Thursday, July 27, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 12: Hamlet

Okay folks, this play marked the end of the BBC’s second season and I think it’s a good time to take a hiatus. I’ve done a third of the plays and I’m Shakespeare’d out for the time being. I’ll do the next 12 in a few months when I’m up to it. In the meantime, we’ll continue the Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist. Okay, so let’s jump into…
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, first broadcast May 25th, 1980
  • Possibly written: 1599-1601, possibly his 22nd play
  • What’s it about? College student Hamlet is called home because his dad died, and also because his mom Gertrude is immediately marrying his dad’s brother, Claudius. When the ghost of his dad tells him that Claudius killed him, Hamlet decides to pretend to be mad while he considers doing something about it. He finally kills Claudius, but not before several more people end up dead, including Gertrude, Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia, her dad Polonius, her brother Laertes, and Hamlet’s college chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
  • Most famous dialogue: Dozens of oft-quoted lines, but I gotta go with “To be or not to be”
  • Sources: Wikipedia lists many sources that have many similar plot elements, then says: “Shakespeare’s main source may be an earlier play—now lost—known today as the Ur-Hamlet. Possibly written by Thomas Kyd or by Shakespeare himself.”
  • Interesting fact about the play: Shakespeare’s 11 year old song Hamnet had recently died. They had named him after a neighbor named Hamnet, but that Hamnet was also occasionally called Hamlet, indicating that the names were used interchangeably at the time.
  • Best insult: The first of our 12 plays without any good insults! The best I could find was “What devil was’t that thus has conzened you” Even when Hamlet is yelling at his mother he never really resorts to invective.
  • Best word: “Marry, this is miching mallecho. It means mischief” Again, context clues fail me.
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I’ve only seen it once, in a fairly lame production in Atlanta called “Hamlet, Godfather of Brooklyn”. Of the Olivier, Gibson and Brannagh films, I actually prefer the Gibson, as Olivier is too neurotic and Brannagh too manly.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Derek Jacobi returns as Hamlet, Claire Bloom returns as Gertrude, and Patrick Stewart (with an almost full head of hair!) makes his debut as Claudius.
How’s the cast?
  • Jacobi at first seemed not that different from his Richard II, playing the part a little fey, but he gradually won me over. Lalla Ward as a desperate-for-love Ophelia is heartbreaking. Bloom is effective as a much-distressed Gertrude. Stewart’s performance is fascinating. His Claudius is oddly affable and unflappable: When he realizes Hamlet’s play is about him and says “Give me some light!”, he does not yell it. Instead, he’s calmly asking for a torch which he uses to examine Hamlet’s face. He doesn’t even yell “Do not drink!” Ultimately, it’s a fascinating way to play the character. Eric Porter as Polonius almost but not quite has us wanting to see him stabbed, which is just right.
How’s the direction by Rodney Bennett?
  • Apparently Bennet wanted to shoot on location, and when he was denied, he decided to go radically in the other direction, often shooting scenes on just a bare flat soundstage, calling attention to theatricality in a way that no other production has done. I thought that this didn’t work, and just seemed petulant on Bennett’s part (and I spent too much time trying to figure out why some scenes had some stagecraft while others had none at all) He does a fine job with the performances, which is the most important part of a director’s craft, but his avant garde approach to the imagery ultimately does not work.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Character’s Strategy Can Greatly Change How Sympathetic He Is.

In both comedies and tragedies, Shakespeare frequently has characters decide to stage overly-elaborate tricks to accomplish their ends, when direct action would have solved things much more easily. In the tragedies, this often leads to unnecessary deaths. In this play, why does Hamlet feign madness? His goal during this section of the play seems to be to find out if his father’s ghost was actually a demon trying to trick him. He seems to think that feigning madness will put him in a position to find out, but his logic is hard to follow.

Of course, one way to play it is that Hamlet has actually been driven mad by seeing his father’s ghost, and only pretends to be pretending it. Jacobi seems far more genuinely mad than Olivier, Gibson or Brannagh and that works well. It’s easy to see him as bipolar, and the business with the ghost triggers a manic episode.

One big difference in the way this was played than what I was used to is Act III, scene i, where Ophelia walks in on the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, and he acts quite insane with her, shouting “Get thee to a nunnery” over and over. Shakespeare reveals at the end of this speech that Polonius and Claudius have been listening in the whole time, but he leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not Hamlet knew that.

I feel like, in most of the versions I’ve seen, Hamlet clearly knows they’re there. At one point, he suddenly asks Ophelia, out of nowhere “Where’s your father?” and she says he’s at home. This often happens after Polonius has made some noise in his hiding place, and Hamlet knows exactly where he is.

