Archive for the 'Richard III' Category

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!

Theatre: Richard III at the Belasco

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

In a NYC Shakespeare season filled with a Macbeth here and a Midsummer there, with two productions of Romeo and Juliet running and another two Kings Lear on the horizon, it would be hard for a single production to stand out as the fairest of them all. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to seeing Mark Rylance play Richard III in the currently running production at the Belasco Theatre with a higher degree of anticipation than any of the others. Richard III is my favorite play, and I love Rylance as an actor. I first saw him about 20 years ago playing Henry V in New York and then Benedick in London shortly after. He and I may not agree on who wrote these words, but I’m always glad to hear him speak them.

My anticipation had some extra time to build, as the actors do their pre-show preparations in full view of the audience. Some audience members were seated on the stage, which evoked the feeling of the Globe. The actors changed into costumes from Shakespeare’s time (not Richard’s) and the musical entertainment seemed Elizabethan as well. So when the show began, and Richard’s opening monologue was given in a presentational style, it seemed to fit with the concept they were going for.

Once Rylance began his winter-of-our-discontenting, I was hit by a sense of deja vu, before realizing that I had seen Rylance give this speech before. He delivers the same monologue playing Burbage in Anonymous. But this was a very different delivery than the one he gave in the film. Here, Rylance delivers Richard’s speech in broadly comical tones and with full interaction of the audience. When we laughed at his lines, he’d stop and laugh along with us, appreciative that we found the humor. He chummed it up with the audience members in the on-stage rows. And he was having so much fun, that we almost forgot that he was about to set up his brother to be murdered.

Can you play Richard III as a comedy? Sure. Many of Richard’s antics, as written, are way over the top, and his chutzpah in several scenes is absolutely breathtaking. I think you have to laugh at some of the more outrageous moments. And the choice allowed Rylance to truly revel in the most delicious moments of Richard’s glory, which provides some of the fun of the play. Richard becomes a Puck figure, that trickster devil who tempts mortals to their doom for his own increase. The play does work on that level, and elements of it can be found in any production.

The problem is that if you only play it as a broad presentational comedy, then it becomes a different play, potentially a good play, but one vastly inferior to the one that Shakespeare wrote. Rylance plays a very jocular casual-sounding Richard, and it doesn’t work. It’s not like the natural-sounding language of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado, but rather a presentation of the play as a shared joke with the audience. So, Richard isn’t Richard, but an actor playing a role. In the beginning, he knows the plots he’s laid are going to work – it’s in the script – so he barely needs to put any effort into getting there. And so, the inductions are not so dangerous. Later in the play, when he knows he’s going to lose, the presentation of the lines is more serious, but the outcome is just as sure and there still are no stakes. We end up watching a pageant, and not a play. It is merely a shadow puppet production of Richard.

And this matters, because the fact that Shakespeare’s Richard finds his own cutthroat machinations so funny is part of the evil of his character. And when I watch a good production of this play, I have the experience of a charismatic villain seducing me with his charm by making me feel like I’m on the inside of a momentous historical moment. Shakespeare makes me root for the bad guy. Who do I get to root for in this production? An actor playing a role, mugging for the audience, and not really seeming to care about how the plot progresses? I end up rooting for intermission.

So we get a stammering, mumbling Richard, with his back to the audience half the time, throwing his lines away and uttering his best asides under his breath. Actors meander about the stage with no sense of purpose, and Richard himself seems like he’s barely paying attention.

It was an all-male cast, which put the actors playing women in a very tight spot. If they played up the humor too much, it would play as a drag show, but if they played their parts too seriously, they’d be mismatched with the lead. Instead, they all ended up playing a kind of introspective sadness that plays as feminine without being too Monty Python.

It was disappointing that so much effort went into the costumes, music, set, and marketing for the show, and so little attention was paid to the direction. But Tim Carroll’s flat production felt more like an amateur reading group or high school production than Shakespeare on Broadway. Put simply, the play was not well articulated, and that’s the worst thing I can say about a production.

On the positive side, the lines played for comedy were actually funny. Kurt Egyiawan was a standout doubling as the Duchess of York and Richmond. I liked the final fight concept, and the dance at the end. And I always enjoy hearing Shakespeare’s words spoken out loud. But none of these are enough for me to recommend this show to you.

The same company is concurrently performing Twelfth Night, and I actually have much higher hopes for that production. Rylance will be playing Olivia. Stephen Fry, grievously underused in this production as an audience member sitting five rows ahead of me, will be playing Malvolio. Some of the elements that didn’t work for me in this production may be better suited to that play. In fact, I kind of got the sense that it was Twelfth Night where all of the attention was focused, and Richard III was merely slapped together as an afterthought.

