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The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works (abridged) is one of the funniest things I’ve seen. The “histories football match” made me laugh until I almost threw up. I adore the histories, I wrote a nerdy sixth form college essay on Hal, and Henry V once gave me an inappropriate case of patriotism by proxy, but maybe that’s why the football match is so hilarious to me. They reduce eight plays to a three-minute tussle for the crown, and in many ways, that’s what the histories can seem to be, especially the Henry VI ones.
But they’re also intricate studies of character. Falstaff and Richard III may be the most famous ones, but there are so many other fantastic roles in there. For me, the young prince Hal, who later becomes Henry V, remains the most compelling character of the histories.
The reason I wrote that essay was that I’d read so many critics who painted him as a scheming turn-coat. I seem to have a thing for morally questionable Shakespeare characters (Coriolanus being another), so I set about to defend him against such slander.
For me, he’s the teenage Everyman who has to leave his carefree youth behind and shoulder his adult responsibilities. I don’t really have any sympathy for the Falstaff-huggers, since in spite of his larger-than-life persona, he’s actually kind of an asshole. He may have been a surrogate father to Hal, because the king is a bit low on the touchy-feely-o-meter, but he also has no scruples about deriding him in public or lying about killing Hotspur, who was Hal’s grand prize in the war. Sure, the old man is witty and charismatic, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. Of course Hal has to leave him behind.
So much for the philosophy. Now on to the clothes. Adrian Noble’s fantastic 1991 production of the two parts of Henry IV didn’t just star Julian Glover and Michael Maloney, it also starred a costume designer named Deirdre Clancy (branded on my memory forever). Before seeing those clothes, I had no real appreciation for the texture of suede hose, the length of boots or the cut of shirts.
There are so many valid reasons to love Shakespeare, don’t you agree?
But back to the more cerebral stuff. The funny thing is that the histories aren’t very historical. For example, Henry IV says he wishes his infant son had been replaced with Hotspur:
O, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
But at the time Hal was a baby, Hotspur was already grown up! And the histories are filled with inaccuracies like that – either because Shakespeare didn’t know any better, or because he didn’t care. I’m leaning towards the latter.
In the same vein, I’ve had the characters in Rival Poet speak in a modern way, because I didn’t want the action and the vibrance of the tale clouded by arcane language. Of course, this may be jarring to some readers, but I chose to do it because I wanted the story to feel as if it took place right now, out there in the street or at your local corner pub.
And now I’m comparing myself to old Willie himself to rationalise it…
I’ll end this rambling post with a film tip: The Hollow Crown. Especially Richard II with Ben Wishaw in the title role is absolutely magnificent. That play isn’t even among my favourites, but he does the king with such… I don’t even know. He brings him to life. Makes him understandable, even though he’s kind of weird.
In fact, I think I’ll try to persuade the husband to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday tonight by watching it in our cinema!