
I find it somewhat touching that Richard has his partisans, after all this time. There seem to be plenty of them - their membership numbers are rather astonishing in fact, especially given that it'll cost you 26 quid to join up. And the most notable member would have to be their patron, the current Duke of Gloucester, whose name is actually Richard (!).
But what of the wicked Richard of Shakespeare, the "the troubler of the poore Worlds peace"? "Tudor propaganda," says the Richard III Society. Do we agree? Was the historical Richard innocent? C-Span may have the answer...
Friday, February 25, 2011
And leave the world for me to bustle in!
(Richard III, 1.1.159-160)
No one could ever accuse Richard III of being anything less than tremendously energetic. I love this line, as the picture that it paints of Richard bustling about everywhere highlights his busy, restless nature. "Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous" (1.1.33) - Richard just can't keep still.
This week, watching Al Pacino's documentary about the character, Looking for Richard (a kind of strange but interesting little film, but I digress), I particulary noted a point made by one of the scholars interviewed - that Richard had previously lived in a world of incessant war (as is so tragically shown in the three Henry VI plays), and now that the peace has come, he simply doesn't know what to do with himself.
I think this insight into Richard's character is totally right. A few weeks ago, when we were reading and watching Henry VI Part 3, I was struck by how effective Richard is as a warrior - he's charismatic, brave, inspiring, a tremendous orator, and fully committed to his father's cause. War seems to be an arena where he can excel, despite his self-conciousness about his disability.
But, when the peace comes, what will Richard do with all the ambition and energy that had been channelled into war?
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Richard hates it all! He feels cut off from everything, no longer useful or important. So of course he turns to what he'd been trained up to, what he'd seen his father do his whole life: plotting to win what had always been seen as the greatest prize for the Yorks - the crown. And of course, just like what happened with his father, there's a lot of family blood shed in the process. Richard's mother touches on all of this - the father's example, the impossibility of lasting peace, the tragedy of brother against brother - in a speech where she laments her griefs and losses:
Duchess of York. Accursed and unquiet wrangling days,
How many of you have mine eyes beheld!
My husband lost his life to get the crown;
And often up and down my sons were toss'd,
For me to joy and weep their gain and loss:
And being seated, and domestic broils
Clean over-blown, themselves, the conquerors.
Make war upon themselves; blood against blood,
Self against self...
Richard doesn't let the cease of "domestic broils" or the ties of family stop him. He bustles.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Dicky your boy, that with his grumbling voice
Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies?
(Henry VI part 3, 1.4.514-516)
An integral part of Richard III's identity is his physical deformity. A hunchback, he is not only mocked about his physical appearance by people who barely know him (like Queen Margaret quoted above, who focuses on Richard's disability when talking to his father the Duke of York), but he himself is acutely, painfully self-aware of his appearance and physical challenges:
[Love] did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos, or an unlick'd bear-whelp
That carries no impression like the dam.
(Henry VI part 3, 3.2.1644-1651)
Looking at Richard's disability and how it shapes his character, as well as the audience's perception of him, could be an almost never-ending study. However, just one aspect of the deformity that I want to look at is the perception articulated by Queen Margaret in the quotation above - that the disability marks him as a "prodigy," meaning that his exterior appearance serves a sort of sign or portent for the state of his character. Richard's crooked outside, as it is read by his enemies, indicates a crooked soul!
Of course, Richard embraces wickedness and, fulfilling the beliefs of those who hold that the outside matches the inside, does mangle his soul and distort his concience. Could it be that Richard was really born with a worse character than anyone else? His mother does mention that he was always bad:
Tetchy and wayward was thy infancy;
Thy school-days frightful, desperate, wild, and furious,
Thy prime of manhood daring, bold, and venturous,
Thy age confirm'd, proud, subdued, bloody, treacherous...
(Richard III, 4.4.2967-2970)
However, I think it's supported by the text to read Richard's disability not as shaping him in some sort of mystical way, but rather as affecting him by setting him apart from others. Richard is constantly faced with comments and unkind words about his appearance, and based on this he allows his deformity to isolate him; he cuts himself off from certain activities and feels bitterness over the fact that he is left out.
