Shakespeare Solved ®


Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Articles Written For:

The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library & The Royal Shakespeare Company

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Martin Freeman's Richard III Without "Boring Bits"


Martin Freeman, speaking about his production of Richard III at London's Trafalgar Studios (which starts tomorrow) said that his version of the play has no "boring bits."

He said that he, and the director Jamie Lloyd, want to make the play more accessible to younger audiences.

He also said that the only people who tolerate these "boring bits" are the "very educated, very smart, very theatre literate" people, and that they are engaged in a "conspiracy of silence" over the parts in the play they themselves don't understand.





On the one hand, I agree with Mr. Freeeman. There are boring parts in every Shakespeare play. For my whole life I have struggled to understand these boring parts, and I consider myself an educated person.

Even in my favorite Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice, there are boring parts. I don't really enjoy the scenes between Antonio, Solanio and Salarino. I don't really even like the casket scenes with Portia and her suitors.

There is a lot of boring parts in Richard III, which is the second longest play after Hamlet. If it were performed in full, it would probably run between 3 to 4 hours. I don't think anyone would argue that the entire play needs to be performed to be understood and enjoyed by an audience.

As much as I enjoyed Kenneth Branagh's 4-hour Hamlet, it was too long, and needed to be cut.

Clarence's dream is a great scene, but can be boring. Even my favorite scene, where Richard woos and wins Anne is too long. The nightmares at the end, when Richard is on the battlefield, drag on.

So, in general I agree that editing out some scenes and lines is fine.

But the problem is that it very difficult to figure out what the "boring bits" are. 

When I wrote my version of The Merchant of Venice, I discovered that every last scene and almost every last line has meaning, and could be understood as long the play itself was understood. It is not a tragic comedy, or romantic comedy, but in fact a very bawdy farce. Once you understand the farce in the play, you can understand everything in the play.

Also, one of the reasons why I think Merchant is the most misunderstood play of all is because it has been cut too often and too much.

The best production of Richard III I have ever seen, with Mark Rylance, cut out the character of Queen Margaret entirely. It also eliminated what I consider to be the funniest joke, when Margaret's curses Richard and he turns the curses back on her. 


Mark Rylance played Richard III for laughs


I saw another production, at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. The director Robert Richmond argued that having Queen Margaret is very important because "her curse [against Richard] goes round throughout the play" and her curses "become wish fulfillment from Margaret's point of view, and from ours" meaning the audience.

So, by removing the character of Margaret, you leave out the audience.

So, which production is better?

They were both excellent, but as I wrote before with my review of Rylance as Richard, the production didn't play to the audience as well as it could have. 

Also, there is so much humor in Richard III, that if Mr. Freeman and Mr. Lloyd really want to engage a younger audience, or any audience for that matter, they should exploit as much of the jokes in the play as possible. 

Even Mr. Rylance, whose performance as Richard was ground-breaking because of the fact that he was playing for laughs, did not go far enough with the comedy.

Finally, one of the reasons why its a risky thing to cut out the "boring bits" is that it reduces the plays to something that has no meaning. If anyone struggles to understand any play, or any book, it shouldn't just be cut down to make it more digestible. 

If anything, young audiences should be encourage to read the play before and/or after seeing the play live. If they have any questions, that is a healthy thing, and they should be encouraged to seek meaning for themselves.

What do you think?

Cheers,


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Friday, June 27, 2014

Is Shakespeare Hiding In His Plays?


Does Shakespeare appear in his own plays?

Did he write himself into some of the characters?

It is known that he was not just a playwright, but an actor, too. So, he certainly created roles for himself in the plays he wrote.

But are there other characters that seem to you like Shakespeare was sneaking himself into the play, and hiding behind a mask?





I recently wrote about a different way to enjoy reading Shakespeare's plays, by using a technique called Imaginative Meditation. 

As you read one of the plays, try entering the story, and imagine that you are there with the characters. Instead of just being a spectator to the story, try to become a participant in the story.

One of the reasons why I think this is such a great way to read not just Shakespeare, but any stories really, is because it is a great way to exercise and develop your imagination.

Artists have different ways of developing their talent and their imagination, and I am sure that many of them have used something like this.

When Shakespeare was a schoolboy in Stratford, he learned Latin. He would read Ovid in Latin, and the plays of Plautus. He would have also performed some scenes from these plays.


Shakespeare's Schoolroom in Stratford



What if, while he was reading plays and stories like these, he was imagining that he was actually in the stories themselves?

It's very likely. After all, he had a great imagination, he was very creative with stories, plots, characters, memorable lines, and he invented many words, and phrases.

