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

Amazon Warehouse Deal Year-End Close-Out Books

Right after Christmas, Amazon had a year-end Warehouse Deal close-out with additional discounts on refurbished, open box, and returned merchandise. So, while the rest of the world shopped electronics and stuff, I went hunting books.

Here’s what I found: Alexandra Shepard & Phil Withington’s Communities in Early Modern England (2000), Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton’s Shakespeare: Staging the World (2012), and Samuel Schoenbaum’s William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (1987). My total, including a 2” binder I needed, was less than $20. Any one of those books would have cost that much – such a deal!

Amazon Warehouse Deal bargain books, front covers.
My finds in the Amazon year-end Warehouse Deal close-out sale. All this and a binder for under $20!

These Amazon Warehouse Deals were one-offs, so you can’t find them now. You might find the same titles in different conditions, and of course you could always buy them new.

I’ve had mixed luck with Amazon’s in-house Warehouse Deals. Once I bought a mechanical keyboard that, despite the “inspected” tag, had a permanently jammed space bar and missing pieces. Fortunately, returning it was easy, and Amazon even paid the return shipping.

Communities in Early Modern England was rated Used – Very Good, with a note about a small wrinkle/bend on back cover. I had to look twice to see it. The Schoenbaum was rated Used – Good, with notes about medium wrinkles/bends and cuts/scratches on the front cover, and medium wrinkled/bent pages. I think it’s graded accurately, and am well satisfied with my purchase. The big hardcover book was a surprise, as I’d expected a paperback. It was rated Used – Like New. But, the sleeve is more than a bit ripped, and the front cover and flyleaf has broken apart from the first interior signature. Still, at $3.40 for this particular copy, I’m content to believe that the condition rating was a keystroking error on someone’s part. A little tape, and it’ll be fine for my purposes albeit too heavy to read in bed.

Amazon Warehouse Deal books, backs
That middle book was listed as “Like New,” but for $3.40 I’m OK with it.

Taken all in all, I’d say Amazon’s warehouse deal books are a little worse for the wear compared to what I typically receive from other online sellers of used books (including those that sell through Amazon), but the knock-down prices and free two-day shipping made it worthwhile.

The one I’m most excited to dig into is Shepard & Withington’s Communities in Early Modern England. It’s a scholarly collection of interdisciplinary essays exploring three aspects of community: networks, place, and rhetoric. Work intervenes, though, and as this is purely recreational reading I’ll have to wait a bit before wading in.

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.

Ad Blog posts inspired by literature

Work and real life does interfere with my literary pursuits. But, here are a few recent additions to my Ad Blog that were inspired by literature.

Falstaff and reputation management: I think Falstaff is Shakespeare’s single greatest creation. Emphasis on creation.

Twelfth Night and product placement: The version I watched was the 1969 production featuring Joan Plowright as Viola/Cesario and Sebastian, and Alec Guiness as Malvolio.

Robert Burns and creating tradition: In collecting folk songs, Burns rewrote several, altering the very thing being preserved. But then, that, too, is a tradition.

The Hollow Crown/Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III

I was very excited to see The Hollow Crown return to my local PBS station with three new episodes. They condense Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3, and Richard III into three parts.

These plays are considered by some to be part of the Henriad and by others to be a separate minor Henriad. I consider them to be Margaret’s tetralogy. I’ve seen it in series only once before, in the magnificently conceptualized 1980s BBC-TV version directed by Jane Howell.

Despite lavish production values, I thought this new version fell far short of Howell’s mark, and I think that was down to the screenwriter and director. The actors were all magnificent, particularly Sophie Okonedo’s Margaret and Tom Sturridge’s Henry VI.

But the editorial cuts and directorial choices turned Shakespeare’s sweeping, subversive sociopolitical drama into a top-heavy look at the aristocratic elite. Almost all the common folk were eliminated, except as objects in massive CGI bloodbaths and carpets of hacked bodies.

The problem with that approach, is the commoners’ scenes are essential to the story for both counterpoise and emphasis. Early in Henry VI, Part 1, it’s a commoner, nay, the child of a commoner, who blows the powerful Salisbury into oblivion with one blast of an artfully aimed cannon (1.4). The mighty Talbot calls his common soldiers his “substance, sinews, arms, and strength” (2.3.63), and it is nameless soldiers of the opposing side who later overwhelm him and his son. Commoners drive the story forward through all three parts of Henry VI: La Pucelle’s shepherd father pleads for recognition, would-be con-man Saunder Simpcox and wife are exposed, citizens wronged by nobles petition for justice, oppressed apprentices fight their masters, pirates kill Suffolk, Jack Cade leads a peasant uprising (Cade himself trespasses upon a contented member of the middle class, Alexander Iden, who reluctantly fights and kills him, for which Iden rises to knighthood), a war-weary Henry encounters a Son who killed his father and a Father who killed his son, and in the end two keepers capture Henry.

In Richard III, a lowly jailer consoles the fallen Clarence, common murderers debate morality, ordinary citizens discuss the orderly transfer of power, and a mere scrivener blows the whistle on Richard’s deceit.

For all that, The Hollow Crown delivered a story edited for a pre-Brexit, pre-Trump world, one in which the focus could safely rest on the top strata of government and culture and the populist movements that powered those events could be ignored.

The amazing thing is, 400 years ago, Shakespeare didn’t do that. He wrote a play that crossed socioeconomic lines, one that let commoners speak their minds, stand on their rights, do terrible things, and yet take on their social betters.

All of which made me think that perhaps there’s an interesting alternative version of the Margaret tetralogy: one in which the parts of the nobles are reduced and the commoners are emphasized. Yes, Henry VI with less Henry, Richard III with less Richard. And common people all over the place. It’d be the same epic story told from a different perspective, yet one that’s present in the plays themselves. That’s something I’d like to see. Come to think of it, that’s something I’d like to try to do. Hmm.