Bargain Shakespeare From eBay

Shakespeare videos

A couple weeks ago, eBay offered a rare site-wide 20% off coupon. So, I shopped for Shakespeare. I was hoping for a Norton Third Edition in four volumes, but instead filled my cart with used DVDs.

I bought The Merchant of Venice, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings, all for about $20 after the coupon.

I’ve seen this 2004 production of The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino as Shylock, and feel it’s well worth owning. As I recall, Jeremy Irons is superb in the thankless role of the titular merchant, and the backdrop of ethnic venom is horrifyingly current. It’s also worthwhile for Mackenzie Crook’s kindlier Launcelot Gobbo. I have said in the past that I dislike this play, but it’s grown on me, perhaps because of its increasing social relevance. It’s a dystopian play for dystopian times.

As for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), I saw this show live more than 30 years ago and remember enjoying it. I’ve studied and seen a lot more Shakespeare since then, so it may be even funnier to me now.

Which brings me to the BBC’s landmark 1960 series Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings. This 5-DVD set was on my Amazon wish list for some time, so to find it used for a third the price was a happy score. I’ve come to love the history plays. They combine high stakes, complex relationships, and acute observations of human behavior with a dash of real events. I once watched all the BBC TV Shakespeare history plays in order, an epic experience I’m eager to repeat because it was so rewarding. Age of Kings is nearly as epic, with 15 60-minute episodes, each adapting roughly half of one of the history plays from Richard II to Richard III. It covers nearly 90 years and seven kings (although only five get a full treatment from Shakespeare). I’m partway through Henry IV. So far, although I’m occasionally distracted by the mid-century style of Shakespearean acting, I’m also quite satisfied with the editorial choices.

In all, some great ways to veg out with Shakespeare on a hot summer afternoon!

History vs. History Plays


How many people, I wonder, become interested in history through history plays, films, novels, or TV shows?

My older son, who was an avid Hamilton fan years before the show came to town, credits his A in high school U.S. History to the Hamilton soundtrack and the novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. So pop culture versions of history definitely carry academic weight, even if one unfortunate side effect may be to believe that Abraham Lincoln lives on as a vampire and that Alexander Hamilton was a democrat.

My own gateway to the past was Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which led to a lifelong interest in medieval history – the socioeconomic medieval, as opposed to romantic medieval (e.g. Disney fairy tales or Medieval Times dinner theater) or political medieval (e.g. Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones).

But the political gateway was there, in the form of Shakespeare’s Richard III which I ate up in any iteration over the decades. The thing that fairly recently pushed me over the theshhold was watching BBC-TV’s 1981-2 productions of Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, and Richard III. Directed by Jane Howell, they’re a dystopian sequence of plays set on an ever more-ruined stage.note 1 Suddenly, the connection became clear between the socioeconomic and the political, between the story and the history. I promptly immersed myself in everything I could find about medieval history, starting with Dan Jones and Helen Castor, then moving on to scholarly articles, studies, and theses. Natalie Grueninger’s website On The Tudor Trail turned me onto Alison Weir, a novelist-cum-historian whose Tudor-oriented view of the Wars of the Roses complements Jones’ more Plantagenet-oriented view of events.

And threading through the whole era are Shakespeare’s history plays, stretching back to King John, then skipping ahead to sweep continuously from Edward IIInote 2 to Richard III before jumping to Henry VIII. Even considered as a biased, romanticized view of history conceived as mass entertainment, and acknowledging the compression of time (which even Shakespeare acknowledgesnote 3) and outright invention, it’s often amazing how accurately the plays parallel – and are informed by – actual historical events. I think an understanding of history helps make better sense of the history plays.

That puts me in opposition to those who argue that historical knowledge is of little use in portraying a character in a history play, and there are many eminent Shakespeareans who do. Surely a historically accurate documentary approach would have done little to help Hamilton become a cross-cultural box office smash.note 4

However, I think it improves the fictional Richard II if the portrayal is based on a king who, as a boy of 14, single-handedly outfaced an organized army of peasants. I think the villain in the minor Henriad (or, as I call it, the Margaret tetralogy) is clearly the pious, weak Henry VI, an opinion on the king with which many historians would agree. And, I think it increases the drama to know that the Duke of York’s claim to the crown followed established rules of primogeniture, and isn’t just an attack out of the blue by an arrogant wanna-be backed by a junta of henchmen.

