Hey, Blog Readers!
I don't use this blog very often, and have come to rely on it to give a taste of some of my newly published writing to my readers. Which means that I seem to post in it about once a year!
Well, today, I finally hit "publish" on "Shakespeare's Histories; Ten Epic Plays at a Breakneck Pace!" and am VERY excited about the early buzz that this one is getting, as well as the vast market that I think it will be reaching. It's great for Theatre classes, English classes, History classes. It can be performed as a play (either a one-man play, as I will be doing, or with a very large cast). It can be a great primer for audience members getting ready to tackle attendance at a history play… audience members who are tired of being lost and confused by those $#%&@ histories!
In other words, it fulfills a need, and I think it may reach far and wide.
And so, today, I want to share my introduction to "Shakespeare's Histories, Ten Epic Plays at a Breakneck Pace!" This should give you a sense of what it's all about and why you MUST own a copy!
But first! Here's the new cover! Illustration by Lee Rushton!
From the Adaptor/Editor/Explainer…
Here’s my take on how we feel about Shakespeare:
We love, love, love his Comedies…
We are profoundly touched and moved by his Tragedies…
His Histories, we’re not so sure about.
Oh, sure, Henry V, and Richard III, and maybe Henry IV, Part 1, those are pretty good…
But the seven other History plays? Not so much.
For his Comedies, Shakespeare’s “batting average” is probably up in the eighty-percent range, amongst those plays we would gladly go to see.
For his Tragedies? Maybe seventy percent.
If Shakespeare were a basketball player with a free-throw average of seventy-to-eighty percent, a sudden drop to thirty would be a sign of some horrible injury!
Of course we can examine exactly when these plays were written and notice that many of them emerged early in the career of this great playwright, so maybe that accounts for something.
But take a look at some of the amazing lines in these plays! Each play carries speeches of breathtaking profundity, amazing insight into life, death and, in this case, the challenges and perils of monarchy: speeches that stand confidently alongside the dialogue in any of Shakespeare’s other works.
So perhaps the difference lies in us!
Shakespeare, writing in the 1590s, was describing events dating back as far as 1300, but mostly those key events dating from 1400-1533. In other words, the bulk of the action of these works predated Shakespeare’s audience by 70-200 years.
Those same events predate our lives from 480-610 years!
The average American school-child can fairly easily describe a handful of events from 235 years ago (the Revolutionary War) and can probably give you thumbnail descriptions of some of the characters in that drama: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin… They probably even have a good sense of what those folks looked like!
Seventy years ago we were in the thick of the Second World War. With how many events and “characters” are we familiar, spanning the time from the Revolutionary War to the Second World War? How many events and people can we name without even logging on to the internet?
If I told a story about George Washington that somehow involved a Cherry Tree, that “Cherry Tree” would have resonance for ninety percent of any Americans who heard the story, whether or not George Washington ever chopped it down, or told any form of a truth or lie with regard to that tree.
If Benjamin Franklin alluded to flying a kite…
If Abraham Lincoln referred to a number as being several “score”…
If General Custer talked about Native American issues…
If Franklin Roosevelt talked about Social Security… or “fear, itself…”
In other words, Shakespeare’s audience came to these plays already armed with a significant sense of who these characters were, what they stood for, and what they did, and how some of those things got done. Also, growing up with a much stronger “oral tradition,” stories about history were passed down from one generation to the next, without the vast distractions that television or the internet would have introduced into the lexicon of stories that might have surrounded them. What they had was a tight, coherent narrative, upon which their story-tellers, playwrights, and jesters might embroider or improvise at any given moment.
In other words, these History plays, which currently live in our own experience with a batting average of thirty percent (only the most daring Shakespeare festivals risk their box office success by producing them) are quite likely much better than we give them credit for. We simply aren’t coming to the table armed with such a ready index of information about the characters and plots that are being spun in our direction.
If only we came equipped with the same background or frame of mind that Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience already possessed… it might well open up a whole new set of Shakespearean plays to our dramatic lexicon. Might it at least reinvigorate Shakespeare’s free-throw average?
