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Introduction: All’s Well that Ends Well

shakespeare - January 10, 2010 in Introduction

To paraphrase another of his plays, Shakespeare’s decision to use All’s Well that Ends Well as the title for his play of 1602–3 is a case of protesting too much. The line is used twice towards the end of the play by Helena, the young woman who uses it to justify her possible “means unfit” of winning Bertram, the “hater of love” who spurned her. Her use of the ‘bed trick’, whereby Helena tricks Bertram into consummating the marriage by swapping places with the maid Diana, is perhaps more justifiable in the seedy Vienna of the contemporary Measure for Measure. But it sits at odds with All’s Well’s many folk-tale qualities: Helena’s quasi-magical healing powers, the parade of suitors, the girl’s quest to redeem a foolish beloved, all of which are intensified by an unusual emphasis on rhyme. When the lovers are reconciled at the end of the play, the King of France agrees that “all yet seems well”: for many readers, the conventional happy-ending is too swift and tidy to be believed.

The play is Shakespeare’s most faithful rendering of a tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron (which would also inspire plot points in Pericles and The Merchant of Venice), although Shakespeare continued his traditional imposition of a comic subplot, in which Bertram’s follower Parolles is exposed as a coward by his fellow French soldiers. This lack of adaptation is one of the reasons for the play’s failure to gain widespread attention. As with Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Parolles was more entertaining than the lovers to a Jacobean audience, to the point that the play was abridged and renamed in his honour.

Until the nineteenth century, much critical debate hinged on whether Bertram or Helena was more sympathetic, with neither coming out very well; indeed, many see the play as remarkably conservative in its sympathy with an older generation who successfully orchestrate what they think is best for their children. The fact that the text only survives in a corrupted manuscript is a further problem. Productions remain rare, but when the balance between traditional romance and social realities is struck correctly, All’s Well that Ends Well can be a satisfying play to watch.

Contributed by Jack Belloli

Introduction: Julius Caesar

shakespeare - December 13, 2009 in Introduction

First performed in 1599, Julius Caesar is remarkable for being one of the best preserved of Shakespeare’s plays, not to mention one of only a very handful on which we have contemporary comment: Thomas Platter, a Swiss doctor from Basle, went to see an early performance and found it to be “very pleasingly performed” and to include an “admirably” danced jig at its conclusion. That jig would have come as a stark contrast to the events of a play that concludes with the suicides of Cassius and Brutus and pivots on the moment where the conspirators strike down Caesar in the name of “Liberty!” and “Freedom!”. These events and others are taken from North’s translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, principally those of Caesar and Brutus, although critics have also identified thematic elements originating in those of Alexander and Dion.

The Rome of Shakespeare is far more multi-faceted than that of Plutarch, particularly in the way each character seems aware of Elizabethan interpretations of their actions. Brutus’ description of Caesar as a “tyrant” echoes, for example, a verdict delivered in Elyot’s Book of the Governour”. Such theatrical and cultural self-consciousness comes to a peak in *Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida, but is already present here in an obsession with representation and interpretation that spans the length of the play. The word “like”, picked up from North and found in such phrases as “like himself”, highlights the sceptical difficulty of knowing another human, whilst the deciphering of Caesar’s dream proves to be a crucial moment of the plot.

Since the performance seen by Platter, the play has enjoyed a great deal of popularity, and is still frequently performed today, often with a political message. Certain lines, “Et tu Brute”, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears”, and “The evil that men do” have entered modern popular culture, the last featuring in both an Iron Maiden song and a Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel.

Introduction: Henry V

shakespeare - December 5, 2009 in Introduction

Arguably Shakespeare’s best-known history play, Henry V is actually a highly ambivalent work. Some directors, Kenneth Branagh (1944) famously among them, have seen the play as a celebration of British patriotism, whilst others have emphasised the awful casualties of war, and Henry’s Machiavellian habit of, in Stephen Greenblatt’s words, provoking disorder only to repress it further.

Falstaff dies offstage, Pistol is humiliated and Bardolph hanged – but they make us laugh before they go, as does the French princess Catherine’s unsuspectingly bawdy English lesson, and the many accents of the British army. However, as in the three plays that precede it, the question of what it is to be a king dominates the action of the play once more. Wherever we see him, receiving the French ambassador at the English court, coldly stopping a coup at Southampton, delivering an ultimatum at Harfleur and a battle cry at Agincourt, Henry V is always in authority, even when, in a scene reminiscent of his youthful antics, he wanders disguised amongst his soldiers, asking himself afterwards “what have kings, that privates have not too / Save ceremony, save general ceremony?” These lines reveal the tensions of kingship as both a construction and an ideal, a tension that finds an echo in the structure of a play whose chorus endlessly iterates the need for the audience to believe in that other constructed illusion, the spectacle of the actors on a stage, tasked to “cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt”.