What if the spark of creativity that made him into the greatest writer of all time, was lighted by this kind of Imaginative Meditation?

So, if he was good at putting himself into the stories of Ovid and the plays of Plautus, did he go one step further and put himself into his own plays?

I was thinking of this as I was reading Antony and Cleopatra. When I read the lines for the character Enorbarbus, I get this strange feeling that it is Shakespeare himself, sticking himself in this history play.

Enobarbus was a real person, but it seems like Shakespeare is using him as a sort of Blackadder-type figure, so Shakespeare can speak his own mind, and express his own opinion.

There are some very funny lines, like how Enobarbus describes Cleopatra as Antony's "Egyptian dish." 


Judi Dench as Anthony Hopkins's "Egyptian dish"
in a 1978 production


I especially like it when Antony orders Enobarbus, whom he commands in the army, to be silent and "speak no more."

Enobarbus is rather sarcastic with his commanding officer: "That truth should be silent. I had almost forgot." 

Antony: "You wrong the presence. Therefore speak no more." Translation: "You are not worthy. Shut up."

Enorbarbus: "Go to, then. Your considerate stone." Translation: Yes, sir. I will be silent as a rock.

This kind of funny and irreverant exchange, between a very important man, and a lackey who doesn't entirely show respect to that man, is very common throughout Shakespeare. 

You can see it between Hamlet and the Gravedigger, or between Lear and his Fool, and perhaps most famously between Prince Hal and Falstaff.


Ian McKellen and Sylvester McCoy in King Lear
RSC 2007


With each of those disrespectful lackeys, I often sense Shakespeare's voice, and his real personality.

If these characters do represent Shakespeare's voice, why does he do this? Why does he slip into these characters?

Perhaps it is best understood with these lines by Enorbarbus, which he speaks to the audience: 

Mine honesty and I begin to square.
The loyalty well held to fools does make
Our faith mere folly: yet he that can endure
To follow with allegiance a fall'n lord
Does conquer him that did his master conquer
And earns a place i' the story.


Translation: 

My integrity and I sometimes fight.
Loyalty to a fool (his master Antony) makes loyalty foolish.
But anyone who can stay true to a fallen master
Defeats the person who defeated the master
And earns a place in history.

Shakespeare is saying, through the character of Enorbarbus, that in order to earn his place in history, and be remembered, he has to stay a loyal (but occasionally disrespectful and irreverant) servant to his master.

Who was Shakespeare's masters? He had several. 


Earl of Essex



The Earl of Essex, and the Earl of Southampton were his patrons for many years, until they conspired against Queen Elizabeth in 1601. Essex was executed and Southampton was put in the Tower.

Then his master was King James himself, when Shakespeare was made the official royal playwright, in 1603.

He had several masters, and he stayed true and loyal to each of them, despite their faults.

Can you think of any other characters in which Shakespeare is hiding?

Please let me know. I would love to hear your ideas!

Cheers,


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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Was Shakespeare's Richard III Propaganda?


     On 26 June, 1483, Richard, Duke of Gloucester ascended the throne as King Richard III.


Richard III's recently discovered skull


But he died in 1485, defeated in battle by Henry Tudor, who would then become King Henry VII.

When you read about Richard III, on Wikipedia for example, he was not quite the villain that Shakespeare made him out to be.

What was Shakespeare up to?

Shakespeare's sources for the play, such as Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, and Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard the Thirde, were political propaganda against Richard and the House of York. 


Henry VII


This propaganda was necessary to legitimise the House of Tudor, and the new King of England, Henry VII and any heirs, such as Henry VIII and later Queen Elizabeth I.

What better way than to establish the legitimacy of your reign than to smear the reputation of your defeated foe, in books and later in plays?

Shakespeare's play was not the only stage depiction of Richard III.

There was also a play called Richardus Tertius, by Thomas Legge, and first performed in 1580 at Cambridge University. Christopher Marlowe may have seen it at the time, since he was at Cambridge, and was one of their University Wits.


Christopher Marlowe


The True Tragedy of Richard III, was written by an unknown playwright and was probably performed in the period from 1585 to 1590. It is commonly believed that Shakespeare first came to London around 1587-8, so it is very likely that he saw it on stage.

Why do we know so little about these plays, yet so much about Shakespeare's version of the story?

Is it just because Shakespeare was such a genius that every last play of his is worth remembering?

But what about his plays made them so memorable? What was it about his plays that made them so popular in the first place, so successful, that thousands of people would pay money to watch his plays, again and again, year after year?

It is my belief that Shakespeare's Richard III play was his first masterpiece, his first really big hit. 