But in this production, neither Hamlet nor Ophelia seem to have any idea that anybody is listening in. This is a huge difference, because if Hamlet knows they’re there, then there’s a method in his madness: He has to torment Ophelia to pull off his deception of her father and king. But if he doesn’t know, then he’s just being needlessly sadistic, pushing his masquerade way too far …or he’s genuinely mad.

Jacobi and Bennet have crafted a fairly unsympathetic Hamlet, which is a brave choice. The staging takes away Hamlet’s cunning and presents him as something far worse. Jacobi could not be more volatile, which makes his performance riveting (which is good, because the full-text production is almost four hours long.) I would say this is the strongest of the four filmed Hamlet performances I’ve seen.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 11: The Tempest

The Tempest, first broadcast February 27th, 1980
  • Possibly written: 1610 or 1611, probably his 36th play and the final one he wrote without a co-writer. When Prospero says “Our revels are now ended” this seems to be Shakespeare saying good-bye
  • What’s it about? Wizard Prospero lives exiled on an island with his teenage daughter Miranda, but when his old political enemies happen to pass by on a boat, he summons a storm to wreck their ship, then has his two slaves, magical Ariel and bestial Caliban, mess with them for a while. He sets his daughter up to marry the son of the king, then confronts everyone, settles all scores, and agrees to return home with them.
  • Most famous dialogue: Many to choose from:
    • Hell is empty and all the devils are here
    • Our revels now are ended.
    • We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
    • O brave new world that has such people in’t.
  • Sources: Is it possible—A play where Shakespeare actually just made up the plot? Quoth Wikipedia: “There is no obvious single origin for the plot of The Tempest; it appears to have been created with several sources contributing, chiefly William Strachey’s “Letter to an Excellent Lady”. Since source scholarship began in the eighteenth century, researchers have suggested passages from “Naufragium” (“The Shipwreck”), one of the colloquies in Erasmus’s Colloquia Familiaria (1518), and Richard Eden's 1555 translation of Peter Martyr’s De orbo novo (1530).”
  • Interesting fact about the play: Shakespeare seems to be giving a cheeky shout-out to the audience at his Globe theater when he has Prospero say “The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,” but was he? Of all the plays in the First Folio, this has the most stage directions, seemingly from Shakespeare himself, and the stage directions indicate it was staged at Blackfriars, not the Globe.
  • Best insult:
    • A pox o’ your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!
    • Though deboshed fish thou
    • Most wicked sir, whom to call brother would infect my mouth
  • Best word: chirurgeonly
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I saw an excellent production at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, about which I’ll say more below. Peter Greenaway’s bizarre Prospero’s Books is excellent. I’ve never seen the other film versions, though I love Paul Mazursky and am very interested in seeing his version (with young Molly Ringwald as Miranda!)
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Nigel Hawthorne plays Stephano. John Gielgud was supposed to play Prospero but they couldn’t work it out. He went on to play the part in Prospero’s Books.
How’s the cast?
  • Michael Horden is excellent as a cruel-but-tired Prospero. Pippa Guard as Miranda doesn’t look 15, but she’s fine as a na├»ve romantic lead. Warren Clarke wears an ape-like (furry, naked) costume as Caliban (which is common, though the dialogue describes him as more fish-like) and doesn’t do much to imbue the character with the righteous dignity that other productions grant him. David Dixon is nicely odd as Ariel (very golden and homoerotic.)
How’s the direction by John Gorrie?
  • Again, it would have been wonderful to shoot this on real beaches, but the bleak and expressionistic sets are excellent. For the first time in this series, we have a ton of special effects, which, of course, have not aged exceptionally well, but they do make for a lively production. As with Twelfth Night, there’s lots of music, but this one also has lots of dance, well choreographed.
Rulebook Casefile: Reckon with Real Life National Pain

As Shakespeare was writing this play, the greatest crime in human history, the transatlantic slave trade, was well underway, and Shakespeare had had little to say about it. The only play where he mentions America, bizarrely, is Comedy of Errors, which is set in Roman times. Of course, he had written Othello which dealt with racism, but this is the only play where he (finally) reckons with slavery.

As with so many other political subjects, the surface reading of the play implies that Shakespeare was a man of his time, with views on the subject that have not aged well. Ariel is the good slave, persistently asking for his freedom, but determined to win it by being a perfect servant. He proves the value of this approach and is freed. Caliban (a near anagram of Cannibal) is the bad slave, rebellious, given to drink, attempting to rape his master’s daughter, and desirous of armed rebellion. (Miranda regrets teaching him to read, which only made him worse) He is last seen being led away, seemingly still enslaved.

But, as with all of his plays, the subtext is so rich and the characters so thoroughly humanized that each age can find fertile ground to bring entirely new interpretations. In the Marcus Garvey Park production I saw, Caliban was clearly the long-suffering anti-hero of the play. When all the Europeans leave at the end, Caliban put on Prospero’s cloak, took up his staff, and finally got to rule, to much applause.

