Plays

King Henry VIII (All is True)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A play obsessed with historical, political and performative truth, King Henry VIII was first performed under the title All is True at the Globe in 1613, when the charging of a small cannon near the end of the play famously set fire to the thatch at the top of the playhouse, and burnt it to the ground. As well as possibly being staged at the indoor Blackfriars theatre (where Henry and Katherine’s divorce trial had been held 84 years previously), it has been hypothesised that the play was performed at the wedding of James I’s daughter, Elizabeth, to the Elector Palatine, in 1613: its Protestant moralising and mythologizing, as well as the significance it places on a young princess named Elizabeth, would have suited such an occasion. With the sudden death of the young Prince Henry the year before, England’s hope of a proselytising Protestant monarch had been shaken. Such a play, with its suggestion of James I as a mythic heir, may have soothed the national consciousness.

As the play begins, Norfolk, Buckingham and Abergavenny are talking about the meeting of Henry VIII and Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. They complain about Cardinal Wolsey, who ensures that Buckingham is accused of high treason and executed. At a dinner given by Wolsey, Anne Bullen (Boleyn) attracts the attention of Henry, who is married to Queen Katherine of Aragon, and is made Marchioness of Pembroke. Henry sets up a court judged by Wolsey and Cardinal Campeius from Rome to consider his divorce; Katherine pleads with him and then leaves. The court is adjourned until she returns; the two Cardinals persuade her to relent.

Henry secretly marries Anne. Some of Wolsey’s letters to the Pope and an account of his wealth have found their way to Henry; Wolsey is disgraced, and Sir Thomas More is appointed Lord Chancellor in his place. Henry’s new marriage is announced, and Anne is crowned. Katherine is dying, and sees a vision of spirits of peace. After commending her daughter Mary to Henry, she dies. Anne falls pregnant. Henry’s secretary Gardiner plans to bring down Cranmer and Cromwell who are close to the King, but Henry intervenes. There is great rejoicing for the christening of Anne’s new-born daughter, who will become Queen Elizabeth I.

The play was a collaboration between the ageing Shakespeare and the young John Fletcher, who would go on to work together on The Two Noble Kinsmen (c.1613-4). It differs from other Henrican plays of the era which focus on or parody ‘Bluff King Harry’; here, the eponymous king is treated with gravitas as his marital meanderings enable a providential outcome for the English church and crown, as implied in Samuel Rowley’s earlier play When You See Me, You Know Me (1605), which was probably the play’s principal source. Generically, the play has been subject to debate: categorised under ‘Histories’ at its first appearance in the 1623 Folio, it has also been labelled a tragicomedy, a romance, and a late play by critics.

The Folio text is uniquely detailed in Shakespeare’s plays for its abundance of stage directions. As a result, the play has often been staged for its theatrical effect over its dramatic content. It was perennially popular throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in productions dominated by static sequences of tableaux and grandiose set speeches. Throughout the twentieth century, however, this spectacular performance style began to wane in favour of more ‘authentic’ renderings, and the play is now one of the most rarely performed of the Shakespearean canon.

video King Lear (BBC film adaptation)

BBC Video
Type: Video

Ian Holm stars in the title role of this award-winning film version of Richard Eyre’s National Theatre production of William Shakespeare's King Lear. The cast also includes Timothy West as The Earl of Gloucester, Finbar Lynch as his bastard son, Edmund and Paul Rhys as his legitimate son, Edgar; Barbara Flynn, Amanda Redman and Victoria Hamilton as Lear's daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia; and Michael Bryant as the Fool.

Credits:

Director: Richard Eyre; Writer: William Shakespeare; Writer (Screen): Richard Eyre; Producer: Susan Birtwistle; Music: Dominic Muldowney; Production Design : Bob Crowley; Art Direction: Andrew Sanders; Cast: King Lear: Ian Holm, Edgar: Paul Rhys, Edmund: Finbar Lynch, Gloucester: Timothy West, Kent: David Burke, Goneril: Barbara Flynn, Regan: Amanda Redman, Cordelia: Victoria Hamilton Fool: Michael Bryant, Oswald: William Osborne.