He had already established himself with his history plays about King Henry VI, written in the period between 1589-92, but it is my contention that it was this play, about Richard, and written around 1592-3, that firmly established Shakespeare as the greatest playwright of the period.

But what made this play so successful?

What if the play's success was due to the fact that it is actually a comedy? 

What if it is in fact a very funny play with some dramatic moments, and has been misunderstood as a drama with comedic moments?


Mark Rylance's brilliantly funny Richard III


If you have seen, or read about Mark Rylance's widely acclaimed and ground-breaking performance, or Kevin Spacey's performance (which he is virtually re-creating in the House of Cards Cable series) you know that Richard is a funny character, and the play has tons of jokes.

Mark Rylance's performance is breaking ground because he is playing it for laughs.


Kevin Spacey as Richard III


The previous plays about Richard were serious and sober depictions of Richard III, and are almost forgotten. Shakespeare's play is not serious at all, and is remembered for centuries.

It is almost an inescapable conclusion that Shakespeare's play is the masterpiece it is because it is a hilarious send-up of the traditional (and boring) history play.

If we can believe that Shakespeare's play is in fact a comedy, then is it not therefore clear that he was not demonizing Richard and the House of York, but in fact ridiculing the House of Tudor?

So, is Shakespeare's play anti-Tudor propaganda?

I have previously written about Robert Cecil, who was quite possibly the most feared and despised man in England in the 1590's. 


Robert Cecil, the man behind Shakespeare's Richard III


He was the son to William Cecil, who was the chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth. When his father died in 1598, Robert would become the most powerful person in England. 

Robert Cecil's power was so great, that he installed King James on the throne after Elizabeth died in 1603.

Robert Cecil was a manipulative, and dangerous man. He was in charge of the Queen's spy network. When Christopher Marlowe was murdered in 1593, it may have been on Robert Cecil's order.

Cecil also had a hunched back. He probably suffered from Scoliosis, and had a curved spine like the real Richard III.


Richard III's bones
Notice the curved spine


In 1592-3, as Shakespeare premiered this new play about Richard III, a hunchback, manipulative, and murderous king, there would not have been one person in the audience who would not have seen it as a caricature of Robert Cecil.

Was Shakespeare's Richard III play propaganda?

It is entirely plausible to believe that the play was in fact propaganda, not against Richard III, but in fact against Queen Elizabeth and her court, which included Robert Cecil.

Shakespeare was turning the propaganda around and attacking the Tudors, not the Yorks.

Which in itself is quite funny.

Cheers,


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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Shakespeare and the Tudor Period


June 24 was a very busy day in Shakespeare history.

On June 24, 1509, Henry VIII was crowned King of England.

On June 24, 1532, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was born.

On June 24, 1604, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford died.

In a funny way, these are some of the most important events in the Tudor period, and they all relate very directly to the life and career of Shakespeare.


Battle of Bosworth Field



The Tudor period began in 1485 when King Henry VII defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field and won the throne. Not long after that, his son Henry succeeded him in 1509, and became arguably the most influential of all the British monarchs.


Henry VIII in 1509, when he was 18 years old



In breaking away from the Catholic Church, Henry VIII set England on a different path from the rest of Europe. In terms of religion, and culture, England would never be the same.


Coronation of Henry VIII


For Shakespeare, he might never have become the playwright he did, had Henry VIII broke from Rome. 

Before Thomas Kyd, and Christopher Marlowe, and the other playwrights like Shakespeare, there were religious mystery plays, and other church-related entertainment. If England had not had its Reformation, the entertainment in England may never have been reformed either. 

Shakespeare might have just acted occasionally in the Stratford area, while perhaps following in his father's career as glove-maker and maybe holding local government office.

I wonder if Shakespeare ever stopped to think that his entire playwriting career was due King Henry's desire for another woman, and wish to be divorced.


Henry in 1531


But if King Henry VIII was responsible for the overall environment in which a playwright could have a career, it was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, born in 1532, who might be considered the father of playwrights and actors in Elizabethan England.

Leicester was the "favourite" of Queen Elizabeth. She loved him more than any other man, and arguably would have married him had she been truly free to do so.


Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester


Leicester enjoyed the company and entertainment of actors and performers. One of these performers was Will Kemp, who would later be the second greatest actor who worked with Shakespeare, and was the man who first played Falstaff. The most important was Richard Burbage, who played Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and all of the other major roles.


Will Kemp


Leicester also employed a man named James Burbage, who was the father of Richard Burbage.

James Burbage wanted to have the freedom and legal protection to travel the country without being arrested. Leicester turned to Queen Elizabeth, and she granted this licence in 1572.

