Archive for the 'History' Category

Video: Henry V (The Hollow Crown)

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

This is the last of four reviews of The Hollow Crown, a series of BBC productions of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy of history plays: Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and the subject of this final review, Henry V.

Henry V is a great play in its own right. But watching it just after you’ve seen the same actors in the Henry IV plays adds a whole new dimension to the experience. From the Dauphin’s insult to the execution of Bardolph to the wooing of Katherine, we can view the actions of the young king through the lens of his wayward youth and seemingly miraculous reformation.

Early on, I was very impressed with the actor who played Exeter. He’s exactly the kind of actor I like; he makes crisp clear decisions, and you always know what he’s thinking. But when I looked up his name, I found it was Anton Lesser, one of my favorite audio performers. I guess I just didn’t recognize him with a face.

The cast as a whole was outstanding, with some very fine moments delivered by the smallest of roles. But there is one star in this play, and Tom Hiddleston gives an outstanding performance as Henry V. He very clearly conquers Harfleur with a single speech. His exchanges with Montjoy are earnest and passionate. And when he gets to the big moment, the St. Cripin’s Day speech, he really brings it home. When Olivier and Branagh did it, they started by talking to Westmoreland and the inner circle and gradually transitioned into a speech to the troops. Hiddleston’s Henry keeps the speech in the circle. Even though it is a monologue, Henry’s audience members contribute as much to the speech as he does, the inspiration beaming in their faces as Henry speaks of honor and glory.

Director Thea Sharrock keeps the action moving and the story clear. This may be the first time I’ve ever really understood the Fluellen/Pistol relationship. In the lead up to the battle, the look and feel of the grimy English soldiers contrasted with the clean French nobles made it clear who was going to be the home team. The Agincourt battle itself was extremely well done, brilliantly capturing the managed chaos of medieval warfare.

The Chorus was done as a voice-over, and it worked here. John Hurt’s enticing performance does a fine job of drawing us into the story, while the images on screen support the narration rather than distracting from it. I don’t want to give too much away here, but it will suffice to say that I absolutely loved the framing device used in the very beginning and the very end. I thought it was incredibly moving and really quite brilliant.

This production was a very fitting conclusion to a sterling collection. Owning the DVD set, I feel as though I am myself a king, and at my command are Ben Wishaw, Jeremy Irons, Simon Russell Beale, and Tom Hiddleston who will, on my merest whim, perform this masterpiece tetralogy for my entertainment.

If you want to get in on the action, you can watch the whole play on the PBS website.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Insanity Defense

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Towards the end of Hamlet, Hamlet meets Laertes for a sword-fight. It’s supposed to be just an exhibition, but Laertes secretly intends to kill Hamlet for real. Hamlet has killed Laertes’s father, an act which has also led to the death of Laertes’s sister. Wanting to clear the air before the friendly sporting match begins, Hamlet offers the following words of contrition:

Give me your pardon, sir; I’ve done you wrong;
But pardon ’t, as you are a gentleman.
This presence knows,
And you must needs have heard, how I am punish’d
With sore distraction. What I have done,
That might your nature, honour and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was ’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet:
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not; Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If ’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
Sir, in this audience,
Let my disclaiming from a purpos’d evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,
That I have shot mine arrow o’er the house,
And hurt my brother.

Worst. Apology. Ever.

And the egregiousness of the non-apology is compounded by the fact that we, the audience, know that Hamlet was only faking his madness in the first place.

Still, the idea that a person might be absolved of responsibility for a crime due to insanity seems like an awfully enlightened concept to be showing up in an early 17th century play. Was Shakespeare playing around with some concepts that were ahead of his time, or was the insanity defense already part of contemporary jurisprudence? This looks like a job for the Shakespeare Follow-Up!

The idea of intent as a legal concept goes as far back as law itself, as it is described in some detail in The Code of Hammurabi. The Latin term for “not of sound mind” is non compos mentis, and the ancient Romans did indeed recognize it as a valid defense. The idea was also not foreign to Shakespeare’s England. According to Barbara Kirwan:

The concept that certain mental disorders might relieve a person of responsibility for criminal conduct was first recognized as a defense in 1275 by English common law. Starting in the reign of Edward II (1307-1327), a criminal could be found insane if his defenders could demonstrate that his mental abilities were no greater than those of a “wild beast.”