May I live in hope? Watch this space.

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.

How Real is Richard?

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

It’s been exciting to see Shakespeare so much in the news lately. The confirmation of the discovery King Richard the Third’s skeleton last week has thrust our beloved Bard back into the international spotlight. But just how relevant is Shakespeare to this discovery? How closely related is Shakespeare’s classic villain to the original owner of the bones found under the Leicester parking lot?

Shakespeare wrote that which we call History plays, but these are plays and not histories. Shakespeare often wrote about “real” people and events, but he always put his unique take on it. He could change any details that he wanted. Did you know that the real Hotspur was 23 years older than Prince Hal, even though the two men were portrayed as contemporaries in Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV? That Rutland, killed as a small child in Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI, was actually older than his brothers George and Richard? That there were two different men named Edmund Mortimer, conflated into a single character by Shakespeare? And obviously, no matter how historical his characters, we all understand that he certainly was willing to put words in their mouths.

None of this matters, of course. Saying that Shakespeare got it wrong misses the point entirely. Shakespeare’s intent was to create entertaining theatrical plays. And Richard III is one of the most enduring and popular works of art ever to spring from the human imagination. So, yeah, I’d say Shakespeare actually got it right, wouldn’t you? An archeological discovery can tell us about history, and this is a particularly exciting discovery at that, but it sheds no new light on Shakespeare’s work. We already knew that Shakespeare based his work on Tudor historians, and that he shared their bias towards the Tudor view of history.

So when we ask whether characters from Shakespeare are “real” or not, it may not be such a binary question. I would prefer instead to think of it as a spectrum. More specifically, I have created a seven-point scale to compare how real the characters from Shakespeare actually are.

Enjoy!

* * *

Level Seven
Historical Characters Doing Historical Things
Examples: Henry VIII, Henry V

Even at the highest level of Shakespeare’s reality-based characters, there is still a lot of spin-doctoring going on. Shakespeare doesn’t just write about his country’s greatest heroes without a little glorification. But the stories Shakespeare tells about characters at Level Seven are fairly consistent with their historical accounts. Shakespeare himself must have been at least somewhat impressed with his own account of the life of Henry VIII when he originally gave his play the title All is True.

* * *

Level Six
Historical Characters Doing Speculative Historical Things
Examples: Julius Caesar, Cleopatra

I wanted to make a distinction between historical figures that Shakespeare wrote about from relatively recent time periods, and those from antiquity. There are numerous historical accounts of the lives of the ancient Greek and Roman leaders, so Shakespeare was actually writing from sources, but there is only so much faith that we can put in them. The primary difference between Level Six and Level Seven is the amount of time that has passed since the historical figures lived.

* * *

Level Five
Historical Characters Doing Highly-Speculative Politically-Convenient Historical Things
Examples: Richard III, Joan La Pucelle

Here we can put the characters that Shakespeare had a political reason to vilify. We see a version of history, but it’s a version that’s unapologetically slanted in the direction that Shakespeare’s audiences or benefactors would have appreciated most. Shakespeare is still writing mostly from sources, but the sources may themselves be politically biased, or Shakespeare just felt free to add his own spin to events as he wanted to portray them. The character of Richard III can go here.

* * *

Level Four
Historical Characters Doing Non-Historical Things
Examples: John Gower, Macbeth

There really was a historical Macbeth, but it’s doubtful he did many of the things attributed to him by either Shakespeare or history. Sure, Shakespeare was writing from a historical source, and had political reasons to vilify Macbeth, but the story is so far divorced from reality that we really need a new category to describe it. Level Four is for a character who really lived, but isn’t necessarily portrayed doing the things the original historical figure would actually have done.

* * *

Level Three
Legendary Characters Doing Legendary Things
Examples: Agamemnon, King Lear

Did any of these people really exist? And if they did, are the stories about them true? Probably not. But the stories were passed down from generation to generation, either in oral traditions or written texts, as though they were true. We can’t prove that there wasn’t some actual human being in the dark backward and abysm of time that inspired the legend. Level Three quantifies the precise amount of benefit-of-the-doubt I’m willing to give to that possibility.

