You are browsing the archive for Introduction.

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

Introduction: Richard III

shakespeare - November 19, 2009 in Introduction

Outstanding for its violence and striking for its postmodern preoccupation with prophecy and the supernatural, Richard III renders masterfully one of the most disturbing episodes in later medieval English history. Though its main character, Richard, was unlikely ever to achieve a sympathetic memory, this play almost certainly cemented his popular reputation as an evil, egomaniac “son of hell”, and its account of the murder of the Princes in the Tower has had a lasting historical legacy.

The crazed protagonist’s self-love – “Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I” – is communicated in a variety of ways, both blunt and subtle, over the course of the play. Richard speaks more than a third of the lines in the script and from the very beginning is essentially his own sole ally. Inspired by his ambition to gain the throne, he is capable of total heartlessness – he is ultimately responsible for six deaths, not including his own – and can cover his tracks through a troubling facility for the communication of outright untruth. Like Othello‘s Iago, Richard manipulates those around him through clever language and the exploitation of emotion, leaving in his wake a trail of guilt, grief and fear. Some of the most artful language and captivating tragedy in all of Shakespeare is to be found in this, the playwright’s penultimate history.

Contributed by Emma Mustich

Introduction: Antony and Cleopatra

shakespeare - November 19, 2009 in Introduction

Antony and Cleopatra is possibly the grandest of the tragedies and the greatest of Shakespeare’s Classical plays. Offering the playwright’s own slant on Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Life of Markus Antonius, and written probably in 1606–7, its epic sweep covers the fall of Mark Antony, one of the triumvirate of triumvirate of Rome’s leaders and a “third part of the world”. Antony evades his governing duties in the arms of Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, angering his supposed ally, the young “scarce-bearded” Octavius Caesar. The powerful imagery of the play gives full force to the scale of the tragedy and the enormity of its characters’ personalities. Cleopatra, queen of “infinite variety”, presents a whirlwind of ideas, visions, and faces onstage, and Shakespeare’s most magnetic, compelling and independent female character.

Ideas about the play have varied: is Antony and Cleopatra the tragedy of a once-fine military hero weakened and disempowered by his love for a fickle woman, his power misdirected to “cool a gypsy’s lust”? Or is it the story of a middle-aged Romeo and Juliet, who are fixed on “the nobleness of love” and are condemned for it? When watching, or reading the play, both realities swim into view. The opposing forces of land and sea, Rome and Egypt, male and female, logic and passion, war and love struggle and combine in this play to paint a landscape for the reader to get lost in.

Contributed by Colette Sensier

Introduction: King Lear

shakespeare - November 19, 2009 in Introduction

The last word on old age was written in the opening decade of the seventeenth century. Shakespeare’s darkest and wildest play, King Lear draws on the gravity of ancient British myth, to tell the story of a man literally driven to insanity by loneliness and regret after abdicating the English throne on account of his failing faculties.

Unusually, the complex relationship between father and daughter here takes the limelight from more traditional Shakespearean love stories based on lovers’ courtship. And the key moment of an uncommonly biographical play – Act III’s tempest – depicts man and nature losing control in harmony.

Indeed, the most interesting thread in this high Shakespearean saga is the author’s preoccupation with the boundary between order and chaos. As long as we retain a kind of regularity in our human relations, Shakespeare seems to suggest – as long as our house (or in Lear’s case, his court) is in order – we are protected from the cruel disorder of the outside world, the thunderous power of nature, and we retain our senses. When the rules of human relations break down, however, and we leave our literal or figurative castles to face the wind which blows and “crack[s its] cheeks”, cosmic order gives way to the wilderness of the storm, and men once high and mighty can lose their minds and the will to live. Haunting and raw, King Lear is the ultimate literary education in the nature of power and the power of nature.

Contributed by Emma Mustich

Introduction: Othello

shakespeare - November 19, 2009 in Introduction

The ‘otherness’ of Othello, when compared to the other tragedies, doesn’t just stem from the fact that it features Shakespeare’s only (and English drama’s first) black hero. In Macbeth and King Lear, Shakespeare would go on to use the rugged bleakness of ancient Britain to depict scheming kings bringing about their own fall. But the decadence of Venice, where women “let heaven see the pranks / they dare not show their husbands”, and Cyprus, where the “beguiling” Turks prepare “a couch of war”, help to establish Othello as a tragedy of passion, in which a man is torn apart by the terrifying intensity of his relationships with his lover, his enemies and society as a whole.

Probably written and performed in late 1604, Shakespeare took the story of a Moorish warlord moved to a state of murderous jealousy by his ensign from Cinthio’s Hecatommithi. While Cinthio’s story is relentlessly brutal, with Othello finally bludgeoning his wife Disdemona with a sandbag before being killed by her relatives, Shakespeare gives his a near-erotic level of intimacy – Othello smothers Desdemona in bed, before turning his sword on himself when his mistake is revealed.

However, in many respects, it is not Othello but the villainous Iago with whom the audience is closest. It is he who raises dramatic irony to unbearable levels by describing his “net / that shall enmesh them all” to the audience from the very first act. While the reasons for his actions, other than a desire to “play the villain”, are rarely clear, his command of both verse and prose never fails to captivate his audience, creating a seductive evil which would inspire Milton’s Satan.

At the beginning of the 20th century, critical debate raged principally over whether Othello an entirely “noble Moor” brought down by Iago or whether the “green-eyed monster” was always lurking within him. More recently, critics and directors have explored the significance of Iago’s class, the play’s abundance of misogynistic language and, the unavoidable question of race. Some argue that the play subverts the contemporary stereotype of the lusty Moor by suggesting that “the sun where he was born / drew all such humours from him”; although the use of blackface actors is now directorial anathema, many modern black actors refuse the role because of its inherent use of blackness as a mere dramatic hook.

Contributed by Jack Belloli