A perfect example is his attitude towards love and women (Richard's relationship with women is a HUGE topic, which deserves a post all its own!). However, for the quick version, it's clear that he feels that his appearance is such that no woman would really want to be with him. Sad, right? This is one of the many times that we can empathize with Richard and hope that he could somehow learn to see himself in a more healthy way. BUT NO - Richard takes his unfortunate situation and makes it WORSE by taking his status as an outsider and expanding it into hatred for anyone who has anything and everything that he feels himself cut off from:
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
(1.1.19-32, emphasis added)
Ooooooh, scary! I'm glad I'm not related to *him*!
To appreciate how amazing-kamazing Barrymore was, compare the video above (of him being Richard) with the video below (of him being John Barrymore, on a well-behaved day). This is his introduction to the Richard soliloquy. Does he even seem like the same person?
There are a lot of Richard videos out there. But Barrymore sets the curve.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Anyway, I'm very pleased I was able to go to the quiet - that's the name of the theatre company, not a description of the play - production of The Taming of the Shrew last weekend (incidentally, the Shakespeare quote "Nay, let them go, a couple of quiet ones" is from The Taming of the Shrew - III, II, 242). Review below!
First off, if I had been paying attention as I entered the theatre, I would have known that Director Josh Hornbeck's vision for the play focused on the gender issues in the play, specifically the ill-treatment of women. I could have guessed this because of the lovely (not really) posters adorning the entrance to the theatre.
And if that one's not bad enough...
Monday, February 21, 2011
She is a woman, therefore may be won;
She is Lavinia, therefore must be loved.
(Titus Andronicus, 2.1.636-638)
Titus Andronicus, bloody and horrifying, is a hard play to watch. Although we can read it as Shakespeare's "slasher film," I think that we can also look at it as an exploration of excess and the consequences of taking ideas - beliefs, cultural values - to their logical conclusion or end point.
Take the treatment of women in the play, for example. Obviously the final fate of Lavinia - raped by the killers of her husband, her tongue cut out, her hands chopped off, ultimately stabbed to death by her father - is not something that most people would think is okay. It's violently excessive, right? BUT - and I think this is the important part - Shakespeare shows us the kind of attitudes toward women that can lead to this kind of result.
Demetrius and Chiron don't start out plotting to rape Lavinia - they just think she's cute and want to seduce her away from her husband. They say that they "love" her. But we've seen this sort of slippery slope before in The Two Gentlemen of Verona - would-be rapist Proteus starts out by trying to actually win Silvia's love, but when she won't agree, he decides he's entitled to take what he wants. Interestingly, both scenes where the women are threatened with rape take place in the forest, away from the structures and safety of civilization - Silvia is saved seemingly by a miracle, but in Titus, where everything goes to the logical extreme of the idea, there are no miracles to be had.
I think that the question being raised here, in both plays, boils down to this: what are women actually for? (This isn't a joke, by the way.) We've got Demetrius' answer, quoted above: She is a woman, therefore may be woo'd;/She is a woman, therefore may be won. But Demetrius, a pagan character from the classical past, isn't the only Shakespeare character who says this - Suffolk, an English nobleman in Henry VI Part 1, says almost exactly the same thing, word for word, about the woman who later becomes the queen of England! She's beautiful, and therefore to be woo'd;/ She is a woman, therefore to be won. Brings it a little closer to home, perhaps?
In both cases, these sentiments seem to just go by without much discussion or comment. Perhaps, watching the play, one might feel either mild disagreement - or agreement! - with this answer to the question what are women for. But then Shakespeare shows us Lavina, and we have to face the logical end result of a belief that women exist to be wooed and won by men. We see Lavinia - brutalized, tramautized, humiliated, alone in the forest spitting out blood - and the play seems to say, Look! How do you like this now?
Friday, February 18, 2011
In practice, the right to kill one's own descendents was largely theoretical, and was eventually done away with, which was a very good thing, especially if you happened to be an ancient Roman. Of course, killing *other people's* descendants, which so far seems to be also much of what this play is about, was not okay (an exception in the play to this might possibly have been the death of Alarbus, since he's a captive of Titus, and slaves were under patria potestas. Except the whole human sacrifice thing was totally disgusting and seems highly, highly unrealistic for late Imperial Rome, but anyways...).
I wonder how much Roman law influenced Shakespeare in writing this play - I'll be watching out for these family law themes, as I finish up the play! (perhaps that will give me something else to think about other than "yuck!" and "gross!").
And raze their faction and their family,
The cruel father and his traitorous sons,
To whom I sued for my dear son's life,
And make them know what 'tis to let a queen
Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain.
