Posts tagged ‘Hamlet’

I Had a Margaret, Till a Director Killed Her

Richard III is Shakespeare’s second-longest play (the longest being Hamlet), so a production of it has to be substantially edited. More often than not, that means cutting out the entire character of Queen Margaret. It’s an understandable edit, given that Margaret doesn’t have any influence on the plot, and she makes reference to events that occur in the Henry VI plays, with which even many avid Shakespeareans are often unfamiliar.

I wholly respect any decision to eliminate Margaret, but personally, I find her essential to the theme of the play, and one of the more powerfully dramatic figures of the play. She frames the entire context of time within the play.

First, she represents the past. As the last Lancastrian, she reminds the current Yorkist regime of its overthrow of Henry VI. She’s like a ghost, just as haunting as those that visit Richard and Richmond on the eve of battle. She knows history.

She also knows the present, and sees what’s going on better than anyone else in the play. She can see through Richard and knows his plots when everybody else is fooled by him.

And lastly, she foresees the future. She predicts that Richard will destroy the House of York, and warns them that they will look back on her predictions and note their accuracy: “O, but remember this another day, / When he shall split thy very heart with sorrow, / And say poor Margaret was a prophetess!” (I.iii.299-301) And they do: “Thus Margaret’s curse falls heavy on my neck. / ‘When he,’ quoth she, ‘shall split thy heart with sorrow, / Remember Margaret was a prophetess'” (V.i.25-27).

But these are not distinct roles. Margaret isn’t a historian, journalist and prophet. She is the person who views connections over time and history. Margaret isn’t actually a prophet; she doesn’t have a supernatural power to see events in the future. In actuality, she finds connections between the past and present and knows that the future will be the same. The old saying is, “Those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it.” Margaret knows the past, and she knows the Yorkists don’t know the past (or, more accurately, they know the past but ignore it), and thus she knows they will repeat it. She parallels the present to the past quite effectively when talking to Elizabeth and the Duchess of York:

I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
I had a husband, till a Richard killed him;
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him

In summary, Margaret believes that Richard’s violence is inevitable. Peace cannot exist in England as it is now. The era is designated for violence, and violence will happen. It will come at Richard’s hands, and there is no stopping it.

Richard, on the other hand, views his role a different way. He believes he can manipulate the era. As early as his opening soliloquy, he says that the time is now designated for peace, but he will change the time and make it violent and bloody.

So who’s right? Is Richard a tool of time, simply the object by which the era of violence exercises itself? Or does he actually alter what would otherwise be an age of peace? Many people talk about this matter in terms of fate and free will, but I don’t know that it’s as metaphysical as that. It’s the old question of history. Does history march on its own and some people follow and some don’t (“The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past.” — Otto von Bismarck), or do individuals alter the course of history (“The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” — Thomas Carlyle)?

The real conflict of Richard III is between the views of Richard and Margaret, even though they only appear on stage at the same time once. The conflicts between Richard and his relatives are, by and large, reflections of the deeper conflict between Richard and Margaret. So while Margaret may not be important to the plot, the play loses much of its edge when she is gone.

All that, and she’s just gosh darn awesome.


What Branagh did in four hours …

… this guy does in three minutes:

Don’t Forget: Macbeth on PBS on Wednesday

For those who don’t know, an update. For those who do know, a reminder. PBS will air Sir Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth on October 6 at 9 p.m. I saw this production on stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and it was excellent. (Not surprising, given it had the Bald Man in the title role.) But I was in literally the last row, so getting a close-up image, even if it’s only on TV as opposed to the theater, will be a new experience.

(On a related note, Susan and I talked about the differences between live theater and film in our last podcast. Check it out if you haven’t heard it.)

Anyway, I’ll be sure to report back after watching it, and I’d love to hear from all of you as well. In the meantime, there are some great extras on the PBS website to check out.

“The Shakespeare Code”

I recently took to watching the TV series “Dr. Who.” — as in, the one that began in 2005, not the original — largely due to the exceptional performance of David Tennant in Hamlet. I was curious to see what it was that made him such a star.

I was excited to find out that the second episode of the third season is titled “The Shakespeare Code.” In it, the Doctor and his companion travel to London in 1599 to meet Shakespeare. It’s a wonderful episode, and my only complaint is the overuse of one of the oldest time travel sci-fi cliches: the Doctor routinely repeats lines of Shakespeare that he’s read, and Shakespeare decides to steal them.

But in spite of that, Dean Lennox Kelly’s performance as the Bard is quite compelling. Rather than stuffy and self-important the way so many have played Shakespeare, Kelly makes the character quite charming and accessible, if a terrible egoist.

Best of all, though, I finally know what happened to Love’s Labour’s Won. But I won’t ruin the surprise!

This Week’s Podcast: Season 1, Episode 8

Hey everyone. The most recent episode of our podcast is live. This week, Susan and I talk about Shakespeare on film and in live theatre; the challenges of playing Hamlet; Sir Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth; and a cartoon retelling of Romeo and Juliet.

You can listen to it by subscribing via this RSS feed, clicking the link in the sidebar on the right, or just clicking here. (Give it some time to load; it’s a large file.)

If you have any thoughts on the show or this episode, or anything you’d like us to talk about next week, feel free to leave a comment here on this blog, or write to me at Enjoy!

Getting Even With Shakespeare

I was fortunate enough to see this wonderfully clever comedy last night. It was originally part of NYC’s Fringe Festival, but the run extended. (But not for long! The last shows are this weekend, so if you’re in New York and want to see the show, check out the link for shows this weekend.)

The premise: Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet are forced, by the laws of metaphysics, to “attend” every performance of the plays that bear their name. And since they die in unpleasant ways, that’s no fun for them. They spend their days in a bar complaining about their creator, until a former-playwright-turned-lawyer comes into the bar and proposes a way to get revenge.

If you’re expecting lots of Shakespeare-related jokes, you might be a little disappointed. Which isn’t to say a familiarity with the plays isn’t helpful. But beyond a few Hamlet-wants-Gertrude jokes (which are pretty old hat and overdone), the magic of the characters is in how distinct they are from their Shakespearian counterparts and how they seem to have grown from their experience of being them, night after night after night.

And it’s meta on many levels. The writer of the play is, in fact, a theater lover who went to law school and is an attorney, and he speaks through the character in the play that bears his name. He doesn’t regret his choices, but says he has always wanted to be a part of the theater, and this was his opportunity.

Anyway, if you have the opportunity, go see it. You’ll thank yourself.

Is “King Lear” undramatic?

I was flipping through A.C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy recently, and came across something interesting. Bradley notes that King Lear is often regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest work, the masterpiece among masterpieces. And yet, among the four “great tragedies” (the other three being Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet), it is the least performed and the least read by “casual” readers.

Bradley proposes that, while it may well be Shakespeare’s greatest work, it is not his greatest play. According to Bradley, in short, King Lear is too “big” for the stage. The vast scope of the play interferes with enjoyment of it as a drama, Bradley says.

There is, I think, truth in this. I have seen some bad productions of King Lear, which I think were so because the play is so ambitious that a staging of it must be as well. Furthermore, the number of characters that can dramatically bring down production value with a poor performance is huge: Lear, Goneril, Regan, Kent, Gloucester, Edgar, Edmund and the Fool all need to be acted beautifully to make a good production. Maybe Cornwall and Albany as well. Am I missing anybody?

At the same time, I think the scope of the play can be a boon to any director attempting to stage it. The amount of action, if directed well, can lead to incredibly dramatic moments, such as the storm scene. The best Shakespeare play I ever saw was, in fact, King Lear, with Alvin Epstein.