Archive for the 'History' Category

Shakespeare Anagram: Henry VI, Part One

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

From Henry VI, Part One:

Stay, lords and gentlemen, and pluck no more,
Till you conclude that he, upon whose side
The fewest roses are cropp’d from the tree,
Shall yield the other in the right opinion.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Harry Reid’s Senate employed the nuclear option to lushly enlighten poll thresholds.

It’s hopeful to know the Democrats now steer the direction unimpeded for a change.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Biochemistry

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

In As You Like It, Le Beau gives some friendly advice to Orlando:

Good sir, I do in friendship counsel you
To leave this place. Albeit you have deserv’d
High commendation, true applause and love,
Yet such is now the duke’s condition
That he misconstrues all that you have done.
The duke is humorous: what he is indeed,
More suits you to conceive than I to speak of.

The duke is humorous? He doesn’t sound very humorous to me. Can we get a Shakespeare Follow-Up?

The “humours” referred to four bodily fluids that were believed to affect one’s mood and personality: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. This was a theory that traced back as far as the ancient Greeks, and it was widely accepted in Shakespeare’s time. An imbalance of any one of these fluids in a person would have a particular effect. So, the duke is moody, not funny. And this use of the word is fairly consistent across the canon. So when Antipholus of Syracuse says he is not in a “sportive humour,” or Benedick says “a college of witcrackers cannot flout me out of my humour,” or Petruchio says “I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour,” none of them are talking about the funny.

It’s clearly a retrochronism, but understanding a little bit about the humors can actually shed some light on quite a few lines in Shakespeare, so let’s review.

An excess of blood was thought to make you sanguine, and the cheerfully happy word actually comes from the Latin for bloody. So when Sir Toby Belch asks “Am not I consanguineous? am I not of her blood?,” he is using the term to describe a blood relationship.

Phlegm leads to quiet rationality. Kant actually thought it was the absence of temperament. Mistress Quickly therefore misapplies the term in The Merry Wives of Windsor when she beseeches Doctor Caius to “be not so phlegmatic.” She is trying to calm his anger down. She should have said “choleric.”

Choler stems from yellow bile (from the Greek “chole” for bile), and the word appears frequently in Shakespeare to describe anger or bellicosity. The black (”melan-”) variety of bile (”chole”) was also a frequently used theme. I’ve already written about melancholy in Shakespeare in an earlier post, so I don’t need to repeat it all here. The important thing to remember is that Shakespeare and his audience would have believed that these moods were caused by an imbalance of fluids. This is why bloodletting was such a popular medical practice; they believed they could remove the excess humours by drawing blood or applying leeches.

A poetic reference to bloodletting appears in King Richard II, as Richard attempts to sooth the conflict between Bolingbroke and Mowbray:

Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be rul’d by me;
Let’s purge this choler without letting blood:
This we prescribe, though no physician;
Deep malice makes too deep incision:
Forget, forgive; conclude and be agreed,
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.

The complainants are seeking a duel, another way to purge choler by letting blood. Richard reframes their grievances as merely an imbalance of yellow bile, and uses the bloodletting metaphor to advocate a more peaceful solution. (It doesn’t work.)

In the 19th century, humours and bloodletting fell out of fashion as medical science developed a better understanding of human biochemistry. Apparently, though, the idea of the four humors survives today as a popular screenwriting technique.

On a somewhat-unrelated final note, do you know why the “funny bone” got its name? Because it’s the humerus! And I hope you find that humorous.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Nature vs. Nurture

Friday, November 8th, 2013

The term “nature vs. nurture” is a poetic turn of phrase that refers to an ongoing reexamination of the roles that heredity and environment play in determining who we are as individuals. The expression was popularized in the 19th century by Francis Galton, though the debate and the phrase had been around much longer than his day. In fact, Shakespeare himself juxtaposed the two words in The Tempest, as Prospero describes Caliban thusly:

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick;

Shakespeare was not the first to contrast these two words, but Galton is known to have been a Shakespeare fan, and it seems reasonable to imagine this was his source.