(Titus Andronicus, 1.1.500-505)
Lucius. My lord, you are unjust, and, more than so,
In wrongful quarrel you have slain your son.
Titus Andronicus. Nor thou, nor he, are any sons of mine;
My sons would never so dishonour me:
Traitor, restore Lavinia to the emperor.
We can see this in the opening quote from Tamora - clearly she doesn't want her son to be killed. Obviously! But in addition to her natural grief, she also links the loss of her son to an attack on her reputation and status, saying that she'll "make them know what 'tis to let a queen/Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain." She doesn't just want to revenge the death of her son, but to also revenge the slap at her (taking her son away from her). This, to me, seems to suggest that in the world of Titus Andronicus, family shapes the identity of the individual, but kind of in terms of ownership - the leader or parent in the family is built up by their followers within the family, and the leader's reputation is closely involved with the control they exert over their family. When Tamora's son is sacrificed, she not only loses someone she had affection for, but she has lost control over the family because she has no say in his fate.
We see this aspect of control in Titus' relationships with his children as well. Titus grieves for the loss of his sons in the wars, but though he's sad, he had control over the situation - they were fighting in his wars for Rome, and he knew that their deaths were a possible consequence of his actions. Titus' desire for control and his concern for his reputation as linked to his family is even more clearly seen in Titus' reaction to his sons' defence of Bassianus' marriage to their sister Lavinia. TITUS GOES NUTS! He disowns and disinherits them all and even KILLS one of his own sons over the quarrel. Check out how all of Titus' words imply that he defines family as something that brings honor to him and something that he has control over (ie bestowing Lavinia in marriage). When these controls are not in place, Titus' family is no longer his family!
Titus Andronicus. No, foolish tribune, no; no son of mine,
Nor thou, nor these, confederates in the deed
That hath dishonour'd all our family;
Unworthy brother, and unworthy sons!
Titus Andronicus. Traitors, away! he rests not in this tomb:
This monument five hundred years hath stood,
Which I have sumptuously re-edified:
Here none but soldiers and Rome's servitors
Repose in fame; none basely slain in brawls:
Bury him where you can; he comes not here. ....
Titus Andronicus. Marcus, even thou hast struck upon my crest,
And, with these boys, mine honour thou hast wounded:
My foes I do repute you every one;
So, trouble me no more, but get you gone.
It's interesting to note that the effects of Titus' killing of his own son are the same as if someone else had killed him; Titus and his sons and brother are deprived of the company and support of their son, brother and nephew. However, there is no thought of revenge, or even that much soul-searching regret. An act that would be grounds for eternal enmity if perpetrated by someone outside the family group is bad, regrettable, but ultimately forgiveable if commited by the paterfamilias.
All of these examples are from the beginning of the play, but I just want to mention that this control over the lives of the members of the family when it affects the honor of the individual leading the family is demonstrated again by both Titus and Tamora in their respective treatment of Lavinia and Tamora's child by Aaron. Family is valuable; family can support and honor the leader; but ultimately the family is there to support the honor and reputation of that individual. And the followers of the family agree with this, as is shown by Marcus' willingness to sacrifice himself for Titus' honor:
Marcus. The poor remainder of Andronici
Will, hand in hand, all headlong cast us down.
And on the ragged stones beat forth our brains,
And make a mutual closure of our house.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother's tears in passion for her son:
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me!
Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood:
Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?
Draw near them then in being merciful:
Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge:
Thrice noble Titus, spare my first-born son.
(Titus Andronicus, 1.1.120-137)
Titus Andronicus seems to be one of those plays that people either hate or have a mild liking or toleration for. Those that love Titus along the lines that people love, say, Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream appear to be few and far between, but it’s easy to find the haters - Titus’ critical history is full of readers and scholars who wanted to attribute the authorship of the play elsewhere because they could not believe that Shakespeare would dirty his hands with this bloody and downright disgusting tale. And trust me, the gore and grossness is laid on thick - check out a synopsis if you dare. We've got human sacrifice, cannibalism, rape, mutilation, and more murders than you would believe possible. You've been warned.
The poet and critic T.S. Eliot, as quoted in the introduction to the play in the Norton Shakespeare, called it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.” Believe me, I totally understand why someone would dislike this play, but this seems unfair. Surely the themes that Shakespeare is playing on here - revenge and the role of mercy/mercilessness; misplaced sense of duty towards tradition; pride and care for reputation shaping attitudes toward family; the treatment of women - are interesting and thought-provoking.
