"Better than thy dear self’s better part": Shakespeare and Early Modern Marriage

One of my current projects is the compilation of a magazine designed to preview our Actors’ Renaissance Season. I’ll be talking a lot more about that project when it’s nearer to completion, but for the time being, I’m working on my own contribution — an article on The Comedy of Errors. I’ve chosen to focus on the things in the play which are surprising, despite it being, in many ways, Shakespeare’s least original and most traditional play.

The idea for this article came out of an activity in the study guide I prepared for the play. We’ve retooled a section that used to be called “Viewpoints,” which was initially a rather vague catch-all for things that didn’t fit into other categories. The section is now “Perspectives,” and its purpose is to help connect the dots between the world of the play, Shakespeare’s world, and the modern world. In researching this portion of the study guide for The Comedy of Errors, I went looking for different commentaries on marriage in early modern Europe. A lot of what I found was precisely the kind of misogynistic and paternalistic dictate-from-on-high which we’re often led to believe represents the monolithic opinion of all societies pre-dating suffrage or the sexual revolution. Consider the following examples:

Erasmus: The Institution of Marriage: “Maintaining a Harmonious Relationship” (1526) : “Thus the girl needs to be told by her parents to be obliging and compliant towards her husband and, if he should upset her, to give him the benefit of the doubt, or at least put up with it. She must not rush headlong into recrimination and arguments, nor flounce out of the house: in time, when life together has bred intimacy between them, it will ensure that things that upset her at first will now amuse her, and that what once seemed intolerable will prove very easy to bear. … “However, although there must be mutual respect, both nature and scriptural authority lay down that the wife should obey her husband rather than the opposite. Paul recommends love and gentleness to husbands: ‘You men,’ he says, ‘love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. But what does he prescribe for the women? Obedience and submissiveness.”

Michel de Montaigne: “On Friendship” (1580) : “As for marriage, not only is it a bargain to which only the entrance is free… but it is a bargain commonly made for other ends. There occur in it innumerable extraneous complications which have to be unraveled, and are enough to break the thread and disturb the course of lively affection”

Francis Bacon: Essays (1597) : “There was never proud man thought so absurdly well of himself as the lover doth of the person loved; and therefore it was well said, That it is impossible to love and be wise. … He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. Certainly, the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from unmarried or childless men. Which both in affection and means have married and endowed the public.”

I think it helps to remember, though, that these opinions were as likely (and perhaps moreso) to be prescriptive, the fruit of wishful thinking, as they were to be descriptive of the reality of early modern marriages. After all, Erasmus, a Catholic priest, never married. However enlightened this humanist’s views were in many respects, on the the subject of marital harmony, he may not have been fully qualified to offer his opinion. Montaigne rarely saw his wife, and his essays indicate dissatisfaction with the state of marriage, which he seems to have considered useful primarily for procreation, and therefore necessary but regrettable. Francis Bacon suffered a jilting in his youth, and when he later married, he became so estranged from his wife that he wrote her out of his will. Are these really men whose advice on wedded bliss we want to be taking as representative of the whole of society?

Probably not — and a little more digging unearths some viewpoints markedly different from the paternalistic chorus. I thoroughly enjoyed the viewpoint of Dutch historian Emmanuel Van Meteran, who observed of English wives in 1575:

“Wives in England are entirely in the power of their husbands, their lives only excepted… yet they are not kept so strictly as they are in Spain or elsewhere. Nor are they shut up, but they have the free management of the house or housekeeping. … They go to market to buy what they like best to eat. They are well dressed, fond of taking it easy, and commonly leave the care of household matters and drudgery to their servants. … All the rest of their time they employ in walking or riding, in playing at cards or otherwise, in visiting their friends and keeping company, conversing with their equals (whom they term, gossips) and their neighbors, and making merry with them at childbirths, christenings, churchings and funerals.”

Granted, Van Meteran was describing the life of the gentry and the wealthy merchant class in London, the set amid which he had traveled and lodged, rather than the life of your average country swain, but that sounds like a pretty good life to my modern ears. It also sounds not unlike what we see of marriage in The Merry Wives of Windsor or in many early modern city comedies. I think Nell from The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Madge from The Shoemaker’s Holiday, or any of the gossips in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside would find Van Meteran’s description entirely appropriate.

A collection of essays published in 1617 (after Shakespeare’s death, but still within the bounds of relevance for the time period when looking at societal trends) featured women themselves speaking out on the matter, either under their own names or under pseudonyms. The collection was in response to a pamphlet, The Arraignment of Women, which broadly slandered the whole gender, making exceptions only for Lucretia (who killed herself after being raped), Sarah (for calling her husband “Lord”), Susanna (for “creeping on her knees to please her husband”), and the Virgin Mary. The rebuttals are furiously eloquent:

Rachel Speght: “The Worthiness of Women” (1617) : “…for man was created of the dust of the earth, but woman was made a part of man, after that he was a living soul; yet was she not produced from Adam’s foot, to be his too low inferior, nor from his head, to be his superior, but from his side, near his heart, to be his equal; that where he is Lord, she may be Lady.”