* * *

Level Two
Characters Doing Fictional Things Who Couldn’t Possibly be Based on Real People (*snicker*)
Examples: Falstaff, Polonius

These are fictional characters, but audiences at the time would have understood the public figures they were based on. Maybe. If Polonius was based on William Cecil, Lord Burghley, then he could be placed one step above a completely fictional character. This is Level Two. Shakespeare expressly denied that Falstaff was meant to be John Oldcastle to satisfy one of Oldcastle’s noble descendants. But what was Shakespeare’s original name for the character Falstaff? It was John Oldcastle.

* * *

Level One
Fictional Characters Doing Fictional Things
Examples: Puck, Shylock

These are purely fictional characters, invented by Shakespeare or his literary sources. They are not real people. They are not based on real people. We will not be finding their bones under any parking lots. We are not worried about pleasing their descendants. If Shakespeare had simply confined himself to his own considerable imagination, we would still have an impressive panoply of Shakespearean characters to entertain us. But the conversations and controversies surrounding his plays would not be nearly as interesting.

Shakespeare Anagram: Richard III

Saturday, February 9th, 2013

From Richard III:

O, that thou wouldst as well afford a grave
As thou canst yield a melancholy seat!
Then would I hide my bones, not rest them here.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

To unearth late Richard the Third’s gamy bones would teach us, seem to alienate the vastly-followed myth.

No halo was found.

Shakespeare Song Parody: Lady, It’s Warm Outside

Friday, December 28th, 2012

This is the 17th in a series of pop-music parodies for Shakespeare fans.

Enjoy!

Lady, It’s Warm Outside
sung to the tune of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

(With apologies to Cee-Lo Green, Christina Aguilera, and the many artists who have performed this seasonal classic duet…)

You venomous toad

Lady, it’s warm outside

Hey, just hit the road

Metaphorically warm outside

I’ve been left to lament

The winter of discontent

And I’m concerned

To glorious summer has turned

You’re a pitiless beast

Beautiful, that’s something at least

Give me leave to curse thyself

I feel even worse myself

And now I accuse thyself

Beautiful, I can’t excuse myself

May lightning strike you dead

These compliments will go to my head

My husband has died

Lady, not by my hand

But your regicide

That was not what I planned

You should be locked in a fetter

I know one place better

As I have said

It is beside you in your bed

I ought to say no, no, no, sir

Mind if I move in closer

Cursed be your future wife

Lady, I want it to be you in my life

I really can’t stay

Now, Lady, don’t storm out

‘Cause it’s warm outside

Now this king is dead

Your beauty gave me pause

And you killed my Ed

Your beauty was the cause

If I thought that

It really knocks me flat

My nails would rend

Don’t even start to pretend

My sister will disown me

Lady, have you ever really known me

My father will spin in his grave

In life, he was far more brave

It will dishonor my husband’s life

A better husband for his wife

I really don’t know what to say

You’ve nowhere else to go anyway

You deserve your reward

Lady, if you think it best

Say, lend me your sword

Drive it right through my chest

It’s not in me to kill

Say the word and I will

I have already said

In your rage, but now you have a clearer head

I wish I knew your heart

I will inter this king

You lied to me right from the start

Vouchsafe to wear this ring

I’m glad you have repented

I’m glad you have relented

‘Cause it’s warm outside

Shakespeare’s Most Underrated Characters

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Over at Pursued by a Bear, Cassius put together a series of videos lauding Shakespeare’s Most Underrated Characters back while I was on hiatus. They’re definitely worth checking out. Even when you disagree with one of her choices, she makes a compelling case.

Still, she includes such “underrated characters” as Hamlet and Othello. And while I totally get that a character can be highly rated and yet underrated, a list like this is an opportunity to bench the starters and let the minor characters show their stuff. Basically, what I’m saying is, I want to play too. Now that I’m back, here is my list, with a hat tip to Cassius for the idea.

An old theatre maxim says there are no small parts, but below you’ll find some really outstanding exceptions. Some of them don’t even have names. If your reaction to seeing some of these is “Wait… who?” then I’ve done my job. But don’t dismiss them just yet; they’re on this list for a reason. Let’s start the countdown at 50.

50. Costard (Love’s Labour’s Lost) – With so many foolish characters in one play, it’s easy to overlook the actual clown. But Costard spins some impressively deft wordplay that puts more erudite characters to shame.

49. Pinch (The Comedy of Errors) – Just as things get about as silly as you think they could get, enter good Doctor Pinch. While others suspect Antipholus of mere madness, Pinch tries to exorcize Satan from within him.

48. Fluellen (Henry V) – The Welsh captain may speak his bombast with a funny accent, but he’s not a man to be trifled with. He bravely leads his troops into battle, and handles himself ably in private matters as well.