What if we arrived at the table with the sensibility enabling us to appreciate Shakespeare’s Histories with the same ready knowledge that he provides in the self-contained plots of his Comedies and his Tragedies?
What if we simply knew the difference between Richard (the Lion Heart) Richard II and Richard III?
What if we knew one Henry from another?
What if we knew what the hell happened between the triumph of Henry V and the horrors of Henry VI?
What if we simply had a sense of the overall arc of the story that we were following?
Well then we might be able to sit back and enjoy the great embroidery… those embellishments which enrich Shakespeare’s great speeches.
We might, as in any horror story, want to cry out to the characters: “No, no! Go the other way!”
As many in Shakespeare’s audience surely did.
How to Read This
My goal, here, is to fill you up with as much of that necessary information as I can through the course of a single hour… okay, maybe seventy-five minutes.
That is to say: one hour of playing time! Performed full-out, this material can be expressed in sixty minutes upon the stage… by actors who are willing to commit to picking up their cues, or even overlap their dialogue, led by a Narrator who rips into the words with all the excitement of a great sportscaster.
I cannot attest to how much “reading time” this material may take. But if you want to get a sense of the action moving forward: stick to the right-hand pages!
The script, you will immediately discover, is on the right-hand side of these pages, while the left-hand side is splashed with notes interspersed almost throughout. I’m guessing that most of you, reading this for the first time, will ignore most of the notes and read the script straight through. And, I’m also guessing that some of the photos and charts will catch your eye in the process, and you won’t be able to resist glancing their way from time to time. (I’ve also included the original First Folio titles, for fun.)
Most of the portraits are of unknown origin, but probably date from the late-16th to the early-17th century. The artist(s) would have had no actual contact with the subjects, and may simply be improving upon crude drawings of those kings. And yet, a visual impression helps us to separate one Henry or one Richard from another in our minds. Anchoring a personality around an image lessens our dependency on the sometimes inconspicuous distinction that some very similar Roman Numerals provide.
Regardless, we may be sure that this will read much faster than the original, which, collectively, adds up to about thirty hours of stage time!
My intent is to create a baseline understanding of the narrative thread that holds these plays together: to give the reader/audience a clear vision of how Shakespeare’s audience might have received it, with a minimal investment of research time.
In doing so, this book hopes to make those other “twenty-nine hours” more productive for the reader/viewer. With all of the names, locations, battles and political strategies that hold these plays together, that tenuous through-line is very easy to lose, and once it is lost, the vague sense of “feeling overwhelmed” makes it pretty hard to claw our way back to understanding or appreciation.
Shakespeare may have had no idea that someone hundreds of years into the future might be reading this. Or that, if they were, they would need to know what in the world happened to Henry V, or why Joan of Arc is not a glorious heroine, or why Edward III and John of Gaunt turned out to be such crucial lynchpins in the Plantagenet family tree, or just how awful Queen Margaret turned out to be.
He also might not realize that you don’t already know that one of the Henrys goes mad, and that the Duke of Gloucester becomes Richard III.
Which is why he doesn’t explain these things!
Besides which, there were plenty of things that Shakespeare simply outright hides from us because saying the thing aloud would have gotten him into lots of trouble!
That’s a whole lot of information that you need to know, and I’m hoping to trick your brain into absorbing it.
That is at least part of the reason for the irreverence of my tone through this play. If I were to say that “The Duke of Suffolk felt an attraction to Margaret of Anjou, and wanted to keep her nearby, even though, as a married man, he was unable to marry her himself, which led to encouraging King Henry to marry her…” you probably have one kind of reaction.
But if I tell you that Suffolk decided to “pimp her out to King Henry instead…” you have another kind of reaction. I’m guessing that this different way of looking at this tangle of relationships will wedge its way into your head a little more vividly. Of course, I am counting on you, dear reader/viewer, having somewhat cosmopolitan tastes. (I am also making an educated guess that this is exactly the frame of mind through which the Elizabethan audience would have viewed this particular transaction.)
I offer what I intend to be a humorous perspective on material that we assume is dry, dry, dry… and I include the occasional Shakespearean line that sounds ridiculously offensive, and we gasp and chortle and question whether Shakespeare had any idea what he was writing (i.e., Henry V talking about tennis balls, or our realization that the nickname for “Richard” was, back then, what it remains today)!