‘Ester Sowernam’: “The Weakness of Men” (1617) :”In no one thing men do acknowledge a more excellent perfection in women than in the estimate of offences which a woman doth commit: the worthiness of the person doth make the sin more markable. What a hateful thing it is to see a woman overcome with drink, when as in a man it is noted for a sign of good fellowship. And whosoever doth observe it, for one woman which doth make a custom of drunkenness you shall find a hundred men. It is abhorred in women, and therefore they avoid it; it is laughed at and made but as a jest among men, and therefore so many practice it. Likewise if a man abuse a maid and get her with child, no matter is made of it but as a trick of youth; but it is made so heinous an offence in the maid, that she is disparaged and utterly undone by it. So in all offences, those which men commit are made light and as nothing, slighted over; but those which women do commit, those are made grievous and shameful.”

The first passage struck me because I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that sentiment, slightly reworded, on a bumper sticker. The second made me think of Emilia in Othello, wondering why women suffer more for the same sins men commit so freely.

After reading these passages, I find myself yearning for a full compendium of primary sources on early modern marriage, similar to the one that exists on race. Anyone who would like to take that on as a thesis project or doctorate would have my undying gratitude. There’s just something magnificent about reading the original sources, whether descriptive or prescriptive, and finding out just how varied opinions were. I think history can sometimes get flattened in classrooms, not least to fit time constraints and to hit the main points of education requirements, and so we end up thinking of any society more than a century or so back as much less divergent and pluralistic than it really was.

All of this brings me around to thinking about marriage in Shakespeare. As I said at the top of this post, I’m working on an article on The Comedy of Errors. One of the most surprising things in the play is Adriana, the supposedly shrewish wife. I don’t want to give too much of my article away — because I’m hoping you’ll all buy the magazine — but I focus on the difference between Adriana and the wife in the source material, Plautus’s Menaechmi, who really is the most ill-tempered harpy you can imagine. Adriana, though, not only has just cause to be irked with her husband (who spends his afternoons with a courtesan), but she expresses her supposed jealousy (actually, I think, genuine heartbreak) with some astonishingly beautiful poetry. Her words of censure are nowhere near s violent or caustic as the wife in Menaechmi; she makes a personal appeal to her husband, one that calls on profoundly spiritual language. Certainly the character can be played as a shrew, and the scenes can be played for laughs, but I think that does a disservice to one of the few moments of psychological complexity in a relatively straightforward play.

I’ll leave you with part of Adriana’s speech, which is one of my favorite moments in the play. If you want to know my in-depth thoughts about it, you’ll have to pick up (or read online) a copy of Playhouse Insider when it comes out. For now, I’ll just say this: Shakespeare writes a lot about love, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more genuine, more emotional, or more heart-tugging treatise on marriage anywhere in his works.

The time was once when thou unurged wouldst vow
That never words were music to thine ear,
That never object pleasing in thine eye,
That never touch well welcome to thy hand,
That never meat sweet-savor’d in thy taste,
Unless I spake, or look’d, or touch’d, or carved to thee.
How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it,
That thou art thus estranged from thyself?
Thyself I call it, being strange to me,
That, undividable, incorporate,
Am better than thy dear self’s better part.
Ah, do not tear away thyself from me!
For know, my love, as easy mayest thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled that same drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.
–Adriana, The Comedy of Errors, 2.2

Looking Scornfully: Stage Directions in Richard III

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is the ability to stumble into discoveries while working on something else entirely.

Yesterday, I was editing a bit of text to go into our study guides. We adhere to the Folio text as far as stage directions, line breaks, and entrances/exits go, because we think there’s a reason those things were put where they are. Are some of them printer errors? Sure. But we like to err on the side of at least trying things the Folio way first, then making adjustments, because more often than not, you make great discoveries that way. Doing theatre the way we do at the OCS, you sometimes discover that, yes, that person is supposed to enter that early even though no-one sees or talks to him until later in the scene. My favorite example is from 2.2 of Macbeth; many modern editors used to move Macbeth’s entrance until just before Lady Macbeth says “My husband!”. This change turns his earlier line into a “within” delivery — but if your actors are playing the darkness, there’s no reason at all to move the entrance from where the Folio has it, before Macbeth’s first line. You lose so much wonderful stagecraft by delaying his appearance on the stage.

Having found nuggets of revelation like these in the texts, I’ve started getting agitated (much to the delight of my boss, Sarah) when a modern editor changes or moves a stage direction for no logical reason, and so yesterday, as I was pulling from 1.2 of Richard III, I saw the direction “She looks scornfully at him” and mentally tsked at the editor. ‘Surely,’ I thought, ‘that’s not in the Folio. Surely some editor has been taking liberties.’ Off to the Folio I went, prepared to delete the extraneous editorial suggestion, but much to my alarm… that stage direction exists. What’s more, it’s not the only bizarrely specific direction in the scene. “Spits at him,” “He lays his breast open. She offers at with his sword,” and “She falls the sword” also appear:

I kind of can’t get over this. It’s just so… weird. A quick poll of the office revealed that I was not the only one who would’ve lost money betting on those directions being editorial. We all thought they sounded far too modern, far too post-Ibsen to be original to the Folio. These stage directions are alarmingly specific, but there’s really no reason for them, because all the action is embedded in the lines. I don’t need a direction telling me that Lady Anne looks scornfully at him when Richard says “Teach not thy lip such scorn.” Nor do I need the direction for Richard to lay his breast open and for Lady Anne to “offer at” it when Richard has just spent five lines instructing her to do that. As attuned as I’ve become to embedded stage directions, the explicit ones feel redundant.

The directions in the 1597 Quarto are not so specific or detailed, but still pretty odd for early modern theatre. The Quarto gives us “She spitteth at him” and “Here she lets fall the sword,” but not the other two, more explicit, directions. How did those creep in, then, I wonder?