Shakespeare remains the world’s greatest playwright, all these years later, because his plays contain so many multitudes. He had a lot to say about good and evil, men and women, master and slave, and every other dichotomy, but he’s always ambiguous in how he says it. There’s a wonderful text and even more wonderful subtext that gives director and cast endless space to play.

Rulebook Casefile: All Stories Must Climax

The big problem with “The Tempest” is that it’s so anticlimactic. Prospero has a genuine beef and has desired nothing but revenge for years, but when he finally gets a chance to confront everyone in Act V, he instantly forgives everyone and they make buddy-buddy with him.

If something unexpected had happened to Prospero to have melted his heart sometime in the first four Acts, then his final Act fizzle might have seemed like growth as a character, but everything so far seems to have gone exactly according to his plan. Since his expectations have not been upset by events, what has changed him? I think it would be a stronger play if Miranda and Francisco got together against Prospero’s wishes and their love unexpectedly softened and transformed him. As it is, he plots to bring them together, so that clearly does not upset his initial plans for revenge.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 10: Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, or What You Will, originally broadcast January 6th, 1980
  • Possibly written: 1601 or 1602, possibly his 21st play
  • What’s it about? Twins Viola and Sebastian each survive a shipwreck but assume the other has not. Olivia dresses as a eunuch and ends up working for Duke Orsino, who has her send his love to Olivia, but Olivia falls in love with Viola, and Viola with Orsino. When Sebastian shows up, Olivia happily settles for him and Orsino for Viola. Meanwhile Olivia’s servants play a mean trick on her officious steward, Malvolio.
  • Most famous dialogue: Either “If music be the food of love, play on,” or “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”
  • Sources: It’s believed to have drawn extensively on the Italian production Gl’ingannati (or The Deceived Ones), collectively written by the Accademia degli Intronati in 1531. Another source story, “Of Apollonius and Silla”, appeared in Barnabe Riche’s collection, Riche his Farewell to Militarie Profession conteining verie pleasaunt discourses fit for a peaceable tyme (1581), which in turn is derived from a story by Matteo Bandello.
  • Interesting fact about the play: In some productions, they have the same performer play Viola and Sebastian (I don’t know what they do when the two finally meet up and have a conversation at the end). They don’t do that here, and it’s totally unbelievable that anybody (and in fact everybody) would mistake them for each other. (One should note that there’s no such thing as identical male/female twins.)
  • Best insult: Go hang yourselves all. You are idle, shallow things. I am not of your element.
  • Best word: Once again, context clues fail me on both “How will this fadge?” and “Sneck up!”
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I saw an excellent music-filled production in Stratford, Ontario about ten years ago.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: The wonderful Felicity Kendal (The Good Life / Good Neighbors) plays Viola
How’s the cast?
  • Kendal is as delightful as always, and has a certain boyishness that almost makes it believable she could pass for a eunuch (but only a eunuch, which makes it odd that Olivia wants to marry her). Clive Arrindell as Orsino is maybe too glum. Everybody else does a fine job.
How’s the direction by John Gorrie?
  • If I had to describe it in one word, it would be “boisterous”, which is a good tone to set, but sometimes they talk a little too quickly, letting some lines get mangled: “But if he had not been in drink he would have tickled you othergates than he did,” is a mouthful if said at a normal pace, but is impossible to understand if it’s all said as one syllable. Gorrie oddly sets it not in a fairytale kingdom, but in puritan England. The costumes and sets convey that time ably and the staging is deft (Eavesdropping scenes are always hard to stage believably, but they’re done well here.) He gets great comedic business out of the swordfight.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: If You Can’t Put It in the Text, Feel Free to Load Up the Subtext

I again find myself wishing I’d done the plays in the order they were (maybe) written, so I could chart the progression of the queerness of them. “As You Like It” had an actor and an actress playing love scenes where the male character thought the female character was a man pretending to be a woman. This play has two actresses playing love scenes where one of the women supposedly thinks the other is a man (and doesn’t know that the man is pretending to be castrated? That’s not clear). The actors and actresses of each scene could be sued for negligence if they failed to acknowledge that at least some of these people are somewhat less than totally straight.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Let the Women Be Funny!

My wife always says that she can tell whether something was written by a man or a woman by whether or not the women are allowed to be funny. That’s certainly not always true –All About Eve wasn’t written by a woman—but she’s got a point about too often male authors giving all the laughs to the men and not letting women be funny.

This play has one of Shakespeare’s funniest women, in the character of Maria, who pranks Malvolio. She gives and she gets just as well as the guys, and turns the crank of the subplot (which gets almost as much stage time as the main plot) almost single-handedly. Usually the comedies trot out all the characters to get paired up, often randomly, in the final scene and all get married. In this case, Maria, who has been so pivotal and funny, doesn’t even appear at the end, but one character does mention in passing that she has married Sir Toby, despite having no hint of attraction before this. Shakespeare clearly doesn’t know what he has with her and doesn’t give her her due. At least let her come out onstage at the end, especially if you’re going to hastily marry her off!

