Wednesday, June 30, 2010

TSI 2010 - Some Thoughts on the BBC Shakespeare

As part of the TSI 2010 first week, tonight we watched the BBC production of 1 Henry IV (1979) with Jon Finch (who also played Macbeth in Roman Polanski’s 1971 film) as Henry IV, David Gwillim as Hal, Anthony Quayle as Falstaff, and Tim Piggott-Smith as Hotspur. The BBC films tend to provoke a fairly tepid response from both critics and students. It’s great to have an available version of each of Shakespeare’s plays, especially those that rarely see time on film, but that benefit is not always followed up by an entertaining or, in some cases, even a completely watchable production.

I remember watching these as a junior high and high school student when they originally aired and being struck by an unfortunate sameness to them. Look at the costumes in Midsummer Night’s Dream (directed by Elijah Moshinsky) and Othello (directed by Jonathan Miller), for example; it’s as if the actors from Act 1, scene 1 of the former walked right into the senate scene of the latter.

After watching a number of these, you should get a pretty clear sense of the BBC’s goal. They wanted to get an archival production committed to video without any directorial flourishes that might have “dated” the production for viewers far into the future. The costumes are distinctly renaissance-y, the character interpretations straightforward, and the direction focused primarily on presenting the language rather than creating a context for the language; it’s museum theater on videotape.

David Giles’ 1 Henry IV, which coasts along on some very strong acting by its principals, particularly Quayle, is among the better productions. But I still felt it had a certain static quality that would give me a little concern if I were showing the entire 155 minutes to a high school class. I don’t mean that it lacks action and fails to satisfy the Braveheart and Gladiator standards for battle violence (that’s apples to oranges), but that Giles, like many of the other BBC Shakespeare directors, hasn’t given the play’s narrative much shape. Competent scenes follows competent scene without much sense of where it’s all going.

Take Quayle’s Falstaff. His scenes with Gwillim through the first part of the play are wonderful and his Falstaff is a man who has settled into his braggadocio and deceits, both of self and others, like comfortable old clothes. There is also a vulnerability about him, which Quayle ties to his age more than his overindulgences, that evokes a fair amount of sympathy no matter what outrageousness he’s perpetrating.

Then, in Act 4, when the play turns to battle scenes, his Falstaff begins rather abruptly to speak directly to the camera. Yes, these are his first scenes alone (4.2, 5.2, 5.3, and 5.4) and his speeches are necessarily monologues, though they tend to be directed to dead bodies. Looking into the camera, though, makes the viewer a participant in the action. It’s as if we’ve replaced Hal as his audience, and Falstaff needs an audience. But breaking the fourth wall here also shifts an arrangement Giles has previously made with the audience, that we are watching these characters in some far off world populated primarily by Shakespeare’s language. Quayle’s looking at the camera is jarring, in part because it shifts our relationship to Falstaff’s character, deviating from both the tone of the production and the direction this Falstaff has established.

One could argue that such a shift is appropriate because, as Gail Kern Paster suggested earlier this week, Falstaff’s actions during the battle have consequences in the way that his shenanigans in Eastcheap do not. But how does breaking the fourth wall amplify this? How does the winking “you’re in on this” involvement of audience bring the character to some logical conclusion in this production? The Falstaff who looks at us knows himself more completely, knows his villainy and shortcomings more casually, lacks our sympathy, betrays more of a calculating nature. The choice may serve to best present the speeches he’s making in the play’s latter part, but it disconnects Falstaff a bit from the character established prior.

I was also struck by another aspect to the BBC’s museum theater approach that amplifies the static feeling of their productions. The films are what Shakespeare-on-film critic Samuel Crowl would refer to as “theatrical,” that is they are films of stage productions. The BBC has removed the literal theatrical stage, but the physical sense of it is still there – the shots are confined to cramped locations, there are no landscapes or depictions of the world without characters (no establishing shots for example), the camera is limited to a theatrical audience’s viewpoint, and nearly all the camera movement (pans, tilts, tracking shots) and perspective (high and low angle, long shots) we associate with movies is absent.