Contributed by James Harriman-Smith

Introduction: Henry IV, Part 2

shakespeare - December 5, 2009 in Introduction

No consensus has ever been reached on the precise relation between this play and Henry IV, Part I. With Falstaff, Hal, an anxious Henry IV, a tavern and a battlefield much remains the same, but something has changed in the quality of events. The royalist victory in this play is not settled in noble combat, but through a trick by one of Hal’s brothers; although there is laughter in the tavern, Falstaff spends much of his time wandering the countryside, returning to London only to be spurned by Hal with the words “I know thee not, old man”. Those words are spoken by the new Henry V, and the play can be read as both Hal’s final steps to the throne and a double elegy for the end of the older generation of Falstaff and Henry IV.

In a discontinuity between this play and its predecessor, a new reconciliation takes place between Henry IV and Prince Hal, this time fraught with Hal’s error of being caught wearing the crown when his father awoke. Hal consoles his father with the idea that he only took it in “The quarrel of a true inheritor”, a reference to the fact that, for the first time since the regicide of Richard II, the crown will follow a bloodline, and so it shall, in Henry IV’s words, “descend with better quiet, better opinion, better confirmation”. The dying king then offers Hal the advice of using a foreign military campaign to unite the country, something that looks forward to the events Henry V.

The nature of this play, as both elegy and anticipation, makes it difficult to perform as a standalone production and some critics have speculated that the strangeness of its outlook is the result of a lack of material left in Holinshed for Shakespeare to use. Nevertheless, its distinctness from Henry IV, Part 1, may also be seen as a virtue: the worlds of the court and the tavern are more distinct here, and each adopts a particularly distinctive idiom, be it the Hostess’ request to “Do me, do me your offices”, or Henry IV’s reflection that if the “book of fate” were seen, then “The happiest youth, viewing his progress through, / What perils past, what crosses to ensue / Would shut the book, and sit him down and die”.

Contributed by James Harriman-Smith

Introduction: Henry IV, Part 1

shakespeare - December 5, 2009 in Introduction

“So shaken as we are, so wan with care”: so King Henry IV, the former Bolingbroke, begins a play that remains half in the shadow of the regicide at the end of Richard II. The King worries about his son, whom he sees as a prodigal and liable to be supplanted by the far more brightly shining Hotspur, just as he, Bolingbroke, supplanted Richard before. Yet only one half the play is held in fear of history repeating itself, for those scenes in the tavern or out robbing travellers with Prince Hal and Falstaff are shot through with a subversive and inventive energy that is in stark contrast to both the anxious court, and the factious rebel camp.

At the end of the first tavern scene, Hal, alone on stage, proves that he is no prodigal, and instead claims that “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill, / Redeeming time when men think least I will.” That reference to time recalls an earlier speech by the imprisoned Richard II, portraying the King as guarantor of his time, and, indeed, this play and those that follow it probe the questions of what it means to be a king, and to what extent kingship is just a construct, made from rich cloths and language.

As the play moves towards its conclusion on the battlefield, the world of the tavern and of the court are often side by side, with Hal shuttling between Falstaff and his father. The royalist victory at the play’s conclusion appears to confirm the end of Hal’s ‘prodigality’, and his reception into the royal flock. Yet the audience will also remember Falstaff, uproarious in the tavern, cynical on the battlefield, and ending the play claiming that he, not Hal, killed Hotspur.

James Harriman-Smith

Introduction: King John

shakespeare - December 5, 2009 in Introduction

The Life and Death of King John is cited by Francis Meres in 1598 as one of the plays demonstrating Shakespeare’s talent and status as the English Ovid. It was popular throughout Victorian times but has been one of the least-performed plays in more recent years. It is, however, one of the most thrilling history plays, containing many of Shakespeare’s favourite themes, such as the juxtaposition of tragedy with comedy, and with legitimacy.