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with models of the intricate workings of human nature, depictions of how individuals are influenced by external factors, and the complicated interplay between the two. As we will soon see, Shakespeare was also an early voice in this conversation, and an often-quoted source by later thinkers as well. Therefore, our Shakespeare Follow-Up will focus on the development of the nature vs. nurture debate from Shakespeare’s time to ours today.

But please note that this is a very large topic, and I’m going to sweep through it rather quickly, so feel free to do your own follow up on any topic here that interests you.

Political philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are often grouped together as “social contract theorists,” because they presented ideas about how and why humans form societies. But when considering their impact on the nature/nurture question, it’s more illustrative to focus on their differences.

In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes argued that human beings, existing in a state of nature, are savage and brutal. Therefore, we willingly surrender our autonomy to a sovereign unconditionally in order to gain security from our murderous brethren. John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), lays out the idea that we refer to today as tabula rasa, or “the blank slate.” Rather than seeing human beings as being innately evil, as Hobbes does, he sees us as being neither good nor evil naturally, but rather open to influence from our environments. Jean-Jacques Rousseau presents a different view of the natural state of the human in his book Émile (1762). For Rousseau, humans are born innately good, and it is society that corrupts.

Naturally, the choice of which of these three views to adopt will have a profound effect on how a culture views education and child rearing. We can’t control the nature, but we can structure the nurture to make the best use of our understanding of it. If we believe that human beings are born evil, we’ll want to make discipline the backbone of our educational system. If we believe that children are blank slates, we’ll seek to fill those slates with our best models for citizenship and morality. If we believe that our students are innately good, then maybe the best thing we could do would be to just get out of the way and let them explore the world they find themselves in. You can hear echoes of these debates in today’s conversations about education.

In the post-Darwinian era, psychologists began to codify the progression of human development into various stages. The progression was determined by nature, but profoundly impacted by environment. Sigmund Freud described five psycho-sexual stages of development in childhood. The eight psycho-social stages outlined by Erik Erikson were strongly influenced by Freud, but extended to adulthood.

But wait! A lifetime of human progression divided into stages? Why does that sound familiar? Oh right…

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

It seems that Jacques in As You Like It was on the right track, centuries ahead of his time. Freud famously wrote about Hamlet, and Erikson even cites Shakespeare’s “ages of man” in his 1962 article “Youth: Fidelity and Diversity,” which also provides an in-depth discussion of Hamlet.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) developed a set of four stages of cognitive development that have been profoundly influential in our understanding of human nature. Piaget believed that these stages developed naturally, and that new levels of learning become possible at each stage. Score one point for nature! Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) built on these ideas, but demonstrated that learning could actually encourage cognitive development. There is a zone between what students are capable of doing on their own and what they can do in an environment that includes guidance and collaboration. Stretching into this zone can assist children in progressing developmentally. There’s one point for nurture, and it’s a tie game.

In fact, it will always be a tie game. Everyone agrees that both nature and nurture are significant, and we can argue about various degrees. Noam Chomsky (1928 – ) revolutionized the field of linguistics by describing, in Syntactic Structures (1957), the innate ability of the human brain to acquire language. This was a challenge to the behaviorist philosophy that was dominant at the time. In Frames of Mind (1983), Howard Gardner describes a system of multiple intelligences that different people seem to possess in different measures. The rise of theories such as Chomsky’s and Gardner’s would seem to move the needle towards nature, but the fact that they continue to influence our educational practices demonstrate the importance of nurture in the equation all the more powerfully.

Shakespeare, of course, didn’t know any of this. Nevertheless, his understanding of the complex interplay between nature and nurture was nuanced enough for him to create models that still have us debating the actions and motivations of fictional characters as though they were real people. Why, for example, does Macbeth kill Duncan? Is it because he’s ambitious? Or does he succumb to pressure from his wife? If it’s the former, would he have done so without prompting from the witches? And if it’s the latter, what elements of his nature make him susceptible to his wife’s influence?

I give up. What do you think, Lady Macbeth?

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promis’d. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way; thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it; what thou wouldst highly,
That thou wouldst holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win; thou’dst have, great Glamis,
That which cries, ‘Thus thou must do, if thou have it;’
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone. Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown’d withal.

A lot of these Follow-Ups are about how much Shakespeare didn’t know. This one is about how much he still has to teach us.

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.