Today I’m just going to look a little bit at revenge and the lack of mercy in this play. Basically all the violence throughout, except the death of Titus’ son Mutius, results from a need for revenge between Titus and Tamora, captive Queen of the Goths. In this way the moral landscape of the play is not really black and white, because both Tamora and Titus are justified in seeking revenge - both have been hurt by the other. Even though Tamora emerges as a monster of cruelty, plotting and colluding in absolutely atrocious violence, it could be argued that viewed through the lens of a revenge culture, she does nothing wrong. Why should she be faithful to Saturninus? She’s a captive. Why should she show mercy to Titus' daughter Lavinia? Titus showed no mercy to her, ordering her son Alarbus to be killed as a sacrifice.
Mercy is conspicuous in this play by its absence. This is seen in the quotation above, where Tamora begs Titus to mercifully grant the life of her son and he refuses. The terms that uses to describe mercy - Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?/ Draw near them then in being merciful - sound really familiar: Valentine from The Two Gentlemen of Verona discusses mercy in just this way. We’ve also seen, from our discussion of Henry VI, another example of mercilessness, in the killing of York’s son Rutland.
A difference between the mercy asked for in Titus and the mercy appealed to in the Christian worlds of both Two Gentlemen and Henry VI is that Titus, though urged to consider heaven and the gods in his decision to grant or deny mercy, believes that his higher religious duty lies in presenting a sacrifice. This culturally condoned mercilessness is what allows for the act of violence that sets off the chain of revenging actions, and ultimately the devastation of “old Titus' sorrowful house" (5.3.2682).
Monday, February 14, 2011
Guess what - today I'm just not going to post a quote from Titus Andronicus! I really cannot think of a single play in existence more inappropriate for Valentine's day.
Although, I suppose a person could have some affection for the play, hard though it might be to imagine. This question was raised last week at the library, as I was checking out armfuls of books and films of Titus. The boy behind the library desk looked at all of the materials - looked at me - looked at my stuff again, many of the covers of which feature pleasing pictures of bleeding severed heads and suchlike, and inquired politely, "so - do you love Titus Andronicus?"
Why, oh why couldn't I have scheduled Romeo and Juliet?
So, just to make everyone feel better and get our minds off of Titus Andronicus, here is a Shakespeare Valentine featuring a beautiful quote from Much Ado About Nothing:
Don't have the words to express your love?
Seattle's Sound Theatre Company and GreenStage are teaming up to create a unique and cherished gift for your valentine this year... A Shakespearean actor, dressed in character (and full costume of course) will perform a popular love sonnet for your sweetie and then grace them with a token of your love. We can even bring flowers and chocolates to make the event even more special and memorable.
HOW IT WORKS:
One of our Shakespearean actors shows up at a place of your choosing to surprise your valentine. After some fun introductions in character to break the ice, the actor will perform one of Shakespeare's love sonnets and a special message from you.
Fun times! I wish them the best. More at: http://www.valentinesonnets.org/
Happy Valentine's Day to all! (and don't treat your valentine like Valentine did... or Proteus either).
Sunday, February 13, 2011
It's also worth noting that a lot of people cut and adapt these plays for performance. I watched part of a taped production where the story of all three plays was split into two parts titled "The House of York" and "The House of Lancaster," and the BBC Shakespeare history series An Age of Kings edited Henry VI part 1 into one hour-long episode (!). So my humble suggestion is to continue this tradition of slicing the plays up for performance - but to break them into four parts. This way, each part would be shorter without cutting large portions of the script, and each part would have a stronger, more distinct story focus.
I'd break it up thusly: Henry VI part 1 would end directly after Act 5.1, where Henry and Gloucester decide to have a peace with France (which would be moved after 5.2-4 and 5.6 up to line 94 - these are the scenes that depict the capture and condemnation of Joan). One could also include the second part of 5.6, where York and Winchester make peace with the French - the important thing is to get Margaret and Suffolk out of this play and into part 2, where (in my opinion) they fit much better.
Part 2 (which I would call, going off of the title in the 1st Folio, Henry VI - The Death of the Good Duke Humphrey) would begin with Act 5 scene 5 from Part 1, where Suffolk meets Margaret, and would end with the deaths of Suffolk and Winchester. (I would probably switch the order of their death scenes, putting Act 4.1 before 3.3, in order to end with Winchester's death). My reason for this sectioning of the play lies in the fact that Suffolk does almost nothing in Henry VI Part 1 until the very end, when he emerges as a major villain, which part he holds through 2/3rds of Part 2. This way, Suffolk is a major character in only one play, and his clash with Humphrey is the main focus of the story.