Embracing my Ignorance
I have always been averse to studying history, but have found myself, again and again, diving in up to my eyeballs trying to make sense of these plays that I didn’t understand.
The best thing that I have to offer an audience is my ignorance.
I tend to notice when I don’t know something. And, I have a good guess for when the average person will be left, along with me, in the dark.
I notice when a lot of characters have the same name.
I notice when characters who were once called one name, are later called by another name.
I notice when something seems somehow “off,” with no explanation provided.
And I also notice how much easier it is to absorb information when somebody alerts me that this thing that’s coming up is confusing… or mocks the very nature of the confusion surrounding it.
The more that I explore these plays, the more that I notice that they make the most sense when you discover them in chronological order. Just about all of these people are connected, and a lot of them appear in multiple plays. If I study Henry V, and then double back to Richard II, and then jump forward to Richard III, I’m reading lots of great material, but none of the story lines strike me as being linked in any way, and I am outrageously clueless about how much these historical actions intersected.
My guesses about these plays’ several time frames might have varied by some 400 years! Again and again, I have had to drop one book and pick up another, just to check what dates all of these things happened. (I try to place those relevant dates under your nose, more or less at the moment you might be wondering about them. Of course Shakespeare, telling the story in his own sometimes-invented chronology, is not always helping.) I could never remember which Richard was not the hunchback! And I kept waiting for Henry VI to assert himself and be every bit as much the leader as his father was… as, I suppose, the English people also did, back then…
My History with Shakespeare
I started studying Shakespeare in high school, and I have long credited Thor comic books with making the whole archaic “thee” and “thou” style of speech seem natural to me. Brother Ruhl, at St. Viator High School was one of the most challenging teachers I’ve ever had, and you really had to come to class with your wits sharpened when facing his critical inquiry. A theatre major in college, I took Shakespeare in two separate English classes and in acting class. I followed this up with a summer internship at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where I got to see some terrific actors who really shaped the lens through which I saw these plays.
From there it was on to grad school to study directing (exploring the Marowitz Measure for Measure) and internships with the Milwaukee Rep (working on Macbeth) and the Seattle Rep (assistant directing Tartuffe). From there it was on to a ton of work with brand new plays in manuscript form, editing The Script Review and running the Stage Two Theatre Company as its Artistic Director for almost five years.
One day Stage Two decided to produce Molière, and I ventured to write a version of Tartuffe. I was combining my knowledge of Shakespearean language with my remembrance of that previous Tartuffe, placing dialogue into the imagined mouths of the very talented actors I remembered… in rhymed iambic pentameter…
Tartuffe led to a new career as a writer/adaptor of Molière scripts, which led me back to being an actor, as I got to play many of the roles that Molière himself played, way back when. My parallel existence to Molière led me to a one-man show, Molière than Thou, which I have now been performing on the road for almost thirteen years! Somewhere in there, I evolved into a one-man repertory theatre, and found myself revisiting all of the Shakespeare plays, memorizing one monologue from each of them!
But while Lot o’ Shakespeare was a random event (I determined performance order by way of a spinning bingo cage), I was aware that, isolated, the History portions would actually make more sense in chronological order.
I found myself in a conversation with a professor who was going to produce a Shakespeare play as part of a broader, university-wide study of English culture, and we pondered which Shakespeare plays might most effectively stress particularly English themes.
Of course, the tragedies and the comedies are mostly set in foreign countries (with the exception of King Lear, which is set in medieval England). But then there were the histories…
And there, we noticed the question that all Shakespeare producers must face at one point or another: Are we really limited to a repertory of just three workable Shakespeare histories?
I found myself inspired to work on a draft of The Henriad: a work which combined Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V into a single evening’s performance. And then I started looking at The War of the Roses, trimming Henry VI, 1, 2 & 3 and Richard III into a single four-hour event…
As these plays started to “connect” in my mind, I started to think: “What if I were to perform all of my history monologues in order…?” And “What if I added, say, another monologue from each of the plays to fill out an hour-long introduction to these works?”