But in a theater there is sound. Not necessarily music or even the constant voices of acting, but the sound of an audience experiencing live theater – laughing, shifting in their seats, gasping, coughing, breathing. The air in a theater is alive, vital. Film cannot capture this organic symbiosis of actor and audience. It replaces it, in fact, with relentless soundtrack noise – orchestrated music that swells and ebbs with the story’s emotional fluctuations, life sounds associated with the setting, popular music inserted into the narrative. When you watch the BBC productions, what you get is an absence of both. Essentially you get the actors speaking their lines into dead air. It’s disconcerting and, for me, it has the effect of sucking a lot of life out of some of the most beautiful poetry ever put to action.

The medium does make a difference. And that’s something I think the BBC Shakespeare never understood.


photo credit: Anthony Quayle as Falstaff in the BBC Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1.

Monday, June 28, 2010

TSI 2010 - From ThighMaster to Ballbuster

As most of you know, I’m doing the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute (TSI) this summer, four weeks of scholarship, pedagogy, and performance studies focusing on 1 Henry IV, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Measure for Measure. I will devote a bit of this space for the next month to exploring some topics and ideas that relate to what we’ve been doing here at the William Shakespeare Experience. Comments, as always, are welcome.

TSI 2010 began with a lecture by Gail Kern Paster, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Director, on 1 Henry IV. After begging off her original topic – “Why Shakespeare?” – Paster took us through a detailed comparison of Hotspur and Hal, looking at questions of governance (what makes an effective leader?), character (Hotspur’s intemperance vs. Hal’s calculation), and poetic motif (hot vs. cold).

I thought the most interesting moment came during the question-and-answer. Asked to extend her comments to Hal’s relationship with Falstaff, Paster explained that she finds Falstaff a very disturbing character and, because of his actions on the battlefield in Act 5, unredeemable. Falstaff rises after his feigned death and finds Hotspur dead near him. He remarks, “How if he should counterfeit too, and rise? By my faith, I am afraid he would prove the better counterfeit. Therefore I’ll make him sure, yea, and I’ll swear I killed him. Why may he not rise as well as I? … Therefore, sirrah, with a new wound in your thigh, come you along with me” (5.4.125-131).

The editors of the Folger edition have added the stage direction, “stabbing him,” between “sirrah” and “with a new wound.” The Arden edition adds “stabs the body” in the same place. (The 1613 Quarto available in the Folger Library has no stage direction.) Paster compares this action to the horrors committed by Welsh women after Mortimer’s battle with Glendower before the play begins. Westmoreland reports to King Henry:

A post from Wales loaden with heavy news,
Whose worst was that the noble Mortimer,
Leading the men of Herefordshire to fight
Against the irregular and wild Glendower,
Was by the rude hands of that Welshman taken,
A thousand of his people butchered,
Upon whose dead corpse there was such misuse,
Such beastly shameless transformation
By those Welshwomen done, as may not be
Without much shame retold or spoken of. (1.1.37-46)

What is this misuse, this shameless transformation? Paster argues that the Welshwomen have castrated the dead soldiers. What’s more she suggests that Falstaff has done the same to Hotspur. Then he lies. And on the battlefield, where his actions matter in a way they do not in Eastcheap, it becomes impossible to disconnect him from these reprehensible actions.

I would add that Falstaff’s actions at Shrewsbury are startlingly disturbing even before the incident with Hotspur. He’s been given money by the King to conscript an army, but he has taken bribes to excuse his men, and instead gathered a weak force of “ragamuffins,” all but three of whom are summarily killed. Robbing passers-by is one thing, but robbing the king and putting a battle strategy in jeopardy seems a bit traitorous to me. Second, Prince Henry demands a sword of Falstaff in the middle of the battle. But Falstaff refuses to give one to him, offering him instead a bottle of sack, a jest that seems beyond inappropriate considering what, and who, is at stake.

So there’s a lot on which to build an argument about Falstaff’s dishonor and atrocious behavior. But Chris Lavold, a teacher from Wisconsin, asks Paster the key question: how does one get from Falstaff’s explicit “a new wound in your thigh” to castration? To most readers, that requires a bit of a leap. Paster argues that the specificity of Falstaff’s words implies something. Why does he single out the “thigh”? And from there the discussion moves to where the wound would have to be, what armor Hotspur might be wearing (cuisses), and the relation of this moment to Westmoreland’s earlier horror at Welsh battlefield atrocities.

For me, the conversation revealed the tension that exists between literary criticism as a means of explicating a text or addressing ambiguities and the world of lay readers that tends to include high school students like the ones I teach.

Quick exercise: right now, point to your thigh.