“The Bastard”, one of Shakespeare’s most colourful characters, is the illegitimate son of the dead Richard III. The play in fact revolves around the disputed succession of King John to the English throne after Richard’s death; he is opposed by the vigorous Constance, an early manifestation of the Shakespearean strong older woman, whose son has an equally valid claim to the throne.

Despite King John‘s relative obscurity, Constance’s poetic speech on grief – beginning “Grief fills the room up of my absent child” – is one of Shakespeare’s most famous; it may reflect Shakespeare’s feelings about the death of his only son, Hamnet, who died about the time the play was written. King John, like many of the history plays, often fails to get the recognition it deserves; it is both exciting and lyrical, and makes a rewarding read.

Contributed by Colette Sensier

Introduction: The Winter’s Tale

shakespeare - December 5, 2009 in Introduction

The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s last plays and distinguished as one of the most sharply divided ‘problem plays’, or tragicomedies, split between scenes of psychological tension and pastoral clowning, and concluding with an apparently happy ending. This division separates it from traditional ideas of dramatic unity and the 16-year gap between the third and fourth acts can make it seem stranger still. The play centres around two courts run by childhood friends, Leontes’ Sicilia and Polixenes’ Bohemia; the abandoning of Leontes’ daughter Perdita on the coast of Bohemia has been used as evidence of Shakespeare’s lack of education, as ‘Bohemia’ is roughly equivalent to the land-locked modern-day Czech Republic.

The Winter’s Tale deals with themes of sexual jealousy, patrilinearity and growth, joining pastoral fertility comedy with tragic culpability and deaths. It culminates with the most puzzling ending in Shakespeare, when Hermione – whether through magic or trickery, it is unclear – emerges from a statue, reborn. Study of The Winter’s Tale together with The Tempest is useful in looking at the fascination with artificiality and magic which enchants Shakespeare’s late work.

Contributed by Colette Sensier

Introduction: The Tempest

shakespeare - December 3, 2009 in Introduction

The Tempest is generally accepted as Shakespeare’s last complete play, with a performance date around 1611. In the 1623 First Folio of his collected works its novelty is probably the reason for its being placed first; its opening storm scene fronts the book, literally starting proceedings ‘with a bang’. The shipwreck of a royal party on an island anchored somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea turns out to be no trick of fortune, as we are introduced to the magician Prospero, the disinherited Duke of Milan, washed up on this island with his infant daugher 16 years ago. He has engineered this accident in order to re-assert his rights over his usurping brother before the King of Naples. He carries out a series of chess-like machinations on the board of the island with the aid of his captive spirit, Ariel, employing the natural forces of the island: music and illusion. The play is a comedy, with interwoven farcical scenes, and will eventually conclude happily, as the king’s son is promised in marriage to Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, and Prospero himself reinstated as Duke of Milan before renouncing his magic staff and book with a final and powerful plea for the audience’s forgiveness.

Although no direct source has been identified for the play as a whole, there is a fascinating relationship to New World discovery evident throughout. This has particularly been highlighted in the figure of Caliban, a grotesquely formed and morally monstrous inhabitant of the island, once its master, now Prospero’s slave. For many critics he represents a certain view of the native populations of newly colonised lands in the Americas. Shakespeare’s evident use of passages taken from Michel de Montaigne’s essay Des Canibales, newly available in English, evokes the most idealistic images of the New world, as a new Eden. There is a clear tension at work between this ideal and any form of political reality – at the very least there appears to be an open question about the nature and validity of sovereignty and enslavement.

Other dichotomies brought into play surround the early modern (and particularly Jacobean) fascination with magic. Prospero seems to stand for a kind of erudite sorcery, closely related perhaps to neoplatonic magicians such as Agrippa. By contrast, the island itself seems to spontaneously produce supernatural experiences, and Caliban’s mother was a witch in the more generally accepted sense. Furthermore, we cannot really speak of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ magic, for Prospero at times seems himself corrupted by power. The parallel drawn between his charms and the ‘spell’ cast over a theatre audience also raises questions about the whole mimetic operation of the theatre. All Prospero’s various wrongs are righted by his “deliver all” of freeing Ariel and sending the royal party home.