Shakespeare’s Histories began to take shape. I started to notice themes popping up, and to notice how some speeches fed the narrative better than others. As much as I loved Talbot’s speech before the gates of Orleans (and as much effort as I’d put into memorizing the thing), it wasn’t really feeding the story line. Even some of the astonishing lines of Richard III (in his early incarnation as Gloucester from Henry VI, Part 3) had to go!
And with each pass through, I began to notice the plot mechanisms that set up some of the most famous twists!
King Henry’s insomnia makes sense when Hal’s big mistake is assuming that his father, who can’t sleep, has died.
The White Rose and the Red Rose make sense when we consider that these English lords who think that they should be king are unable to say so aloud (at risk of committing treason). And so, they let “dumb significants” speak for them.
The more I would cut, the more I would notice the thing bonding into one collective, interdependent story! These things were always meant to be part of a larger tale: English history writ large, in ten interconnected chunks!
The Great Themes
In order to know what to cut, I had to somehow know what to keep. I was responsible for the prism through which this material would be viewed. With much gratitude to Isaac Asimov, whose brilliant and out-of-print Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare is my favorite resource, I have found these plays make absolute sense when seen in light of ongoing issues of royal succession that run through all ten scripts.
Shakespeare, himself, never comes out and says this. (Of course, we have no commentary from him about any of his works.) But his audience clearly understands that, in the well-ordered universe of Elizabethan society, we move from Gods to Archangels to Angels, on down the line to humans, and at the top of that pile is The King. (“Kings are Earth’s Gods,” notes Pericles.) And decisions about who gets to rule, and when, are decided by divine intervention. After all, God decides who gets born, to whom, and in what particular order, which thereby determines who gets to rule.
In short, what you need to know about the rules are: the monarchy passes from the king to the king’s eldest son. If that eldest son has a son, then that grandson is next in line to be king, no matter how much more mature, capable or talented the second, third, fourth or fifth son of the previous king might be. Only when a first son dies without any heir can we look to another son to take over. And these rules are scrupulously enforced!
Except on those occasions in which they are not.
And when little man jumps the barrier of that divinely maintained queue, bad things happen!
The more we look at them, the more we realize that these plays are riddled with issues of succession, and I did my best to feature those particular speeches and scenes where issues of succession are being questioned or resolved, either overtly or indirectly.
There is no way around this: These plays are inherently sexist. But they are only sexist to the extent that Elizabethan society was sexist. (Elizabeth, herself, was the exception and not the rule.) The plays are about succession, and the first rule of succession is that Male Heirs are what Matter!
(Okay, the FIRST rule of succession is actually: “Don’t talk about succession!”)
I’m not here to “fix” Elizabethan social norms. Women were not allowed to perform on stage. They weren’t allowed to write plays, nor were they allowed to inherit. The reason that Elizabeth Woodville came to the court in Henry VI, Part 3 (where she met Edward IV) was because she was strictly proscribed from inheriting her late-husband’s estate. She had to get special dispensation from the king to keep her family possessions.
In spite of that, Shakespeare stands independent of his contemporaries, writing more and better roles for women into his plays. A comparison of Shakespeare’s characters with those characters depicted in his play’s original source materials (described in “Sweet Swan,” noted below), show a striking improvement for women in Shakespeare’s plays.
I have no agenda to generate more female stage time as some sort of post-modern compensation… I’m on a tight schedule as it is. Boiling all of this down to a play that is about the whole succession process forces us to feature the men in these plays even more exclusively.
Fortunately, we are growing much more accepting of cross-gender casting, and, however gradually, we are learning to look beyond physical characteristics to appreciate the psychological traits and attitudes that make a given actor “right” for a role.
(In other words, I’m totally okay with casting women as the men… or the Narrator… As far as I’m concerned, this might just as well be a one-woman show. But don’t freak out when I take on Joan of Arc!)
The King as Human
The next favorite-ist theme of Shakespeare is a close parallel (or perhaps a perpendicular) to these themes of succession. In spite of the fact that God is the deciding power in choosing the King, the King, himself, is still a human being… with all of the wants, needs, desires, foibles, temptations and failings that a human being has.