Part 3 (Which, based off of the Octavo title, I would call Henry VI - The Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York) would cover the Cade rebellion up to the death of York, ending after Act 2 scene 1 - Edward resolving to fight and win the crown his father should have worn. I would split this one here because York is such an important, intense character, and there is a certain finality to his death. Edward is such a different personality.
Part 4 (Titled, obviously, Edward IV) would go from 2.2 of Henry VI Part 3 and cover the rise and wars of Edward IV, up until the end of the play. And then, of course, we are into Richard III....
Question. How possible is it to enjoy any of the Henry VI plays alone without the others?
Saturday, February 12, 2011
I'll kill my horse, because I will not fly.
Why stand we like soft-hearted women here,
Wailing our losses, whiles the foe doth rage;
And look upon, as if the tragedy
Were play'd in jest by counterfeiting actors?
Amira gets rid of an unwanted suitor:
In the film as in the play, we have a very well-educated and clever woman who must stay under the authority of her grandfather (male authority figure), who is bound by his culture to take care of her, despite what she might say and do (the grandpa announces that he would disown Amira because of her rude attitude if she were a boy). Again, like the original play, the girls' grandfather has total veto power over whom they will marry, or when.
All in all, this comedy makes for a fun, crazy and very Egyptian ride, and underscores the universal application of Shakespeare's take on the battle of the sexes. Just don't forget to beware of Eve - and watch out for Adam too.
Friday, February 11, 2011
Now, we can see why Shakespeare would write it this way - the English are the good guys in his play, and it would hardly do for him to add a plot point in which a French saint was led by holy visions to massacre them. But is there much truth in Shakespeare's portrayal of her? Well, I did a little research, and as much as I like Shakespeare, the general conclusion seems to be no, probably not. As far as can be told, in reality she seems to have been a brave and clever peasant girl who sincerely believed in her visions and in French independence, not in witchcraft and dalliances with French royalty.
Of course, I suspect Shakespeare would not have been particularly upset about his departure from the historical record here (like many of his historical characters, she is there to fulfill a specific role in his story, not to educate us about the true personalities of famous people).
If you're looking for a dramatic portrayal of Joan that is in complete contrast with Shakespeare's propagandistic version, and you by some mischance have insufficient leisure to read Schiller's Die Jungfrau von Orleans in the original German, may I suggest the 1928 Danish film The Passion of Joan of Arc? It's even available on youtube.
The film almost didn't make it until the present day. Shortly after it was released, it was destroyed in a warehouse fire. Another cut prepared by the director from outtakes was destroyed in another fire! A few incomplete versions circulated for years. Finally, in 1981, a complete cut was found in a mental institution in Norway and was restored.
Special mention goes to the score, written by Richard Einhorn and performed by Anonymous 4 (I fell in love with this recording, which was released as a CD, before I ever saw the movie).
Now, I feel I could go on and on about how amazing this film is, but I've already taken on a lot in writing about it at all - how do you "review" a movie like Casablanca or The Seventh Seal? These are the guys that make the rules! And to me, this film is in a similar category, except very old, sad, European and silent (read: slow, for those of you that only like the action-packed!).
I'll just say that to me, this movie is a reminder of a historical fact: even when it seemed that all of the European supposed "Christians" were unified, there were those - persecuted, silenced and burned - whose beliefs were different. And ours too is a world where people are still persecuted and even killed because of religious differences or 'thought crimes.' Those who decry the multiple denominations and political factions in free societies and long for religious or political unity at any price, take note of the alternative.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
With history plays like the Henry VIs, we're reading stories that Shakespeare based on real events that took place surrounding the nobles and monarchs of England. However, he took significant liberties with just about everything that really happened in order to make his story more dramatically compelling and exciting. Now, the Henry VIs just so happen to take place during The Wars of the Roses - an action filled, yet notoriously confusing, time in England's history.
My strongly held opinion is that one DOES NOT NEED to know much about the Wars of the Roses to enjoy the Henry VI plays! If you want to really dive into the history of 15th century England, you can certainly have a great time and learn a lot - some quick links about the Wars of the Roses are here and here. However, be warned - Shakespeare changes A LOT of the events, chronology, and motivations of the Wars of the Roses, so if you spend a lot of time memorizing things like dates of real battles, which important noble was involved with each event, etc., you may find yourself frustrated and confused.
