Thursday, May 28, 2015

Richard III

Renowned as the most scheming, malevolent, murderous, sly, power-hungry English monarch of all time, history -- and history plays such as Shakespeare's -- have not been kind to Richard III. It may or may not have been a reputation well-deserved, but Richard has had one change at rehabilitation that any maligned monarch would envy -- the discovery of his mortal remains under a car park in Leicester in 2012, and their subsequent re-interment in Leicester Cathedral, in a ceremony solemnized both by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the chief Catholic Cardinal in England -- not to mention an escort of re-enactment veterans in plate mail, inflatable crowns for children, and a poetic reading by Benedict Cumberbatch (a distant relation). Queen Elizabeth II, perhaps wisely, stayed away.

Shakespeare, though he apparently accepted the conventional wisdom of his day, was drawn to Richard III and the intrinsic drama of a king who clawed his way to the top, and was -- for a time -- lord of all he surveyed, despite the congenital curvature of his spine (which, forensic studies of his modern remains have shown, was not so pronounced as had been supposed). And, in performance as in history, there are many Richards -- the inheritor of a sea of troubles spawned by the troubled monarchies of Henry VI and the Wars of the Roses, a man who sought to resolve issues of power even though he did not crave it himself, or a king, ahead of his time in this one way, intuitively sensed the relationship between power and display.

In Richard Loncraine's 1995 film version, Ian McKellen (above) gives us a villain among villains. Set in a vaguely 1930's era London, with authoritarian trappings that evoke Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, it transposes the play quite radically; we see an eight-minute montage of events alongside the opening credits before Richard speaks the first words of the play into a microphone, finishing them later at a urinal in the men's room. The cast is outrageous, with Jim Broadbent channeling Himmler as the Duke of Buckingham, erstwhile mad monarch Nigel Hawthorne as the gullible Clarence, a hammy Robert Downey Jr. as Lord Rivers, and a roomful of other RADA graduates who chew up the scenery with evident glee.

But is this the only Richard we might have? Could one, without violence to the script of the play, give us a sympathetic Richard, or even one we could actually like? It's been tried -- but somehow, when it comes to bunch-backed, scheming kings, a good deal of the fun lies in hating them. Like Lex Luthor or the Joker, we're not really looking for a multi-dimensional character.

So what's your impression, particularly from the early Acts? As always, reference act and scene numbers when applicable.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Henry V

Shakespeare's Henry V gives us the best of kings, the best of battle, and even a touch of comedic romance, all bundled into what may well be the most unapologetically patriotic of his plays. This is, in part, because of the dark troubles that preceded it in Henry IV parts I and II; Prince Hal is the lone Shakespearean monarch whom we get to see in the very process of coming of age, transformed from a young, impulsive party boy who takes advantage of his birth to dodge the bonds of law to a regal figure, an intuitive battle-leader and politician, who stealthily takes advantage of all who underestimate him.

At the opening, we see him still on the cusp of the Prince Hal/King Henry transformation. A gift of tennis balls from the French king in "lieu" of a promised  tribute -- galls his kibe. The scene was proverbial, the subject of a ballad that (as fate would have it) endured longer here in North America than in Britain. What will this new and untested monarch do? The audience immediately craves to know, and Henry's decision to go to war with France signals his readiness to embrace danger in order to defend his realm and reputation.

And danger arrives much earlier than anticipated, in the form of a plot to kill the young king by the Earl of Cambridge (his cousin), which Henry quickly quashes, foreshadowing his decisive manner with challenges yet to come. Further victories embolden him, and yet none is easily attained; as he readies his forces for what will become the Battle of Agincourt, he (and we) learn more of his inner mettle. Disguised, he walks among the ranks, both encouraged and dismayed by what he hears.

And herein lies a crux for all of Shakespeare's history plays: it's nearly always with the king that the audience's identification lies, and yet none of that audience -- or Shakespeare himself for that matter -- has any idea of what the experience of being a king is like. It's our idea of a king -- our notion of what sovereignty entails -- that fascinates Shakespeare. And so, just as he described Prince Hal's father Henry IV, we find that 'uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.'

And so, then, we share in this uneasiness. Looking at the play, up to the moment of its central battle, what stands out? What puzzles? What resonates, perhaps makes us think of the way power yet works today? Post your thoughts below, making sure to reference specific moments in the play as needed.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Willie the Shake

We've come to praise William Shakespeare -- and to bury him. Reading his works is thought to be "good" for you, but difficult to enjoy, like some sort of bitter vegetable (kale, anyone?) or pill; sometimes I refer to him as "Vitamin S." The songwriter Joni Mitchell liked to call him "Willie the Shake," as though he were some weird hipster poet or jazz musician. And he was all that: a poet, a raconteur, a capitalist who wrote plays for money, a dreamer, an improviser, a traditionalist, an innovator, and a clown. And far from doing all these things in any respectable place or manner, he wrote for the stage -- which in his day was delightfully disreputable, exiled to the south bank of the Thames along with whorehouses, gambler's dens, bear-baiting, cockfighting, and bad manners.

If Shakespeare were around today, he'd probably have written for television. It's a medium much like the stage, filled with an ample array of mini-serieses, sitcoms, docu-dramas, and costumed histories. And the idea that, four hundred years later, people would be studying the scripts of his plays would surely have astonished him, as much as it would us to imagine people in 2415 poring over scripts for The Wire, Breaking Bad, or Seinfeld.

In this course, we'll read just a few of Shakespeare's plays. We'll start with the rollicking Henry V, Shakespeare's most passionately patriotic play (Once more, to the breach, dear friends! Once more!), then the far more dark and twisted Richard III, a play made newly relevant by the discovery of its eponymous anti-hero's bones under a car park in modern Leicester, and his reburial just a few weeks ago. We'll then look at his classic comedy As You Like It, as well as the more complex, less funny, but more poignant Measure for Measure. With each play, we'll read on our own, but take time in class to go over the plot and main features, and discuss some of the more important scenes and passages. I'll also be asking you to view, on your own, several filmed adaptations of these plays.

Because this is a hybrid course, we'll only be meeting half as often as other summer classes -- one or two times per week, instead of four -- and some of our discussion will take place online, most of it here on our blog. For each play, there will be one or two fresh blog posts, with the expectation that, as you read those parts of the play, each of you will post your thoughts and comments. Once we meet, we'll set up a final schedule; if any of you have travel plans or other obligations, we will do our best to schedule around them!

I look forward to meeting you all at our first class -- please do note that the first day of class will be Wednesday May 20th (not Monday the 18th). You can also view and download the syllabus via the link at the upper right.