So Shakespeare certainly did not invent the concept. However, most of the evolution of the insanity defense has happened since the time of Shakespeare’s death.

In 1843, Daniel M’Naughton was acquitted of a murder charge by an English jury on the ground of insanity. During the process, the House of Lords had asked a panel of judges a series of questions, later known as the M’Naughton Rules, that would become a benchmark for making these kinds of judgements in the future.

Here in the United States, the standards for determining the validity of an insanity plea vary by state, and a few states don’t recognize it at all. Charles Guiteau pleaded insanity in his trial for assassinating President Garfield, but was found guilty and hanged. John Hinkley, however, was acquitted for shooting President Reagan by reason of insanity. This led to a public outcry, and the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which made it more difficult to mount such a defense.

Whether you agree with the insanity defense or not, it isn’t hard to understand the public’s reaction. Just imagine Hinckley using Hamlet’s words in his own defense:

Was ’t Hinkley wrong’d Reagan? Never Hinkley:
If Hinkley from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Reagan,
Then Hinkley does it not; Hinkley denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If ’t be so,
Hinkley is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hinkley’s enemy.

Infuriating, right? And in our current era of school shootings and random bombings, we find ourselves facing a wide array of criminals who establish themselves as undeniably insane simply by doing the thing they are on trial for. But how can that possibly be a reasonable standard for acquittal?

So obviously, this is something we’re still struggling with. But going as far back as antiquity, the law has always recognized that there were legitimate times when a person should be absolved of a crime on the grounds of insanity. Shakespeare articulates the reasoning behind it with great clarity, but subsequent cases and conversations have muddied that clarity considerably.

Video: Henry IV, Part 2 (The Hollow Crown)

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

Welcome the third of four reviews of The Hollow Crown, the new BBC video adaptations of Shakespeare’s history plays. The first two reviews covered Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1. This review will focus on Henry IV, Part 2, which I watched on DVD, but is also available for live streaming on the PBS website.

Let me start by saying that this was an amazing production. I felt that same exhiliarating rush of Shakespeare I felt watching Richard II. Henry IV, Part 2 is a wonderful play, and it was realized wonderfully here. But before I go on, I should issue a word of caution. If you’re unfamiliar with this play, you should probably see it before reading my review, as I will give away a few plot elements that are much better experienced in the theatrical moment. So, beware: spoilers ahead!

And it’s understandable if you’re not familiar with the play. You don’t often see stand-alone productions of it, possibly because of the stigma associated with “Part 2″ which, The Godfather excepted, rarely bodes well. But, Hollow Crown title cards and DVD packaging notwithstanding, these are two different plays, not two parts of the same play. Henry IV, Part 2 is a darker and more serious play than its predecessor, and about as underrated as Shakespeare’s works get.

In his very best plays, Shakespeare shows his skill as a dramatist in the composition of his scenes. Each scene has a rising and falling action, conflict and resolution, and internal cohesion. Each could stand alone as an entertaining mini-play, even as he advances his plot and character development for the work as a whole. Hamlet and King Lear are particularly striking examples of this. Watch a good performance of any one scene and you might allow yourself temporarily to believe it’s the most important scene of the play. The result of this is that, if you don’t know the play very well, you are captivated by the dramatic tension and unexpected development of each scene and are able to stay in the moment for a long period of time. And if you do already know the play, you hang in anticipation for your favorite moments.

Henry IV, Part 2 is a cohesive dramatic work that tells a single story. But it is also a collection of incredibly entertaining scenes and powerful individual moments. And if you know what they are, you might find yourself as a kid on a roller coaster you’ve been on a hundred times. You know exactly where the dips and spins are coming, but that knowledge does nothing to diminish your anticipation and enjoyment. If that’s you, you won’t be disappointed by the version presented in The Hollow Crown. (If it’s not you, then even better, but stop reading now!) The direction is much sharper than it was in Part 1, and all of those lovely moments are clearly articulated and in many cases given new life.