Distributed under licence from Educational Publishers LLP

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Love’s Labour’s Lost is a comedy fascinated by the world of the court, by art, and most of all by language, knotted together with jokes, symbols, letters, poems, rhetoric and verbal trickery. It has been linked to contemporary humanist culture and to Sir Philip Sidney’s works, and touches on the traditions of Roman New Comedy and commeddia dell’arte. Written around the time of Shakespeare’s other ‘lyrical plays’, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play is generally dated to 1594-5, though evidence is scarce. It follows a vogue for social comedies of humours, epitomised by Ben Jonson by the end of the decade in Every Man in his Humour (1598), and was possibly influenced by the ongoing French Wars of Religion and the recent coronation of Henry of Navarre, King of France. This text is based on the first surviving Quarto, from 1598, from which the Folio text is also taken.

The King of Navarre and three of his lords, Dumaine, Longaville and Berowne, swear to renounce the company of women for three years, and retreat to the forest to study and fast. The Princess of France arrives on an embassy to recover money owed to her father. She is accompanied by a lord, Boyet, and three ladies, Maria, Katherine and Rosaline. The King falls in love with the Princess, Katherine with Dumaine, Maria with Longaville and Berowne with Rosaline. The lords overhear one another reading out their love poems, and excuse themselves from their vows; they dress up as Russians to talk to the ladies, who decisively outwit them. A messenger arrives and tells them of the Princess’s father’s death. Before they leave, the ladies impose year-long tasks on the lords, promising (more or less) after that period to return to marry them.

Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury (1598) lists a supposed sequel to the play, Love’s Labour’s Won. Usually presumed to be a lost play, some scholars have speculated that it may be an alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing or The Taming of the Shrew.

video Love's Labour's Lost (Globe on Screen)

Globe on Screen
Type: Video

When the King of Navarre and his three courtiers forswear all pleasure - particularly of the female variety - in favour of a life of study, the arrival of the Princess of France and her ladies plays havoc with their intentions Stage director: Dominic Dromgoole. Screen director: Ian Russell. Featuring: Philip Cumbus, Seroca Davis, Jack Farthing, Christopher Godwin, Trystan Gravelle, Fergal McElherron, Rhiannon Oliver, Thomasin Rand, Paul Ready, Sian Robins-Grace, Tom Stuart, Michelle Terry, Andrew Vincent.

audio Macbeth

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

Infamously known as the cursed Scottish play, Macbeth is perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy. When General Macbeth is foretold by three witches that he will one day be King of Scotland, Lady Macbeth convinces him to get rid of anyone who could stand in his way – including committing regicide. As Macbeth ascends to the throne through bloody murder, he becomes a tyrant consumed by fear and paranoia.

An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring: James Marsters as Macbeth Joanne Whalley as Lady Macbeth Josh Cooke as Banquo and others JD Cullum as Macduff and Second Murderer Dan Donohue as Ross Jeannie Elias as Second Witch and others Chuma Gault as Lennox and Servant Jon Matthews as Malcolm Alan Shearman as Angus and others André Sogliuzzo as Donalbain, Third Witch and others Kate Steele as Lady Macduff, First Witch and Apparition Kris Tabori as Duncan and others Directed by Martin Jarvis. Sound effects by Tony Palermo. Recorded at the Invisible Studios, West Hollywood.

Featuring: Josh Cooke, JD Cullum, Dan Donohue, Jeannie Elias, Chuma Gault, James Marsters, Jon Matthews, Alan Shearman, André Sogliuzzo, Kate Steele, Kris Tabori, Joanne Whalley

video Macbeth (Globe on Screen)

Globe on Screen
Type: Video

When three witches tell Macbeth that he is destined to occupy the throne of Scotland, he and his wife choose to become the instruments of their fate and to kill the first man standing in their path, the virtuous King Duncan. Stage director: Eve Best. Screen director: Sue Judd. Featuring: Samantha Spiro, Joseph Millson, Bette Bourne, Phil Cumbus, Finty Williams, Jess Murphy, Moyo Akande, Cat Simmons, Geoff Aymer, Stuart Bowman, Jonathan Chambers, Gawn Grainger, Harry Hepple, Billy Boyd, Colin Ryan, Marc Borthwick, Ed Pinker.