Sarah suggested to me that this might fit in with recently-bandied-about theories regarding the training of boy actors. Perhaps the text for the Folio was taken off of a prompt book that had been specifically designed for helping a younger boy through the part of Lady Anne? That suggestion makes me want to look through the rest of the play, at the other female roles, to see if the trend continues. Is 1.2 an anomaly, or is it representative of the role?

It isn’t as though there aren’t other weirdly specific (or bizarrely obscure) stage directions in the early modern period. Two of my favorites are from two of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, “She runs lunatic” in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and “Enter Hans, like a Dutch shoemaker” and “Enter Rafe, being lame” in Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday. Those type of directions are the exception rather than the rule, though, which is why they’re notable when they do occur.

Thoughts? What are your favorite odd stage directions from the early modern period?

"As if he master’d there a double spirit, of teaching and of learning instantly"

This past weekend, OCS Education hosted our first Teachers’ Seminar of the year. We took the opportunity to showcase the new direction we’re moving with our study guides, our workshops, and the rest of our educational activities, focusing strongly on playable aspects of Shakespeare’s works and demonstrating how those playable moments can work in a classroom.

The activities kicked off on Friday afternoon with a lecture from our Director of Mission, Ralph Cohen, exploring key moments from 2 Henry IV. Ralph explored the language of the play using Wordles, asking the teachers to pick out words they thought their students wouldn’t understand. In most of what we looked at, there weren’t many unfamiliar words, and Ralph then showed how, in the one speech he gave them where there were strange and unconventional word choices, the unfamiliar vocabulary still wasn’t anything to be frightened of. He also got them started on an on-your-feet exercise, playing with the interaction between Mistress Quickly, Snare, and Fang before Falstaff enters in 2.1. After the workshop, we held a Master Minds session, featuring two of the best presentations from last year’s MLitt students, by Sarah Keyes Chang and Glenn Schudel. This session gave our participants the opportunity to see examples of the research produced by students in the MBC program — and, as Sarah pointed out, we in the education department (three program alumnae and one current student) get some of our best ideas from concepts explored by graduate research.

Saturday morning, Ben Curns, who plays Iago in the current OCS production of Othello, came by to help Sarah lead a workshop on asides and audience contact. The goal of this workshop was to give teachers an easy tool into working with the text by getting students to consider the dynamics at play on stage. Who’s talking to whom? When is someone talking to the audience, and how does that change the scene? How can you tell if it’s just audience contact, when the other character on stage can still hear what’s being said, or a true “aside,” when the audience must believe in the stage fiction that the other character can’t hear? We worked a scene between Iago and Roderigo to start, with Ben playing Iago and one of the workshop participants acting Roderigo, and for the first run of the scene, we had them do the whole scene without talking to the audience at all. After that run, Ben’s immediate response was that it was “really difficult” not to talk to the audience– which just shows how naturally Shakespeare builds that kind of contact into the lines. When we ran the scene a second time, this time allowing for audience contact and asides, the whole energy of the stage changed. We talked a lot about using the audience as an ally and how to build that rapport during a scene. We then set Iago and Roderigo up for a third run, where Roderigo was really trying to leave the scene, and we saw how that changed the dynamics at play. Iago could no longer devote quite so much attention to the audience, as he had to focus on Roderigo. All of these runs stressed the choices an actor (or a student) can make in performance — what opportunities open up each time you make a different choice?

After the mid-morning break, we had the participants use an activity out of the guides, marking whether given lines were for normal delivery to the other character, audience contact, or an aside, and then we got two volunteers up to work through the scene according to those determinations. We asked them to determine the goal of the scene for each character, then decide if and how the audience could help the character reach that goal. It was so great to get people offering different opinions on how a line should be delivered; I love it when people argue about Shakespeare, and it’s always my goal to get students arguing — because if they argue, it means they care. It means they’ve officially put a dog in the fight, often without even realizing that they’ve been absorbed into the process.

Sunday morning we worked through some activities from the Taming study guide. We kept with our theme of making choices in performance, this time using 1.1 of Taming, when Lucentio first sees Bianca. The goal was to run the scene two ways, first with a Bianca who was sweetness and light, and the second with Bianca as a total brat. Sarah and I were both delighted when we found a spot — “sit and gaze your fill” — where scanning the iambic pentameter line provided direction for the action. What was really wonderful, though, was how much the participants wanted to make suggestions and redirect each other. I had such a rush of energy just watching them make decisions on their own, finding the ways to have fun with the scene. It’s exactly the sort of interaction we hope (and believe) will happen in classrooms.

After Sunday’s mid-morning break, Ralph came in and helped us work two more key moments. He began by talking about “fighting two centuries of editorial misogyny” in regard to a stage direction often added into the play, which indicates that Petruchio strikes a servant on the line “Take that.” Using two volunteers, Ralph explored different ways to realize that embedded direction, running the spectrum from threateningly violent to remarkably generous and gentle. He then moved on to the final exit of the play, which involved every participant in the workshop, to demonstrate the difference in mood created by leaving everyone on the stage at the end of the play (as the Folio does not include an exeunt), rather than having all your actors file off.

All of these activities demonstrated how you can teach so much about the play just by going deep and narrow into a very few lines. We never worked an entire scene from Taming — often we would only work 2-5 lines — but it didn’t matter that we weren’t getting all the way to the end of a section. What mattered were the conversations happening as we worked, the excitement and energy of discovering hidden clues in the scene. I was so excited to see the activities out of our guides working so well on their feet (and I’ll be talking some more, probably later this week, about what’s gone into the reconstruction of our guides this year) — it really makes me feel confident that teachers will find these useful tools for their classrooms.