Where’s your finger? Are you pointing at your groin area? In the mind of a student, we have a new question: when does “thigh” not mean “thigh”? Leading students toward successful, complex critical thinking involves a certain amount of decoding, which is not a huge stretch since reading itself is a form of decoding. But it also involves trust, established by clear lines of connection between disparate ideas. The more tenuous those lines, the more we need to clothe conclusions in the language of possibility or probability (Holden Caulfield might be struggling with repressed homosexual feelings). But where critical theory can be frustrating is in its necessary tone of certainty (Holden is gay). And this is doubly frustrating in the teacher’s milieu where we necessarily entertain any line of thought that can be supported by thoughtful argument and avoid definitive or exclusive conclusions.

In the end, I very much enjoyed Paster’s concept of Falstaff’s craven behavior, although I didn’t agree with the castration interpretation. Where I’d like to see her vision realized, and where skeptical opinions would become moot, would be on stage. There the academic argument would be easily sidestepped by the reality of the performance.

Perhaps the director could set the play in the milieu of American politics circa 2000 (we’re back to George W. Bush as Hal). The audience would be left to confront a particular view of Falstaff and debate whether his action is supported by the text. Would W.’s fat father figure, Dick Cheney, really emasculate his fallen Democratic counter-part (well, maybe). Or would he simply gore him?

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Edward III - Women

Gendered beings,

I'm struck in this play by the two women, who I think stand out a bit because there are always so few active women in these history plays. I remember Cindy writing about Constance during our discussion of King John, celebrating the verve both Constance and Queen Eleanor brought to the play.

In her book Shakespeare and Women, Phyllis Rackin writes, "It is interesting ... to compare Shakespeare's treatment of warlike women in his early history plays with their far more sympathetic treatment in the anonymous contemporary play Edward III. This play is sometimes attributed to Shakespeare, and it even appears in recent editions of his collected works, but it has yet to achieve a secure place in the Shakespearian canon, and its female characters are depicted in strikingly different terms from those in the canonical Shakespearian history plays. In Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, Joan is both the chief enemy to the English kingdom and a witch as well. In Parts 2 and 3, Margaret is a bloodthirsty adulteress. the more sympathetically depicted female characters in Shakespeare's history plays, such as the victimized women in Richard III and the Duchess of Gloucester and the Queen in Richard II, never go to war, they play no part in the affairs of state, and they seem to spend most of their limited time on stage in tears. Helplessness seems to be an essential component of female virtue in most of Shakespeare's English histories.

"Edward III, by contrast, depicts courageous women warriors who are also models of feminine virtue. The Countess of Salisbury resists the Scots king's siege of her castle and the English king's assault on her virtue with equal courage and resolution. The English queen, equally virtuous, leads her army to victory over the Scots at Newcastle, 'big with child' but still 'every day in arms' (4.2.40-6). In Edward III, warlike English women defend their country against foreign threats. In Shakespeare's English history plays, warlike women embody those threats" (48-49).

I think Constance, and the attributes Cindy discussed, would satisfy Rackin's point about the embodiment of threat. I'm looking harder for a Shakespearean character who is similar to the Countess. Certainly none exists in the history plays. But what about Isabella in Measure for Measure? (I'm a couple weeks away from reading this play for my Folger experience, so if no one has any thoughts, I can revisit the question then.)

And finally, does Rackin's differentiation between the English women in Edward III and the English women in Shakespeare's history plays, ring true?


Friday, June 25, 2010

RE3: Edward III and Historical Myth

Randall writes:

Ernst and all,

That's an interesting question about the genesis of theme. As a high school teacher, I spend a lot of time encouraging students to look at a text's implicit values. Do I suggest they are all intentional? No. A writer may completely avoid establishing thematic coherence as part of the creative process and think nothing of it. Themes, we suggest, emerge. But is the expectation that writers concern themselves with narrative coherence merely a product of a certain way of looking at literature? Or can we assume that all playwrights work toward a satisfactory narrative. If a writer establishes the most basic structure -- a beginning, middle, and end -- doesn't that imply a beginning, middle, and end of something?

Taking Edward III specifically, are we looking at the beginning, middle, and end of Edward III's battle for France? Or the beginning, middle, and end of a personal and public crisis in his life? Or the beginning, middle, and end of the rise of Edward the Black Prince? Can the playwright(s) in this case be expected to have asked themselves, "what story are we telling?"