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 9: Henry V

The Life of Henry the Fift [sic], first broadcast December 23rd, 1979
  • Possibly written: 1599, maybe his 18th play
  • What’s it about? The callow Prince Hal is now the ambitious King Henry V and decides to invade France on a flimsy pretext. He beats the French at Agincourt despite bad odds, then marries a French princess.
  • Most famous dialogue: Hard call between “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” and “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”
  • Sources: Holinshed, of course, and a previous play that we don’t know the author of called “The Famous Victories of Henry V”
  • Interesting fact about the play: The play has a man named Chorus who keeps apologizing to us that it’s just a play and he can’t show us the armies he wants to show us, so you’d think an adaptation would just do away with all that and actually show us all that stuff, but every adaptation has included at least some of the chorus.
  • Best insult:
    • “A vain, giddy, shallow, humorous youth”
    • “Why, this is an arrant counterfeit rascal, I remember him now: a bawd, a cutpurse”
    • “The rascally, scald, beggarly, lousy, bragging knave, Pistol, which you and yourself and all the world know to be a man of no merits”
  • Best words: Theoric, bawcock, scambling, “Shall we shog?”
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I saw an excellent production in Stratford, Ontario during the Iraq War that painted Henry as a villain fighting a bogus war. For the scene where his advisor makes the case that he has a right to the French throne, the adaptors made it clear that he was stitching together several dubious accounts into one narrative, and it was impossible not to think of Dick Cheney. I haven’t seen Branagh’s film since it came out in the 80s, so I really can’t speak to it, and I’ve never seen Olivier’s. If I remember correctly, I saw Hiddleston in “The Hollow Crown” as Hal in the Henry IV plays but never made it to his Henry V.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Nobody much. Julian Glover shows up again in a tiny role
How’s the cast?
  • David Gwillim, returning from the two Henry IV adaptations, continues to do an excellent job. He is almost completely transformed from Prince Hal to Henry V, but when he hears that Bardolph has been hanged for looting, just a twinge of pain from his old self flits across his face.
How’s the direction by David Giles?
  • The chorus keeps apologizing for what he can’t show us, and he’s right to in this case because the production is quite limited, but Giles makes the most of his small budget and at least the war feels properly muddy. There are some tone problems, as I’ll note below.
Rulebook Casefile: Give the Audience What they Want

Falstaff dies off-stage during the first act without ever being seen in this play, which seems odd. Shakespeare likes him so much that he wrote him another sequel set hundreds of years later (Merry Wives of Windsor), but didn’t use him here, where he actually had a role to play? Brannagh disagreed, and included Falstaff, played by Robbie Coltrane, one of many reasons I’d love to see that film again.

Rulebook Casefile: Crafting Happy Endings

As with Henry VIII, this is another case of creating a happy ending by choosing a convenient place to end the play. In truth, the war dragged on and got bogged down in the mud until Henry died of dysentery and then everybody quickly forgot about his whole crazy scheme.

Rulebook Casefile: The Ultimate Deus Ex Machina

It’s silly that the word “archer” never appears in the play. The English victory (which is vastly overstated) is credited simply to God’s preference for the English, not superior tactics, which is unlike Shakespeare, who, in the rest of the Henriad, shows that God helps those that help themselves.

Rulebook Casefile: Read the Room, Dude

Shakespeare was justly famous for his deft juggling of tones, having at least some hint of humor and tragedy in almost every play, no matter how otherwise serious or comedic they were. But occasionally, even he could badly misfire. This play has the most ghoulishly misjudged moment we’ve seen so far. At one point, all of the boys who have come along on the campaign are slaughtered by the French, and two characters come across the bloody corpse, right there on stage, of a boy we’ve come to love, but then, while waiting for Henry to arrive, engage in an unrelated comedic conversation over the boy’s remains.

I forget how they handled this in the Stratford production, or how Brannagh handled it. I suspect that they both just cut it. The BBC productions are admirable is their attempt to show most of the plays totally uncut, even this atrocious mistake on Shakespeare’s part.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Let Them Wonder If It’s Worth It

More than any play we’ve seen so far, this one gives the director the most latitude to stage the play with wildly different interpretations. 

When in disguise as a commoner, Henry gets an earful from his soldiers about the king’s burden: “But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make; when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it, whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.”

That speech makes this a great play. Shakespeare himself seems to approve of Henry, but he was too great a playwright not to leave open another interpretation. In the previous two plays Hal engaged in petty theft, and was made to greatly apologize for it. Here he engages in mass slaughter and wins nothing but praise for it, but that speech reminds us to compare Hal with Henry, and wonder if the world would not have been better off if he stuck to petty crime.