Even non-history plays gain depth from historical context. For instance, in Macbeth, I think it adds a layer of moral complexity to consider that automatic hereditary kingship wasn’t standard operating procedure in Scotland when Duncan named his son heir to the throne.

Importantly, I don’t think this works in the other direction. Shakespeare’s history plays are nothing remotely close to being a primary or even secondary source for medieval research. However, I do think Shakespeare’s history plays have historical value because they mark the spot at which Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences would have understood – and been led to understand – their national mythology. As early modern documentation goes, actually, I think they are primary sources, all the more so because they were ginned up for public consumption.note 5

So, between history and history plays, I come down firmly on both sides.

Notes

1. This was done again recently in a three-part Hollow Crown series that, despite big budget visuals, utterly failed to live up to the bar set by the earlier, meatier, films. Go back up


2. People who know more about such things than I increasingly attribute the formerly anonymous Elizabethan-era play Edward III to a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd. One could push the series of history plays one king further with Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. Go back up

3. Henry V 1.1.28-31 Go back up

4. And yet … I must say that some of the most dramatic revelations in Hamilton were fundamentally truths well told (to quote advertising giant Harry McCann), such as the Reynolds affair. But I digress. Go back up

5. I’ve always believed that advertising archives are the most-accurate source of primary information about historical public perceptions and social norms, because they reflect, not some academic wishful thinking or politically biased report, but what was actually present as a widespread, culturally embedded, commercially viable belief. Go back up

Hamilton in San Diego, Opening Night

We took the family to see Hamilton, the mega-hit musical about the life and times of one of America’s founding fathers. We have two season tickets to the San Diego Civic Theatre (which we bought specifically to see Hamilton), and we bought two more tickets during the subscriber-only early purchase period. It’s a good thing we got our tickets when we did, because the run was quickly sold out.

Our season ticket seats are in the mezzanine, and the two additional seats were a few rows from the back wall of the balcony. But here’s an easy way to get front-row views from any unobstructed seat in the house: binoculars!

From where we sat, binoculars were essential given the number of people on stage through most of the show – without them, it would have been very, very hard to tell which one of them was singing. It even might have become hard to identify characters after costume changes.note 1 With binoculars, the view was like being suspended somewhere above the third row of orchestra seats, well forward of the loge.

Hamilton is 99% through-sung, like Phantom of the Opera (or, indeed, opera itself). The energy was electrifying from start to finish, and the relentless forward thrust made it feel shorter than its run time. The show has its setpiece villain (a greasily feline Aaron Burr) and setpiece fool (a delightfully megalomaniacal King George III). And, like Shakespeare’s history plays, Hamilton takes egregious liberties with actual events, including what I’d consider the disservice of depicting Hamilton as sitting out much of the Revolutionary War as a writer for General George Washington, when in fact he was a respected combat commander well before Washington rose to power.note 2

It’s all in good fun, though, and there are clever nods to everything from Pirates of Penzance to Macbeth. The historical Hamilton would have known Shakespeare, of course, but not Gilbert & Sullivan.

I enjoyed the colorblind casting, which sent its own message about today’s America. After all, even history plays reflect more the times in which they are performed than the times in which they are set.

I also appreciated the bringing to light some of Hamilton’s many flaws. In this era of omnipresent media, today’s leaders seem to fall far short of the bar set by our idolized (and idealized) forefathers. It reminded me that men of power, at least, haven’t changed much.

Finally, I loved the bringing to life an era of vast possibility. It was truly a New World. The sheer, manic optimism that created this nation is beyond comprehension.note 3 Yet, possibilities still exist to remake the nation anew. If Hamilton turns just one more high school student into a historian or political leader, that’s a great result. As an aside, my older son, a high school senior and an early Hamilton devotee, insists that his A in history was due more to to Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter than anything else. So there you go.

Which neatly brings me to my bigger point: Nations are built on mythology, not history. By creating a uniquely American history play, Lin-Manuel Miranda has woven himself into the very fabric of the United States, past, present, and future. His mythological Alexander Hamilton co-exists with the historical Alexander Hamilton in the same uneasy way Shakespeare’s heroic Henry V co-exists with the historical, and much less-likeable, Henry V. In both cases, one is a living work of fiction, the other is a dead rich white guy from the ruling elite.