Measure for Measure

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In a city swamped by impotent law and sexual decadence, Shakespeare reveals repressed desire, skewed hypocrisy and arbitrary justice. His only play to be set in Vienna, Measure for Measure has, along with Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well That Ends Well, been labelled a ‘problem play’, although in its first appearance in print in the 1623 First Folio, it is listed under the ‘Comedies’. Using conventional literary and dramatic devices such as the bed trick and the disguised ruler (whose humanist piety some critics have seen as a direct nod to the newly crowned James I), the play’s main source lies in the Italian writer Cinthio’s prose Hecatommithi (1565) (whence Shakespeare had also drawn the inspiration for Othello). Shakespeare reworks Cinthio’s tragic ending of rape and execution so that his play ends, as is usual for a comedy, in multiple marriages.

The Duke of Vienna lends his power to the uncompromising Angelo and pretends to leave the city, but remains disguised as a friar. Angelo begins to enforce the city’s neglected laws, and condemns Claudio to death for getting Juliet pregnant out of wedlock. Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is about to become a nun, begs Angelo for mercy, but he falls in love with her. He offers her a bargain: Claudio will be released if Isabella sleeps with Angelo. Isabella will not consent, even when her brother encourages her.

The Duke, who was visiting Claudio in prison still disguised as a friar, overhears Isabella talking to Claudio. He suggests they trick Angelo into thinking that he is sleeping with Isabella, but he will really be sleeping with Marianna, his ex-fiancée whom he abandoned.

Their trick is successful but Angelo does not pardon Claudio: he is still to be executed, and his head sent to Angelo. The Duke intervenes, and gets the Provost to agree to send another prisoner’s head instead – initially Barnadine’s, but then Ragozine’s when Barnardine refuses to be executed.

The Duke ‘returns’ to the city as himself. Isabella, not recognising him as the Friar who helped her, begs him for justice. The Duke pretends to dismiss her. Mariana arrives as a witness. The Duke re-enters as the Friar. When he reveals himself, Angelo confesses and the Duke orders him to marry Mariana then condemns him to death: Angelo is pardoned when Mariana pleads for him. Claudio is revealed to be alive. The Duke proposes to Isabella.

The first record of performance for Measure for Measure was at the Banqueting Hall, Whitehall, on 26th December 1604, though it was probably composed and performed earlier that year. The play’s exploration of illicit sexuality led to it being underperformed or bowdlerised throughout the centuries that followed its publication; at the start of the twentieth century, critics and practitioners ‘uncovered’ the play’s emphasis on grace and divine atonement.

video Measure For Measure (BBC film adaptation)

BBC Video
Type: Video

A modern dress version directed by David Thacker with Corin Redgrave as Angelo and Juliet Aubrey as Isabella. Modern themes are explored in an age-old play as William Shakespeare explores the darker side of society. Sexually transmitted disease is reaching epidemic proportions. Prostitution, licentiousness and petty crime are on the increase and a new government reintroduces capital punishment for sexual offences.

Credits:

Director: David Thacker; Adapted by: David Thacker; Producer: Peter Cregeen; Starring: Tom Wilkinson, Juliet Aubrey, Corin Redgrave, Sue Johnstone.

Distributed under licence from Educational Publishers LLP

The Merchant of Venice (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Merchant of Venice, technically a comedy, has proven controversial in its portrayal of the complex figure of the money-lender Shylock. Debate continues over the presence of distressing anti-Semitism, and the extent to which Shylock can be considered victimised or villainous. Shylock as a character has in some ways gradually disengaged from the play as a whole, becoming a famous topic of study that stands independent from Shakespeare’s original text.