Friday, July 14, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 8: Henry IV, Part 2

The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth containing his Death: And the Coronation of King Henry the Fift [sic], first broadcast December 16th, 1979
  • Possibly written: Somewhere between 1596 and 1599, possibly his 16th play.
  • What’s it about? Prince Hal and Falstaff continue to pal around but King Henry is getting sicker. More lords rebel and Falstaff is called into duty again, but this time Hal’s brother puts them down easily. Henry IV eventually dies and Hal, now Henry V, denounces Falstaff and banishes him.
  • Most famous dialogue: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown
  • Sources: Same as Part 1
  • Interesting fact about the play: Falstaff was originally called Oldcastle, but the actual man’s descendants weren’t happy, so it was changed, possibly after a few performances, to Falstaff. There was a real Falstaff, but he had no descendants so that name was safe.
  • Best insult: Once again, too many good ones to choose from:
    • that errant malmsey-nose knave
    • Why, thou honeysuckle villain!
    • Poor, base, mean, rascally, cheating, lack-linen mate! Away, you mouldy rogue, away!
    • You basket-hilt stale juggler, you!
    • He, a good wit? Hang him, baboon! His wit’s as thick as Tewksbury mustard.
  • Best word: Sortance
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I haven’t seen this one on stage either. See my comment last time regarding Chimes at Midnight and The Hollow Crown
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: The same cast is mostly back, but some new faces I don’t recognize.
How’s the cast?
  • Quayle and Gwillim get to have their falling out and make the most out of it. Finch has even less to do in this play, barely counting as a supporting role. The expanded roles, for Hal’s brothers, don’t stand out.
How’s the direction by David Giles?
  • Once again, it would have greatly helped to be able to go outdoors. Giles sense of cinema does not impress, but he does what he needs to do, which is to get fine performances out of Quayle and Gwillim. I will point out that this has the worst costumes of the eight I’ve seen so far.
Rulebook Casefile: Once You’ve Set Up That Something Can Happen, You Can Get Lots of Drama Out of the Possibility of It Happening Again

This is a fairly lame play for the first two hours, until Henry finally dies and Hal and Falstaff get to have their falling out. There are new rebels, but they aren’t anywhere as near as fun as Hotspur was in Part 1, and it’s a bizarre choice to have Hal’s heretofore unseen brothers put down the rebellion instead of Hal himself (though Falstaff does briefly get in on the action.)

Ultimately, we, and Shakespeare’s original audience, know the history and know that these rebellions aren’t going to get very far, but it helps that this eight-play cycle begins with a successful overthrow of a king by a lord. That sets up that it is possible, which helps juice the next six plays where it threatens to happen again, but the king holds on to power. Then those six plays build us up to the final of the eight plays, Richard III, when a king is finally again successfully overthrown, completing the cycle.

Rulebook Casefile: Always Get Their Hopes Up

By the time Henry dies, we’ve seen enough of Hal’s transformation to know that he’s no longer going to suffer fools gladly, but Falstaff and Hal don’t actually have much time together in this play, so Falstaff hasn’t seen the gradual change we’ve seen. Thus, when he hears that the old king is dead, Falstaff is overjoyed, thinking that Hal will set him up in luxury and he’ll finally have it made.  He’s in for a rude awakening in the next scene.

We always love scenes where characters get their hopes up, especially if we have reason to suspect that they’re actually doomed. We love to see potential energy built up, knowing it will be released in a devastating manner.

(Flashing forward, there’s a great line in the next play when the French overconfidently speak of the upcoming battle at Agincourt and say “If we but blow on them, the vapour of our valour will o’erturn them.” Oh, how we long for that overconfidence to get punished.)