47. The Scottish Doctor (Macbeth) – A doctor is brought in to cure Lady Macbeth’s madness. Sadly, modern psychiatric practice would be far beyond the reach of Shakespeare’s England, let alone Macbeth’s Scotland.

46. Peter Quince (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – It can’t be easy to construct a troupe of actors from weavers and tailors, but this is one carpenter who is up to the task. Ah, the joys of community theatre.

45. Antipholus of Ephesus (The Comedy of Errors) – The other three twins may have more stage time, but the funniest moments of the play come from the misfortunes that befall the local Antipholus.

44. Corin (As You Like It) – The old forest-dwelling shephard councils the younger love-struck Silvius, matches wits with Touchstone, and reminds us that courtly life isn’t better than the simple life, just different.

43. Antonio (Twelfth Night) – Sebastian’s savior and friend mentions that he happens to be a wanted criminal. But his love and loyalty prove to be powerful forces, as is his rhetoric when he thinks he’s been betrayed.

42. Paulina (The Winter’s Tale) – Hermione may have been the one to fake her death, but it’s Paulina who has to sell it. And sell it she does, without so much as flinching. Note to self: stay on Paulina’s good side.

41. Joan La Pucelle (1 Henry VI) – Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who led troops in winning great battles against the English, was a revered heroine among the French people. Of course, Shakespeare wasn’t French.

40. Oliver and Celia (As You Like It) – They seem like they’re going to be purely functional roles: Orlando’s evil brother and Rosalind’s supportive cousin. And then, boom, they meet and it’s love at first sight.

39. Chorus (Henry V) – The “muse of fire” prologue stands out, but the Chorus stays on the job throughout the play, adding vibrant imagery to expand the theatrical experience beyond the limitations of the stage.

38. Adam (As You Like It) – Rather than embody the bleak vision of Jacques’s last age of man, the spry Adam warns Orlando of the plot against him and faithfully agrees to serve him in exile. Eighty years young!

37. Pompey (Measure for Measure) – Not quite Pompey the Great, his bum is the greatest thing about him. Sent to prison, the former brothel bartender feels right at home among his old customers.

36. First and Second Lords (All’s Well That Ends Well) – This list has a soft spot for characters who aren’t even given names. The Lords are real characters that help advance the plot over multiple scenes. No respect!

35. Duke Senior (As You Like It) – A lesser man might be slightly annoyed by having his entire dukedom usurped. But Duke Senior takes “being a good sport” to a whole new level. And notice he’s not given a name either.

34. Charmian and Iras (Antony and Cleopatra) – When Cleopatra chooses to leave this world, she is flanked by her two most loyal servants – Iras just before and Charmian just after. Good help is hard to find.

33. Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby (Richard III) – Richard is so crazed with paranoia that when he accuses Stanley of betrayal, we completely believe the good earl’s denial. But wait… yeah, he went right to Richmond.

32. Archibald, Earl of Douglas (1 Henry IV) – “That sprightly Scot of Scots… that runs o’ horseback up a hill perpendicular” is outbattled by Hal, outwitted by Falstaff, and ultimately captured and released. Ah well.

31. Son and Father (3 Henry VI) – On the battlefield, Henry observes a son who has killed his father and a father who has killed his son. He thus realizes the heavy cost of the war, and his own responsibility for it.

30. The Thane of Ross (Macbeth) – Whether it’s victory in battle or the slaughter of your family, nobody delivers the news like the Thane of Ross, whatever his actual name may happen to be.

29. Roderigo (Othello) – Often overshadowed by the more dynamic characters in the play, Roderigo is a fantastic comic role. Hopelessly in love with Desdemona, Roderigo is an easy target for Iago’s machinations.

28. Iachimo (Cymbeline) – This “little Iago” deserves better than to be thought of as a diminutive derivative. But unlike his nefarious namesake, he never really meant any harm, and is honestly repentant at the end.

27. Lord (The Taming of the Shrew) – We remember Christopher Sly, but what of the Lord who devised the over-the-top prank in the first place. Actually, either one could make this list; they usually both get cut.

26. The Provost (Measure for Measure) – When the Duke realizes he can no longer implement his plan alone, he recruits the Provost, who proves to be an able accomplice. But why does he not have a name?

25. The Queen (Cymbeline) – She’s the classic fairy tale wicked step-mother, who even has the self-awareness to swear she isn’t. On her deathbed, she admits she never loved Cymbeline. It’s good to be the Queen.