I’m so grateful for all the teachers who came out for the weekend. I know we on the education team had a blast, and I feel confident that all of our participants enjoyed themselves as well. See the OCS website for more information on future seminars — in the winter we’ll be working with The Comedy of Errors, and Macbeth and As You Like It will be on the docket for April.

"On hill, in dale, forest or mead" : Shakespeare and an Eco-Conscious Life

An interesting article fell into my inbox this morning: Teaching My Child About Mother Earth. The article discusses a mother rediscovering her own love of the natural world through her daughter, whose natural biophilia has not yet been stifled, who loves grassy fields, ocean waves, and bumblebees. The article makes suggestions on how to foster a child’s interest in nature, creating life-long habits of conservation — and the author chooses to frame these modern concerns with a quote from Shakespeare: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” from Troilus and Cressida. Though Ulysses means it, in context, more cynically than does the author of this article, it still made me think about the implications of pairing Shakespeare’s words to ecological concepts.

The idea of getting back to nature runs through a lot of Shakespeare’s plays. From Midsummer to Cymbeline, wild forests provide a place for the snarls and tangles of life to work themselves out to healthy resolution. There may be dangers (or meddling fairies), but if you’re a good-hearted soul on an honest quest, you can get through the darkness, reunite with long-lost relatives, win back ancestral titles, successfully woo your lady-or-lord-love, and return to your previously scheduled life in peace and merriment. The OCS’s production of As You Like It, currently touring, highlights the peace and comforts of the country life, drawing the audience into an idyllic world far removed from the conniving politics and superficial concerns of the urbanized court. The shepherd Colin declares, “I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good, content with my harm, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.” Would that we could all be so contented.

The (perhaps nostalgic) affinity for country life presented in Shakespeare’s plays probably shouldn’t be surprising to us. He was, after all, more a country boy than a Londoner like Ben Jonson. Stratford-upon-Avon in the late 16th-century was a town of about 2000 people, close to expansive forests and to the picturesque Cotswold hill ranges. Beyond seeing the biographical connections, however, I think we can understand Shakespeare’s yearning for the green world more personally, based on the experiences of late-20th- and early-21st-century living. Shakespeare’s world was pre-Industrial, but only just. Like us, Shakespeare lived in a world that was rapidly urbanizing, where pollution was becoming a major concern, where the health of those in the inner-cities was in decline. Then, as now, changes in climate and weather patterns disrupted food production and threatened the livelihoods of those dependent on the soil or the sea. We may worry about offshore oil platforms and the ethics of farming corn for ethanol, while people in 1600 worried about sheep enclosures and fishing rights, but the basis of concern is the same — How do we use our land? How do we weigh profitability versus responsibility? How can we make the best decisions, not just for ourselves, but for future generations?

I wonder if there’s a way to enrich this connection. How can we integrate Shakespeare into the green movement? Perhaps this connection can provide another in-road for students, another way to demonstrate Shakespeare’s continuing relevance to them, as the millennial generation is more likely to be concerned with conservation, renewable energy, and responsible stewardship of the land than previous generations have been. If we can show them that Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate care about the green world, too, it might be another opportunity to catch their interest (and I always like finding those).

Just for fun, what’s your favorite quote from Shakespeare about the natural world?

Titling the History Plays

The Staunton Newsleader’s review of 2 Henry IV opens by criticizing the play’s title.

For a man who had more than his share of creative chops, William Shakespeare could come up with some pretty dull titles. The “Henry Whichever, Part Whatever” plays are chief examples, as their titles absolutely fail to reflect, or even hint at, the theatrical glory lurking behind them.

This statement caught my eye because the same idea came up here on the blog a couple of weeks ago, when I talked about 1 Henry VI. Are the titles of the history plays really that great a barrier? It strikes me as a slightly odd criticism — it’s not like Hamlet or Othello give you any more to go on as titles. Is it the numbers that people find intimidating? How might a different title alter perception of the play?

I’ll refrain from giving too pedantic a lecture about playhouse traditions and the early modern publishing industry, and simply say that there’s really no way to pin this exclusively on Shakespeare, as he may well not have been responsible for titling his own plays during his lifetime, and he certainly hasn’t controlled what we call them in the centuries since his death. Many of the history plays appear under alternate titles in Henslowe’s Diary or with variations in the titles between different printings. Additionally, many of the histories did have fuller, more descriptive titles in their printed forms. I submit, for your consideration:

  • Richard II, alternately (in the 1615 quarto) The Tragedy of King Richard II, with new additions of the Parliament Scene, and the Deposing of King Richard
  • 1 Henry IV, alternately (in the 1598 quarto) The History of King Henry the Fourth, with the battle at Shrewsbury, between the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henry Hotspur of the North, with the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstaff
  • 2 Henry IV, in full in the Folio The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, Containing his Death and the Coronation of King Henry the Fifth
  • Henry V, alternately (in the 1600 quarto) The chronicle history of Henry the Fifth, with his battle fought at Agincourt in France, Together with Ancient Pistol
  • 2 Henry VI, alternately (in the 1594 quarto) The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolk, and the Tragical end of the proud Cardinal of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Jack Cade: and the Duke of Yorke’s first claim unto the crown
  • 3 Henry VI, alternately (in the 1595 octavo) The The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixth, with the Whole Contention between the two Houses, Lancaster and York
  • Richard III, alternately (in the 1597 quarto) The tragedy of King Richard the third Containing his treacherous plots against his brother Clarence: the pitiful murder of his innocent nephews: his tyrannical usurpation: with the whole course of the detested life, and most deserved death, or, in the Folio, The Tragedy of Richard the Third, with the Landing of Earl Richmond, and the Battle at Bosworth Field.