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 7: King Henry IV, Part One

The First Part of KING HENRY THE FOURTH with the life and death of HENRY surnamed HOTSPUR, first broadcast December 9th, 1979
  • Possibly written: No later than 1597, possibly his 15th play
  • What’s it about? In this sequel to Richard II, Henry IV quickly breaks his promise to go to the Holy Land, blaming rebellions at home. Meanwhile, his no good son Hal pals around with drunken robbers, including Falstaff. When Henry has to go to war with a rebel named Harry “Hotspur” Percy (Yes, there are three Harrys), Hal and Falstaff step up and join in the effort, winning the day.
  • Most famous dialogue: Hard to say, either it’s “What is in that word ‘honour’? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’Wednesday.” Or it’s “The better part of valor is discretion.”
  • Sources: As with all the Histories, it’s mostly drawn from Holinshed’s Chronicles.
  • Interesting fact about the play: This was Shakespeare’s most popular printed text, with four editions released in his lifetime.
  • Best insults:
    • What a wasp-stung and impatient fool art thou to break into this woman’s mood
    • None of your mad mustacio’d purple-hued malt-worms
    • Out, you mad-headed ape! A weasel hath not such a deal of spleen as you are toss’d with
    • There’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune
    • Certainly Shakespeare’s longest insult: That trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that gray iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years
  • Best word: So many! Can’t choose between Vizards, Corrival, Pismires, Paraquito, Sarcenet, and Enfeoff’d.
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I’ve never seen it on stage. There have been several excellent adaptations, but I prefer this one, partially because it’s the only one that preserves the two parts. Orson Welles combines them and just uses the Falstaff scenes for Chimes at Midnight (the public domain VHS print I saw was so bad that it didn’t make much impression on me). The Hollow Crown, also combined parts 1 and 2 into one episode, and I had other issues with it, but Tom Hiddleston was excellent as Hal. My Own Private Idaho is an excellent modernization of the play.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Jon Finch reprises the role of Henry IV from the BBC’s Richard II. Tim Pigott-Smith this time plays Hotspur. Anthony Quayle (Lawrence of Arabia) plays Falstaff.
How’s the cast?
  • They’re all excellent. Finch, despite being the title character, doesn’t have much to do but continues his tightly coiled performance. David Gwillim as Hal already contains the elements he’ll need for both feckless Hal and brave Henry V in his complex characterization. Quayle evokes both great laughs and great pathos (as opposed to Simon Russell Beale in The Hollow Crown, who’s just a sad sack)
How’s the direction by David Giles?
  • Unfortunately, we’re back indoors for the rest of the series. Since the only two filmed outside were As You Like It and Henry VIII, that means we’ll never get any proper battle scenes, but of course they probably couldn’t have afforded that. Giles does the best he can with his stagey sets and things don’t feel too cramped. Of course, the real job of the director is getting great performances, and, in that, Giles might be the best director we’ve had. He also makes the wisest choice yet seen in this series of gong against the text, as well see below…
Storyteller’s Rulebook: No Matter What’s in the Script, the Director (and Cast) Can Decide When It’s Not Funny Anymore

In the play’s best scene, Falstaff and Hal are engaged in their typical baudy fun in an inn when they decide to pretend that King Henry has arrived to judge them. At first, Falstaff puts a cushion on his head and pretends to be the king, chiding Hal for his wicked ways but praising his friend Falstaff. Then Hal insists they switch places. When Hal plays the king, he is much harsher in his judgement of Falstaff, but it all still seems to be a rich jest on both their parts.

If you just stick to Shakespeare’s text (Remember, Shakespeare never wrote anything but dialogue) you could play the scene in such a way that the mood stays light both ways. But Giles, Gwillim and Quayle are up to a whole lot more here. The entire play, indeed the entire Henriad, is played out in this scene, as, when Hal-as-the-king is lambasting Fastaff, his jibes get a bit too pointed and the laughter of the room slowly dies away. Gwillim still maintains just enough mirth in his voice to play it off as a joke, but he’s clearly rehearsing for his actual turn against Falstaff, and Falstaff, sensing this, begins to seriously try to defend himself, though he has to pretend that he’s only pretending to do so. Finally, Falstaff ends by protesting: “banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” Hal responds, “I do, I will.” This could have been played in jest, but Gwillim is 10% joking and 90% ice-cold. Just then, the king’s men actually burst upon them and Hal is truly called to face his father.

Things aren’t over between Hal and Falstaff in this play, and there’s still a sequel play to come, but this one scene, though seemingly written as a merry jest, has been played by the director and the actors in such a way as to convey so much more. It’s a brilliant piece of directing and acting and shows how Shakespeare’s rich texts can be twisted into all sorts of new shapes, which is one reason he has remained so popular.

Monday, July 10, 2023

New Podcast Appearance: Suit Up! With Terrance Layhew

Hey guys, I hope you enjoyed Saturday’s Webinar if you had a chance to check it out! Meanwhile, here’s yet more content for you: I was a guest of the excellent podcast “Suit Up!” hosted by Terrance Layhew. We discuss my books for a bit, but then I spot a Bond poster behind him and we end up getting sucked into a side discussion about that, including my exceedingly unpopular assertion that Die Another Day is a top-10 Bond film. Check it out!

Friday, July 07, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 6: Henry VIII