However, the Prospero’s epilogue to the play surpsises us by revealing that the last (and unexpected) prisoner of the play is the theatrical magician himself, whose sovereignty is suddenly dependent on the release of the audience’s mercy. The final plea of his epilogue uses an image that draws as much on the theological language of absolution as that of political imprisonment: “As you from crimes would pardon’d be/From your indulgence set me free”. This idea of an appeal to the divine through an appeal to the audience brings out the commonality of the artistic creation, enacted through the ministration of spectator and actor, just as mercy is through priest and sinner, or politics through king and subject, but all vitally owe their power to that which surpasses all charms: the Divine. This final note seems a fitting one for Shakespeare to close his many meditations on power, guilt and the nature of theatre itself.

With influences from the masque tradition, this play would later prove a popular subject for operatic adaptations from the 17th century, including one by Henry Purcell’s. Whilst recent productions (notably the RSC’s 2008–9 co-production with The Baxter Theatre Company, Capetown) have continued to emphasise the colonial themes, there has been increasing attention to other less politicised aspects of the play as well. Besides studies on forgiveness, on magic, and on stagecraft itself, recent work on Shakespeare and music has particularly used The Tempest to comment on the Bard’s evident awareness and appreciation for this element of theatrical production.

Contributed by Arabella Milbank

Introduction: Twelfth Night

shakespeare - November 19, 2009 in Introduction

Reliant as it is on cross-dressing, identical twins and plenty of fast-moving wordplay, Twelfth Night looks like the archetypal Shakespeare comedy – but one which begins with two characters mourning for their lost brothers and ends with another swearing revenge “on the whole pack of you”. Shakespeare gives the last words to Feste the clown, whose world-weary song about “the wind and the rain” perhaps reflects Shakespeare’s own weariness with traditional comedy, as he moves onto the greyer shades of the problem plays and late romances.

The play reworks the case of confused twins from The Comedy of Errors but, partly inspired by Barnabe Rich’s short story Of Apollonius and Silla, the twins are no longer of the same gender and Shakespeare piercingly explores the embarrassment this brings. While disguised as Cesario, Viola cannot quite believe that Olivia, whom she is courting on behalf of Duke Orsino, has been “charm’d” by her superficial “outside” appearance. Many contemporary productions of the play have taken this embarrassment even further: the ambiguous nature of Antonio’s wish to be “servant” to Viola’s brother Sebastian has been exploited and, in 2002, the RSC’s Olivia could not resist one last kiss from Viola even when revealed as a man.

However, the characters of the play’s subplot, in which Olivia’s condescending steward Malvolio is tricked by the rest of her household, not only get more lines than the principal parts, but were also responsible for the play’s contemporary popularity. The play was briefly retitled Malvolio and a poem of 1640 describes how “the Cockpit galleries, boxes are all full / to hear Malvolio, that cross-gartered gull”. After a lull in popularity during the Restoration, the play returned to critical attention when Lamb realised that Malvolio’s priggishness could in fact be founded on a tragic “sense of worth”. Certainly the character’s imprisonment on account of his madness in Act IV betrays the hand of a playwright soon to produce Hamlet.

Although the title refers to the Feast of the Epiphany and its subversive revelry, the characters are said to be affected by “midsummer madness” and there is no evidence that the play was written for the feast – the first recorded performance was in February 1602. In many ways, its subtitle What You Will suits it better: it is the play’s self-conscious refusal to signal a definitive message that has kept it fresh for directors, critics and audiences.

Contributed by Jack Belloli

Introduction: Titus Andronicus

shakespeare - November 19, 2009 in Introduction

Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s first Classical play, written in the early 1590′s, and his first tragedy. It has obvious classical influences, notably from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is discussed onstage, and from Seneca’s graphic tragedies written in Neronian Rome. It has sometimes been criticised as immature and unsubtle, some Victorian critics even dismissing the play as not Shakespeare’s. In more recent times, though, it has been appreciated as a valuable predecessor to the grand tragedies written in the second half of his career and in its time it was massively popular. Titus Andronicus is, roughly speaking, a revenge tragedy, its lurid gore expressing itself in a catalogue of rapes, mutilations, human sacrifice, murder, live burial and cannibalism. Titus and his opposite, the Goth queen Tamora, strike back and forth at each other in a manner made typical in Jacobean revenge tragedy, but shocking for a reader of Shakespeare’s more subtle tragedies. Likewise, Aaron, the Moor or black character in this tragedy, is – in sharp contrast to Othello – a figure of almost pure evil, cackling about the catalogue of inhumanities he has committed. However, Shakespeare manages to turn these moments of graphic horror into lyrical flights of beauty, Titus cherishing his mutilated daughter almost as a work of art.

Contributed by Colette Sensier