A history book that I very enthusiastically recommend, however, is Peter Saccio's Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama.
However, I think that anyone could basically get the gist of the H6 plays by understanding just a tiny little bit of the background, which I will now unfold to you in Shakespeare girl's patented "English History in One Paragraph!" Here we go!
England's kingship passes to the oldest son in the royal house in a hereditary manner - and the crown CAN be passed down through the female line. However, our title character's grandfather, Henry Bolingbroke, usurped the throne from the rightful king, Richard II. Henry Bolingbroke then became known as Henry IV. After his death, his son, Henry V, took the throne and proceeded to conquer France, which at the start of our play is ruled along with England by Henry's son, Henry VI. All these Henrys are identified by family as from the house of LANCASTER. Henry VI turns out to be a weak leader, which opens the door for one of his nobles, Richard Plantagenent, Duke of York, to assert a claim to the throne based on his the fact that his ancestors were, by birth order, in line for the throne before Henry VI's usurping ancestors. As the conflict escalates, the House of LANCASTER (the King's party) takes on the emblem of a RED ROSE. The House of YORK (Richard's party) is represented by a WHITE ROSE.
As for the action of the plays, the English fight in France; they fight among themselves in England; and finally we have a few knock-down drag-it-out battles over who gets to be king. And I think that's enough information to get anyone started!
Monday, February 7, 2011
Sunday, February 6, 2011
Saturday, February 5, 2011
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now...
Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroider'd canopy
To kings that fear their subjects' treachery?
History of Henry VI, Part III, Act II, Scene 5
I was anointed king at nine months old;
My father and my grandfather were kings...
Act III, Scene 1, 1443-1444
Poor King Henry. He never wanted to be king! He'd rather be a shepherd! But, because of where and to whom he happened to be born, he's the king.
Baby King Henry VI at 9 months of age, being placed in the care of Richard de Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick. Detail from the Accession of Henry the VI, 1422
Richard on the other hand, would simply love to be England's sovereign, and can't...
Richard: ...between my soul's desire and me—
The lustful Edward's title buried—
Is Clarence, Henry, and his son young Edward,
And all the unlook'd for issue of their bodies,
To take their rooms, ere I can place myself...
...I wish the crown, being so far off;
And so I chide the means that keeps me from it.
...I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And, whiles I live, to account this world but hell,
Until my mis-shaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.
And yet I know not how to get the crown...
But toiling desperately to find it out,—
Torment myself to catch the English crown:
And from that torment I will free myself,
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe.
-Henry VI Part 3, Act III, Scene 2, 1617-1621, 1629-1630, 1657-1661, 1668-1670
Because of the position to which Richard was born - the third son, and fourth in the York claim for the throne, he has no way to decently ask for the kingship. His only options are a lot of awfully convenient accidents to his relatives, or nothing (we see Richard getting started on the first idea at the end of the play).
Much of the conflict of the story has to do with what the characters claim through their ancestry.... there are a number of fairly convincing candidates to be the rightful king running about. But a lot of the conflict also has to do with the characters' failure to claim, or even accept, what they have inherited. Henry and Richard just *won't* step up to their hereditary responsibilities. Richard does not want to be the Duke of Gloucester ("Let me be Duke of Clarence, George of Gloucester" II, 6). He does not want to be a good uncle ("I love the tree from whence thou sprang'st, Witness the loving kiss I give the fruit. [Aside] To say the truth, so Judas kiss'd his master, And cried 'all hail!' when as he meant all harm." V, 7). Richard does not want to be anything but the King of England.
Now, it makes a certain kind of sense to us that if Richard wants to be king so badly, and Henry really doesn't like it, why can't they just re-arrange things? Or, maybe this whole king thing isn't the best idea (the American way of thinking).
Down with King George!But even as Americans, who are well rid of the monarchy, Richard and Henry's basic problem has still not gone away. Who has not felt at least a twinge of dissatisfaction, perhaps even resentment, at who, where, and when they were born? It's one of the most important factors in our lives, and we have absolutely no control over it. Who has not even felt some enviousness, like Henry and Richard, when we look at the privileges of others? Perhaps we envy those in other societies, who lead simple, "shepherds'" lives. Perhaps we envy those in prestigious, complicated jobs, and their power and wealth.