Take, for example, the scene in which Hal and Poins spy on Falstaff talking to Doll Tearsheet. Shakespeare set this scene in a crowded tavern, with characters entering and exiting throughout. The Hollow Crown sets the scene in a more private room, where Falstaff and Doll can get more intimate. Instead of entering disguised, Hal and Poins are hidden, adding a sinister feel to the scene that wasn’t there before. And when Hal finally calls out Falstaff for his behavior, his tone is stern and cold. This foreshadows the later rejection scene beautifully. Simon Russell Beale (Falstaff) fills the iconic role with boisterous joy once again, but now tinged with just the right amount of sentimentality. Julie Walters (Mistress Quickly) and Maxine Peake (Doll Tearsheet) add considerably to the comic energy of the scene.

I’m a big fan of the king’s insomnia speech, and Jeremy Irons (King Henry IV) delivers. Most of the speech was presented in very wide shots, with the king as a tiny figure overwhelmed by very large spaces decked with the ornate trappings of royalty. I think it was a strong choice, though I would have liked to have seen the actor’s face a bit more. But the speech wasn’t done in voice-over, so I can’t really complain too much. And we get to see Irons very much up close and personal in his final scene with Tom Hiddleston (Hal). This is what I would call the deathbed scene, but the king leaves his bed here. They move to the throne room, which allows director Richard Eyre the opportunity to play with vertical levels and royal symbolism galore.

It’s at this point that Shakespeare fans are ready for the rejection scene. Quite possibly, it is the most memorable scene in the play, and it is often described as the saddest scene in Shakespeare. But too often overlooked is the other side of the equation: the new king embracing the policeman who chased him down in his youth. Geoffrey Palmer (Lord Chief Justice) gives a masterful performance throughout the play, but nowhere better than in this scene. He bravely looks the new king in the eye and mounts a righteous defense of his actions and duty, even as his body betrays him by gently quaking in fear. To me, this is no less powerful a moment in the play than Falstaff’s rejection.

That being said, Falstaff’s rejection was quite powerful as well. When Shakespeare’s done right, there’s nothing else like it, and this is Shakespeare done right.

One more play to go, my friends. Once more into the breach…

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Age of the Earth

Friday, October 11th, 2013

When, in As You Like It, Orlando threatens to die of unrequited love, the disguised Rosalind has some words of wisdom for him:

The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love-cause.

Whether or not one could actually die from love will be beyond the scope of this Shakespeare Follow-Up. But we do want to examine how close is Rosalind’s estimate of the age of the planet to what we believe today.

Almost 6,000 years was a good guess for Shakespeare’s day. But today, scientists believe the Earth is over 4,500,000,000 years old, give or take. How can we account for such a breathtaking discrepancy?

Early estimates for the age of the planet were based on Biblical scripture. God created Earth “in the beginning” which puts its origin on the first day of creation. Adam was born on the 5th day, and then the begetting began. Genesis actually goes into quite a bit of detail about how old each begetter was when he begat, so a literal interpretation and little bit of arithmetic was all that was necessary to trace how much time passed since the first day of creation and pinpoint the age of the earth.

Dating creation at 4000 BC was a popular estimate during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Shortly after Shakespeare’s death, Bishop James Ussher published a chronology that placed the creation of the universe on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. Hey, someone has a birthday coming up!


But how many candles?

Still, nature was rife with clues that were ready for us when we were ready for them. As early as the 17th century, Nicolas Steno noticed the questions raised by fossil evidence and rock stratification, and other naturalist scientists would find reason to revise the Earth’s age gradually upwards.

In 1862, Lord Kelvin (before he was Lord Kelvin) used the cooling rate of the Earth to place its age at around 98 million years. That’s not quite there yet, but Lord Kelvin was getting warmer!

In the 20th century, scientists began measuring the decay of radioactive isotopes for dating objects that are very old. This is called “radiometric dating” or “radioactive dating,” but I’m only going to call it radiometric dating because I already have something that I call radioactive dating. Radiometric dating puts a rock native to Quebec, the Acasta Gneiss, at over 4 billion years old, and certain zircons found in Western Australia turn out to be over 4.4 billion years old. Based on non-terrestrial evidence, scientists put the age of the solar system at around 4.567 billion years, meaning the Earth can’t be any older than that. This gives us a window between 4.4 and 4.567 billion years to place our best guess.

