Shakespeare’s Henry IV on stage in Stratford

This videio from England is called Trailer | Henry IV Parts I & II | Royal Shakespeare Company.

By Gordon Parsons in Britain:

Theatre: Living Histories — Henry IV

Thursday 24th April 2014

The RSC productions of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 give a sense of the compromises politics impose on human nature which transcends the centuries, says GORDON PARSONS

Henry IV part 1

Henry IV part 2

Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The RSC’s recent dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies is testament to the company’s courage in competing with their house dramatist’s own theatrical handling of history.

Now Gregory Doran’s productions of Shakespeare’s treatment of the interplay of personalities and politics demonstrate dramatic genius at its height.

These plays tell the story of a king dogged by the guilt of his usurpation of the crown. He is beset by successive internal rebellions and seemingly cursed by a son and heir who prefers the company of a dissolute bunch of merry rogues and who is dismissive of the demands of state.

Rich in characters and language, both plays work like two movements of a dramatic symphony.

The first focuses on Prince Hal — mentored by the “abominable” misleader of youth Falstaff — and his rivalry with Hotspur, who is high on the drugs of honour and war and the son the king would have preferred.

Understandably, Alex Hassell’s Hal finds his Eastcheap companions more fun than the tensions of a court ruled by his father, an impassioned, intolerant and conscience-stricken king in Jasper Britton’s portrayal.

However skilfully Shakespeare weaves together comedy and crisis, play-acting and warfare, the character of Falstaff dominates.

Antony Sher, with the matted grey hair and spherical build of an impish troll, revels in his scabrous wit and sheer joy in his shady lifestyle. Even when reluctantly forced away from the comforts of his bar-room boozing and whoring onto the battlefield, his determination to survive by any means wins through.

The second play provides a change from major to minor key. Time has taken its toll. Rumour has undermined comforting certainties and the King is mortally ill. Where open battles had decided issues in the first part, now deceit and betrayal thread through the political dealings.

The self-proclaimed youthful Falstaff has become a man aware of his own frailties. Now clinging to forlorn hopes that Hal, his “sweet boy,” will reward his long-held expectations, he is destroyed by his erstwhile companion’s royal rejection: “I know thee not, old man,” the prince tells him.

We are left with a sad awareness of the compromises politics impose on human nature.

Major scenes in both plays capture the central themes. In the first, Falstaff’s roleplaying as Hal’s father remonstrating with his wayward son signals the prince’s true nature while in part two the Gloucestershire garden scene, in which impotent old men rehearse memories of youthful exploits, underlines the dying fall of life colouring the action.

Among the magnificent large cast, vignette cameos from Paola Dionisotti as the put-upon tavern landlady Mistress Quickly and Antony Byrne’s frenziedly drunken Pistol make their mark.

Highly recommended.

Runs until September 6. Box office: (0844) 800-1114.

Shakespeare sucks: a history of Bard-bashing: here.

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Shakespeare’s King Lear on stage in London

This video from Britain is called King Lear.

By Gordon Parsons in Britain:

Theatre: King Lear

Tuesday 4th February 2014

In its depiction of societal and personal breakdown, a new production of King Lear by Sam Mendes speaks directly and uncomfortably to our own times, says GORDON PARSONS

King Lear

National Theatre, London SE1

4 Stars

More than any other of Shakespeare‘s plays, this great symphonic drama of the human condition has mirrored each successive age, often unbearably, with its own self-image.

Our own nihilistic day, obsessed with media accounts of what seems the dissolution of both civilised society and personal relationships, finds its ugly reflection in Sam Mendes’s eagerly awaited production.

From the opening, when Simon Russell Beale‘s ageing dictator enters his conference chamber walled with his own military imperial guard, we recognise a common scene of power and insecurity.

Ordered to express the degree of their affection for their unlovable father, his older daughters, Goneril and Regan, outbid one another in their amplified, effusive offerings and are duly rewarded with his divided kingdom.

