Archive for the 'Visual Arts' 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!

Shakespeare Follow-Up: America

Friday, July 4th, 2014

In The Comedy of Errors, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, while visiting Ephesus, are quite surprised that two women have claimed them as husbands. In actuality, they are the wives of the Syracusians’ long-lost twins, but our travelers don’t know this. Dromio describes his new-found wife as spherical, like a globe. Antipholus asks where particular countries can be found, and Dromio makes bawdy wordplay based on various parts of her anatomy. At one point, Antipholus goes somewhere unexpected:

Where America, the Indies?

USA! USA! USA!

But, wait… Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors in the late 16th century, over a hundred years before Thomas Jefferson was even a glimmer in his pappy’s eye. There was no USA. O, say can you see the need for a Shakespeare Follow-Up?

The 1492 expedition of Christopher Columbus introduced Europeans to what they would later refer to as “The New World.” But at the time, Columbus thought that he had circumnavigated the globe and found a new route to the Indies. Despite being in error about this, the islands he reached continue to be called the West Indies and the native people he encountered are still commonly referred to as Indians, though the latter title seems to be phasing out.




The earliest-known use of the word America was in a 1507 map by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. The Library of Congress has a digital version of it, and it’s really worth checking out. You can see how much and how little they knew about the “New World.” Most of what they had charted was what we today call South America, and very little of the North American landmass is depicted. At the top, apparently overseeing his discovery, is Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer credited for realizing that the landmass discovered by Columbus was not part of Asia, but rather an independent continent.

According to my Arden edition of the play (R.A. Foakes, ed.), Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors around 1591-1592, give or take a couple of years. For our purposes here, it will suffice to note that the play was written after the first English colonists set up in the New World (the ill-fated Roanoke colonists, arriving July 4, 1584), but before the first permanent colony was established in Jamestown in 1607.

So what did Shakespeare mean by “America”? The Arden note is inconclusive: “the only specific reference to America in Shakespeare’s writings; here, like the ‘Indies’ named in reference to its proverbial wealth.” However, according the Folger’s Shakespeare in American Life website, Shakespeare’s characters would refer to the New World as “the Indies,” as it appears Antipholus is dong here. So my best inference would be that “America” also is referring to the New World in general, and not necessarily the middle section of the North American landmass.

Isaac Asimov, by the way, is silent on this issue. He does note that, during this section, Antipholus and Dromio have completely abandoned any pretense of being from ancient Greek city-states.

The Declaration of Independence was signed in Congress on this date, July 4, 1776, and today is commonly celebrated as the birthday of the United States of America. The word “America” is now most commonly used to refer to this nation.

So… Happy Birthday, America!

Teach Along with the Frozen Soundtrack

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

So, you want to teach your students about literary devices, but they’re too preoccupied with the music from Disney’s Frozen? If so, this post is for you.

The Frozen soundtrack is actually full of literary, poetic, and rhetorical devices that you can point out for students, or have them find for you. Join me as I throw open the gates of Arendelle so that I may unlock its secrets and exploit its riches. (Did I say that out loud?)

“Frozen Heart”

This song introduces a number of motifs in the movie, including ice, snow, and the heart (frozen or otherwise). The lyrics use vibrant imagery throughout, and help establish the Nordic setting of the movie. Within the lyrics, anaphora is used as a device (”strike for love and strike for fear”), and there is a string of bold adjectives that form an asyndeton (Beautiful! Powerful! Dangerous! Cold!).

“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”

It doesn’t have to be a snowman, because the snowman is a symbol for the bond between the sisters formed during childhood play. The song passes over long periods of time, forming an ellipsis. The lyrics make good use of alliteration, and there’s even an allusion to Joan of Arc. The lyrics say “Tick Tock,” which would be onomatopoeia, though in the movie, Anna clicks her tongue to simulate the sound.

“For the First Time in Forever”

The title is a great example of hyperbole, and the song foreshadows later events in that it explains why Anna is so quick to want to marry Hans. “Stuff some chocolate in my face” is metonymy. There is an intertextual moment when Anna passes Rapunzel from Disney’s Tangled. There is also a juxtaposition at the end when she sings that nothing’s in her way before running smack into a horse.

“Love Is an Open Door”

The title is a great example of a metaphor. “Can I just say something crazy?” is actually a rhetorical question. The lyrics make a lot of use of repetition, both with Anna and Hans repeating each other and themselves. But they also have shared lines. (The link is to the Macbeths finishing each other’s sandwiches at lines 21-24.) There is also some good Tier II vocabulary in this song, if you were looking for some.

“Let It Go”

The song can easily be taken as an allegory, but for what will vary by audience member. The lyrics are filled with antithesis and rhyme (both internal rhyme and end rhyme). There are also some clear similes in the text. “The cold never bothered me anyway” is litotes, a rhetorical understatement. Also… Damn, Idina Menzel can sing. That’s not a literary device or anything, but damn!

“Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People”

Kristof uses personification to sing Sven’s part of the song, though in the movie it is clear that Sven is completely aware that its his part and what the lyrics are going to be. The movie uses the song to characterize Kristof as being less comfortable around other people. The song itself is doggerel verse that uses polysyndeton and epistrophe (”people will beat you and curse you and cheat you”).

“In Summer”

This is a perfect example of dramatic irony, in that the audience knows something that Olaf does not. A singing snowman is an example of anthropomorphism. The lyrics play around with oxymoron, and employ some puns. There is also an implied rhyme when Olaf says “happy snowman” when he clearly was going to say “puddle.” (The link is to a similar moment when Hamlet declines the rhyme “ass” at line 216.)