Beyond the simple, we talk about comedy and tragedy, among the generic conventions of which we find a narrative component, a relationship between order and chaos and a transition from one to the other. Certainly, history plays can challenge narrative coherence, pre-determining a character's biography, choices and actions, the existence of social order and chaos, and even the public's attitude toward the story's figures and events. Perhaps history plays expose an author's creative process more completely precisely because history has provided a template by which we can observe narrative choices, deviations, amendments, agreements. And when we can put our finger on an author's choices we can determine attitude.

For me, that provides a connection between narrative coherence and theme. For example, in 1348, a third of the English people died from the plague, eight years before the battle of Poitiers. The Edward III playwright chooses to leave out Edward's successfully getting his people through this portion of English history. Did the ravages of the disease not fit the warrior story? Is reference to the plague box office suicide? Does the play let us explore the possibility that the real challenges of leadership come from within or from other people, rather than forces of Nature? The Edward III playwright does include Edward's interaction with the Countess of Salisbury, which he gets from William Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1566). Again, he has a choice: either depict the temptation as Painter did (Edward is single, the Countess a widow) or retain the historical fact that both are married. The latter path addresses Edward's stature as a hero in the story. Can we move from that to the idea that the story has something to say about heroism?

Ernst has given us on a number of occasions the suggestion that Shakespeare may approach his stories from the standpoint of a question: why would a character act this way? That question has been quite fruitful for me in reading the plays. With Edward III, though, I don't find adequate exploration of the Countess sequence. I don't find a clear foundation for Edward's harsh refusal to rescue the younger Edward in Act 3, scene 4 (Audley says, "O cruel father"), and by the end of the play I'm uncertain about the kind of person I'm expected to associate with Edward. I certianly don't feel that way about Henry V or even Henry VI or, to extend beyond Shakespeare, Thomas of Woodstock.

One last thought: given that this play may have undergone some revision, which may account for the possible Shakespearean passages, we might even have a greater right to expect a narrative coherence and the resultant emergence of some thematic coherence, as playwrights work to smooth the story into a pleasurable, and marketable, piece. On the other hand, too many cooks may spoil the soup, but with this play it's hard to tell which situation we have.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

RE2: Edward III and Historical Myth

Ernst writes (from Rome):

It could be said to boil down to the matter of how consciously coherent that play we have in front of us is. It is clearly episodic, and, at the same time, a sense of coherence can be derived from it. I have limited belief in some of the themes here, not that they don't make sense looking at later plays. How, indeed, do themes develop in a playwright's mind? Are they consciously planned out in advance, or do they arrive slightly after such a play has been written and thought about?

I lean out a window in a stone building not far from the Campo di Fiore here in Rome--in order to catch an open website to deal with.

Ciao Amici,

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

RE: Edward III and Historical Myth

Randall writes:


Gil asks, in his "Edward III and Historical Myth" posting, if Edward III's seeming disconnect between Edward's seduction sequence and the "heroic victories on the killing fields of France" isn't analogous to the transition from the Eastcheap and Falstaff sequences to "the emergence of the militarily unprepared Prince Harry as he arms to fight Hotspur at Shrewsbury." I don't think the analogy holds, though, for two reasons.

We are led to make some comparison by the opening scene of Edward III, where Edward, seeking a legal foundation for his battle with France, discusses his right of rule with Robert Artois. Edward's claim will rest on the fact that his mother is the sole heir of France's previous king, Philip LeBeau, his three sons having died without issue. France, of course, denies her claim due to Salic law, which excludes women from inheriting the throne. This is the same Salic law that Henry V learns has exploitable loopholes allowing him to make his claim on France with "right and conscience." Hence, both plays begin by justifying England's right to do battle in and for France, a predictable bit of national propaganda in two plays that present great historical English victories.

Once we have similar starting points it is easy to extend the comparison to the two kings. In Edward III and Henry V, though, we get two very different rulers. Edward's lapse into temptation and attempted seduction represents a deviation from his role as king, putting his success in France at risk. In fact, at the moment that he becomes smitten with her, he says:

What strange enchantment lurked in those her eyes,
When they excelled this excellence they have,
That now her dim decline hath power to draw
My subject eyes from piercing majesty
To gaze on her with doting admiration? (1.2.102-106)

Giorgio Melchiori, in his footnote to this passage in my New Cambridge edition, points out the contrast between "subject" and "majesty." In short, Edward is unkinged by his lust ... um, admiration ... for the Countess. (And it's no surprise that in unwittingly wielding this power over him, the Countess has been cast as a witch by the playwright's use of the word "enchantment." As we learn from Joan of Arc in Henry VI or Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, women who exert power over men can only be in league with the devil.) And this is where the comparison between Edward and Hal begins to fall apart for me.