More descriptive, certainly, but also perhaps a bit too cumbersome for easy marketing purposes. There’s a lesson in here about what publishers thought would sell a book, what audiences had made popular (is Ancient Pistol really the highlight of Henry V?), and it might be something teachers of the history plays would find worth exploring with students. It’s also worth noting how many of those titles “give away” major plot points and character deaths — the very things we consider “spoilers” today. (I will, I’m sure, be encouraging profitable discussion on these matters in next year’s Henry V study guide).

So, just for fun, I propose a game. Retitle the histories! Keep it to, oh, seven words or less — something more like how the comedies or romances are conventionally titled — so we can aim for the happy medium between the short character-based titles and the lengthy expository titles (glorious though those are). What do you want to emphasize out of the play? Who do you think is the central figure, or what’s the main event? Play with me in the comments here or on Twitter.

My suggestions so far:

For Henry V: simply, Agincourt
For Richard II: The Deposition of the King
For 1 Henry VI: A War Won by Witchcraft

As far as 2 Henry IV is concerned, our own Dr. Ralph Cohen, who directed the play, suggests these alternatives in the season program: Fat Jack and the Two Harrys or The Flim Flammer Knight’s Dream.

I’ll compile everyone’s suggestions into a later post, and we can talk about what everyone finds most interesting, most pertinent, or most marketable for these plays, judging by the proposed titles.

"On dangers past, and pleasures to ensue" – The Spanish Tragedy

One of the best things about theatre in Staunton is the opportunity to see so many rarely-performed plays. Not only does the OCS make an effort to include selections from Shakespeare’s contemporaries, predecessors, and successors in the repertory — this year alone, we’ve had Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Jonson’s The Alchemist, and Massinger’s The Roman Actor in the Actors’ Renaissance Season, with the 1790 Wild Oats by John O’Keefe currently playing and Thomas Heywood’s 1631 Fair Maid of the West opening in October — but related programs in the area have also taken to branching out in a similar fashion. The theatre department at Stuart Hall, headed by a graduate of the MLitt/MFA program, has in the past performed plays like John Lyly’s Gallathea alongside more traditional Shakespearean fare. The MBC program often trends towards the revival of obscure plays, whether by Shakespeare or by his contemporaries, and this year will be no exception, with productions of The Misfortunes of Arthur, a 1587 play by Thomas Hugues, and The Shoemaker’s Holiday, a 1599 city comedy by Thomas Dekker, both upcoming in the fall.

Last night’s selection, put forth by the University Wits, was Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, generally considered to be the forerunner for Hamlet and any number of other plays in the revenge tragedy genre. As such, this play is fertile ground for thinking of the chains of inspiration and derivation in early modern theatre. (Thesis project, anyone?). As director Asae Dean noted in the program, and as I noticed while watching the play, you can see in Spanish Tragedy the seeds of many other plays. I thought of the unapologetic vengeance of Vindice, from Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. I thought of the brother-sister relationship in Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. I saw Iago’s cunning, Titus’s devotion to wholesale destruction, the concealed passions of so many lovers meeting by moonlight. I was also put in mind strongly of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, at a moment where Hieronimo comments on the nature of acting:

That we do as all Tragedians do:
To die today for fashioning our scene
The death of Ajax or some Roman peer–
And in a minute starting up again,
Revive to please tomorrow’s audience.

Though Stoppard’s play obviously derives from Hamlet, he seems to have borrowed from Kyd when Guildenstern complains that actors “die a thousand casual deaths – with none of that intensity which squeezes out life…because even as you die you know that you will come back in a different hat.” The Spanish Tragedy thus becomes a sort of echo-chamber, not just to a viewer with a broad experience of early modern theatre, but with ripples that come down to the present day as well.

Though Spanish Tragedy is most often linked to Hamlet, I found myself thinking not about the similarities between the plays, but of the differences. The connection between the two plays is strong, but in many ways, it appears to be one of inversion rather than replication. The ghost of Don Andrea, who appears at the beginning of the play (and remains onstage for the duration), doesn’t affect any of the action as Hamlet’s father does; though the people responsible for Don Andrea’s death do pay in the end, his death isn’t what they’re paying for. The revenge belongs to another character, for another death. The play-within-a-play isn’t meant to out anyone watching it; it’s designed as a trap for two of the actors. A father mourns for a son, not a son for a father. The people left standing at the end of the play occupy wildly different places in the plot than those left at the end of Hamlet. The biggest difference, though, is how much Spanish Tragedy struck me as a play of passions, whereas I’ve always felt Hamlet to be much more cerebral (and a little bloodless). Wooing and love-play in Hamlet take place off-stage, or before the play begins, but in Spanish Tragedy, the audience gets to see it — Horatio and Bel-imperia have some wonderful romantic teasing, and the awkward advances of Balthazar are plainly presented for the audience to cringe at. Though such fleshy interests are in Hamlet’s mind, we never see his mother and stepfather-uncle in their private moments, nor do we see Hamlet court Ophelia — all we get are the remnants in the form of Ophelia’s love-tokens. Shakespeare’s doing something interesting there, turning the physical inward, making the audience imagine or remember along with Hamlet, rather than allowing us to experience the moments as we do in The Spanish Tragedy.