The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII, first broadcast February 25th, 1979
  • Possibly written: 1613, making it the 37th play Shakespeare had a hand in (and the latest the BBC adapts)
  • What’s it about? Henry VIII divorces his wife Catherine of Aragon, arrests his no good Cardinal Wolsey, marries Anne Bolyn (called Bullen here), and has a daughter named Elizabeth. Seemingly, he and Anne and Elizabeth live happily ever after.
  • Most famous dialogue: Not much, but Wolsey, when lamenting his downfall, gives us the phrase “a killing frost”:
  • Sources: This play is sometimes described as a History, sometimes as just a Tragedy, and sometimes left out of Shakespeare’s canon altogether. Like the Histories it’s based on Holinshed’s Chronicles and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
  • Interesting fact about the play: Shakespeare had seemingly retired with The Tempest, and indeed that’s the last play for which he has solo writing credit, but a year later, his successor as the principle playwright of The King’s Men, John Fletcher, convinced him to come out of retirement long enough to co-write this play. Oddly, the BBC decided that this counted as a Shakespeare play and ended their first season with it, but declined to adapt the second play credited to both Shakespeare and Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen, decreeing that to not be real Shakespeare. This play is most infamous for being the one that burned down the original Globe theater, when a cannon set the thatched roof on fire.
  • Best insult: (after listing many condemnations against Wolsey) Many more there are, which, since they are of you, and odious, I will not taint my mouth with.
  • Best word: None stood out to me.
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I have never seen or read this play before now.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Julian Glover (The only man to play the main villain in a Bond movie, an Indiana Jones movie, and a Doctor Who serial) as Buckingham, Claire Bloom as Catherine of Aragon, John Rhys-Davies in a small role as Capucius.
How’s the cast?
  • Bloom is excellent and totally steals the play, making this a play about Catherine’s mistreatment by both Wolsey and Henry. Timothy West is great at both Wolsey’s arrogance and his bitter regret when he gets his comeuppance. John Stride plays Henry as a total cypher. He seems to have no opinion about the rightness or wrongness of Henry’s actions, which greatly harms the production.
How’s the direction by Kevin Billington?
  • Obviously, we have to blame Billington for not coaxing more out of Stride, but other than that this is excellent. As with As You Like It, we leave the studio again and shoot in actual castles. Billington tried to shoot in as many of the actual historical locations as possible, which is very cool. The result is a gorgeous production. We’re reminded how drafty those medieval castles were, because we can see their breath both in outdoor wintry scenes and in indoor scenes in the old halls. The bad news: This was the production that convinced the BBC that it wasn’t worth it shooting on location, so the entire rest of the series will be studio-bound, greatly upsetting some future directors.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: Any Story Can Have a Happy Ending If You End It in the Right Spot

We have good evidence that the play was written in 1613, but 19th century scholars were sure the play must have been written before 1602, because it’s so ridiculously complimentary towards Elizabeth, so surely, they figured, it must have been written while she was alive. The play ends with baby Elizabeth’s christening, and the Archbishop suddenly divines that she will be a great queen one day (and even divines that she will die a virgin). Don’t worry though, he also can see so far ahead that he knows she’ll have a great successor, too, so James (no great fan of Elizabeth), need not feel too threatened.

Of course, this brings us to the ridiculousness of the ending. It is shown that Wolsey was behind the ousting of Catherine. He is eventually revealed to be plotting with Rome and exiled (Both he and Catherine die of natural causes very quickly after being shunned). In the end, Henry, Anne, and Elizabeth live happily ever after.

“But… but…” the audience splutters, “the story doesn’t end there!” Henry has Anne beheaded and Elizabeth banished! And he marries three more times (one more divorced, one more beheaded, one survived). If you know the full story, it’s ridiculous to end the story here, but Shakespeare and Fletcher’s goal seems to be simply to legitimize Elizabeth. (One way they did this was to rearrange history to have Catherine die before she was born) Having Elizabeth was, in the playwrights’ view, the one good thing Henry did, so with her birth, his story ends, happily. Never mind what came next.

Is real life a tragedy or a comedy? Well, every life ends tragically, in that the hero always dies in the end, but every life also has some spot where things seem to be going well, so any story, true or fiction, can have a happy ending if you just pick that spot.