24. The Earl of Suffolk (1 Henry IV) – He woos the young Margaret for the king, but has some grand designs of his own. “Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king; But I will rule both her, the king, and realm.”

23. Casca (Julius Caesar) – Other characters consider him dull, blunt, and rude, but don’t take their word for it. I find Casca to be witty, wise, and shrewd. Read over his lines and decide for yourself.

22. Countess of Auvergne (1 Henry VI) – Talbot takes a break from invading France to be flattered by the noblewoman’s invitation to her house. It’s a trap, but she ends up having him over for Freedom Fries anyway.

21. Rumor (2 Henry IV) – Best. Prologue. Ever. The living embodiment of Rumor brags about the damage he’s done, while seamlessly bringing us up to speed on what’s happened since Part One. Open your ears.

20. Simpcox and Wife (2 Henry VI) – They are almost the definition of small Shakespearean roles. But their scene is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Go check it out!

19. Mariana (Measure for Measure) – She shows up late in the play, and even then she’s no more than a convenient plot device with very few lines of significance. But then the final scene arrives, and … wow.

18. The Bishop of Carlisle (Richard II) – Richard is defeated, and Henry would be King. Carlisle protests vigorously, describing exactly what will result. As Shakespeare and his audience know, he’s absolutely right.

17. Antonio (The Tempest) – I have to admit that some of the nobles from the boat tend to blend together for me, but Antonio, who usurped his brother Prospero, stands out as the most cold-blooded.

16. Moth (Love’s Labour’s Lost) – Compare Don Adriano de Armado and Moth with Zap Brannigan and Kif. Note that Kif’s first Futurama episode was entitled “Love’s Labour’s Lost in Space.”

15. Mistress Overdone (Measure for Measure) – She’s had nine husbands (”overdone by the last”) and this clear-eyed brothel owner still manages to run her business like a professional.

14. Gratiano (The Merchant of Venice) – It’s okay if you don’t remember. He’s the other guy, the one who ends up with Nerissa. But he’s also a really clever comic character who can be a lot of fun to play.

13. John Talbot (1 Henry VI) – He only appears in a couple of scenes, but Lord Talbot’s son can display valor and loyalty in rhymed couplets like nobody else.

12. Thersites (Troilus and Cressida) – Shakespeare describes him as “a deformed and scurrilous Grecian,” and that’s just in the Dramatis Personae.

11. Lord Chief Justice (2 Henry IV) – Henry V’s harsh denial of Falstaff overshadows the new king giving a high place of honor to the constable who chased him down throughout his wayward youth.

10. Doll Tearsheet (2 Henry IV) – Falstaff’s favorite prostitute knows how to handle herself in a bar fight. She gives Pistol a tongue-lashing he really should have had to pay for.

9. Apemantus (Timon of Athens) – Oh yeah, I went there. But you don’t have to read the whole play, just check out the mother joke in the first scene.

8. Pistol (Henry V) – The loudmouth soldier tends to get overshadowed by Falstaff. But his bombast can shatter the stage when he’s ready to discharge.

7. Domitus Enobarbus (Antony and Cleopatra) – He’s a loyal soldier who abandons Antony only because he can’t support his self-destructive behavior. When Antony returns his treasure, Enobarbus dies of shame.

6. Arthur (King John) – He has few scenes, despite being an important character to the plot. He makes the list for successfully appealing to the heart of a man who has been sent to murder him.

5. Lady Grey (3 Henry VI) – After her side has lost the war, the Widow Grey bravely stands up to the new King. He cannot intimidate her, so he marries her instead. She’ll be Queen Elizabeth in the next play.

4. Sir William Catesby (Richard III) – We remember the evil machinations of Richard and Buckingham, but Catesby is there with them every step of the way, and seems to have no conscience about it.

3. Tranio (The Taming of the Shrew) – It’s easy to forget about Tranio. But while his master is playing servant to win his one true love, Tranio’s the servant who is playing his master – the much harder role!

2. First Gravedigger (Hamlet) – Often dismissed as merely a comic character, the Gravedigger gives Hamlet a chance to reflect on matters of life and death, thus underscoring one of the major themes of the play.

1. Jack Cade (2 Henry VI) – He’s an unlikely claimant to the throne, but his populist rhetoric has the power to start a rebellion at least. This is, I believe, Shakespeare’s most underrated character.

And finally, I invite my friends at Pursued By a Bear to join me in awarding an honorable mention to the most awesome, most minor character in the entire canon…

THE BEAR!