Although science is long past the time of an Earth whose age could be measured in the thousands, the general public is not as unified. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” Now, there is a difference between the age of the Earth and the age of the human being, but there is a lot of scientific evidence that humans have been around a lot longer than 10,000 years. Suffice it to say that the first homo sapiens are believed to have evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago.

But whether, in all this time, there was any man who died in a love-cause, I leave as a question for the reader.

Video: Henry IV, Part 1 (The Hollow Crown)

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

This is the second of what I intend to be four reviews of The Hollow Crown, the new BBC video adaptations of Shakespeare’s history plays, currently being broadcast on PBS and available for streaming on their website. They are also available on DVD, which is how I’m viewing the series. The series comprises Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V. A complete plot summary might be cumbersome, but if you want to follow along with song parodies, they were set to the tunes of “Single Ladies,” “Tik Tok,” “Blurred Lines,” and “One More Night.”. Last week, I reviewed Richard II. This review will focus on Henry IV, Part 1.

Let me start by saying that it was really well done and I enjoyed it a great deal. There were a few elements about the adaptation that I didn’t like, and I will explain below what they were and why they are important to me. But overall, I give the production a big thumbs up, and recommend it highly.

The opening sequence lets us know that this is going to be a very different play from Richard II. While that play consisted largely of scenes set among nobility in the sterile court, this play opens with the streets bustling with the common people in all of their grimy splendor. Filthy peasants chop up dead animals for commerce and consumption beneath a window where a woman shakes dirt out of a rug. A dog licks at a dead pig, as merchants and consumers crowd into the marketplace, warmly greeting each other to exchange merchandise and soot. A clean dapper figure, Tom Hiddleston, giddily walks among them. It makes sense that he’s playing Hal, as I know he’ll be playing Henry V in the last play. But then he wanders into a tavern and wakes up a man who obviously must be Falstaff, and it turns out to be Simon Russell Beale. Oh yeah.

The first two scenes are intertwined, which I thought worked well in introducing the characters. This is something easier to do crisply on the screen than it is on stage, and I think it was done well. I also really liked the way the battle scenes were handled. The tavern scenes were well acted, but I think the production missed the disorderly energetic feeling of a tavern atmosphere. The patrons mostly seemed to stand around watching the principles perform, which was a little too tidy for my tastes.

In addition to Hiddleston and Beale, I thought the cast was very good, and enjoyed a number of outstanding performances in small roles. I thought that David Hayman (Worcester) and Michelle Dockery (Kate) were particularly worth mentioning. I also have to put Jeremy Irons (King Henry IV) in this category. I loved the scenes he was in, but the title role is a small part in this play, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the next one. I can’t wait for the final scene between Irons and Hiddleston. I just know that’s going to be amazing. To hold you over, there’s a scene in this play where Hal imitates his father, and I just wanted to give a shout out of appreciation for Tom Hiddleston’s impression of Jeremy Irons.

The Percy family all had the same accent, and this may mean something to an English audience that I’m missing, though I think I can take an educated guess. I think they were doing what the English call a “Northern” accent, which would make sense for Northumberland. And a little research shows that Joe Armstrong (Hotspur) is the real-life son of Alun Armstrong (Northumberland), who grew up in County Durham, which actually borders Northumberland. So it would appear that someone went to a lot of effort to make this piece of it authentic, and I can appreciate that.

One thing I didn’t like was the use of voice-over for two of the soliloquies in the play. Both Hal and Falstaff have speeches that are here presented in voice-over as they make their way through crowds. Voice-over was a technique that Olivier used in his 1948 movie of Hamlet. Olivier was shot in close up, though, making facial expressions to show that he was thinking the words we were hearing. It does seem a bit silly, but I understand what he was going for. In trying to adapt the play from one medium to another, he wanted to use the lexicography of the new medium, and that included the ability to hear the character’s thoughts without him having to speak them. It was a necessary experiment, but I don’t think it worked. There’s an intimacy when an actor speaks directly to the audience, as the air escapes his lungs and his emotions radiate from his eyes, that has a potency to make a connection. Shakespeare understood this potency and used it often. That connection can actually transfer to a screen production, but in my opinion, it doesn’t survive the additional layer of distancing that voice-over brings.

