The hero of The Merchant of Venice

I actively dislike The Merchant of Venice. That it provokes in me such a strong reaction is a testament to Shakespeare’s brilliance as a playwright.

Thing is, I find the characters repulsive and the way they behave indefensible. Antonio is a self-important racist so hardened that slurs and derogatory treatment of others are second nature. Shylock is a bitter, grasping zealot who drives away his daughter and would publicly torture a man to death. Bassanio and Lorenzo are ignorant gold-diggers. Gratiano is a party-hearty bully. Jessica is a thieving spendthrift. Portia is a heartless, hypocritical, selfish deceiver who breaks the law to serve her own ends, with Nerissa as her eager accomplice.

Now, by “hero” I don’t mean “title character.” I’m pretty sure Shakespeare meant the titular merchant to be Antonio; he’s the main character, the one at greatest risk. Story-wise, Bassanio and Shylock are merely the means to place Antonio in danger and Portia the means to save him.

At the same time, we’re all creative enough to fight our corners for any of the characters. I might place my stake on Portia as being worthiest of the title, because she sells the biggest bill: the lives of three men, Antonio, Shylock, and Bassanio, with a little of Gratiano and Nerissa and Lorenzo and Jessica thrown in for good measure, all while branding herself as “good.”

But that doesn’t make her a hero in my book.

However, it finally occurred to me that there is one character in The Merchant of Venice I quite like. It’s Launcelot Gobbo’s father, Old Gobbo.

Old Gobbo’s story mirrors Antonio’s. Like Antonio, he has a deep love for a dependent who needs his help to reach a better place in life. Unlike Antonio, he’s old, poor, and blind. But Old Gobbo manages to help his son attain his goal through heartfelt, direct action – the dish of doves, by the way, unlike Antonio’s cash, is just one element of his plan – all without bringing disaster on his head. His success is singularly untainted.

Furthermore, Old Gobbo doesn’t even mention the trick his son plays on him. Instead, he’s full of a father’s love, just happy to be with his son and happy to be helpful.

In all the ways that really matter, I think Old Gobbo is the real hero of The Merchant of Venice.

The joy of tangents: “He hears with ears”

I had re-watched The Merry Wives of Windsor for a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) I’m taking, this time the 1982 BBC-TV version with Richard Griffiths as Falstaff, and I was struck once again by Pistol’s line, He hears with ears.” (Riverside 1.1.148, RSC 1.1.137)

Shakespeare didn’t do throwaway lines, and this one isn’t just a one-liner; it’s immediately commented on by Evans, the Welsh parson: “The tevil and his tam! What phrase is this? He hears with ear? Why, it is affectations.”

The line is essentially repeated, so we’re supposed to notice it. Yet, for all that, I wasn’t sure to whom Pistol is speaking: one of the three townspeople (Evans, Page, and the Host of the Garter) hearing evidence about the theft of Slender’s money, Falstaff (who calls him forward), Slender (who accuses him), the audience, or even himself. Furthermore, I idly thought for the umpteenth time, what does it mean? The story bowls right along, however, and such whimsical thoughts are easily set aside.

A few days later, I was watching an episode of Midsomer Murders (“The Glitch”) with my family, and one character had the habit of spouting off in Latin. One of the first things he says to DCI Barnaby and DS Jones, is “Deus, auribus – We have heard with our ears.” It’s appropriate in two ways: first, he has overheard a conversation between the two detectives and is interrupting, and second, he has information to pass on to them.

My ears pricked up, and later that evening I did a quick search online. Google came up with Psalm 44, Deus Auribus, out of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer: “We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us what thou hast done in their time of old.”

Psalm 44 goes on to contrast those great past deeds with a present abandonment of the people, leaving them to be killed like sheep by their enemies, and begs for a divine awakening to deliver them.

That source dates from the early 19th century, although it’s descended directly from Edward VI’s original by Thomas Cranmer and the Elizabethan version so Shakespeare would have known it. Another tangent led me to the book’s introduction, where there’s a brief history that’s well worth reading, if only to see how richly religious authors can imbue their words with revulsion even as they maintain their cloak of impartial edification.