I think I might prefer to live there.^
But in the midst of our empathy with Henry and Richard, we have to remember that the grass is often greener on the other side. Would weak, dependent Henry really be up for the tough life of a shepherd? And not to spoil the story, but eventually Richard does get his wish, and it's not all so fun at the top. What's more, it's true that Shakespeare sympathetically shows the struggling pain of these characters, but even as he does so, he shows the bad effects - disaster, really - that this refusal of responsibility brings about. Shakespeare warns us all that if we neglect what we are born to do, tragedy follows.
Welcome back for the last week of the Getting into Shakespeare series! This final post is about how to make better friends with Shakespeare, now that we have some good strategies for tackling his works.
I find the best way to do this is by making Shakespeare goals. Actually, I just do a lot better at doing hard things that I really want to do (but have a tendency to forget about, and just get on facebook instead) if I make a goal.
Getting from this facebook...
...to this facebook.
So, my personal plan for hanging out with Shakespeare this year is to try to keep up with Shakespeare girl and read all of his works. I admit that I may "fail" spectacularly at this (I'm a little nervous about Titus Andronicus, which is coming right up), but even if I quit today, this goal has so far helped me read 5 plays I had never read before! This has really enriched my year, and it's only February. So, I call it a glorious success already. And thus you can see that goals, especially approached with a lot of self-forgiveness, are very helpful things.
Now, if you don’t want to read all of Shakespeare in one year, that’s fine. Your goal doesn't have to be identical to ours. You're a busy person - pick something a little smaller that fits into your life. Some examples I thought of for smaller goals might be:
"I will attempt to...
...watch my first Shakespeare movie this month.”
...find a well-reviewed Shakespeare production in my town to go see this season."
...read 10 of the most famous Shakespeare plays this year."
...watch and read two Shakespeare plays in the next two months.”
...read a Shakespeare play from a different genre than I’ve tried before” (like watching and reading Henry V, if you’ve only read Shakespeare’s comedies before, for example).
And as you go forward, remember, Shakespeare was NOT written for scholars. Poor people used to pay a penny - worth more in those days - to go *stand* in the muddy theater for hours and watch Shakespeare plays. Obviously, they weren't doing this to torture themselves.
This is the reproduction Globe Theatre in London, on the spot where many of Shakespeare's plays were performed. I went there once - I had a great time. But do you see the people standing in front of the stage? The Globe likes to keep an authentic renaissance flavor, so those people will have to keep standing up throughout the whole performance. It's true that instead of the mud that was in front of the stage in Shakespeare's day, there's now a nice cement pad that might be okay to sit on. But, if any of these people sit down, an attendant will come make them stand up. This is to punish them for having bought a slightly cheaper ticket.
I'm convinced that like countless others, you'll think Shakespeare is just great, if you can clear away a bit of the mists of time and get to see his works for what they really are. These plays were written and performed for everyone from peasants to royalty... to entertain us, to teach us about ourselves, others, and God - and to perhaps help us come away a bit better than we were before.
Oh, and if you happen to think of a really great getting-into-Shakespeare tip that wasn't featured in this series, feel free to comment or message me - I always like to learn more about how to learn more about Shakespeare. God speed you in your explorations!
Friday, February 4, 2011
And therefore I'll uncrown him ere't be long.
Oh dear. Things had only just settled into a somewhat uneasy standoff between the York camp and the scattered forces of Henry VI when Edward IV - York's son, who has managed to grab the crown for himself - had to go ruin everything for the lack of a little simple diplomacy. Echoing Henry VI's renunciation in part 1 of his own long-distance betrothed, a French noblewoman, in favor of his own choice, Edward sends Warwick to France as an ambassador with a marriage proposal for a French princess - but then changes his mind about the marriage. He leaves his father's old ally, Warwick, in an embarrassing position when he decides he'd actually prefer to marry an Englishwoman! And oh wait, he's actually gone ahead and gotten married - sorry, Warwick, that you had to go all the way to France as an ambassador to present the proposal only to have it retracted. Never mind that you are acutely aware that the whole thing made you look like an idiot.
OK kids, of the lessons we've learned from the Henry VI plays, I think we could all agree on these: that the English nobles are proud; they easily take offense; they don't mind changing sides; and oh yes, each of the major nobles can raise his own personal army. Moral of the story? DON'T MAKE AN EARL LOOK STUPID - he will never forgive you and he'll probably appoint a day to meet you in pitched battle somewhere.