Wednesday, July 05, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 5: Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure, first broadcast February 18th, 1979
  • Possibly written: 1603, possibly his 26th play
  • What’s it about? Duke Vincentio of Vienna decides to go incognito among his people and leaves Angelo in charge, who starts executing people for begetting out-of-wedlock children. When nun Isabella tries to intercede for her brother, Angelo demands she sleep with him. The Duke plays an elaborate trick on Angelo to make sure that justice prevails.
  • Most famous dialogue: Well, heaven forgive him, and forgive us all, some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.
  • Sources: One source is “The Story of Epitia”, a story from Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi, first published in 1565. The original story is an unmitigated tragedy in that Isabella’s counterpart is forced to sleep with Angelo’s counterpart, and her brother is still killed. (Shades of Dylan’s “Seven Curses” or Led Zepplin’s “Gallow’s Pole”) The other source is George Whetstone’s 1578 drama Promos and Cassandra, which itself is sourced from Cinthio. Whetstone adapted Cinthio’s story by adding the comic elements and the bed and head tricks.
  • Interesting fact about the play: There is much debate as to whether it was substantially revised after Shakespeare’s death by Thomas Middleton, including changing the setting from Italy to Vienna (which is an odd place for Shakespeare to set a play)
  • Best insults: Two this time
    • A man whose blood is very snow-broth, one who never feels the wanton stings and motions of the sense, but doth rebate and blunt his natural edge with profits of the mind.
    • This outward-sainted deputy whose settled visage and deliberate word nips youth i’ the head and follies does emmew as falcon doth the fowl is yet a devil. His filth within being cast, he would appear a pond as deep as hell.
  • Best word: Circummured
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I have never seen or read this play before (as will be true with 16 of the 37 plays I cover in this series). I considered reading a plot synopsis first, since it was not uncommon for Shakespeare’s theatergoers to already know his reused plots, but decided that no, I would actually learn the story in real time. I was able to follow along just fine and enjoyed not knowing how it was going to end until I got there.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Nobody’s a household name in America, but I knew some of them. Kate Nelligan (Isabella) was great in The Eye of the Needle and Tim Pigott-Smith (Angelo) was great in Bloody Sunday.
How’s the cast?
  • Nobody told Nelligan or Pigott-Smith that this was supposedly a comedy, and the play is all the better for it. They wring great drama from their deadly-serious storyline, though it creates quite a bit of friction with the more comedic storylines surrounding them. Only Kenneth Colley (Admiral Piett in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) as the duke has to go back and forth between the dramatic and comedic stories and he handles that ably.
How’s the direction by Desmond Davis?
  • Once again, it’s all indoors and stagey, but he manages to get some good walk-and-talks by building a 360 degree set surrounded by a cyclorama. The dungeon scenes are properly grimy (including a gruesome severed head) and the bawdy house scenes are properly bawdy. Similar to As You Like It, Davis makes no attempt to disguise Colley for either of his two roles, despite the fact that the character is interacting with the same people who fail to recognize it’s the same person. Perhaps a pair of silly glasses would have helped?
Rulebook Casefile: It’s Okay to Have a Happy Ending If You Earn It

Wikipedia says, “The tension in the play is eventually resolved through Duke Vincentio's intervention, which is considered an early use of the deus ex machina in English literature.” This is nonsense. First of all, it’s hardly early, as Aristotle was already complaining about how common they were in 335 BCE, but, more importantly, it completely debases the term to call this a deus ex machina.

As You Like It, by contrast, clearly ends in a deus ex machina. We find out that the bad guy, entirely off stage, has repented of his evil and restored everyone to their lost stations. Good fortune lands in the heroes’ laps, entirely unearned, just to tack on a happy ending that Shakespeare couldn’t bother to work into the plot.

Measure for Measure could not be more different. Vincentio already suspects that Angelo is evil when the play begins and plans his entire masquerade as an elaborate trap to catch him. He works hard to counter every move of Angelo’s and brings all the players together at the end to spring his trap with cunning and precision. Nothing lands in anybody’s lap.

Another issue with As You Like It was that it twisted its characters out of shape to tack on a ludicrous number of simultaneous marriages at the end. This one also ends in four sort-of marriages, but they’re all set up better. One man is allowed to marry the mother of his child, one is forced to marry the mother of his, one is forced to marry a woman he once said he’d marry and has been tricked into bedding. That just leaves one problematic pairing: Vincentio and Isabella.

Though she’s a would-be nun who has spent the entire play trying to maintain her virtue (presumably forever), the play ends with the Duke proposing marriage and her not verbally answering. A couple of pages later, the play ends. As with another play later identified as a “problem play”, All’s Well That Ends Well, directors are forced to decide what to do with a rather unhappy event that Shakespeare seems to define as a happy ending. Does Isabella silently consent (whether because of love, obedience to power, or self-interest) or silently decline? It all depends on how you stage it.

Shakespeare knew that the rules of comedy dictated that everybody end up together, but he couldn’t convince his entirely non-comedic character to verbally consent. He was too good of a writer to force words into his characters’ mouths, so he let her stay silent and dumped the problem in the lap of the directors and actresses (though the actresses were actors back in his day). This director has her take his hand with a half-smile, but it’s not at all clear what’s going to happen next, and that’s probably the best way. The result is neither comedically satisfying (to achieve that, he would have had to convince us they were in love) nor dramatically satisfying (as it would have been if she’d stayed true to her nature and taken up her vows). It is, instead, a problem. The problem plays are in vogue recently because we live in a problematic age, and the play’s ambiguous ending is considered an asset now. Modern audiences don’t like being told how to feel.

Monday, July 03, 2023

Sign up for my Webinar this Saturday! (or 30 days thereafter!)

Hey everybody, here’s something cool: Join me on July 8th at 10 am central for a Webinar about my book “The Secrets of Character: Writing a Hero Anyone Will Love”. It’s being hosted by the Writer’s League of Texas but anyone in the country is welcome to attend. You pay $35, but for that you get a copy of my book mailed to you, and you can watch the Webinar for 30 days, so you don't have to catch it live. Sign up here!