However, this is just one link in a chain of literary hand-me-downs. So, digging back further, I found this translation of the fourth-century Vulgate Bible, Psalm 43:2: “We have heard, O God, with our ears: our fathers have declared to us, The work thou hast wrought in their days, and in the days of old.”

The original Latin may be less frilly; I’ve only just started trying to pick it up with a facsimile copy of an Elizabethan-era Lily’s Grammar, but it just feels more muscular: “Deus auribus nostris audivimus patres nostri narraverunt nobis opus quod operatus es in diebus eorum in diebus antiquis.”

If this is what Pistol is referring to, then Shakespeare’s contemporary source may also have been Sternhold and Hopkin’s Whole Booke of Psalms Collected into Englishe Metre (1584), which set the psalms to music. Sternhold and Hopkins render the verse in English as “Our eares have heard our fathers tell, and reverently record, the wondrous workes that thou hast done in alder tyme (O Lord).”

Furthermore, it’s not the only time Pistol quotes a psalm. A little later, tipping off Ford about Falstaff’s plan to seduce his wife, Pistol says, “He woos both high and low, both rich and poor, both young and old, one with another, Ford.” (Riverside 2.1.113-114, RSC 2.1.110-11)

That’s straight out of Psalm 49:
All people hearken and geve eare
to that that I shall tell:
Both high and low, both rich and poore,
that in the world do dwell.

As fascinating as I found all this, I couldn’t see a clear connection between Psalm 44, Pistol’s line, Evans’ reaction, and the context of the earlier scene. I contrived a number of explanations, but they all seemed forced.

So I widened my search, explored different directions, and, after a diversion into the King James Bible, eventually came up with this, from the Elizabethan-era Geneva Bible, Isaiah 11:3-4: “. . . he shall not iudge after the sight of his eies, neither reproue by ye hearing of his eares. But with righteousnesse shall he iudge the poore . . .”

Here’s my egregious one-sentence summary of the whole story to put those lines in context (it’s all about context, this). David and his descendants will be wise, smart, fair, and strong as judges, rulers, and defenders of the faith; their messianic kingdom will be peaceful and glorious, one in which the wolf dwells with the lamb, the lion turns vegetarian, small children play on asp holes, and God intervenes directly to convert non-Christians in the Middle East.

There you have it, holy peace and holy war all in one, an antithesis worthy of Shakespeare himself.

But that, at last, made a clear connection, at least in my head. Pistol is saying to Evans, who’s not only a parson but the one who convenes the judging panel, that “he hears with ears” – in other words, he judges by surface appearances, he lacks insight, he’s no David. It’s an insult.

Which is why Evans, a parson, instantly recognizes the insult, takes offense (“The tevil and his tam!”), and upon further thought dismisses Pistol’s slur as “affectations,” a put-on.

Whew! I think I’ve managed to explain, to myself, at least, the meaning of those four little words “he hears with ears,” spoken by a minor character, to a supporting character, in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Along the way, I found a great resource for learning Latin, an online/downloadable copy of an Elizabethan psalter, and an online facsimile of an early King James Bible, complete with old and modern text. And it’s all thanks to Midsomer Murders.

King Lear’s motivation

Is King Lear crazy? Stupid? Suffering from dementia? Every production of King Lear must, to a certain extent, explain the guy – why does he act this way? Well, I have this crazy alternative theory for Lear’s motivation.

We know from others that he’s always been arbitrary, rash, and willful. We know that despite his age – he’s at least 80 (he says he’s “Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less” 4.7.70) – he’s still a physically powerful man: one of the last things he does is, apparently bare-handed, kill a fully armed soldier. And, we know that Cordelia is his favorite child. I get the sense that he’s a true warrior king in a time of relative stability and peace.

I propose that Lear, bored and nostalgic, divides his kingdom knowing full well that it’s going to end in Regan and Goneril revolting. His hope is that the best third (probably the geographical center) goes to Cordelia, who, with Burgundy’s forces and Lear and his 100 elite knights at her side, will fight back and reunite the land by force of arms. So, Lear gets to re-live his glory days and prove himself again a great warrior king, the two children he dislikes are punished and vanquished, and his favorite is placed on the throne indebted to him.