That’s why it didn’t work for Olivier, but I think it’s even worse here. At least Olivier attempted to be present for the soliloquies; you could see he was actually thinking the speech we were hearing. In these scenes, Hal and Falstaff are just going about their business. There’s no sense that the actor even knows where in the speech we are. And it’s true that we often have thoughts running through our minds as we proceed through our day, but that lessens the importance of the speech. What’s more, in the screen lexicography of our day, the voice-over does not necessarily signify a character’s inner thoughts. Quite often, a voice-over indicates the character’s voice from the future narrating past events. That is entirely the wrong choice here.

The “I know you all” speech sets up Hal’s character arc. The later King Henry V will be one of the greatest heroes for Shakespeare’s England, and Shakespeare wants to be very clear in establishing that the young prince’s history of debauchery was a calculated plan from the very beginning. Thus, we need to hear him give this speech at this very moment, after he has agreed to participate in the shenanigans but before he actually does it, so that he can establish that he knows what he’s doing. If it’s a disembodied voice from the future, then it sounds like rationalizing after the fact, an impression Shakespeare was trying very hard not to give. And even if we do accept the voice as Hal’s thoughts, they are presented in such a way as to minimize their importance, rather than being one of the defining moments of his character. The payoff doesn’t come for another two plays, so it’s important to really emphasize it now.

Less damaging is Falstaff’s “honor” speech done as a voice-over, but this speech really needs an actor. We forgive Falstaff his trespasses because he’s so charming and describes his philosophy with a twinkle in his eye. No twinkle, no empathy, and the “honor” speech diminishes Falstaff’s character. The payoff for this speech comes only a short time later on the battlefield when Falstaff discovers the body of Sir Walter Blunt and says “There’s honor for you.” But without the speech, there is no shared reference with the audience, and the line is thrown away.

And while I’m railing about details, where was the Douglas? I understand cuts have to be made, but this is a really fun character that also happens to add a lot to plot and character development for the play as a whole. You can live without the Douglas, I suppose, instead of adding to the sense of menace that the rebels present. And you can live without the Douglas, I suppose, instead of creating a brilliant stage moment when the unlikely opponent Falstaff has to face off against him. And you can live without the Douglas, I suppose, when Hal has the opportunity to display mercy by letting him go at the end. But what happens when you lose the Douglas in the scene where Hal comes to his father’s defense in battle? This is a kid who everyone thinks is a degenerate hooligan, and then he risks his own life to save his father’s, even when his father’s death would win him the crown. This is a pretty important moment for understanding Hal, wouldn’t you say?

So yes, I did have some quibbles with some of the individual choices, but as I said, I did enjoy the production overall, and it’s my pleasure to recommend it to you. I’m also looking forward to the next play with great anticipation. I’ll let you know when I’ve seen it.

You can watch the entire video for free on the PBS website.

Shakespeare Anagram: Henry VI, Part Two

Saturday, October 5th, 2013

From Henry VI, Part Two:

Pride went before, ambition follows him.
While these do labour for their own preferment,
Behoves it us to labour for the realm.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

For fear, Boehner followed the wimp route to preserve his seat, win or aim to hobble the infirm, before mob rule shut it all down.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Cosmology

Friday, October 4th, 2013

The inaugural Shakespeare Follow-Up is dedicated to Rebecca.

As she can tell you, when Puck is first introduced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he meets a fairy who tells him:

I do wander every where,
Swifter than the moone’s sphere;

But what is the moon’s “sphere” and why should we believe it is particularly swift? To fully appreciate this line, and many like it across the canon, it’s important to know a little bit about how Shakespeare and his contemporaries viewed the cosmos.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle described a system of concentric spheres, based on the works of pre-Socratic philosphers. Each observable planetary body, including the Moon, was embedded in one of these spheres. The spheres were made of transparent matter, in contact with one another, and able to rotate independently. (Positing a thin layer of WD-40 between spheres would have been beyond the technological capabilities of the ancient Greeks.) The Moon’s sphere was the closest to the Earth, and therefore, could move the fastest. This was followed by Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the sphere of the stars. Outside the spheres was the Prime Mover, which is the original source of all motion. God, if you like.