The Spanish Tragedy is a play I’d read several times but never seen before, and as I watched the show, I remembered several of the things we’d discussed when reading this play in the Contemporaries class at Mary Baldwin. Many of the things we’d identified as “problems” in class seemed perfectly natural on the stage — most notably the ending play-within-a-play, where each of four characters speaks in a different language (none of them English). The text of The Spanish Tragedy indicates that “this play of Hieronimo, in sundry languages, was thought good to be set down in English more largely, for the easier understanding to every public reader,” but it does seem clear that, in performance, it was done in those sundry languages. As a reader, you wonder how this can possibly work, but on the stage you discover that, since Hieronimo has helpfully explained the plot (which unsubtly mirrors the plot of the play they’re all in) in a previous scene, it really doesn’t matter if you can’t understand what they’re saying. You get the idea, and they move along to the homicides rapidly enough that the strange tongues don’t become tedious. The bloodshed at the end does lean towards the absurd, but — similar to The Revenger’s Tragedy — I was entirely okay with that. The entire play has an edge of the ridiculous to it, which the cast embraced rather than embarrassedly shying away from. Like Revenger’s, The Spanish Tragedy dances on the thin line between high tragedy and black comedy, and I find that juxtaposition delightful.

I’m sure I’ll be working with these connections a lot over the next year, as I prepare a study guide for Hamlet, which will necessarily involve looking at Hamlet‘s antecedents and at the revenge tragedy genre as a whole. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see such an energetic and committed production before I begin that work — it’s always great to have a live production in mind from which to draw inspiration. If you ever have the chance to see this play in performance, do so — you won’t regret it. If you’re looking for a non-Shakespeare play to produce, consider it — this play is well-worthy of revival. And if you’re in Staunton, you can still see the University Wits’ production tonight, 7:30 PM, at the King Theatre at Stuart Hall.

History’s Mystery

Last evening, Shakespeare at Winedale, a summer program at the University of Texas at Austin, made their annual trip to the Shenandoah Valley to perform 1 Henry VI at the Blackfriars Playhouse. This performance concluded their season, which also included Twelfth Night and Macbeth. The MBC MLitt/MFA program enjoys a great relationship with this troupe — several students in the program have come from Winedale, and director James Loehlin guest-taught courses on dramaturgy and directing last fall. The Winedale performances are always high-quality and exciting — and often they’re the first chance, or among the first chances, for students new to the program and the area to see a full-length production on the Blackfriars stage.

The production was energetic and a lot of fun — more fun, I think, than most people think of the history plays as being. Some of the best comedic moments came from the depictions of the French aristocracy — it’s always fun to realize that the joke stereotyping the French as cowards goes back hundreds of years (no offense to any French nationals or expatriates reading this blog). The students really committed to the absurdity of those roles, and the fight/chase scenes were some of the funniest I’ve seen — they really made great use of the discovery space.

Before the show started, James Loehlin commented on 1 Henry VI perhaps being an odd choice — except for this theatre. The Blackfriars, as part of our Rise and Fall of Kings series, performed 1 Henry VI in the winter of 2009, followed by 2 Henry VI this past winter, and to be followed by 3 Henry VI in the upcoming Actors’ Renaissance Season. Dr Loehlin asserted, however, that the Winedale production might have been the first ever in Texas, however, at least to the best of his knowledge.

So here’s my question — Why? With only a few exceptions — 1 Henry IV, Henry V, and Richard III coming to mind — teachers and production companies alike tend to shy away from Shakespeare’s histories, yet these plays were some of the most popular of the early modern stage. Why is that? Is it only that we don’t conceive of the Plantagenets as part of our cultural heritage in the same way that 16th-century Englishmen did? Or is there something else we find unsatisfying about the history plays? What makes so many people conceive of the Henrys as less of a good show than Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Now, I’ll freely admit that I come to this from a strange place. I’m a historian at heart. I love history, I love reading books on history, I could draw you a genealogical chart of the Plantagenet dynasty. So I find interest even in the “duller” or “worse” history plays — like, many would argue, the Henry Sixes. I like being able to “follow along,” and I like to know what’s coming. As we left the theatre following 1 Henry VI last night, a friend and I were laughing, shaking our heads at Margaret and Suffolk. “Ohhhhh, it’s only going to end in tears,” I said. “Tears and pirates,” supplied my friend. “Yup. You might think you’re going to ‘rule both her, the king and realm,’ but really you’re going to get your head cut off. By a pirate.” I like that I can appreciate the play’s place in the greater story.

This appreciate goes to another part of why I enjoy the histories so much — they really were real people. However fictionalized they are, however compressed or altered they might be for the stage, there’s honest truth behind them. Real motivations for their actions, real passions, real rivalries — real events that shaped the course of Europe. We get them through the lens of Shakespeare’s position as a sixteenth-century Englishman, but that’s part of the history, too. I’ve never understood people who think history is boring — it’s all sex and violence and intrigues, the very stuff all our most successful media propagates.

So I don’t think it’s just my innate nerdiness that makes me think these plays are better than they get credit for. There’s so much good action and good language that so often gets overlooked. I know a lot of people will call the language of the Henry Sixes inferior to that in Hamlet, or even in Henry V, and that might well be an accurate assessment — but I didn’t notice that while I was watching the production last night. I was enjoying myself too much to think about making a comparison to other work. There’s potential for so much comedy (albeit some of it rather dark) and so much high drama. In the arc of the English histories, you get drunkards, robberies, sex scandals, pirates, witches, demon-summonings, popular rebellions, brutal assassinations, duels, sieges, and battles — none of this is dust-dry recitation of historical facts. These plays are the stuff of blood and power and life.