Kevin Spacey as Richard III

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

On Friday evening, I went to see the Bridge Project production of Richard III, directed by Sam Mendes.

I’ve always been a fan of Kevin Spacey, particularly in American Beauty, The Usual Suspects, and Glengarry Glen Ross. I was very much looking forward to seeing him in my favorite play.

He gave a fantastic performance as Richard III, but I thought the production took too many liberties with the text for the sake of their famous headliner. Take a look at an excerpt from the production script and I think you’ll see what I mean.

ACT IV. SCENE II. London. The palace.

Sennet. Enter KING RICHARD III, in pomp, crowned; BUCKINGHAM, CATESBY, and others.

KING RICHARD III
Stand all apart Cousin of Buckingham!

BUCKINGHAM
My gracious sovereign?

KING RICHARD III
Mine. 1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car I’ve always wanted and now I have it. I rule! But shall we wear these honours for a day? Or shall they last, and we rejoice in them?

BUCKINGHAM
Still live they and for ever may they last!

KING RICHARD III
O Buckingham, now do I play the touch,
To try if thou be current gold indeed.
I need to shape up fast: think now what I would say.

BUCKINGHAM
Say on, my loving lord.

KING RICHARD III
Cousin, thou wert not wont to be so dull:
Shall I be plain? I want to look good naked!
What sayest thou? speak suddenly; be brief.

BUCKINGHAM
Give me some breath, some little pause, my lord
Before I positively herein:
I will resolve your grace immediately.
Exit

CATESBY
The king is angry: see, he bites the lip.

KING RICHARD III
Let’s all sell our souls and work for Satan because it’s more convenient that way. Catesby!

CATESBY
My lord?

KING RICHARD III
Rumour it abroad
That Anne, my wife, is sick and like to die.

Exit CATESBY

Our marriage is just for show. A commercial for how normal we are when we’re anything but.

Enter TYRREL

Is thy name Tyrrel?

TYRREL
James Tyrrel, and your most obedient subject.

KING RICHARD III
Ely always said, “I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.” Well I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me are those bastards in the Tower.

TYRREL
Let me have open means to come to them,
And soon I’ll rid you from the fear of them.

Exit TYRREL.

Re-enter BUCKINGHAM.

BUCKINGHAM
My Lord, I have consider’d in my mind
The late demand that you did sound me in.

KING RICHARD III
Well, let that pass. Dorset is fled to Richmond.

BUCKINGHAM
I’ve heard we have the Marquess lost, my lord.

KING RICHARD III
Lose him? We didn’t lose him. It’s not like, “Whoops! Where’d Dorset go?” HE QUIT. Someone pass the asparagus, please.

BUCKINGHAM
My lord, I claim your gift, my due by promise,
For which your honour and your faith is pawn’d;
The earldom of Hereford and the moveables
The which you promised I should possess.

KING RICHARD III
I’m really thirsty. I used to dehydrate as a kid. One time it got so bad my piss came out like snot. I’m not kidding, it was all thick and gooey.

BUCKINGHAM
What says your highness to my just demand?

KING RICHARD III
That guy is tense. Tension is a killer.

BUCKINGHAM
My lord!

KING RICHARD III
I used to be in a barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois. The baritone was this guy named Kip Diskin, big fat guy, I mean, like, orca fat. He was so stressed in the morning…

BUCKINGHAM
My lord, your promise for the earldom,–

KING RICHARD III
Tut, tut, thou troublest me; I am not in the giving vein to-day.

BUCKINGHAM
Why?

KING RICHARD III
Because I don’t like you.

BUCKINGHAM
Why, then resolve me whether you will or no.

KING RICHARD III
Will you go to lunch? Go to lunch. Will you go to lunch?

Exeunt all except for BUCKINGHAM

BUCKINGHAM
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that, poof. He’s gone.

Top Ten Shakespeare Audio Productions

Monday, August 29th, 2011

In Shakespeare’s time, people did not go to “see” a play; they went to “hear” a play. Which Shakespeare play would you like to hear?

A few months ago, I wrote a post about my Shakespeare addiction that referenced the Caedmon audio production of As You Like It. Regular readers of the blog know well the extent of this addiction, but what they may not know is the degree to which that addiction includes audio productions of Shakespeare. Most people organize their mp3 playlists with different genres of music plus one “Spoken Word” category. My iPhone has a “Music” playlist, with various Spoken Word sub-genres, including several playlists of performances of Shakespeare. Given the hours upon hours I have spent listening to these productions, I am now pleased to share with you my ten very favorite selections.