Claudius Ptolemy was an astronomer living in Alexandria in the 2nd century AD, while Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. Ptolemy noticed that some of the data, particularly retrograde motions of the planets, could not be explained by the existing model. He added the idea of epicycles, spheres rotating within spheres, which allowed for irregular movement of the planets, and the concept remained the dominant cosmological model for centuries.

Around the 12th century, Aristotelian concepts (including Ptolemaic cosmology) became intertwined with Christian theology. By the time Copernicus developed his heliocentric model in the early 16th century, it was not only a challenge to Aristotle and Ptolemy, but also to Church teachings that God put man in the center of the universe.

This is the world that Shakespeare and Galileo were born into in 1564. The theories of Copernicus were known, but not commonly accepted as true. It should be noted, however, that even Copernicus accepted the idea of celestial spheres; he just put the Sun in the center instead of the Earth. Shakespeare makes reference to the spheres all throughout his plays, often metonymously for the cosmos as it affects our fates, or simply as a shared cultural reference.

So the Bastard in King John can ask “Now, now, you stars, that move in your right spheres,/ Where be your powers?” as Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream observes “Yet you, the murderer, look as bright, as clear,/ As yonder Venus in her glimmering sphere.”

Fixed and unchangeable, the spheres also serve as a convenient metaphor for the rightfulness of hierarchies here on Earth. Shakespeare draws this comparison often, most notably in this speech from Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order:
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthron’d and spher’d
Amidst the other; whose med’cinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check, to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth.
Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure!

When we see the Sun referred to as “the glorious planet Sol,” it has the power to remind us just how much distance is between the scientific understanding of Shakespeare’s time and our own. And reading this in 21st century America, we also feel the gap in worldview as we see hierarchic culture defended so fiercely. Both celestial spheres and geocentrism will likewise fade in the century following Shakespeare’s death, but the ideas remain forever embedded in Shakespeare like the planets in their spheres. Thus, we understand that when, in 1 Henry IV, Hal tells Hotspur that “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,” it’s Elizabethan for “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”

Astronomers during Shakespeare’s lifetime, most notably Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, already began using observational data to cast doubts about both geocentrism and the celestial spheres. The observation of comets was making the sphere model difficult to maintain. Galileo also took up the idea of heliocentrism and, after a long battle with the Church, was pressured into recanting. But the theories of Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution later in the 17th century gave heliocentrism a much stronger grounding in modern science which led to a wider acceptance as the culture became more open to the reexamination of our scientific understandings.

It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that science learned that none of these models was the center of the universe, but rather one solar system among billons across a vast sprawling cosmos.

One can only wonder what Shakespeare might have done with such a revelation.

Video: Richard II (The Hollow Crown)

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

This.

Enthusiastic and meme-hip as it is, my one-word review of The Hollow Crown, Sam Mendes’s four-part television adaptation of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, probably deserves further elaboration. I’ll be watching the productions on DVD, so I may be somewhat out of sync with your local PBS airing currently underway. But you can also catch the series on streaming video through the PBS website, so it’s all good. This review will focus mostly on Richard II, the first of the four plays, because I haven’t watched the other three yet.

Now, if you’re a faithful reader of this blog or, well, met me once, you know this is the kind of thing I live for, and you’ll be prepared for the breathless effluence of a hardcore fan. But truth be told, I can be a tough audience. Because I know the play so well, it’s hard to get me to suspend my disbelief. And this is a tough play. The language is lofty and poetic, even by Shakespeare’s standards, so it’s harder to get the words to sound natural.

And yet, I found myself riveted by the dramatic tension of the scenes, despite knowing not only what was about to happen, but also the exact words that were about to be spoken. I don’t know how that’s possible, but truly I was engrossed the whole time. The actors were top-notch across the board, and the direction was very clear in telling the story. The scenes were beautifully shot and in high definition. True, I was watching it on DVD, but I checked out the streaming feed for this review, and was very impressed at how high you could set the picture quality. Welcome to the future of Shakespeare.

The opening scene started with voice-over of Richard’s “let’s talk of graves” speech, the speech that “the hollow crown” comes from. I must confess feeling a moment’s hesitation, as I worried the director was going to get cute with the play. But then Richard calls for his uncle, John of Gaunt, and it’s Patrick Stewart. Lines are spoken, and I’m feeling the brain burst. This is going to be a wild 148 minutes.

