Archive for the 'The Plantagenets' Category

Sean Spicer Does Shakespeare

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

In honor of Shakespeare’s birthday, I am pleased to share with you an out-take from one of his most popular histories, King Richard III. Historians remember that Richard had a press secretary named Sean Spicer. This is no coincidence – he was a distant ancestor of the current White House Press Secretary! And all of this is well-recorded in the history books.

But what you probably don’t know is that an early Quarto version of Shakespeare’s play includes a scene with the famous spokesman.

Enjoy!

SPICER: And this is how we know that King Richard had the most attended coronation in English history. Period. Now, I’ll take a few questions before we go.

PRESS: Sean, how does the King respond to allegations that he had his brother Clarence murdered in the Tower?

SPICER: Well, I would remind you that this was something that happened under the previous administration. It was King Edward who ordered Clarence’s execution, and these were the orders that were carried out. Nobody was more upset to hear the news than King Richard. Nobody.

PRESS: The Earl of Richmond is reportedly claiming today that the entire York line is illegitimate and the throne was usurped from the House of Lancaster. Any comment?

SPICER: You have to remember that these were horrible, horrible people. I mean, if you look at what happened with Rutland, with the Duke of York… they killed their own people. You didn’t even see that in the Spanish Inquisition.

PRESS: They didn’t kill their own people in the Spanish Inquisition?

SPICER: No, only the Jews. I, of course, do realize that many Jews were… were invited in for conversion interviews, and all the stuff that was going on. But it’s nothing like the behavior we saw with the Lannisters.

PRESS: The Lancasters?

SPICER: Yes.

PRESS: But if the York line is legitimate, wouldn’t King Edward’s son, young Prince Edward, be next in line, and not Richard?

SPICER: You say that Edward is King Edward’s son:
So say we too, but not by Edward’s wife;
For first was he contract to Lady Lucy,
The Duchess lives a witness to his vow,
And afterward by substitute betroth’d
To Bona, sister to the King of France.
These both put by, a poor petitioner,
A care-craz’d mother to a many sons,
A beauty-waning and distressed widow,
Even in the afternoon of her best days,
Made prize and purchase of his wanton eye,
Seduc’d the pitch and height of his degree
To base declension and loath’d bigamy:
By her, in his unlawful bed, he got
This Edward, whom our manners call the prince.
All these are facts and you can look them up.

PRESS: What?

SPICER: No more questions.

The scene ultimately had to be cut from the play, not because of historical accuracy, but because the Master of the Revels had objected to the character of Sean Spicer being played by a woman.

However, we still have the scene as it exists in the Quarto, and it’s amazing how it still feels relevant to our world today!

Shakespeare Anagram: Love’s Labour’s Lost

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

Inspired by recent discoveries

From Love’s Labour’s Lost:

The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Somerset Y-chromosome not even King Richard Three’s.

Cue the funk.

Bow-chicka-wow-wow…

Plantagenetics

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

In which I defend the honor of the Queen…

The DNA reports are in, and the skeleton they found in that Leicester parking lot is now confirmed to be that of King Richard III. Analysis also shows he had blonde hair and blue eyes.

Somewhat overshadowing the exciting news is a discovery that came from the research team’s comparing the old king’s DNA to that of his present-day relatives. It turns out that there is a break somewhere in the male-line continuity of the Y-chromosome, the collection of genes that are only passed from father to son, suggesting a false paternity event somewhere in the timeline.

The news media, with its trademark restraint, has jumped all over this, trumpeting that the already much-maligned Richard has infidelity in his family tree, with some even suggesting that this means that the Queen may not even be the legitimate heir to the throne anymore.

Okay, let’s all take a breath now. Her Majesty’s reign is in no danger here.

I spent a lot of time this past summer with my nose buried in the Plantagenet family tree, and may be able to add a modicum of perspective.

You can read the science team’s original report here, but a brief summary should suffice. Richard III and his distant cousin Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort are both direct male-line descendants of King Edward III. The Duke has five male-line descendants alive today who agreed to participate in the study, and four of them share the same Y-chromosome, presumably inherited from Beaufort. The one who doesn’t suggests a false paternity event (or “cuckolding” in the parlance) at some point along the way, but that’s not the infidelity that made the headlines. Richard III’s Y-chromosome also doesn’t match the Duke’s, which means that at least one of them is not actually a male-line descendant of Edward III.

Okay, so that’s pretty saucy news in itself. But it’s an overreach to drag Queen Elizabeth II into this story for several reasons.

First of all, what is the probability that the break in paternity is even in Elizabeth’s line? Here is the family tree for the relevant players (scroll down to the “Geneology of the Y chromosome lineage” graphic). It shows fifteen paternal links between Edward III and Beaufort, and only four between Edward III and Richard III. Assuming only one false paternity (which is all that’s been established here) and that all paternity events are equally likely to be false, the odds are 15:4 in favor of Beaufort being the non-heir rather than Richard. Also, if Richard III’s own parentage is the false one, it doesn’t affect Elizabeth, as she is descended from Richard’s older brother King Edward IV. So the odds of the break even being in Elizabeth’s lineage is 16:3 against or just under 16%.

Still, a 16% chance the Queen is illegitimate would indeed be headline-worthy, but let’s examine this claim more closely. Here it may be helpful to refer to the family tree I put together for Shakespeare’s King Richard III. In the column all the way to the right, close to the center of the column, you can find Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. This is the future King Henry VII. Five slots down, you can find Elizabeth of York.

Henry and Elizabeth will wed, and their offspring will include King Henry VIII and his sister Margaret Tudor. If you look one column to the left, all the way at the bottom, you will see Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester. This is the future King Richard III. From here on, I will use “Richard Plantagenet” to refer to his father, the Duke of York, who is also on the chart.