And therein lies the rub. We’re still basically telling the story of the American white elite. By contrast, the musical Allegiance told the story of ordinary American families of Japanese descent who were rounded up en masse and shipped off to remote camps during World War II.note 4 My family had the privilege of seeing its world premiere at The Old Globe in San Diego in 2012; it reached Broadway three years later. Yet, despite the backing and presence of charismatic TV/movie/meme star George Takei, the show received mixed reviews and closed after its initial four-month run. Other recent plays about the historical experiences of American minorities, such as Alfredo Ramos’ The Last Angry Brown Hat, about Chicano political awakening in the 1960s and ’70s, just haven’t gotten the mass traction.

Here’s a case in point: Miranda’s previous award-winning musical, In the Heights, is set in modern-day New York City, in a predominately Hispanic-American neighborhood. But it relies on a deus ex machina in the form of a winning lottery ticket to bring its story to a happy ending. The idea that anyone can get lucky is apparently more salable than the idea that ethnic minorities can get ahead through their own intelligence, talent, and drive.

Here’s another case in point: in Hamilton, the line “Immigrants – we get the job done” is met with “applause and cheers every single night.”note 5 It’s arguably the play’s Big Idea. Yet, it appears nowhere on the licensed merchandise. You can buy “My shot” mugs, A. Ham and A. Burr baseball caps, and logo sweatshirts. But the commercial side doesn’t follow the script. Instead it reveals the truth about America today: people may applaud the sentiment, but they won’t bring it into their homes and they won’t wear it in public.note 6

In 1927, Jerome Kerr and Oscar Hammerstein II delivered a breakthough message about racial prejudice through Show Boat, a frilly song-and-dance musical set during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. 31 years later, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun showed a generation of theater-goers a slice of the mid-century urban Black American experience, confronting issues of ethnic identity and entrenched socioeconomic racism. Today, in Hamilton, perhaps color-blind casting and a few verbal zingers represent the limit of what can become a mega-hit American history play.

So, like all good history plays, Hamilton shows us how far we’ve come. And how far we still have to go.

Notes


1. This is where I appreciate William Shakespeare’s audience-friendly craftsmanship in writing. Generally, his characters continue to be identified by name throughout the play. That really helps keep things straight. Go back up

2. The artillery company Alexander Hamilton raised – or, more accurately, stole from the British in a daring raid – in the summer of 1775 and commanded through 1776 evolved into the 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment. It is still in active service. We make a big deal of George Washington crossing the Delaware River to attack a German garrison attached to the British at Trenton on Christmas Day 1776, but Hamilton was also there, sick as a dog but right up at the front, personally managing his big guns to support the assault and wreck the Crown forces’ counterattack. Go back up

3. Two excellent books that capture the exuberance of our founders and their outrageous vision are Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis and The Day the American Revolution Began by William H. Hallahan. Go back up

4. My grandfather was a Japanese-American businessman and entrepreneur who through the 1930s created the largest wholesale nursery in the West. As a result of his proven executive ability, he was among the first rounded up at gunpoint soon after Pearl Harbor, along with other civic leaders; his family was later relocated to Poston Camp I, where he later joined them. My mother spent her high school years in crude, shared barracks surrounded by barbed wire, gun towers, and armed soldiers. My father, too, was imprisoned as a high schooler; his family was sent to Heart Mountain in Montana. So, yeah, more than a bit of a connection there. That said, the American Revolution is a more universal theme than the experience of American ethnic minorities, and the team that wrote Allegiance, while incredibly talented, were no Lin-Manuel Miranda – who else is? Go back up

5. Rory O’Malley (who played King George III), quoted in “At Long Last, ‘Hamilton’: Megahit Musical Lands in San Diego This Weekend” by James Hebert, San Diego Union-Tribune, 3 Jan. 2018, Night+Day section, pp. 6–8. O’Malley went on to say that this line, and the audience’s consistent reaction to it, was his favorite part of the play. Go back up

6. I’ve fairly recently got up the guts to use my Executive Order 9066 canvas shopping bag from the Japanese American National Museum when I go to the grocery store. Only one person has ever commented on it, but it has gotten a few long looks. I would gladly wear an “Immigrant 3G – Still getting the job done” t-shirt, although I’m afraid it would also remind me that, compared to my grandfather, I’m something of a slacker. Go back up

The Importance of Being Exton

I’ve seen a half-dozen productions of Richard II both live and (mostly) on DVD, and in most the knight Piers Exton, Richard’s killer, is swapped out for or combined with another character, most often Aumerle. I suspect two directorial motivations. First, to trim the cast. Second, to avoid having the play’s climactic Big Event occur at the hands of a character who is, at most, a silent background extra until more than half-way though Act V.