Now, if this is your thing, you really need to get The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare. This is a breathtaking collection of top-quality productions of each of Shakespeare’s plays, directed by Clive Brill and with original music by Dominique Le Gendre. The advantage of buying the set is that you will then have the option to listen to any title you choose. But if you’re not ready to make that kind of investment into the eclectic world of Shakespeare audio, I can give you my own top picks so you can get your feet wet before diving into the deep end of the pool.

Standard disclaimers apply. These are based on my own preferences, which are always subject to change. I based my rankings on writing, acting, directing, production, and music. I limited myself to modern productions only, so you won’t find Paul Robeson or Orson Welles on the list. And I’m sure there are many excellent productions I haven’t listened to. Basically, these are the ten audio productions of Shakespeare I find myself returning to again and again.

And, in keeping with tradition, my top ten list will have twenty entries. Enjoy!

1. King Lear (BBC)

Directed by Glyn Dearman; Starring Sir John Gielgud (Lear), Kenneth Branagh (Edmund), Emma Thompson (Cordelia), Derek Jacobi (France), Bob Hoskins (Oswald), Judi Dench (Goneril), Michael Williams (Fool), and Richard Briers (Gloucester).

This, to me, is the definitive audio Lear. Gielgud takes a larger-than-life character and truly brings out his humanity. An all-star cast delivers solid performances across the ensemble. This is Shakespeare the way it was meant to be performed.

2. As You Like It (Caedmon)

Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind gives one of the greatest audio performances I’ve ever heard. If you’re a fan of the play, or even if you’re not, you owe it to yourself to hear this amazing production.

3. Richard III (Cambridge)

Starring Kenneth Branagh (Richard III), Celia Imrie (Queen Elizabeth), Bruce Alexander (Edward IV), Michael Maloney (Clarence), John Shrapnel (Hastings), Stella Gonet (Anne), Jamie Glover (Richmond), and Nicholas Farrell (Buckingham).

I wouldn’t really have thought of Branagh for the hunchbacked villain, but he does a great job leading a top-notch cast in performing Shakespeare’s classic history play. I never really knew how much was going on in this play until I heard this production.

4. Julius Caesar (Arkangel)

Starring Michael Feast (Julius Caesar), John Bowe (Brutus), Adrian Lester (Mark Antony), Geoffrey Whitehead (Cassius), Estelle Kohler (Portia), and Jonathan Tayler (Octavius).

I can listen to this one again and again. The exchanges between Bowe’s Brutus and Whitehead’s Cassius are electric, and Marc Antony’s powerful monologues are explosive in Lester’s more-than-capable hands.

5. The Comedy of Errors (Arkangel)

Starring David Tennant (Antipholus of Syracuse), Brendan Coyle (Antipholus of Ephesus), Alan Cox (Dromio of Syracuse), Jason O’Mara (Dromio of Ephesus), Niamh Cusack (Adriana), Sorcha Cusack (Luciana), and Trevor Peacock (Egeon).

Along his path to directing the canon, Clive Brill has a lot of fun with Shakespeare’s only slapstick comedy. Silly sound effects and comical music underscore fantastic comic performances by a brilliant cast. Remember, dying is easy; Comedy’s hard.

6. King John (Arkangel)

Starring Michael Feast (King John), Eileen Atkins (Constance), Michael Maloney (Bastard), Geoffrey Whitehead (Phillip), Trevor Peacock (Hubert), Bill Nighy (Pandulph), and Margaret Robertson (Elinor).

Michael Maloney steals this particular show, as the Bastard often does in King John. But strong performances across the cast have the power to churn the blood and tug a few heartstrings as well.

7. Macbeth (Caedmon)

There are a number of audio Macbeths to choose from, but I give Anthony Quayle pride of place. Mood-enhancing sound effects and strong performances across the board make this production the Macbeth of choice.

8. Othello (Cambridge)

Starring Hugh Quarshie (Othello), Anton Lesser (Iago), Emma Fielding (Desdemona).

Lesser’s edgy voice creates a dangerous Iago, who provokes a genuine sense of menace. Quarshie’s passionate Othello makes for a worthy tragic figure. Together, the two performances leave us with an unforgettable audio experience.

9. Henry V (Cambridge)

Directed by David Timson; Starring Samuel West as Henry V.

This is a stirring and creative production of Henry V. Vibrant interpretations of even the minor characters make for a consistently interesting and entertaining presentation of the well-beloved history.