Edward's lack of diplomacy reminded me of another example of how NOT to talk to people, this time from Henry VI part 2. The Earl of Suffolk, in peril of his life, having been captured by pirates, says the wrong thing over and over again:
Earl of Suffolk. Obscure and lowly swain, King Henry's blood,
The honourable blood of Lancaster,
Must not be shed by such a jaded groom.
Drones suck not eagles' blood but rob beehives:
It is impossible that I should die
By such a lowly vassal as thyself.
Lesson number 2: if others (especially a bloodthirsty band of pirates) are holding all the weapons, it is probably not the greatest idea to talk to them this way.
Both Warwick and Suffolk's pride would not let them suffer their wrongs in silence; in both cases, their determination to fight cost them a dear account. Diplomacy, that could have helped to avoid it all, is nowhere to be seen. But they will not be dissuaded from their pride and their fighting, even when there is little point to it; as the Mayor of London says in part 1,
"Good God, these nobles should such stomachs bear!
I myself fight not once in forty year." (1.3.451-2).
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Scarce serves to quench my furnace-burning heart:
Nor can my tongue unload my heart's great burthen;
For selfsame wind that I should speak withal
Is kindling coals that fires all my breast,
And burns me up with flames that tears would quench.
To weep is to make less the depth of grief:
Tears then for babes; blows and revenge for me
Richard, I bear thy name; I'll venge thy death,
Or die renowned by attempting it.
(Henry VI part 3, 2.1.706-715)
In this speech by Richard, later Richard III, or as he is described in the 1595 published version of this play, "Crookeback Richard," he, as the son of Richard Plantagenent, Duke of York, mourns his father's death and plots revenge. However, he cannot weep for his father and goes so far as to disdain tears: Tears then for babes. Richard's inability to display sorrowful emotion hints at his inhumane and ambitious personality that will display itself in violence against his own family.
In contrast, Richard's father - the Duke of York, whose single-minded ambition for a throne has driven the violence in the three plays - values revenge, but is not impervious to tears of sorrow. Upon hearing of his young son Rutland's death, he weeps before Queen Margaret and Clifford, who has killed the boy:
Richard Plantagenent (Duke of York). O tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's hide!
How couldst thou drain the life-blood of the child,
To bid the father wipe his eyes withal,
And yet be seen to bear a woman's face?
Women are soft, mild, pitiful and flexible;
Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless.
Bids't thou me rage? why, now thou hast thy wish:
Wouldst have me weep? why, now thou hast thy will:
For raging wind blows up incessant showers,
And when the rage allays, the rain begins.
These tears are my sweet Rutland's obsequies:
And every drop cries vengeance for his death,
'Gainst thee, fell Clifford, and thee, false
That hardly can I cheque my eyes from tears.
And I think that this capacity for sorrow and emotion in York is one of the reasons that I actually care about his fate. Though throughout the three plays York has shown himself to be a completely amoral opportunistic schemer obsessed with his royal ambitions, he also is very brave, loyal to the members of his faction, and - as we see here - loving to his sons, who worship him. These qualities allow us to overlook his viciousness and hope that his prayer for his soul is answered: "Open Thy gate of mercy, gracious God!" (1.4.620)
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Have chid me from the battle; swearing both
They prosper best of all when I am thence.
(Henry VI part 3, 2.5.1117-1120)
Lord Clifford. I would your highness would depart the field:
The queen hath best success when you are absent.
Queen Margaret. Ay, good my lord, and leave us to our fortune.
In Henry VI Part 3, the day of reckoning has well and truly come. We've seen Henry let France slip from his hands; we've seen the loosening of his grip on the realm of England; now we're involved in a full-blown revolt and civil war. Meanwhile, Henry flaps around helplessly. His self-doubt and weakness is so palpable to those around him that he's like a large, sad bird of ill-omen - his wife and his general have an important request for him: please, um, just stay away from the battle, because basically you make things go badly, okay? Thanks!
It's interesting that Shakespeare, though painting Henry as ineffectual and distracted, doesn't specifically highlight something that's a historical fact: that Henry suffered from periods of insanity. However, the choice to portray this leader as sane but disengaged opens the story up for us, as the audience, to find parallel situations in our own experience. Not everyone has had to deal with a mad King, but I'd be willing to guess that nearly everyone has suffered under a weak and morale-crushing leader. What do we do in these situations? Revolt like York? Grab the reins like Margaret and tell the King to get off the field?