Queen Elizabeth II is descended from Margaret Tudor, which means that she is a descendant of Richard III’s brother Edward IV. Edward became king as a result of the Wars of the Roses, which were fought between the houses of York and Lancaster. His claim comes from his father, Richard Plantagenet.

Richard Plantagenet does indeed inherit his surname from his paternal lineage through the York line, being the grandson of Edmund of Langley, the First Duke of York. However, Richard Plantagenet stakes his claim to the throne from his mother’s side, as Anne Mortimer is descended from Edmund of Langley’s older brother, Lionel, Duke of Clarence. What’s more, Richard Plantagenet’s wife, Cecily Neville, who is mother to Edward IV and Richard III, is the granddaughter of John of Gaunt, who is also an older brother to Edmund of Langley (though younger than Lionel, Duke of Clarence). Henry VII is also descended from John of Gaunt.

What all of this means is that even if the Y-chromosomal break is in the 16% that would make Richard Plantagenet illegitimate, it would not affect Edward IV’s claim to the throne. It would therefore not affect Margaret Tudor’s legitimacy, nor would it affect the current monarch.

More to the point, it’s been almost one thousand years since William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Hastings, beginning the dynasty of which Queen Elizabeth II is the current representative. What else don’t we know? It seems very unlikely that, were a complete set of the genetic data magically available to us, Elizabeth would emerge as the clear genealogical winner. Not only do we have a millennium of regal shenanigans to wrangle with, but there is also the human element to consider. A lot of the lineage disputes from the past have been settled by people’s decisions and actions: who had political power, who was a bastard, who won a war, who was the right or wrong religion, etc. The question of whether women could inherit the crown changed the equation at several crucial junctures, so applying a single standard throughout English history would certainly change the outcome.

The bottom line is that we basically don’t know anything about anything, and we certainly don’t know much more today than we did yesterday. Queen Elizabeth shouldn’t start packing her bags based on this new revelation.

UPDATE: In the post, I claim the odds of the false paternity event being in the Queen’s lineage is 16:3 against. However, she is also descended from two other candidates: John of Gaunt and his son John Beaufort, the Earl of Somerset. So the odds of the break being in her ancestry would actually be 14:5 against. But she doesn’t derive her claim to the throne through this line either, so the rest of the argument still stands. See the comments for a clearer explanation.

Family Trees for Shakespeare’s Histories

Friday, September 19th, 2014

My monthly Shakespeare reading group is gearing up to do the history plays. For the next eight months, starting this Sunday, we’re going to be working our way through the two tetralogies.

Shakespeare, working in the late sixteenth century, was writing about his own country’s history spanning most of the fifteenth century. He could assume his audience was familiar with the stories and the characters to some degree. Our perspective, over four hundred years later and in another country, does not provide the same level of context.

Imagine we were watching a play about the American Civil War and characters made various passing references to “the president,” “Lincoln,” and “Honest Abe.” We would understand these are all the same person, no explanation needed. But someone unfamiliar with our history might get confused. In Shakespeare’s histories, characters refer to each other by last name, nickname, and title interchangeably, and their iconic status in English memory requires very little exposition. When we do actually get a first name, it’s usually one of the same six or seven names recycled endlessly throughout the generations, relying again on context for specificity.

Thus, in order to facilitate the readings, I have created a family tree for the Plantagenets that spans all eight plays. For each play, I have put together a version of the tree that shows the current state of the family as the action begins. It shows who’s living, who’s dead, who’s related to whom, who is actually in the play, and what names might be used to reference them. What’s more, it all fits on one page, so it makes a convenient handout for a reading.

It was quite a project, but now that I’m finished, it’s my pleasure to share the results with the Shakespeare Teacher community:

Whether these charts end up providing more clarity or only more confusion will remain to be seen. I’ll be field testing them with my group and may find a need to do a rewrite in eight months time. If anyone out there sees anything seriously wrong or just has a helpful suggestion, please leave a note in the comments so I can address it in the next round of revisions.

A few notes may be helpful. A shaded box means that the character is dead before the play begins. A bold-faced box means that the character appears in the current play. Each space represents the same character across all eight plays, but there are two characters (Anne Mortimer and Isabella Neville) that are duplicated on the chart because they married across family lines. These are represented by circled numbers.

For the most part, Shakespeare sticks with history as far as the genealogy and chronology are concerned, but where he breaks with history, I generally went with Shakespeare’s version. I did this because the purpose of the chart was to make the readings easier. So if Shakespeare, for example, refers to a character by a title he technically didn’t have yet, I used that title on my chart.

One major exception to this is the case of Edmund Mortimer. Historically, there were two different men named Edmund Mortimer in this story: Sir Edmund Mortimer, and his nephew Edmund, Earl of March. An Edmund Mortimer appears in Henry IV, Part One and an Edmund Mortimer appears in Henry VI, Part One. It appears that Shakespeare has conflated the two men into a single character, as he ascribes to the character biographical details from both men in both plays. I went with the more historically appropriate choice to put Sir Edmund in 1H4 and the Earl of March in 1H6, but you should know that when using these charts with those plays.

A lot of the information in these charts were taken from the plays themselves. But the charts also include a lot of historical information, and for that, I used other sources. I took advantage of the excellent genealogical tables in The Riverside Shakespeare (G. Blakemore Evans, ed.) as well as the Arden editions of Henry V (T.W. Craik, ed.) and Henry VI, Part Three (John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen, eds.). I found The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s History Plays (Michael Hattaway, ed.) very helpful. I also consulted the official website of the British Monarchy, as well as other online sources as needed.

Enjoy!

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.

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.

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…

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.

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.