10. As You Like It (Arkangel)

Starring Niamh Cusak (Rosalind), Stephen Mangan (Orlando), Gerard Murphy (Jaques), Clarence Smith (Touchstone), and Victoria Hamilton (Celia).

This is a really great audio production of the play. I rated the other version much higher, but I actually prefer Dominique Le Gendre’s music in this one. And for As You Like It, the music is no insignificant character.

11. Measure for Measure (Arkangel)

Starring Roger Allan (Duke), Simon Russell Beale (Angelo), Stella Gonet (Isabella), Jonathan Firth (Claudio), and Stephen Mangan (Lucio).

Here’s another one I keep revisiting. Beale and Gonet create sparks as Angelo and Isabella, Mangan is brilliant as Lucio, and Allan’s Duke never lets you forget who’s in charge. I think I want to go listen to this one right now.

12. King Lear (Naxos)

Starring Paul Scofield (Lear), Alec McCowen (Gloucester), Kenneth Branagh (Fool), David Burke (Kent), Harriet Walter (Goneril), Emilia Fox (Cordelia), Sara Kestelman (Regan), Richard McCabe (Edgar), and Toby Stephens (Edmund).

Okay, so Paul Scofield as Lear should be enough, right? But he is supported by a great ensemble cast in a well-directed version of one of the greatest plays ever written. Check it out!

13. The Tempest (Naxos)

Starring Ian McKellen (Prospero), Scott Handy (Ariel), Emilia Fox (Miranda), Neville Jason (Antonio), Benedict Cumberbatch (Ferdinand), and Ben Onwukwe (Caliban).

Okay, so Ian McKellen as Prospero should be enough, right? But this is another high-quality Naxos masterpiece – a must-have for Shakespeare audio collectors.

14. Henry IV, Part One (Arkangel)

Starring Jamie Glover (Hal), Julian Glover (Henry IV), Alan Cox (Hotspur), and Richard Griffiths (Falstaff).

I really love this play, and the Arkangel production does it great justice. Griffiths creates a Falstaff with his voice that has the power to rival his stage counterparts. Each scene in this production is like a little gift-wrapped present.

15. Hamlet (Cambridge)

Anton Lesser is the man! This time, he lends his distinctive voice to the Melancholy Dane, striking just the right balance between contemplative and bitter, between witty and mad. There are certainly other audio Hamlets, but Lesser is greater!

16. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Naxos)

Starring Warren Mitchell (Bottom), Michael Maloney (Oberon), Sarah Woodward (Titania), Jack Ellis (Theseus), Benjamin Soames (Lysander), Jamie Glover (Demetrius), Cathy Sara (Hermia), Emily Raymond (Helena), and Ian Hughes (Puck).

Again, I have several versions of the Dream to choose from, but I think I’ll take Naxos for the win. I’ve heard these words so many times, it’s an impressive production that can still make me laugh at them.

17. Richard II (Arkangel)

Starring Rupert Graves (Richard II), Julian Glover (Bolingbroke), and John Wood (John of Gaunt).

Let’s talk of Graves. (See what I did there?) He gives an outstanding performance as Richard, which is important, because – let’s face it – he does tend to go on a little.

18. Henry VI, Part Three (Arkangel)

Starring David Tennant (Henry VI), Kelly Hunter (Margaret), Clive Merrison (York), Stephen Boxer (Edward), John Bowe (Warwick), and David Troughton (Richard).

This is the beauty of the Arkangel series. You can listen to any play, any act, any scene you like. And sometimes, you just really need to hear the “paper crown” scene. When that day comes for you, this is the recording you’ll want to have.

19. Romeo and Juliet (Arkangel)

Starring Joseph Fiennes (Romeo), Maria Miles (Juliet), and Elizabeth Spriggs (Nurse).

Dominique Le Gendre’s love theme for this production becomes the theme song for the entire Arkangel series. Fiennes and Miles are wonderful, as you knew they would be. When you want to hear this play, hear this version.

20. Twelfth Night (Cambridge)

Starring Stella Gonet (Viola), Jonathan Keeble (Orsino), Jane Whittenshaw (Maria), Malcolm Sinclair (Andrew), David Timson (Feste), Lucy Whybrow (Olivia), Christopher Godwin (Malvolio), and Gerard Murphy (Toby).

Well, what can I say, this is my twentieth favorite. But it’s the best of all of the Twelfth Night productions I own, and it’s a great presentation of a fun play, so why not give it a listen?