But it all goes wrong from the outset due to his own impetuousness, and Lear is forced to rely on the one thing he failed to build: bonds of love. Yet, the love he has built is very nearly enough.

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!

Upgrading editions

Books: Julius Caesar and Macbeth
I replaced my copies of Julius Caesar and Macbeth with editions I like better.

When I went to the San Diego Shakespeare Society’s open reading of King Lear at the Central Library last Sunday, I stopped, as usual, at the Friends of the Library book sale. Thanks to its volunteers, the Central Library’s book sale is open daily, unlike my local branch, which holds a big FotL book sale once a month.

I’m always on the hunt for my preferred editions of Shakespeare’s plays. This outing, I bagged two Signet Classics: Macbeth and Julius Caesar.

As you can see, my old copy of Julius Caesar is coming apart, which happens with paperbacks. It’s Caesar Unbound. I can’t complain, though; it was in pieces when I scooped it off the free books shelves at my local branch library.

I paid $1 each for my new-to-me books. They’re in nearly perfect condition, and might look unread but that the Caesar has one page dog-eared, Portia’s plea to Brutus in Act 2, Scene 1. Why there, I wonder: did it have a special meaning to the former owner or was it merely where he or she stopped reading? That’s the great thing about buying used books, you get your own journey plus someone else’s.

My old copy of Julius Caesar might not be in good enough condition to donate, even though I was quite happy to give it a home as-is. My old copy of Macbeth poses a bigger problem, because it has my penciled notes from different times in my life, plus notes from at least one owner before me. I’m not attached to the book, but I want those notes.

So, I dove back into Macbeth to transcribe them into the new copy, and it was like opening time capsules.

My first set of underlining and notes, from when I was a 20-year-old in school, relate mostly to the play’s themes and are probably received insights; the prior owner noted similar things, which in some cases I merely circled. My later highlights and notes tend to relate either to business or to characters’ emotional states, and mostly reflect my own thoughts at various times. I also found myself capturing three or four Folger footnotes related to Elizabethan practices and folio variations.

So my new copy of Macbeth isn’t just an edition I like better; it’s an edition I’ve made my own.

The end of King Lear

Sunday afternoon, I went to a reading of King Lear hosted by the San Diego Shakespeare Society. It was my first visit, and the group, which had been reading King Lear for months, had come to Act 4 Scene 7, after Cordelia has rescued Lear and he’s just waking up.

Before I attended, I re-read the play and re-watched two different productions of King Lear. I also for the first time looked more deeply into the Quarto differences. All that, combined with hearing the last scenes spoken again yesterday afternoon, made me feel, strongly, that the usual ending is wrong.

I think the play is about redemption. And for that to work, I think Lear’s journey is one from ignorance to awareness. Having him tip into delusion at the end may make the audience feel better (“aww, he died with hope”), but it rings false for the story.

Bear in mind that Shakespeare invented this ending; his source material has Cordelia and Lear winning the battle and ruling jointly over a reunited kingdom. Also bear in mind that the play as it comes down to us is much too long for two hours’ traffic on a stage – directors need to make cuts.

So, as to the ending, my version of King Lear (which I have yet to see outside my imagination’s theater) would dispense with everything from 5.3.311 to 5.3.322, combining Lear’s “Howl, howl” speech with “A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all.” So, as Lear bears Cordelia’s limp body to center stage, his part would read,
Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones.
Had I your tongues and eyes I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever!
I know when one is dead and when one lives.
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have saved her; now she’s gone forever!
Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little. Ha!
What is’t thou sayest?

And here I’d have him pause for a half line of silence as Cordelia says … nothing. It’s a dead echo of her living response to him in 1.1, which Lear is very consciously, painfully re-enacting. Then:
I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee.

And, yes, that cuts the well-known “Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low – an excellent thing in woman” line, but I’ve never been fond of it and I think it distracts from Cordelia’s later role as a warrior queen. Like her sisters, she’s very much Lear’s child.

Later, when Kent informs Lear that
All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly,
Your eldest daughters have fordone themselves,
And desperately are dead.

