“How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in’t!”

The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

So I’ve decided I need to blog about all those ‘Shakespeare Uncovered’ episodes I’ve watched, made notes about etc, because otherwise they’ll just keep stacking up, and won’t be relevant anymore!

First up, Derek Jacobi on ‘Richard II’ : I think I’ve referred to this previously in my ‘Hollow Crown’ blog, but here it is in much more detail 🙂 One thing I thought was especially interesting relates to the original Richard II, who was the first ever King to demand to be called ‘majesty’. His love for the various trappings of majesty is shown by the Wilton Dyptich (right), which he had commissioned, and which shows him being presented to the Virgin Mary, Jesus and a host of angels, surrounded by saints. Yeah…not big-headed at all?! 😉

Another thing Jacobi mentioned which was particularly interesting was how ‘Richard II’ is hugely relevant, not just for far off dictatorships, but it can also be linked to Margaret Thatcher’s situation in the 1980s – 90s; Hesseltein, a member of her own party (i.e. Bolingbroke) went against Thatcher (i.e. Richard) for the leadership of the Tory party. Thatcher called this: “Treachery with a smile on it’s face” and felt “Stabbed in the front”. It just goes to show how you can translate Shakespeare across many different time zones; at least one of the plays is always relevant.

Moving on to the actual character of Richard; self-indulgent, absurd in his too easy glorifying and lamenting, he is also, at the same time, a poignant character. A useful quote for my EPQ from Professor Stephen Greenblatt: “What we feel is obviously heightened by the brilliance of the play’s stunning poetry. Indisputably it’s the work of a literary genius”. It seems from this quote that Greenblatt would define a ‘literary genius’ as someone with incredible linguistic skills, perhaps, rather than by looking at the characters they create i.e. the linguistic skill, and not the characters are what makes Shakespeare unique and a genius.

I’m going to move onto Jeremy Irons on the ‘Henry’ plays now, that is, ‘Henry IV Parts 1 and 2’ and ‘Henry V’ , although there is a lot more to say on ‘Richard II; I just don’t have the space here, and I feel the main story, of how it was watched by the Earl of Essex’s soldiers before they tried to depose Queen Elizabeth I, is pretty well known by now and so you don’t need me to reiterate all the details. Obviously I was especially interested in this episode anyway, since I’m focusing on Henry V for my EPQ, but it was really informative. I’m ashamed to say the rest of ‘The Hollow Crown series, bar ‘Richard II’ are still on my tv planner, but hopefully I’ll be able to watch them in the next couple of weeks. Henry IV Part 1 was praised for having comdey, tragedy, family feuds, bravery, dishonesty… there’s almost nothing in Shakespeare’s other plays that doesn’t leave a trace in it. Plus, the point that you don’t have to know very much about English history to care about what is going on, was reiterated by many of the scholars during the show. This is because the plays emphasise the ‘family’ element, rather than the ‘royal’ side; Professor Jonathan Bate: “At the centre of the play is a story about a father and a son A son who seems not to live up to the expectations of his father.”

The great character who shines out from these plays is not, surprisingly, Henry IV (portrayed by Jeremy Irons above), but Sir John Falstaff, or Jack as he is known in the alehouse in Cheapside. The academics interviewed, and Irons himself, agreed that much of what is extraordinary about the play depends on the character of Flastaff; Jonathan Bate again: “We love anti-heroes, rogues, people on the margins, people who break the rules…” The fatc that Falstaff is defined as fat and larger than life was debated by many as to the meaning of this. Of course, it has negative connotations such as laziness, gluttony, yet it also represents living life to the full and enjoying oneself. There is no exemplary character throughout the two parts of ‘Henry IV’; everything is ambiguous, as is common in Shakespeare’s works.