We don’t get much Patrick Stewart, but we do get the “royal throne of kings” speech with full Tom Hooper Les Miz close-up. It’s fantastic, of course, but it’s the subsequent scene between Gaunt and Richard that I had to put back and watch again. And then (spoiler) Stewart’s gone, but we’re given no less than David Suchet (York) to take up the baton. And those are just the supporting players.

Worth mentioning is Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke. His demeanor is somewhat understated, as is appropriate to the character, but he has some really nice subtleties to his performance. But the real standout in the cast was Ben Wishaw as Richard. I didn’t know much about him outside of Shakespeare Uncovered and James Bond, so I was completely unprepared for just how good he was going to be. Wishaw creates a soft, pampered Richard through his body posture, vocal intonations, and a not-insigificant contribution from a monkey. But then, as his place is challenged, his character arc transitions from entitlement-fueled rage to deep melancholy despair without losing any of the qualities Wishaw had established for Richard. He made me feel the “let’s talk of graves” speech, which I’ve taught phrase-by-phrase, as though I was hearing it for the first time. His performance in the (spoiler) abdication scene alone elevates him to a level of greatness where I can say that his participation in any future project will be no less of a draw for me than a Patrick Stewart or a David Suchet, and that’s no small compliment.

I do have some very minor quibbles that have much more to do with my own Shakespeare pedantry than anything lacking in this production. Some lines I like got cut, but I’ll get over it. Northumberland and especially Henry Percy are underdeveloped. This wouldn’t be a big deal if it were a stand-alone production of Richard II, but the characters reappear in later plays, and the fact that the Percys supported Richard’s ascension in this play adds an ironic layer that’s only possible when you do the plays together. But I understand Jeremy Irons will be playing Henry IV, so maybe the other actors will be replaced as well. Also, I missed the Duchess of Gloucester. Would it really been so hard to have called up Helen Mirren or Vanessa Redgrave or somebody and ask if she had a day to come in and do a scene with Patrick Stewart?

But these are my problems and not yours. If you like to order your Shakespeare well done, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, this might be your way in. And if you are a fan of Shakespeare, but not the histories (Duane), you owe yourself this unique opportunity to see what all the fuss is about.

I’ll post more reviews as I watch the rest of the series.

ETA: Duane’s already on it.

Shakespeare Follow-Up

Friday, September 27th, 2013

I am pleased to announce a new regular feature to the blog: the Shakespeare Follow-Up!

Shakespeare lived and wrote during a time we call the Early Modern Period. And yet, there is much about his time that doesn’t seem very modern at all. It’s common for students to mistakenly refer to Shakespeare’s language as “Old English” because it seems so far removed from the way we speak today. But once you get past the vocabulary and sentence structure, you realize that the language is just the tip of an iceberg representing a 400-year-old gap of knowledge, culture, and worldview.

Shakespeare was born in the same year as Galileo, but pre-deceased him by over 25 years, well before the Italian’s famous grapple with Pope Urban over the question of heliocentrism. Dying as he did in 1616, Shakespeare just barely missed the beginnings of what we consider to be modern science. Bacon’s Novum Organum, published in 1620, contained the early stirrings of the scientific method. And as the Scientific Revolution started picking up some serious steam later in the 17th century, the ideas of the world Shakespeare inhabited were already starting to seem antiquated.

A lot can happen in 400 years. Empires rise and fall, as historians rethink their judgements. Breakthroughs are made. Values shift. We still love Shakespeare because he tapped into the universal truth of human existence, sure, but that doesn’t mean we understand him fully, nor he us. Shylock’s conversion, Dromio’s beating, Katherine’s taming… they can seem harsh to us, living in a different culture and a different time. New discoveries, like the recent unearthing of the remains of Richard III, give us insight on historic people and events that Shakespeare never would have had. Just because Shakespeare’s always on our main stage, doesn’t mean we’re always on the same page.