What do you think? Do you like the histories? Not like them? Haven’t had enough chance to see them to know if you like them or not?

Not just of an age, but for all time — and all people

I’m responding today to a post over at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s blog, about something that was brought up at the International Shakespeare Conference last week. The crux of the debate — as I gather from that blog post, not having been in attendance, myself — is over the accessibility of Shakespeare. This whole post comes with a caveat that I haven’t read the papers in question here, and I didn’t hear the presentations; the extent of my knowledge is what I’ve gleaned from the blog posts about them — which in itself relates to the issue.

The two sides of the debate come down as pro- and anti-proliferation of Shakespearean scholarship through new media — Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. One side has taken up against the “deprofessionalism of the field of Shakespeare studies,” concerned that every time some yahoo makes an un-informed tweet, he unconsciously maligns those of us who have spent years informing ourselves, writing papers, and thoughtfully discussing Shakespeare’s works — as though the respect our field earns and deserves is determined by some kind of average, and input from the low end of the scale is bringing down the median. On the other side are the pro-proliferation group, the bloggers, the Tweeters, the scholars who have taken their act onto the Internet superhighway. This side advocates using new tools to reach more people, to facilitate discussion, and to make connections.

The blogger whose post led me to the debate posed the question, in regard to Shakespeare BT’s blog: “What do you think a blog like this should accomplish? How should the public be able to interact with Shakespeare?”

Honestly, the ideas behind this debate sort of bewilder me. Just that phrase, “how should the public be able to” sets my teeth a bit on edge — the idea that it’s up to the scholastic community to determine how the public should be allowed to experience Shakespeare is bizarre. There’s no “should” about it — they can interact with Shakespeare however they want. (I’m even hating using the pronoun “they” here — I’m part of “they,” I’m not just a scholar, I’m an audience member, too, and I was an uninformed enthusiast for years before I took a single class on the topic). Shakespeare doesn’t belong to robed denizens of ivory towers — he belongs to everyone. He isn’t something to be hoarded, held close, only let out in carefully controlled dribbles — he should be shared, joyously, as much and as often as possible.

This next statement is going to sound so ridiculously cheesy, and I sort of can’t believe I’m putting it out there into the ether, but — Shakespeare is like love. You don’t have any less of it just because someone else has more.

It’s also worth pointing out that when Shakespeare was writing his plays, he wasn’t writing for the PhDs. Most of his audience consisted of Joe Averages, the groundlings, the workers on holiday, the apprentices skiving off from their chores. The man himself didn’t have a degree to his name; he wasn’t one of the University Wits. He wrote for people of all kinds, all social statuses, all levels of education and intellect. How can we justify rarefying Shakespeare more than he rarefied himself? You don’t need a degree to enjoy Shakespeare or to have an opinion on him.

And so I fully embrace the proliferation of Shakespeare studies (as you may be able to tell from this blog or from my Twittering). The Internet is the new medium of public discourse, and Shakespeare needs to be on it. Are there people on the Internet spouting off extremely uninformed opinions and asserting incorrect factoids? Absolutely. A quick delve into Yahoo!Answers is enough to make almost anyone despair of hope for the future of the human race. But I don’t think I personally, or the organization I work for, or the field of Shakespeare studies as a whole loses anything by their comments. If anything, every one of them is an opportunity for us to reach out and educate. No one loses by that.

At the OCS, we don’t believe Shakespeare is beyond the reach of anyone. We firmly believe that all people can and should have Shakespeare in their lives. We are all about taking down the velvet ropes and making Shakespeare fun and exciting for absolutely anyone.

A good example: I spent my Saturday afternoon helping Sarah with our workshop for the Federal Executive Institute’s Leadership Conference. In one of our activities, as part of examining body posture and what message it sends, we asked the participants to look at four of their peers and determine who of those four, based on physical cues, looked most receptive — who would be most likely to listen to us talk about our plans for the OCS and perhaps invest in us. One of our participants decided to judge on clothing, and he asked why we would think someone dressed in a T-Shirt, shorts, and sneakers would be interested in Shakespeare. Sarah responded that he was exactly the sort of person we want interested in Shakespeare.

The Internet angle, though, is something we’ve discussed a lot recently, as the OCS has been launching itself onto Twitter and into the blogosphere. Where is the line between acceptable informality and degradation of quality? How do we want to present our organization? Just because we have this opportunity doesn’t mean we should treat it lightly — but there’s no reason to flee from it and try to keep the field of Shakespeare studies rutted in the past just because we’re not quite certain what the future will look like yet.

I’m interested to hear from others on this debate. I know my personal opinion may be shaped in large part by the fact that I am a young Shakespeare scholar. I came of age during the advent of the Internet; I barely remember life before instant messaging. So, for me, this matter seems incredibly obvious. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of new ways to reach the rest of the populace? And I think this attitude is what I see in most of my peers, the new generation of scholars, freshly-minted, who likewise grew up using the Internet as a font of knowledge and as not just a way but the way to disseminate ideas.

So — What do you think? What side of the debate do you fall on? Though, honestly, just asking that question here is somewhat leading — if you’re reading this blog, that’s a bit of a tell as to where you stand on the matter. But share your thoughts! I’d love to hear them.