‘Henry V’ is unsual in that it is one of Shakespeare’s only histories that has no obvious and powerful single antagonist to the titular character: Richard II has Bolingbroke, Henry IV has Falstaff, Henry VI has Jack Cade, etc… It can be seen as a lesson in how to be a good king; Henry(portrayed by Tom Hiddleston, right) learns as he goes along how to rule his subjects and make them respect and love him enough to give up their lives for him…though, saying this, does he ever completely succeed? Even his “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech is mocked by Pistol in the next scene. An interesting point noted is that when it comes to the highs and lows of emotions, Shakespeare offers us no more than the text. There are no lengthy stage directions. Directors, actors and scholars have to decide for themselves what kind of King Shakespeare meant Henry to be. The ‘threat’ speech at Harfleur is entirely Shakespeare’s invention; there is nothing on it at all in ‘Holinshead’ (the major source for all Shakespeare’s English histories)…I find this the most intriguing, since this is one of the main factors used by some to accuse Henry of being a war criminal. Another pretty incredible fatc is that the entire ‘St. Crispin’s Day’ speech, which is amazing, whether you like Henry or not, is inspired by just a few lines in Holinshead. It appeals to basic, old-fashioned courage, and this is partly why it is so successful, even thought nowadays many are cynical about the power of rhetoric. But then, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, nothing is simple!

Next up, Trevor Nunn on ‘The Tempest’. Now, if I’m honest, I didn’t enjoy this episode as much as the others;although it was beautifully filmed and there were some great clips in there, I felt it didn’t provide as much original information as the others in the ‘Shakespeare Uncovered’ series. Nunn did emphasise that it is a very “experimental” play, and is seen by many as one of the most autobiographical; both Shakespeare and Prospero were 50 at this time. Every one of the presenters in the ‘Shakespeare Uncovered’ series is always determined to show how the plays are still relevant, and in this case, Nunn breaks it down to:

“At its core ‘The Tempest’ is a story about one man and the choice he must make…This play will ask huge questions. How do we become the people we are? What does it mean to be human? And what happens for the first time when we fall in love? Although the play tackles all of these issues, the central theme is the relationship between a father and his daughter, alone together for twelve years.”

This relationship is debated at great length throughout the episode. According to Andrew Dickson it is “one of the great interests and puzzles of the play”. If I’m honest, I found some of the sexual implications that some of the academics/scholars hinted at between them a little odd. Obviously, as an English student, I can’t say that they’re wrong, but I don’t agree. However, not knowing ‘The Tempest’ in a as much detail as these people, I guess I can’t completely disregard it.

One thing that is particularly unique to only a few of Shakespeare’s plays, like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ , is that the story is original; there was no pre-existing story for Shakespeare to base the play on, like with ‘Romeo and Juliet’, although he may have been influenced by a real event; the shipwreck of ‘The Sea Venture’ in 1609. Although many connect ‘The Tempest’ with the magical, beautiful island it’s set on, the island is not much described in the play; the audience can make it as beautiful and magical as they wish. I suppose (relating to my EPQ), this goes against the argument for language – it is actually suggesting that the lack of language has a significant effect on the audience. The main message of this episode was summed up by Nunn at the end: “More than any of his other plays, it leads us to the essence of the man who wrote them.”

And finally…Ethan Hawke on ‘Macbeth’. I loved this episode, perhaps because it was the first I watched, but also because there was loads of unusual information in there, especially a section on ‘Sleep No More’, a new New York production of ‘Macbeth’ involving just dance and mime (see right). Hawke’s opinion of this was: “We usually think of words connected with Shakespeare. However, certain things expressed non-verbally are stifled with too much language. Physicality is inate, something we can all relate to.” Saying this, it was also pointed out that at the 10th anniversay of 9/11, Shakespeare’s words were used to connect with everyone – another good point for my EPQ; Shakespeare’s language gives people a way of expressing their feelings succintly and truly.

Wow! That was longer than I thought it would be! I hope you found at least one thing you thought was interesting, and don’t worry, I’ll be doing more reviews of non-Shakespeare things soon, as well as all the Shakespeare related things I mentioned last time 🙂 Thanks for reading!

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