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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: April ::
How Shakespeare Invented History
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0674  Monday, 3 April 2000.

From:           Carol Barton <
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Date:           Sunday, 2 Apr 2000 08:22:24 -0400
Subject:        How Shakespeare Invented History

This courtesy of Jack Kolb, at UCLA, with [Thanks to Varda Ullman
Novick]

THE TELEGRAPH, LONDON
Saturday 1 April 2000

When its radical version of 'Richard II' opened on Wednesday, the Royal
Shakespeare Company embarked on a unique project - the production of
Shakespeare's most famous history plays in chronological sequence.
Here, artistic director Adrian Noble explains how it sheds new light on
the playwright's vision Shakespeare's history: a two-minute guide

SHAKESPEARE's history plays occupy a special place in the canon.  The
story they present takes us from the medieval world to the Renaissance,
showing a nation in flux, a disparate people forming themselves into
nationhood, only to be smashed apart again by civil war, then healed as
Richmond unites the white rose and the red, the great Tudor conjuring
trick.  The panoply is vast and intoxicating, the final achievement
awesome.

The Royal Shakespeare Company has just embarked upon a project unique in
its history, and to my knowledge, unique in British theatre. We are
producing a history cycle composed of the eight plays that tell
Shakespeare's version of English history from Richard II through to
Richard III.

Shakespeare wrote the eight plays between 1590 and 1599.  They form two
tetralogies, written, fascinatingly for us, in reverse chronological
order.  So Richard II, the first play, was in fact written several years
after the final play, Richard III, in which the king's death at the
hands of Richmond marks the arrival of the Tudor dynasty.

This piece of inspired Shakespearean untidiness formed for us the key
aesthetic and quite possibly political framework for the project.
Previous RSC history cycles, such as Peter Hall's Wars of the Roses and
my own The Plantagenets, had sought to create a stylistic framework, a
single production that could contain parts of all the texts.  (Terry
Hands did direct all eight plays at the end of the 1970s but sadly never
managed to stage them together.) This time four directors will create
the work with four different designers working in all three of our
Stratford spaces.  Although each tetralogy will be "through cast", with
one actor playing the same character in different plays (so David
Troughton plays Bolingbroke in Richard II and goes on to become Henry IV
in the play of that name), each director will then pursue the
individuality of the plays.

In other words, instead of creating a dramatic juggernaut, we will be
launching a flotilla of craft which will be individual and particular
responses to each text, but will gain a meaning and resonance as the
story is heard in sequence.  A post-modern history cycle, if you like.

Theatrical orthodoxy maintains that, despite Shakespeare probably having
no intention of creating one, let alone two, tetralogies of plays, the
eight-play cycle is remarkably homogeneous.  We are challenging, or at
least testing, this orthodoxy.  We contend that far from developing a
single ironic view of English history, Shakespeare's real view is
fragmented, kaleidoscopic, highly complicated, even random at times; it
reflects as much his own development as an artist as it does a
considered view of history, and almost certainly says as much about the
politics of his own age as that of the period he was writing about.

Let's examine the second tetralogy (the one he wrote first and the
closest to his own time) - the three Henry VI plays and Richard III.
The violence of the world, the teeming panorama of people and their
politics, the high-octane theatricality, the simple but exhilarating
metrical pulse, must have made them enormously attractive to
contemporary audiences.

We have a young playwright/actor, still in his twenties, who for one of
his first ventures chooses (or was encouraged to choose) the great
dynastic power struggle that led to the establishment of Tudor rule: a
young writer dealing with contemporary history, for the collapse of the
English empire in France and the appalling civil war that followed was
modern history to the Elizabethans.  The plays were written for an
audience listening to and, perhaps for the first time, achieving some
sense of its own history.  Shakespeare is telling the story of his
race.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Shakespeare was
creating the story of his race.  And while doing so he was inventing the
very idea of history as we have come to understand it.  Like subsequent
historians, Shakespeare's sense of the past was partly a reflection of
the world in which he lived.

It is, of course, well known that he was following a Tudor tradition in
misrepresenting Richard III as a mis-shapen psychopath, but throughout
the tetralogy there are numerous incidents of historical inaccuracy: for
example, men being killed in battle who were, in fact, hundreds of miles
away at the time; several historical figures being merged to create one
dramatic figure.  There are many reasons why Shakespeare did this -
narrative convenience, the dramatic advantages of shape and focus
achieved by running several events into one, the need to simplify the
actuality of politics both to enhance and illuminate the dramatic
stature of an individual.