While the Exton/Aumerle swap adds a frisson of betrayal at the end, it’s a betrayal that to me usually rings hollow. Moreover, it misses two key points that I think are central to the play.

First, that threats to political stability don’t always come from major political players. While Henry Bolingbroke occupies most of the play’s – and Richard’s – attention, Bolingbroke doesn’t so much threaten the existing political order as represent its continuation. Even the dynastic line remains unbroken. Bolingbroke, arguably already heir to the throne, deposes. But Exton, a nobody out of nowhere, disposes.

Historically, a young Richard II faced down the Peasant’s Revolt, an uprising of relative sociopolitical nonentities who were treated as such – and worse – as soon as they were deceived and crushed. Having a minor character kill Richard both echoes and closes that earlier revolt.

Second – and, as a writer today I think this is the more-important point – Richard’s death at Exton’s hands shines a spotlight on the underbelly of political dialogue. It demonstrates how idle comments that may have been made by influencers (the audience has only Exton’s recollection, after all), including leaders but also including, oh, playwrights, can provoke unwanted violence from unexpected quarters. Exton’s importance lies in his unimportance.

Bolingbroke himself identifies this tremendous power very early in the play: “Four lagging winters and four wanton springs/End in a word; such is the breath of kings.” (1.3.214-215)

I don’t think these are especially prescient points for Shakespeare to have made. After all, politics has been going on for a long, long time, and the fundamental issues are simply evergreen. But each generation discovers the truths anew for itself.

International Women’s Day: Favorite female characters from Shakespeare

On Twitter today, Shakespeare’s Globe (@The_Globe) asked users to name their favorite women from Shakespeare’s plays. I answered there (follow me at @MidLifeLit), but wanted to expand on my answers a bit.

The first fictional woman that really whacked me over the head was Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, in a college class on Medieval Literature. Mercenary, earthy, domineering except with husbands she truly loved, the Wife of Bath – and The Canterbury Tales, and Dr. Urania C. Petalas – really fired up my interest in literature.

When I read Chaucer now, and it’s a struggle, I can still see Dr. Petalas leaning an elbow on a battered podium, answering wide-eyed inquiries about Middle English. In response to a young woman’s question about whether “queynte” meant “quaint,” as in old-fashioned, she leaned forward, looked her student full in the face, and enunciated: “It’s. Her. Genitalia.” By the way, it also means “clever,” so, as Benedick says, there’s a double meaning in that.

Anyways, that class, that book, and that character were my first clues that human relationships weren’t so different 600 years ago, my first hint that there was altogether more to literature than what junior high and high school teachers were prepared to go into.

Moving on to Shakespeare, the history plays hold one of my all-time favorite fictional women: Margaret, in Henry VI, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Richard III. I think of this set as the Margaret Tetralogy, in which we see her grow from a frightened, virginal prisoner-of-war to a fierce warrior and political player in her own right. She’s savvy, far-sighted, independent, and absolutely determined. I’m strongly influenced by Julia Foster’s astonishing portrayal in the BBC TV Shakespeare series, which, to me, still stands alone amid a sea of extraordinary portrayals.

In the tragedies my favorite (so far) is Cordelia from King Lear. She’s uncompromising: a young, female version of Lear, but with more heart. And that heart makes her a much stronger person than Lear, or his other daughters. When the need arises, she’s also a warrior queen and a good leader. She dies at the end, yes – it’s a tragedy after all – but she triumphs over everyone, including Lear and her sisters.

From the comedies, I especially like Anne Page from The Merry Wives of Windsor. She’s independent-minded but truly gracious (a rare quality in Shakespeare’s characters), even conversing pleasantly with the absurd Slender. Despite interference from just about every character in the play except Falstaff (an exception I find funny in itself), she firmly holds her own and outmaneuvers everyone to get what she wants. It’s commonly played that Mistresses Ford and Page are the big protagonists/winners, but Anne tops them all.

Do you have a favorite female character from Shakespeare? There are certainly plenty to choose from!