“For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)”

There is a lot of intratextuality here, not just with the callback to “For the First Time in Forever” but to several other songs in the soundtrack. The sisters sing in counterpoint, highlighting one of the movie’s central conflicts. The song begins with a flashback. And there is situational irony, as Elsa sends Anna away in an attempt to protect her, and in doing so, causes her a life-threatening injury.

“Fixer Upper”

The trolls employ an analogy in describing Kristof with a term of real-estate jargon, which is itself a euphemism. The list of Kristof’s faults is a form of proslepsis, as the trolls are listing faults they think Anna should overlook, while introducing new ones she might not be aware of. The song also highlights one of the major themes of the movie: that love has the power to heal each of us.

Shakespeare Clickbait

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

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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.

Theatre: Julie Taymor’s Midsummer

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

And I do have to call it Julie Taymor’s Midsummer. The famed Lion King director brings her unique vision to the Bard’s classic comedy, and it’s a match that needs no love potion from a fairy to make a connection.

The spirit world is vibrantly brought to life through a combination of lights, music, sound effects, and small children scampering about the stage. A sweepingly large white sheet frequently dominated the set to create a flowing airy effect or provide a grand canvas for projecting artistic visions of fairyland. The effects were often awe-inspiring and added to the magic of the play. But the spectacle was mostly contained to the spaces between the scenes, weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in. The scenes themselves were as they should be, an expression of the comic and poetic brilliance of the script by talented actors. And because the cast was in top form across the board, the supernatural effects were a welcome addition rather than a distraction from the text, which is always a danger.

Leading the dramatis personae is Puck (Kathryn Hunter), the impish impresario of other-worldy entertainments. Wearing a Caberet-style bowler hat, Hunter presides over the rest of the cast with charm and humor, as an auditor and as an actor too. Oberon (David Harewood) and Titania (Tina Benko) also deliver outstanding performances. They are quite simply gods, and they dominate every scene they’re in, including when they have scenes together. This is made possible by a starkly contrasting color scheme in their costumes and makeup, so each can dominate an entire realm while co-existing with the other. The White Queen and the Black King square off on a chessboard with human pieces.

Some of these human pieces include the young lovers (Zach Appelman, Lilly Englert, Jake Horowitz, and Mandi Madsen) whose actors breathe fresh life into the quarreling quartet. Midsummer can’t really work unless the four-way forest fight works, and the bewitched lovers are aided in this by a company of young fairies ready to supply them with encouragement and pillows. It reminds us that we’re watching a comedy, and even the fighting is all in good fun.

Interspersed within the magical and romantic scenes are visits to the rude mechanicals preparing their play. The ensemble comprises a mix of broad working-class stereotypes that somehow manage to balance themselves out. Max Casella steals the show, as Bottom always does, but his comrades-in-arms (Brendan Averett, Joe Grifasi, Zachary Infante, Jacob Ming-Trent, and William Youmans) each get a chance to shine, whether they play the Moon or no.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be playing at Theatre for a New Audience through January 12. This one is well worth checking out. And if you have kids, bring them. This might be the production that gets them hooked. Picture Broadway sensibilities mapped onto an Off-Broadway venue, with a script by Shakespeare and a touch of magic in the mix. Prepare to laugh and gasp and beam and cheer. And then, to awaken as from a dream, as your joy and amazement lasts for a few extra wonderful moments as you step into the neon glow of the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhood.

Theatre: Macbeth at Lincoln Center

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

My mother used to ask me how I could go to see the same plays over and over again.

And I think it’s a fair question. Much of the fun in experiencing a work of drama is in the tension and suspense. Not knowing what’s going to happen next helps to draw you in, and the unexpected twists and turns keep you engaged.

But with poetic works like Shakespeare’s, I prefer to think of them as I would a song. You’d be very happy to listen to the same piece of music on multiple occasions, especially when interpreted by new performers who add their own artistic craft to the experience.

So when I went to see Ethan Hawke play Macbeth at Lincoln Center, I wasn’t sitting in suspense to find out how events would unravel, but rather to see how a new creative team would interpret the poetic depth and emotional arc of the familiar story.

As it happened, they did so rather well. They performed the script mostly as written, and the few minor changes that were made were for the benefit of the audience. The lights, costumes, and sets added considerably to the foreboding mood of the production, without ever drawing focus. And so, while it was the same old Macbeth, it was also something new and wonderful.

Ethan Hawke gave a powerful performance in the title role. I know from Shakespeare Uncovered that this is a role he’s always wanted to play. Film actors always get ribbed by critics when they do the Bard on stage, but I can tell Hawke from a handsaw. I saw him years ago, also at Lincoln Center, playing Hotspur in a production that featured Kevin Kline as Falstaff. I’ve been impressed with him ever since, and thought he carried Macbeth’s sword well. Other standouts in the cast were Daniel Sujata as Macduff and Anne-Marie Duff as Lady Macbeth.

Director Jack O’Brien highlighted the supernatural elements of the play, and gave Hecate more of a central role. These scenes were the best of the production. I appreciated how he injected just the right amount of spectacle to sustain the slower moving scenes, but got out of the way for the meatier stuff. The witches remained omnipresent throughout the play, often playing minor roles or just showing up to watch their handiwork play out. This added an extra layer of cohesion to what is already a particularly cohesive play.

Macbeth will be running through January 12, so there’s still plenty of time to reserve your ticket. You may already know the song, but the singer is well worth the listen.

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…