The apparently cavalier way in which Shakespeare re-ordered and edited
actual historical events raises two questions.  First, was he aware of
the discrepancy between his version and what subsequent generations of
historians would testify to be the facts?  And second, did he care?

An examination of his source material leads one to believe that more
often than not he was at least aware of previous chroniclers' versions
of history and decided for artistic reasons to depart from these.  He
was a writer of fiction and, like subsequent generations of artists,
refused to worship at the shrine of actuality.

Far from being a Tudor propagandist, what emerges from these plays is a
strong moral purpose, at times almost didactic.  The "molehill" scene is
explicit in its condemnation of civil war; the sequence is touchingly
human in the small details of characterisation; and it is in no way
sentimental, principally because of the masterstroke of the
juxtaposition of Henry VI's fantasy of a life of no responsibility with
the appalling result of this actual lack of responsibility.

Sometimes Shakespeare is brutally contemptuous, as in the rebel leader
Jack Cade's scenes in Henry VI Part 2, but morally complex.  While
satirising Cade's populism (and indeed many subsequent demagogic
populists) it is also clear that what the rebels most want is strong
government and a revival of national pride - it is a Peronist rebellion
ultimately suppressed by an equally nationalist orator, King Henry's
supporter Lord Clifford.  And of course, often, as in his later work,
the situations revolve around private and individual moral choice coming
into harsh conflict with a complicated and violent political scenario.
This is what I would probably define as being quintessentially
Shakespearean.

In this tetralogy we see Shakespeare's characters almost lurch out of
their two-dimensionality, seeming to emerge from the dark ages as out of
a fog. By comparison, the first play in the first tetralogy, Richard II,
written just a few years later, is a brilliant jewel.  The whole play,
his last to be written wholly in verse, is captured like an
ostentatiously coloured butterfly in a formal, precise, highly
sophisticated world.  There is little action (as in a Beckett play) but
much contention. (We have set the play in a little room.) This precise,
manicured text was in its time sheer political dynamite - for the
subject was deposition and usurpation.  The form belied the content, or
perhaps, danced a demonic gavotte around it.  A much more sophisticated
political mind is emerging.

The following plays in the first tetralogy, the two parts of Henry IV,
are, for me, the first naturalistic masterpiece in the language. They
are contrapuntal and symphonic, and their form eases effortlessly from
verse to prose as the moment requires.  Town counterpoints country,
monarch/peasant, father/son, choral/individual - the list is endless.

And artifice meets reality in a scene of sublime genius when Falstaff
sits on a stool with a cushion on his head and pretends to be Hal's
father, the King.  As in the play within a play in Hamlet, as in the
Pyramus and Thisbe scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream, there is a gap
between the fiction and the "fiction", and in this gap echoes the full
meaning of the play.

This tetralogy concludes with Henry V - obviously, almost vulgarly
satisfying on a narrative level, but filled with hidden ironies and
contradictions.  It tackles the most explosive contention of all: that
war is a highly attractive, seductive occupation.  It subtly and
skilfully deconstructs that notion while acknowledging the truth of the
proposition.  It propagandises and demythologises at one and the same
moment.

Any presentation of the plays in chronological rather than compositional
order provides a fascinating and politically provocative challenge.  To
put it simply, the Shakespearean world we will be presenting will be a
progression to the past, an advance to barbarism.

The cycle will still have its Greek echoes, with the curse of the
deposition in Richard II resonating from generation to generation, until
its expiation and final redemption in Richard III.  But it will ask a
disturbing and profound question, of immense importance as we leave the
bloodiest century in human history.  Can culture prevent barbarity?  Can
political sophistication, humanism, wit, music, drama, philosophy
safeguard against the forces of depravity?

I am thinking particularly of the beginning of the 20th century, when
imperialism, whether it be German, Russian, Italian or even British, was
not only unable to respond to the fanaticism that followed, but has been
shown to have engendered the very contradictions that gave life to such
inhumanity.  We can also look to Eastern Europe and the Balkans for
further evidence.  We have seen Henry VI's bloody Battle of Towton
regularly enacted on our TV screens over the past 12 months.

So Shakespeare's sublime untidiness offers us a chilling and timely
challenge to another orthodoxy: that as civilisation develops and
culture becomes more sophisticated, then Man becomes better and kindlier
to Man.  As a friend put it to me the other day - how on earth do you
teach goodness?
 

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