And Lear responds,
Ay, so I think.

I think Lear is, in fact, fully aware of the possibilities. Cordelia’s death was the moment of his awakening.

So, when Albany says, about Lear,
He knows not what he says; and vain is it
That we present us to him.

And Edgar agrees,
Very bootless.

That’s merciful, but wishful, thinking on their parts. Lear has an elevated state of Zen-like clarity, seeing beyond what’s right in front of him. It’s something Albany and Edgar lack just now.

Finally, I’d have a re-punctuated Q1 death scene for Lear:
And my poor fool is hanged! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
O, o, o, o, (dies)

I like that Lear’s final coherent words are words of genuine gratitude to an anonymous servant. The Q2 death scene varies in that it has one more O, which matches the number of nevers, but I like having that fifth O hanging unspoken.

And I would end the play there, the lights going black on a devastated stage filled with bodies. We don’t need to know the post-war management details. The play is named King Lear; it is Lear’s story, and with him the story ends.

Yes, this may seem an ending cheerless, dark, and deadly. But I like that Lear, in death, has all the awareness in the world: he knows Cordelia is dead, dead, dead, and that the ruination of his house and kingdom is all his fault. That’s a glorious, beautiful triumph. Lear is awake; he sees the truth of things as they really are. He doesn’t live to profit by it, but that’s the beauty of it, too. It’s an end, and that achieved, I think, is the end.

One final thought. If ever an evening’s entertainment needed a closing jig, this would be it. And I would have one.

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.

My favorite editions of Shakespeare’s plays

Different editions of Shakespeare's plays
My motley assortment of editions of Shakespeare’s plays

A video by BooksandQuestions on YouTube started me thinking about the editions of individual Shakespeare plays I like the most. I have a motley assortment of editions, but over the years I’ve developed distinct preferences.

I still own and refer to the big Riverside Shakespeare (sixth printing, 1974) I bought and used in college. I like it because it has all the plays and poems, interesting and scholarly play introductions, and explanatory footnotes. Plus, it has my own course annotations and scribbled scraps for various papers. My Riverside has more room along the outside edges for marginalia than other one-volume collections I’ve seen. But it’s an unhandy thing to carry around, and impossible to read while lying in bed at night, which is when I have the most time to read.

I also have two Complete Works editions on my Kindle. An e-reader is terrific for carrying around and reading in bed. One is from Latus ePublishing, the other is an Oakshot Press e-edition. Both normally carry a nominal cost but are frequently available free. Both contain all the attributed plays and poems, except The Two Noble Kinsmen. Unlike the Riverside, both use full names for characters, a major aid to readability. Both have hot-linked tables of content for the entire volume and within each play, so they’re fairly easy to navigate. Neither has line numbering or explanatory footnotes within the works.

The Latus e-version has a short general introduction to Shakespeare and his works.

The Oakshot e-version has extensive biographical information, illustrations from the Folger library, and a slew of terrific essays, including Tolstoy’s, plus Samuel Johnson’s notes on the plays and Hazlitt’s notes on characters. The biographical and critical contents have click-to footnotes. The only annoying thing about the Oakshot e-edition, and it’s very minor, is that every time you navigate to a new section, it pops up an ad for Oakshot Press.

Of the two, I use either for the plays themselves, but lately I’ve been enjoying exploring the additional content in the Oakshot. I’ve also found it handy to have two versions so that I can have two plays open at the same time and toggle back and forth between them.

My most-preferred format is the individual play paperback. It’s small enough to carry, light enough to read lying down, spacious enough to annotate, and, when bought used, cheap enough to beat up in use. Most editions have character names written out in full. And, I can easily flip back and forth between several plays.

My favorite editions are from the Bantam Classic series edited by David Bevington. They’re coat-pocket-sized paperbacks, with concise explanatory footnotes. The introductory sections include biographical and cultural boilerplate, plus a solid section about the play in performance, covering notable stage and screen adaptations.