Both men face publicly acceptable and unacceptable paths to their future. Edward begins on an acceptable path (rightful king pursues legal claim to greater territory and national pride) but deviates to an unacceptable path (seduction of chaste, married woman, a personal rather than public goal inappropriate for someone who wields the royal "we" and the moral obligations that go with it). Gil reminds us that our comparison begins not with Henry V but with 1 Henry IV, where Hal is hanging out in a tavern, plotting robberies with scruffy ne'er-do-wells. Hal, then, has begun on the unacceptable path, as noted bitterly by his father ("riot and dishonor stain the brow/ Of my young Harry"). By the end of 1 Henry IV though Hal has moved to the accepted path, defeating Hotspur and distinguishing himself in battle. Even before the final showdown between the two Harrys, Sir Richard Vernon, who might be seen as a sort of public voice, acquaints Hotspur with Hal's kingly qualities:

...let me tell the world:
If he outlive the envy of this day,
England did never owe so sweet a hope
So much misconstrued in his wantonness. (1 Henry IV, 5.2.68-71)

Ah, "misconstrued." We're asked to finally recognize what Hal has been arguing all along -- that his "wantonness" is part of an essential path to kingship. Or, as Hal puts it,

Yet herein I will imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him. (1 Henry IV, 1.2.204-210)

So, Gil asks, is the disconnect between the two worlds, the two paths of each character, so different? I think so because while Edward's represents a clear deviation from (and therefore a challenge to) his success as a king, Hal's is not. Instead of being unkinged by his association with Falstaff and his cohorts, it has made him a better king. As he tells the emissary from the Dauphin in response to the gift of tennis balls in Henry V, "we understand [the Dauphin] well,/ How he comes o'er us with our wilder days,/ Not measuring what use we made of them" (1.2.266-268). To turn this around, what use is Edward's temptation by and attempted seduction of the Countess? In the second half of the play, does his emergence from the temptation reveal him to be something stronger, greater, or more aware than he was? No.

In fact, and this would be my second reaction to the comparison, Edward's disappearance as a main character in the second half of Edward III shifts the emphasis on to Edward the Black Prince. While 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V keep a fairly strong focus on Hal's journey, mitigating a division between Hal's experiences in the tavern and his experiences on the battlefield, Edward III emphasizes the disconnect between its two parts with a significant character shift. This reminds me of the focus on events rather than on central character that we found in the Henry VI plays, and if we agree with Gil about Edward III's probable placement between those plays and the Henry IV and Henry V trilogy, that would make some structural sense. Ernst suggested we spend some time comparing this play to the Henry VI trilogy, "especially with regard to the nature and depth of Edward III's characters." I throw that out there for anyone willing, and I'll leave it at this: while Shakespeare's second set of Henry plays treats Hal like an epic hero, this play, Edward III, is more like the first set of Henry plays, a dramatic mirror for magistrates.


[Quotes: 1 Henry IV from Folger edition; Henry V from Signet edition; Edward III from New Cambridge edition.]

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Edward III and Historical Myth

Gilbert writes:

Edward the Third, my lords, had seven sons,” genealogist York explains to the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury (2 Henry VI, II.ii.10), though I hope these are not the same Warwick and Salisbury who are the father and husband of the Countess in Edward III. “Edward’s seven sons … were as seven vials of his sacred blood,” laments the Duchess of Gloucester, widow of number six, Thomas of Woodstock (Richard II, I.ii.11-12).

The Plantagenets (Lancasters and Yorks) put historian Holinshed to work full time; when the eldest son, Prince Edward, the Black Prince (so called because of the armor he wore at Crecy), died, his son, Richard II, became king. The third son, Lionel of Clarence, was the grandfather or great grandfather of Edmund Mortimer, heir presumptive of Richard (remember Hotspur taught a starling to cry “Mortimer” to bedevil Henry IV). Son number four was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, whose son, Henry Bolingbrook, was acclaimed King Henry IV, father of King (Saint) Henry V, in turn father of Henry VI. The fifth was Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, patriarch of Edward IV, father of Edward V (the prince in the Tower), and brother of crook-backed Richard III, and of an Elizabeth who married Richmond who usurped the throne as Henry VII, father of Henry VIII, who fathered Edward VI, Bloody Mary, and Elizabeth I, and whose sister Margaret, married James VI of Scotland (James I of England), Shakespeare’s quasi patron, who may have suppressed Edward III as anti-Scot.