James Burbage would soon build The Theatre, the first building created specifically for the purpose of performing plays, since the Roman times.


The Theatre, in Shoreditch



It was in The Theatre that Shakespeare may have first performed when he came to London in around 1587.

In no time, Shakespeare was working with, and writing for Richard Burbage, and it was a match made in theatre heaven.

Edward de Vere, who is often incorrectly believed to be the real author of Shakespeare's plays, was a wealthy and influential courtier during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.


Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford



But I consider him to represent some of the best and worst qualities of the Elizabethan era. He was a patron of artists and playwrights, and was a writer himself, though much of his writing does not survive. He inherited his wealth, and by the end of his life he had lost all of it.

It is entirely reasonable to conclude that Shakespeare knew Oxford, and had met him frequently. Why? Because Oxford had grown up as a ward in the Cecil household. 

This is the same household where Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton had grown up, also as wards to the William Cecil, the chief adviser to the Queen.

Essex and Southampton were Shakespeare's patrons, and there is every reason to believe that they had nothing but disdain for their fellow ward, and housemate, Oxford. Oxford was pro-Cecil where Essex and Southampton were not.

Oxford was famous for his travels in Italy, including Venice, which was sort of like the Las Vegas of the time. Oxford was known as the "Italian Earl" and was described as a "ridiculously foppish Italianate courtier."

In the course of writing my version of The Merchant of Venice it became rather apparent that Oxford was the inspiration for Shakespeare's character Antonio. That is not a compliment, since the caricature Shakespeare created is not flattering to Oxford at all. The character of Antonio has been mistakenly played as if he is a fine gentleman, but in fact the character is a ridiculous Italianate fop.

When Oxford died, in 1604, Queen Elizabeth had been dead for over a year, and King James sat on her throne.

His death would have been a rather clear indication that the Elizabethan era, and the Tudor period, had come to a close.





Shakespeare had worked his way to the top of the Elizabethan world, without a title, and an inherited family fortune. He was an example of what was great about Elizabeth's reign.

Without King Henry VIII he would not have been a playwright. Without Leicester he would not have been able to flourish as a playwright. Without Oxford, and men like him, he would not have been able to write characters as funny as Antonio.

And just thing, Shakespeare's career had many more years to go!

Cheers,




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Friday, June 20, 2014

Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch's Richard III


I read a little piece of news recently about Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch.

It seems that Benedict defended Keira's honor, and punched the arm of a film critic for insulting her acting.

How chivalrous!





I am very pleased to know that a) there are still gentlemen in this world and b) that it is possible to punch a film critic without being sued and/or arrested!

But seriously, I have an idea. 

If Benedict really wants to do something nice for her, the least he could do is beg her to co-star with him in his Richard III for the Hollow Crown series.

I think she would be fantastic as Lady Anne, whom Richard III woos and wins -- over the dead body of her father-in-law the dead King Henry VI,  and despite the fact that he killed her husband and King Henry!

It's a fantastic scene, and one of the best moments in any Shakespeare play.

We haven't seen Keira in any Shakespeare, and what better way to start than performing this role opposite Benedict?





What do you think?

If you agree with me, please show your support on facebookTwitterPinterestGoogle Plus  or Tumblr.

Your support will really make a difference!

And your comments are always welcome!


Cheers,




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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Shakespeare and King James's Birthday


Happy Birthday King James!

He was born on 19 June, 1566.


King James as a boy



He was a very unique and peculiar man. But he was also one of the most consequential men in England's history. There are so many ways that England, and Scotland of course, would never be the same after he became King of England in 1603.

Just think of what is happening today. There is the distinct possibility that Scotland may become independent of England for the first time since King James united the countries in 1603. 

If you think that this Scottish independence movement is controversial, just think of what it was like when King James talked of union in his time.

But today, for his birthday, I would like to consider one question: 

What if King James had never been born?


Age 20



I love the film It's A Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart. It is very powerful when he is shown what how the world would have been different had he never been born at all. 

King James had no brothers or sisters. He was the first child to Mary, Queen of Scots. Soon after he was born, she became pregnant again, with twins, but miscarried both of them, at the same time she was forced to abdicate her throne.

If King James himself had never been born, or was miscarried, during those tempestuous days of Mary's reign, the world we know would be very different.

If he was not born, then who would have succeeded Queen Elizabeth I, when she died in 1603?

The people who had the greatest claim to the throne were Anne Stanley and Edward Seymour.  Had James not become King James VI of Scotland and I of England, there might have been Queen Anne, or King Edward VII.