Only Olivia Vinall’s Cordelia refuses defiantly to play the game and consequently is violently cast off. This is the cue for the first of Beale’s frenetic rages, a state which constantly marks his downward spiral into a dementia fuelled by the treatment from his favoured offspring.

Beale’s Lear is a definitive portrayal of a man progressively stripped of power over others and control of his own identity – “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” he asks.

And, as he slowly loses his mind, with the pitiful plea of “Let me not be mad,” his is an increasingly shambling figure, nervously pawing at a troublesome hip.

The last vestiges of his authority are lost as his substantial personal bodyguard slip away into the night.

Unlike Hamlet, where we see events subjectively through the protagonist’s eyes, in King Lear we watch with a horrible objective fascination and even fear.

This is not only Lear’s world it is ours. The parallel Gloucester plot, in which betrayal and physical cruelty deny family bonds, make Shakespeare’s universal intentions clear.

Mendes squeezes the play dry of any comfort, with the normally moving conclusion rejigged to expunge any medieval heroics – no mummers’ challenge and barnstorming duel between good and evil here. Edgar simply stabs his bastard half-brother in revenge for his own and his father’s betrayal.

A huge cast gives the impression that at times Lear has all of his 100 knights on stage and there are excellent supporting performnces.

Sam Troughton‘s Edmund is the budding, suavely suited potential corporation man while his brother, Tom Brooke’s Edgar, is a student drop-out who shows perhaps an understandably muted sympathy for their blinded father, Stephen Boxer‘s naive Gloucester.

The demonic daughters, Kate Fleetwood‘s Goneril and Anna Maxwell Martin‘s Regan, are equally differentiated, the former cunningly calculating, while the latter comes across as hysterically high on cruelty.

Adrian Scarborough as the Fool for once makes the character’s often meaningless babble analytically clear as he dissects Lear’s condition, only to be unknowingly clubbed to death by his master in one of his demented frenzies.

If the production loses something in subtlety it certainly speaks uncompromisingly to its audience.Runs until May 28. Box office: (020) 7252-3000.

King Lear, recast with Ursula Mohan as the decrepit monarch, challenges our perceptions of gender, ageing and madness, says KATHERINE M GRAHAM: here.

New Shakespeare discovery

This video is called Douglas Bruster Identifies New Shakespeare Prose.

From the New York Times in the USA:

Much Ado About Who: Is It Really Shakespeare?

Further Proof of Shakespeare’s Hand in ‘The Spanish Tragedy


Published: August 12, 2013

For nearly two centuries, scholars have debated whether some 325 lines in the 1602 quarto edition of Thomas Kyd’s play “The Spanish Tragedy” were, in fact, written by Shakespeare.

Last year, the British scholar Brian Vickers used computer analysis to argue that the so-called Additional Passages were by Shakespeare, a claim hailed by some as the latest triumph of high-tech Elizabethan text mining.

But now, a professor at the University of Texas says he has found something closer to definitive proof using a more old-fashioned method: analyzing Shakespeare’s messy handwriting.

In a terse four-page paper, to be published in the September issue of the journal Notes and Queries, Douglas Bruster argues that various idiosyncratic features of the Additional Passages — including some awkward lines that have struck some doubters as distinctly sub-Shakespearean — may be explained as print shop misreadings of Shakespeare’s penmanship.

“What we’ve got here isn’t bad writing, but bad handwriting,” Mr. Bruster said in a telephone interview.

Claiming Shakespeare authorship can be a perilous endeavor. In 1996, Donald Foster, a pioneer in computer-driven textual analysis, drew front-page headlines with his assertion that Shakespeare was the author of an obscure Elizabethan poem called “A Funeral Elegy,” only to quietly retract his argument six years later after analyses by Mr. Vickers and others linked it to a different author.

This time, editors of some prestigious scholarly editions are betting that Mr. Bruster’s cautiously methodical arguments, piled on top of previous work by Mr. Vickers and others, will make the attribution stick.