Got that? Therein are nine of Shakespeare’s plays (until we find manuscripts of plays of the histories of William of Hatfield and William of Windsor, sons number two and seven, The Two Bills?).

If Shakespeare did not write Edward III, he should have. It is the cornerstone of all the bloodlines I have just outlined, and thus a necessary part of what Randall called “English monarchical myth building.” More important is “stage-ability,” English attitudes toward “honor, chivalry, leadership, political expediency.” I find a draft of Henry V here, the military coming of age of Prince Edward, his Agincourt-like victory against odds at the battle of Poitiers, arrogant and insulting French (three Heralds offer a horse and a prayer book instead of a tun of tennis balls), a siege of Calais (with a glance at Harfleur) threatening annihilation, but elevating to mercy.

If Edward III dates to 1594, it would follow the Henry VI’s (and my ear finds its verse more mature), but precede Richard II and the Henriad. If this is accurate, then rather than merely being a draft of Henry V, it prefigures the whole Henry IV progression—the Hal-like Gadshill hijinks slightly in a class with temptation of seducing the Countess, then the apotheosis of patriotic heroic victories on the killing fields of France by the father & son Edwards. There is more chivalry in Edward III—Salisbury’s safe passage is the prime example. Edward III is a bifurcated play, but isn’t Eastcheap and Falstaff almost as disconnected as the emergence of the militarily unprepared Prince Harry as he arms to fight Hotspur at Shrewsbury? So, I’d like to explore coming-of-age, and also the touch of skepticism about honor and politics (if you remember, I think Henry V is the perfect politician, manipulating perception, rather than embodying the perfect warrior). I’ll try to look at Greenblatt’s “Invisible Bullets” before I proceed.


Friday, June 4, 2010

Edward III - Connections

Ernst writes:

Here's a copy of an introduction to Edward III from William Kozlenko’s Disputed plays of William Shakespeare, which contains more connections to other Shakespeare plays than could sink an oil well. I think Kozlenko considers the play as having been written a bit later than I do.

(Click on the images to see an enlarged version of the pages.)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

RE3: Edward III - Authorship

Ernst writes:

I could envy Derek’s coming stay in Basel, a city famous both for its metabolism and for its love of smallish, light-brown Siberian dogs, which accounts for their saying “Chow” every time they turn around.

I also sympathize with Derek’s impatience with contemporary (but already dead) criticism. Bah! My father’s dissertation was on German translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets for Hyder Rollins at Harvard—a sadly narrow topic in certain respects—good for only a few notes in Rollins’ book on Shakespeare. My father who was also far better educated and more brilliant than his son, never got to teach Shakespeare. The Shakespeare course had already been taken over by a woman at Hobart and William Smith, where he had been invited to establish a Harvard-like Western Civ, program. And though he was English Department Chair for years, he honored the woman’s claim to the course.

And so it goes.


RE: Edward III - Opening Thoughts

Ernst writes:

My first response to Edward III was how wonderfully clear the iambic pentameter is—clean, efficient, tremendously easy to follow. Having read (at one time or other) all the surviving English plays written between the mid fifteen hundreds and 1615 or so, I should have something of an “ear,” but I wouldn’t trust it too far.

To me, however, the play feels as it was written around 1589-90. Shakespeare, who, people argue convincingly, surely had a (considerable) hand in it, would have been around 25-26 at the time, married for a number of years and with two children—old enough to have a relatively firm sense of himself as a writer. The chief playwrights of and before the time were John Lyly (fading from favor at the Court), Robert Greene (who wrote competent blank verse), Thomas Kyd (who wrote The Spanish Tragedy in 1587—our melodramatic sense of which may be affected by Ben Jonson’s later, over-the-top additions) and, most sensationally, Christopher Marlowe, whose Tamburlaine plays were an earth-shaking event for the English Theater.