Edward Seymour, as a baby.



It is very doubtful that either of them would have united Scotland and England, or even considered it at all. It probably would never have entered their imagination. Why would it?

Scottish union with England might have come eventually, perhaps during the Industrial Revolution, starting somewhere after 1760.

Had King James never been born, it is possible that the Protestant Reformation would have been more problematic in England. King James was perhaps not the best manager of the religious change in the country, but he was a Protestant, and he carried on the Religious Settlement established by Queen Elizabeth, which followed in the footsteps of her father, King Henry VIII.

It is possible that a Queen Anne, or a King Edward VII would have moved the country back to Catholicism. Perhaps England would have faced even greater religious turmoil without King James. One could say that the religious tension between Protestants and Catholics and Puritans might have been greater without King James. It is also true that the religious tensions might very well have been better without him.

Had he never been born, there might not have been a King James Bible. 





Few books in history have had an impact as great as his translation, and it is impossible calculate how history would have unfolded without this translation. The other translations into English, like the Geneva Bible or the Bishop's Bible would have sufficed, and other English translations would have been made, but arguably they would have not had the effect that the King James version had on England's history, and world history.

King James made peace with Spain in 1603-4. This was very controversial, and it is doubtful that a Queen Anne or King Edward VII would have made such a peace with England's greatest foe. After all, it had been only 15 years since the Spanish Armada. 


"The Invincible Armada"


How did England benefit from such peace? Perhaps the greatest benefit was  a rather strong economy during his reign. Since England did not have to financially support military efforts against Spain, it could invest in its own economy. Spain and England would war againt each other later of course, but for the time being, they did not.

Perhaps a Queen Anne, or King Edward VII would have renewed the war against Spain, and continued the fight. Perhaps they might have been victorious, and defeated Spain once and for all. Or they might have suffered a humiliating defeat. Spain might have invaded England for all we know, as they had planned. So, in conclusion, for better or for worse, King James made peace with Spain.

Had King James not been born, there might not have been a Gunpowder Plot against his life. 


The Gunpowder Plot conspirators



It was one of history's worst terrorist plots. I personally think the Gunpowder Plot would not have been hatched against a Queen Anne or a King Edward VII, and it had everything to do with King James personally. 

For example, King James's father, Lord Darnley, had been assassinated with a gunpowder explosion, so it was no coincidence that Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes used that particular weapon against him. 

But I also think that every monarch, and leader, is faced with the threat of assassination and terror. If it was not an explosion of gunpowder, it would have been something else. King Henri IV of France was killed in 1610 by an assassin with a knife!

Had King James never been born, there might have been no Shakespeare.


Shakespeare, a King's Man


What I mean is that he may not have been remembered as he is today. He may have been remembered just as one of several playwrights who were successful at the time. 

Think of the plays that Shakespeare wrote during the reign of King James: King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, The Tempest, Measure for Measure, Coriolanus, to name a few.

Yes, Shakespeare wrote masterpieces during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Hamlet, most notably.

But what he wrote during the time of King James is astonishing. I think these plays are the greatest historical achievements during the reign of King James.

When King James rode down from Edinburgh to London in 1603, he made Shakespeare and his fellow actors, known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men, into the King's Men, the official royal playing company for King James.

One could say that before King James, Shakespeare was a great playwright. But once he became a King's Man, Shakespeare secured his place in history.

I doubt that a Queen Anne or a King Edward VII would have done the same. I think they would have treated Shakespeare much like Queen Elizabeth did, as a playwright who could write and make money, and occasionally perform at the royal court. I doubt they would have invited him into the court as King James did.


ca. 1606



King James was obsessed with plays, with literature, and I think he loved Shakespeare above all other Englishmen. He made Shakespeare.

The irony is that Shakespeare could not have written those plays for any other monarch. They were all written for King James, but more importantly, they were about King James. He is in those plays. He is Othello, he is King Lear, he is Macbeth -- a Scotsman!

Finally, Shakespeare's wrote these masterpieces for King James. Had King James never been born we would not have these magnificent plays.

Yes, there would have been other plays, and yes they would have been excellent. But what made them so spectacular is the fact that Shakespeare could stop writing plays about monarchs from the past, and speculate about their motives and their actions.

With King James, Shakespeare could paint portraits of James. He had an almost unprecedented view of King James.

With these plays, we can see the artist and the subject, together.

As far as world history goes, for better or for worse, King James inherited Queen Elizabeth's throne in 1603.


in 1606



But as far as culture, and literature, and art is concerned, we should be very grateful to King James for having made Shakespeare, and for the plays he inspired.



Cheers,


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