Like Othello, The Merchant of Venice is a play which has evolved dramatically since its creation due to the changing contexts in which it is now read and performed. Although the texts themselves stay the same, the societal significance of an issue like anti-Semitism, as well as racism more generally, give greater weight to those elements within the play. Therefore, modern productions and interpretations must carefully consider these changes in attitude along with the original contexts of the plays.

Apart from the complicating presence of Shylock and various other anti-Semitic elements, scholars traditionally classify The Merchant of Venice as a comedy because it includes a number of classical comedic conventions, such as a complicated courtship process, mistaken identities, and transvestism. Bassanio needs 3,000 ducats in order to woo a wealthy heiress, Portia. His best friend, the merchant Antonio, is waiting on some ships he has invested in to return to Venice; in the meantime, he arranges a short-term loan with Shylock, a Jewish usurer. Shylock hates Antonio for his past insults, but agrees that the merchant can have 3,000 ducats, but they must be repaid within three months; if not, he may take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio’s ships go missing and he defaults on the loan, Shylock demands his flesh. Hearing of her husband’s best friend’s dilemma, Portia disguises herself as a lawyer and defends him in court, overturning the bargain with her own logic. Various other love stories and hijinks ensue amongst the supporting characters while the main action takes place, and as in most comedies, the difficulties faced by the main characters (with the exception of Shylock) are resolved by the close of the play.

The Arden Third Series edition of The Merchant of Venice is based on the first quarto text printed in 1600.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Merry Wives of Windsor is Shakespeare’s only English comedy (though it has arguably Italianate roots), following the trend for comedies of ‘humours’ that were popular on the late Elizabethan stage. It continues the story of Sir John Falstaff, who the audience had last seen being taken away to the Fleet prison at the end of Henry IV Part 2. Now a poor knight of Windsor (a retired soldier given accommodation and a small allowance), Falstaff once again plays the lovable rogue in this merry conceit of cozening, linguistic delight and social cross-sectioning.

As the play begins, Falstaff has been poaching deer from his old nemesis Justice Shallow. He soon starts on his next scheme: to seduce both Mistress Ford and Mistress Page in order to get at their husbands’ money. He writes identical love letters to each of them, but his companions Pistol and Nim reveal his plans to the wives. Mistress Ford and Mistress Page plan to accept his overtures in order to trick him in return. Meanwhile, Mistress Ford’s jealous husband disguises himself to test her fidelity; as ‘Brook’, he pays Falstaff to woo his wife.

Ford arrives as Falstaff begins to woo Mistress Ford, so the wives hide Falstaff in a laundry basket, and throw him in the Thames, as they’d planned all along. After his dunking, Falstaff once again pursues Mistress Ford; once again Ford arrives, and the wives disguise Falstaff as the ‘fat woman of Brentford’. His final humiliation comes as the wives tell Falstaff to disguise himself as ‘Herne the Hunter’ and wait in Windsor Park that night. There he is confronted by children dressed as fairies, and the two laughing couples.

A secondary plot concerns Anne Page and her several suitors. Her mother wants her to marry the French Doctor Caius; her father wants her to marry the foolish Slender; she loves Fenton, a gentleman. While her suitors squabble and her mother and father both separately plot her elopement, Anne takes matters into her own hands and marries Fenton.

The play’s first performance is uncertain. Some critics argue that it was first conceived as a court entertainment to celebrate the election of five new knights to the Order of the Garter on St. George’s Day in 1597; while it is unlikely that the full-length comedy was acted here, it is possible that the fairy masque was presented for the Queen, with the lecherous Falstaff and his motley crew acting as anti-masque. Most likely written in full after 1599, perhaps ‘compensating’ for Falstaff’s recorded death in Henry , the play first appears in quarto in 1602 (a much abridged ‘acting version’ of that which appears in the 1623 Folio). Its first recorded performance was at the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall in 1604, in front of the new king. Perenially popular onstage, The Merry Wives of Windsor has been operatized several times since the eighteenth century, most famously in English in Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love (1933). Hailing from a medieval English background, the figure of Falstaff has come to be seen, since the twentieth century, as a universally recognizable figure of folklore across cultures.