I felt that the characters were pretty flat. What strikes me as Shakespeare’s abiding question in most of his history plays (“What sort of character would do these sorts of things?”) goes largely unanswered. But I found the language that these flattish characters speak to be—often—quite delightful. I could certainly feel Marlowe in the grand posings that sprinkle themselves through the play—especially its earlier parts. Confrontations like those between Kings John and Edward in III.iii remind me of similar confrontations in Tamburlaine—most especially those between Tamburlaine and Bajazeth, or Cosroe, or the coalition of emperors who try to stop his rise to power. Phrases like “Fairer are thou than Hero was;/Beardless Leander not so strong as I,” etc. (II.ii) remind me of Tamburlaine’s apostrophe to his beloved Zenocrate, or the mention of the stars, “When, to the great star-chamber o’er our heads,/The universal session calls to count/This packing evil…” sounds like Marlowe (and foreshadows King Lear).

The cute/clever wordplay reminds me a good bit of Lyly: the carefully balanced remarks such as:

As easy may my intellectual soul,
Be lent away, and yet my body live,
As lend my body, palace to my soul,
Away from her and yet retain my soul.
My body is her bower, her court, her abbey,
And she an angel, pure, divine, unspotted;
I I should lend her house, my lord, to thee,
I kill my poor soul, and my poor soul me. (II.i.236-243)

Like Lyly for adults, not for the children who generally performed his plays. And there is also stichomythia, the bouncing back of lines echoing and answering other lines, a typical Lylyesque trick:

Edward: Thinkst that thou canst unswear thy oath again?
Warwick: I cannot; nor I would not if I could.
Edward: But, if thou dost, what shall I say to thee?
Warwick: What may be said to any perjured villain… (II.i.327-330)

There is a good bit of this Lylyesque word-play in Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labors Lost. It would be good to think of those two plays when trying place Edward III in context, as it might be good to compare the plays to the Henry VI plays—especially with regard to the nature and depth of Edward’s characters. There are certainly echoes of situations and character types that Shakespeare uses in this play throughout his later work. I will try to get to that next broadcast. Also, the play mentions two (relatively early, less complex) types of Malcontentedness (my dissertation topic)—Edward being a lover’s-melancholy sort of “malcontent” in his dealing with the Countess, and King Charles referring to England as harboring “malcontents,/Blood-thirsty and sedition Catalines,/Spend-thrifts and such as gape for nothing else/But change and alteration of the state.” Robert Greene put himself forward as having been a “malcontent” in 1592. And the word had been used by both Lyly (jokingly) and Marlowe (darkly) only a year or two earlier than 1590. And Robert Greene was probably returning to England and “ruffling out [his] silks in habit of a malcontent” at about the same time.

Many people seem to think that Shakespeare wrote many of his sonnets during the mid-1590’s, but one wonders how many of them he got started with earlier. The play’s often-mentioned use of the phrase, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds” (Sonnet 94) makes one wonder whether Shakespeare was writing sonnets more vigorously during these early years than many suppose. The order in which the sonnets were written is very much up in the air.

Finally, I enclose with this post a discussion of Edward III I pulled from the Internet.


Edward III - Character Matters

Randall writes:

I opened our discussion of Edward III with some questions about structure and contemporary attitude. I'd like to add a few inspired more by the play's characters.

Where does the Countess of Salisbury fall in our experience of Shakespearean women and/or Elizabethan or Tudor drama? Is she a type, a stock character? Or is she more fully developed? Given the usually peripheral roles women tend to play in historical dramas (Joan of Arc and Margaret in Henry VI, Lady Percy in Henry IV, Katherine in Henry V, Queen Isabel in Richard II, and Lady Anne in Richard III), how does the Countess shape our experience of Edward? If you were to pick an actress to play her in your production, who would it be?

Edward undergoes a grand temptation in Act 2, then retreats to occasionally worrying about or stoically ignoring his son. Is he the play's central character? (If not, who is?) As an audience presented with a piece of our vital history, what does this particular king teach us? Given our modern desire for stories with central heroes or at least clear protagonists, how do we react to an Edward III?

And Edward, the Black Prince. I guess if you've got a Hal, you can have a Ned. Despite the many parallels though, our Ned is not quite so deftly realized in the text. How is the prince not like Hal? What makes him fit to be king? What impresses the playwright most about him?

Does King John of France emerge at all as a notable character? Are there any real villains in the play? Or mostly opposing forces?

And is there one of those enjoyable outsider characters, the one who comments -- chorus-like -- on a particular proceeding, someone like the Bastard in King John?