But the main draw, for me, is that each Bantam Classic Shakespeare play also contains the play’s source text or a close approximation. So you get the history plays, but you also get the relevant chunks from Holinshed; you get Othello, but you also get a bespoke translation of the story from Cinthio’s Hecatommithi; you get Hamlet, but you also get an overview of Amlethus from Saxo Grammaticus’ Historia Danica, a mention of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and a comprehensive excerpt from an Elizabethan-era English translation of Belleforest’s The History of Hamlet, which was in large part Grammaticus translated into French.

For me, the Bantam Classics are the ideal combination of annotations, source texts, performance notes, readability, spacious formatting, price, and portability, and I hope they don’t become wildly popular because so far I’ve been able to pick them up for pocket change at used book stores.

I also hunt for unstiffened copies of the older Signet Classic editions edited by Sylvan Barnet. Like the Bantams, they’re pocket-sized paperbacks, and contain source texts and a history of stage and screen performances. The appendices include Hazlitt’s notes on characters and occasionally scrappy essays by eminent students of Shakespeare. It’s worth noting that Isaac Asimov credited the Signet Classic series with inspiring Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare.

I have a Signet Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III that I treasure for its thick compactness and extensive introductory materials to each play, and a ragged Signet Henry V that I would keep if only for Diana E. Henderson’s fiery defense of Queen Isabel as an essential character. Like the Bantams, Signet’s footnotes are concise: they define and explain, but don’t exactly invite further study.

For that, I like the Arden paperbacks. I have a few from the third (current) edition. They contain source texts and truly extensive explanatory footnotes, which sometimes divert me completely from the play text. However, they abbreviate character names. They are larger than the Bantams and Signets. And, the added sections focus on contemporary literary criticism and commentary. These, too, are things to geek out over, but I like having more performance notes. Even used, Ardens tend to be priced a level or two above the Bantams and Signets, but they also look and feel nicer.

The RSC editions focus, as you’d expect, on the play in performance, with an insider’s review of past productions and interviews with notable Shakespearean actors and directors. Like most editions, they contain introductory information about Shakespeare and the Elizabethan/Jacobean theater. However, they lack much information about Shakespeare’s source material. Like the Arden books, RSC books are slightly oversized, so they don’t slip easily into a jacket pocket, and tend to be priced a level or two up from the Bantams at used book stores.

Given budget and shelf space I could easily see myself owning both Arden and RSC editions of the same play, but the Bantam Classics and Signet Classics are, for me, more-portable and provide enough of the benefits of the other two combined to keep me happy.

Now we’re into a second tier of preferences, which in one case may be put down to unfamiliarity. My sole Oxford edition (Pericles) has terrific footnotes and introductory content. However, although it discusses the Greek source text at some length it doesn’t reproduce it, instead reprinting an unmodernized First Quarto collation. Like the Ardens and RSC editions, Oxford editions use an oversized format.

Folger Library editions are respected scholarly works, with very good footnotes,  literary analyses, and sometimes quite opinionated essays. But I prefer editions with historical sources and performance notes. The Folger editions I have abbreviate the character names. (And I just noticed that, although I have at least six Folger paperbacks, none made it into the photo.)

Near the bottom of the bookshelf are the very inexpensive Dover Thrift editions, but even they have benefits that may suit some people. Their introductory overviews range from two paragraphs to two pages, so they lack contextual or analytical depth. And, they abbreviate character names. They do, however, have good footnotes, updated and expanded from the Caxton Shakespeare. And, because they are oversized and contain little more than the play itself, they are very thin: think of them as well-annotated scripts. The Dover Thrift editions are notable for their cheapness and simplicity.

I find the Pelican editions lacking in content beyond a general introduction to Shakespeare and the play. That said, they are pocketable, character names are written in full, and the relatively skimpy footnotes may be less distracting to some readers.

I am slowly replacing my lesser-liked editions with ones I prefer, based solely on what I find at used book stores. However, my bookshelf’s former occupants haven’t left my life entirely. I tend to move the supplanted editions to my car, where they live on as a sort of traveling library and provide me with ample reading material while waiting for the kids to get out of school.

What editions do you favor and why? Let me (and others) know in the comments section!

Punk Hamlet

Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go”

– Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, as performed by The Clash.

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.