Conversations: Spreading the Love of Shakespeare

Yesterday was a day of interesting conversations for me, though they all strangely centered in on the same general theme: spreading the love of Shakespeare.

I started my day by interviewing three of the touring troupe actors for the study guides I’m working on. One of the questions I’ve started asking everyone is: “When and why did you first fall in love with Shakespeare? Tell me about the experience.” All three of the actors I talked to yesterday fell in love, as I did, pretty young. Denice Burbach, currently rehearsing for Rosalind and Lady Macbeth, had the earliest start — she told me about learning to write her name in the audience while her mother was rehearsing as Kate, and she described the later revelation (while her mother was playing Gertrude) that Shakespeare wasn’t difficult or obscurely poetical — it’s just words, like people say on the street. Jonathan Holtzman, our Macbeth, described reading Julius Caesar “over and over and over again” when he was 12 or 13, after wanting to find out what that “‘Et tu, Brute?'” thing was all about. And Chad Bradford, this season’s Orlando, described the moment in high school when he realized you could laugh at Shakespeare, during a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after having studied Othello and Caesar in his classes without experiencing any real emotional response.

For me, it’s an easy question. I picked up Romeo and Juliet when I was 11 — I couldn’t tell you why, except that I’ve always been a voracious reader. No book was long safe in my presence. There’s a gift shop at the beach where my family vacations that always has a few shelves of “summer reading” books, and R&J was there. I spent the rest of that vacation memorizing Juliet’s balcony speech and declaiming it from the back deck of our beach house. When we got back home, I dragged out my dad’s 1972 Riverside Shakespeare and just started devouring. (Side thought: Ever noticed how we use the language of consumption when we talk about reading? Voracious reader, devouring a good book, eating it up if we love something. Hmm — there’s something in there about literature sustaining life).

Talking to those three actors was a blast. I love that that’s part of my job — I enjoyed it when I interviewed some of the resident company earlier in the summer, and I enjoyed it yesterday, because it’s so great just to watch them light up when they’re talking about how cool a particular line is, or how they pushed through a difficult scene. Denice and I both said how much we love working in a place where this is what people really care about, this engagement with the text, experiencing it as something alive and vibrant and to be talked about.

Then I spent the afternoon with the rest of the education team in a think tank for Julius Caesar. We’re attacking this play in the hopes of giving teachers a better way to approach it, since we hear from so many teachers who hate it but “have to” teach it (it’s not required in the curriculum in Virginia, but it’s the play in the 10th grade textbook that almost everyone uses). Now, the idea that teachers are teaching Shakespeare when they hate it just horrifies me. They’ve got the ShakesFear, and they pass the ShakesFear on to their students, who become convinced that Shakespeare is everything we who love it know it isn’t — boring, out-of-touch, inaccessible.

Almost invariably, the actors I interviewed yesterday related their characters to modern life, in some way or another, without any prompting. Jonathan talked about finding the kindness inside a tough, mOCSuline guy, and about the challenge everyone faces in life between doing what’s morally right and what’s expedient and gets you what you want. Chad related Orlando’s poetry writing to the existential angst of every teenager who’s ever been in love with someone who doesn’t know he or she exists. Denice summed it all up, so succinctly and so wonderfully, saying, “Shakespeare writes humans.”

How do I know, from my own experience, that Shakespeare isn’t inaccessible? I use one of my cousins as an example. When I was 14, I was playing Outlaw #5 in my high school’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, and my extended family came to see me. My youngest cousin, trooping along with her two older siblings and their mom, was only 5 at the time. She sat through the whole play and loved it. Did she understand every single word? No. But she followed the plot, could answer questions about it later, and laughed through the whole performance. So, really — if a five-year-old can pick this stuff up and enjoy it, there’s absolutely no reason (at least no good one) that a fifteen-year-old can’t do the same. The critical difference, I think, is that no-one had ever told my five-year-old cousin that Shakespeare is boring. No-one told her it was too hard, too unreachable. So she didn’t know. She had no mental walls against it. But I think a lot of high-schoolers have started building up those walls — aided and abetted, sometimes, by teachers with the same walls in their own heads.

This was all actually another part of the discussion I had with Chad and Denice. Chad talked about how he thinks schools tend to present things like literature as very black-and-white, giving the impression that what you see on the page is what you get and all that you get. But really, “It’s about using our imaginations. I think that’s a key thing,” he said. I agree — I think too many teachers don’t present students with options, like “You can read the speech this way, or this way”, “How is it different if he can overhear her?”, “How does that line change if you direct it to the audience?” These are the questions I ask teachers to think about in my study guides, because students should know that Shakespeare comes with options. He isn’t a monolith; there isn’t One Right Way to experience his works.

This idea led into talking about how we enjoy being allowed to find Shakespeare fallible, even though we still think he’s the best. I’ve been saying this since I read enough of his contemporaries’ works to form an educated opinion on the matter — some of Shakespeare’s work isn’t as good as Marlowe’s or Middleton’s or Jonson’s best. But there’s just plain no-one who can touch Shakespeare’s best. Still, though, it’s important not to deify him — Shakespeare was just a guy, and he wasn’t the only writer in town. You can argue with him, you can disagree with him, even across the space of 400 years. I think if we could get this message to more students, they might find him less intimidating and more approachable.

So here’s what I want to know, Internet friends — When did you fall in love with Shakespeare? What convinced you that it was worth the while? Was it in school, or in performance, or on your own? Tell me about your experience. And how do you think that sort of love and energy could be better brought into the classroom?