“We don’t have any absolute proof, but this is as close as you can get,” said Eric Rasmussen, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and an editor, with Jonathan Bate, of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s edition of the complete Shakespeare.

“I think we can now say with some authority that, yes, this is Shakespeare,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “It has his fingerprints all over it.”

Mr. Rasmussen and Mr. Bate are including “The Spanish Tragedy” in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new edition of Shakespeare’s collaboratively authored plays, to be published in November. And Mr. Bruster plans to include the Additional Passages in his new edition of the Riverside Shakespeare (renamed the Bankside Shakespeare), coming in 2016.

If embraced by the broader world of Shakespeareans, the Additional Passages would become the first largely undisputed new addition to the canon since Shakespeare’s contributions to “Edward III” — another play that some have attributed to Kyd — began appearing in scholarly editions in the mid-1990s.

Acceptance is by no means assured. Three years ago, some scholars were skeptical when the Arden Shakespeare published “Double Falsehood,” an 18th-century play whose connection with a lost Shakespeare drama had long been debated, in its prestigious series.

Tiffany Stern, a professor of early modern drama at Oxford University and an advisory editor for the Arden Shakespeare, praised the empirical rigor of Mr. Bruster’s paper, but said that some new attributions were driven less by solid evidence than by publishers’ desire to offer “more Shakespeare” than their rivals.

“The arguments for ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ are better than for most” putative Shakespeare collaborations, Ms. Stern said. “But I think we’re going a bit Shakespeare-attribution crazy and shoving a lot of stuff in that maybe shouldn’t be there.”

Elizabethan theater was intensely collaborative, with playwrights often punching up old plays or working with other dramatists to cobble together new ones, in the manner of Hollywood script doctors. The 1602 Additional Passages to “The Spanish Tragedy,” inserted more than a decade after Kyd wrote the original, updated the bloody revenge play with a bit of psychological realism, which had become fashionable. (It is not known whether Kyd, who died in 1594, ever met Shakespeare.)

The idea that Shakespeare may have written the Additional Passages — which include a “Hamlet”-like scene of a grief-maddened father discoursing on the death of his son — was first broached in 1833 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But that claim remained a distinctly minority position well into the 20th century, even as scholars began using sophisticated computer software to detect subtle linguistic patterns that seemed to link the passages to Shakespeare’s other work.

Mr. Bruster said he himself was a skeptic until he read Mr. Vickers’s 2012 article, which presented voluminous circumstantial historical evidence alongside linguistic patterns unearthed by software designed to uncover student plagiarism.

“I had to rethink my entire position,” Mr. Bruster said. “His arguments based on literary history were just so strong.”

Mr. Bruster was less persuaded by the linguistic parallels, which he calls merely “suggestive.” And so he turned to perhaps the most literal source of authority: Shakespeare’s own pen.

Scholars have long cited the idiosyncrasies of Shakespeare’s handwriting — surviving mainly in three densely scribbled pages held in the British Library that are widely attributed to Shakespeare — to understand oddities in the earliest printed versions of his plays. (In the 1604 quarto version of “Hamlet,” for example, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, is called “Gertrad” — probably a reflection, Mr. Rasmussen said, of Shakespeare’s tendency to close up his u’s and drop his final e’s.)

In his paper, Mr. Bruster identifies 24 broad spelling patterns — including shortened past tenses (like “blest” for “blessed”) and single medial consonants (like “sorow” instead of “sorrow”) — that occur both in the Additional Passages, for which no known manuscript survives, and the Shakespeare handwriting sample in the British Library. He also cites nine textual “corruptions” (like “creuie” instead of “creuic,” modernized as “crevice”) that he believes can be explained as misreadings of Shakespeare’s handwriting.

These irregularities, considered individually, are not necessarily unique to Shakespeare. But taken together, Mr. Bruster argues, they strongly suggest that the Additional Passages were set in type from pages written, in the most literal sense, by Shakespeare.