And while we assume that a king might never want for anything, reality is always a major come-down, and the crown, itself, never solves the problem. Shakespeare never tires of pointing this out, and this theme manifests in some of the most soaring lyrical passages, such as:
“Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?”
(Richard II, Act III, Scene 2)
“Cans’t thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
(Henry IV, Part 2, Act III, Scene 1)
“I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me: the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions: his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing.”
(Henry V, Act IV, Scene 1)
“O God! Methinks it were a happy life
To be no better then a homely swain…”
(Henry VI, Part 3, Act II, Scene 5)
In the course of squeezing all of this history into a single hour, there are portions of the story that do not fit the through line of the narrative. I will attempt to flesh out the story (and correct the record) when convenient, in the opposing pages.
Occasionally, it will be Shakespeare, himself, who has taken the shortcut. At the risk of disturbing his old bones, I will point that out from time to time, too.
And, there are places where Shakespeare simply mis-tells the story. Occasionally, he will say things that are deliberately misleading, sometimes in the interest of streamlining the narrative, such as combining the Edmund Mortimers or the Beauforts into single characters, or perhaps he is avoiding offending Queen Elizabeth. If Shakespeare’s effort was to streamline things, then my one-hour summary of the multitude of plot threads dares not re-tangle that knot by attempting to explain or re-right that wrong.
But if, from time to time, there is an opportunity to point out a suspect narrative choice (such as the amazing success rate of any prophecies uttered), then it strikes me as a fun bit of perspective to share. And, I think that Shakespeare still holds up well under occasional snide commentary.
The Big Why
I am reminded of a probably-apocryphal story of the woman who went to see Hamlet for the first time. Interviewed on her way out of the theatre, she reportedly said: “I don’t see what the big deal is. He just strung a bunch of famous quotes together.”
I suspect that the typical response to Shakespeare’s Histories will be fairly similar. Every time I revisit this text I am reminded of all of those great lines that I somehow knew already, without ever knowing from whence they came.
I think that this exploration makes a good jumping-on place for the enjoyment of a series of plays that are clearly underrepresented in our theatrical repertory.
If the vast body of high school and college students had easier access to the pool of knowledge and understanding that lies behind these, then perhaps these plays would not seem like such a daunting, impossible wall to scale.
Perhaps the chance to crack open our “Collected Works” to these largely undisturbed pages might seem more of an invigorating opportunity than what it seems now: a discombobulating, narcotizing fog.
Perhaps attendance numbers for our theatres might not drop off so severely when “Histories” are on the bill.
Moreover, perhaps the lessons of these plays: the political lessons, the mistakes that we humans make from one generation to the next, never seeming to learn… perhaps we might see one or two of those coming.
There is a moment in the tide of these historical events in which Shakespeare captures the end of chivalry as he knows it: Sir John Talbot’s son dies, pure in the belief of standing for something larger than himself, even as the political players shift to treachery and narcicism, with individuals and parties placing their own interests over the good of the country. This shifting tide clearly ebbs and flows in its shift between individual self-interest and altruism.
Within living memory, we Americans found our country calling us to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And within more recent memory, we find that same country choosing shut-down and default amid fits of political pique.
When I read or see Jack Cade, railing against education, and arguing in favor of ignorance… I hear today’s echoes of distrust for science, feeding the general public with ignorance, confusion and superstition.
When Henry Bolingbroke grabs the crown to himself, simply because it was within his reach… I see every tin-pot dictator from the third world on up to the first.
When Richard III lies and kills and cheats his way to the top (while the public stands aghast and silent)… I see every Machievellian politician, lying with impunity, before a media too embarrassed and cowed to point out that the policies endorsed will do more harm than good.
The lessons of these plays are healthy things for us to hear, and we are liberated by the thoughts and the perspectives that Shakespeare shares.
I want to bring those lessons back within our reach. And I want them to be fun.
Break a leg!
 See my book, Acting at the Speed of Life; Conquering Theatrical Style for more input on a suggested style of performance for Shakespeare and classical theatre.
 For a real eye-opener, read Sweet Swan of Avon; Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? by Robin P. Williams.
 The “Beauforts” don’t actually fit into this retelling of the tale, so don’t worry: you haven’t overlooked them.