And thus is born the Shakespeare Follow-Up. Each week (or whenever the mood strikes me), I’ll identify a passage from Shakespeare that highlights a particular gap between Shakespeare’s time and our own. Perhaps it’s a scientific statement of fact, believed to be true in Shakespeare’s time, but ridiculously outdated in ours. Maybe it’s an idea that wasn’t accepted in Shakespeare’s time, but it turned out to be remarkably prophetic. Or maybe it’s an instance where Shakespeare shows us that something we think of as wholly modern has been around longer than we think. I’ll quote the passage, and then provide a “Follow-Up” of where we are today.

This feature will probably end up to be more about cultural, historical, and scientific shifts than it is about Shakespeare. But this blog has always been approached with the philosophy that a love of Shakespeare is only the beginning of a life of examination and discovery. This feature will be another step in that journey. And I think understanding the gaps between us and Shakespeare helps us understand his works better as well. Hamlet tells Horatio that there “are more things in heaven and earth” than are dreamt of in his philosophy. And so, let it be with Shakespeare.

Sound like fun? The Shakespeare Follow-Up will appear on Fridays.

Shakespeare Song Parody: We Love the Plays of Shakespeare

Friday, June 28th, 2013

This is the last in a series of 40 pop-music parodies for Shakespeare fans.

So far, we’ve had one parody for each of Shakespeare’s 38 plays and one for the sonnets. We finish the Shakespeare Top 40 with a tribute to all of the plays, one last time.

Enjoy!

We Love the Plays of Shakespeare
sung to the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel

(With appreciation to everyone who has followed along on the journey…)

Harry, Suffolk, Somerset,
Richard Plantagenet;
Warwick, Edward, Margaret, Rutland,
Younger Lord Clifford;
Lord John Talbot, Tony Woodeville,
Duke of Bedford, Joan La Pucelle;
Duke of Clarence, Tower Princes,
Richard the Third…

Antipholus, Dromio,
Balthazar, Angelo;
Titus gets Tamora by
Baking her kids in a pie;
Tranio, Petruchio,
Katharina, Widow;
Proteus and Valentine have
Bid Verona goodbye…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Don Armado, French Princess,
Costard and Holofernes;
Romeo’s Apothecary,
Juliet’s Nurse;
Gaunt John, he passed on,
Henry’s back and Dick’s gone;
Quince, Flute, Snout, Snug,
Bottom’s got a curse…

King John, Pope, France,
Bastard’s got a second chance;
Shylock and Antonio,
Portia and Bassanio;
Bardolph, Boar’s Head,
Prince Hal, Hotspur dead;
Tavern Hostess, Lord Chief Justice,
Henry on his deathbed…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Benedick, Beatrice,
Dogberry and Verges;
Cambridge, Scroop and Grey,
Fight on St. Crispin’s Day;
Cassius, Cicero,
Julius Caesar, Cato;
Duke Senior, Jacques,
Poems posted on the trees…

O, O, O…

Olivia, Antonio,
Toby Belch, Malvolio;
Ophelia, Claudius,
Hamlet kills Polonius;
Falstaff once adored
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford;
Agamemnon, Pandarus,
Cressida and Troilus…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Helena for Bertram fell,
All’s Well that Ends Well;
Angelo, Claudio,
“Friar” Duke Vincentio;
Desdemona, Othello,
Duke, Iago, Cassio;
Kent’s stand, Lear’s Fool,
Edmund’s death, Edgar’s rule;
Three Witches, two Macbeths,
Scottish spirits come unsex;
Antony, Cleo P.,
Who else would you want to see?

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Marcius, Cominius,
Volumnia, Aufidius;
Cupid, Lucius,
Timon, Flavius;
Gower, Thaliard, Pericles,
Antiochus, Simonides;
Posthumous is shipped to Rome,
Iachimo’s gone to his home…

Autolycus, Leontes,
Perdita, Polixenes;
Stephano, Trinculo,
Ship, wreck, Prospero;
Henry starts a second life,
Anne Boleyn’s his second wife;
Kinsmen our guy partnered for;
May have helped with Thomas More…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
And where we have gone,
The play will start anon,
Anon, anon, anon, anon, anon, anon, anon…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

We love the plays of Shakespeare!

Hat tip to Shakespeare Online for the chronology.

You can click to read all 40 song parodies here.