“What I’m getting at is the DNA of Shakespeare’s words themselves, the way he formed those words with his pen on the page,” he said.

A printer’s misreading, Mr. Bruster argues, may also explain a particularly clumsy and nongrammatical stretch in the Additional Passages. During a moving speech, the grieving father, Hieronimo, meditates on the nature of a father’s love for his son.

The 1602 quarto renders it: “What is there yet in a sonne? He must be fed,/Be thaught to goe, and speake I, or yet./Why might not a man loue a Calfe as well?”

But that baffling “I, or yet,” Mr. Bruster argues, is likely a misreading of “Ier” — an abbreviation indicating the line is spoken by Hieronimo, a name that in Shakespeare’s time was sometimes rendered as Ieronimo.

The passage, Mr. Bruster argues, should really read (with modernized spelling): “What is there yet in a son?/He must be fed, be taught to go, and speak./Yet why might not a man love a calf as well?”

Mr. Bruster once counted himself among the many scholars who have thought the passage in the quarto was simply too poorly written to be Shakespeare. “But once you realize that it’s Shakespeare’s handwriting that’s responsible for the misreading, it’s no longer a bad line,” Mr. Bruster said. “It’s actually a gorgeous passage.”

Finding some of Shakespeare’s lines embedded in another writer’s plays may not carry the frisson of announcing the discovery of a previously unknown poem entirely by Shakespeare. But Mr. Bruster’s paper reflects current scholarly interest in Shakespeare as a playwright who frequently collaborated with others — including, Mr. Vickers has controversially argued, on plays we think of as coming solely from his own pen.

“Shakespeare wasn’t a solitary genius, flying above everyone else,” Mr. Vickers said. “He was a working man of the theater. If his company needed a new play, he’d get together with someone else and get it done.”

Shakespeare and his times, new book

This video is called Video SparkNotes: Shakespeare’s King Lear summary.

Simon Basketter in Britain takes a look at a new book that cuts through the mysticism around Shakespeare:

Tue 16 Oct 2012

Objects that bear witness to Shakespeare’s restless times

The last thing the eyeball of Edward Oldcorne would have seen was the executioner walking to disembowel him.

That eyeball became a relic. And the crowds who watched his execution in the morning could then go to a Shakespeare play in the afternoon.

Neil MacGregor points out in his new book on William Shakespeare, “A stage is actually called a scaffold, and in Henry V the Chorus uses the word.

“So when Shakespeare stages the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear, it is for an audience who would have seen people being disembowelled and the severed heads on London Bridge.”

There is probably more mysticism about Shakespeare than any other writer. MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, cuts through this. He uses the method adopted in his A History Of The World In 100 Objects—looking at 20 things that give a glimpse into Shakespeare’s world.

They include an iron fork, a wooden model ship, designs for the Union flag, a clock, a pedlar’s trunk and Oldcorne’s preserved eyeball. They reveal much about the audience that watched Shakespeare’s plays, as well as about the works themselves.


MacGregor reminds us of the grim economic and social realities of a society racked by wars and the threat of civil war and revolution. It is a society wrestling with new ideas about people’s position in the world.

Shakespeare reflected every aspect of these unsettled times. The model wooden boat is not a toy, but a religious offering—giving thanks for the safe return of James VI from his storm-hampered trip to meet his betrothed, Anne of Denmark.

The book links this to Macbeth’s witches and their power over tempests and sailing ships. Several women from North Berwick were accused of witchcraft, threatening the king’s boat. The wedding party had travelled to the castle at Elsinore—later to be the setting for Hamlet.

The book started as a BBC Radio 4 series, and occasionally it seems as if the transfer to print was a bit rushed. But it brings Shakespeare and his world to life, placing it in its historical context in a fascinating way.

MacGregor explains, “I feel I understand now why whenever there are revolutions Shakespeare is what people turn to. Because whenever a society is on the cusp, about to become something else, they find themselves in Shakespeare.”

Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor (Allen Lane, £25)