Plays

King Henry V (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Henry V is the final play in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy. Having shaken off his less savoury companions at the end of Henry IV Part 2, Hal takes his place on the throne following his father’s death, proving himself a pious and sensible ruler, much to the court’s surprise. Following enquiries into his genealogical right to rule over France as well as England, and taunts from the French Dauphin about his youth in the form of tennis balls, Henry resolves to invade France. His old carousing companions, after hearing of the death of Sir John Falstaff, join Henry’s army, their quarrels forming the comic underbelly of the play. Following the English victory at the siege of Harfleur, the two armies prepare to confront one another at Agincourt. On the eve of battle, Henry disguises himself and goes into the camp, discussing with his soldiers the responsibilities of a king. The English win a spectacular victory, and the play ends with the promise of Henry’s marriage to the French Princess Katherine of Valois.

Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have been familiar with the events at fifteenth-century Agincourt, following the anonymous play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (1594/8). At the time of performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V in 1599, the re-telling of the glorious English victory would have been ironically juxtaposed with contemporary attempts by the Earl of Essex to suppress rebellion in Ireland.

The first Quarto (Q1) was not published until 1600. This ‘Cronicle History’ is only half the length of the text printed in the First Folio of 1623 (F); it has been hypothesised that Q1 was the initial write-up of the play, and F the theatrical text pieced together after performance. We cannot be sure where the play was first performed: many have romanticized ‘this wooden O’ as the Globe theatre, newly built in 1599, but it is possible that it was originally performed at the Curtain theatre in Shoreditch, where Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, had been performing since 1596.

The critic William Hazlitt commented that the eponymous king is ‘a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant’. These contradictions are characteristic of responses to the play itself: its treatment of warfare has been the topic of debate for almost as long as it has been in performance. Does the play speak of national pride and English glory, or of ironic disenchantment and authoritarian kingship? The divergence of twentieth-century screen versions has visualised this contrary nature: Laurence Olivier’s 1944 wartime film, intended as a morale boost for Allied troops before the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, creates a halcyon backdrop for ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’, whereas Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film portrays a starker and less sentimental picture of the potential horrors of war.

King Henry VI Part 1 (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The history play King Henry VI, Part 1 can be seen as a mediation on history itself, on the mechanisms of genealogy, combat and heroism. The dominant character of Joan la Pucelle (otherwise Joan of Arc) is a locus of questions about gender and the supernatural.

Questions of authorship, date and place in a ‘historical cycle’ are attendant on the play, which was first printed in the Folio. Some editors claiming single authorship for Shakespeare; for others it is the result of a collaboration, probably including Thomas Nashe. The Arden edition argues that it was written after Parts 2 and 3. It may be the play which records show was performed in 1592 by the Lord Strange’s Men at the Rose theatre.

The young Henry VI is now king. At the funeral of Henry V, news arrives of military difficulties in France: cities have been lost, the Dauphin Charles has been crowned, and the military captain Talbot has been taken prisoner. The English nobles squabble over power. The rivalry between Richard Plantagenet (later Duke of York) and the Duke of Somerset escalates, and they pluck a white and a red rose respectively to represent the House of York and the House of Lancaster. Henry travels to France to be crowned.

In France, Joan la Pucelle has arrived at the siege of Orléans, promising that heaven-sent powers will help her to lead the French to victory. Put in charge of the army, she fights the English — led first by the Duke of Bedford and then by Talbot – for Orléans and Rouen. Joan also persuades the Duke of Burgundy, Henry’s uncle, to switch to the French side. The feud between Richard and Somerset results in the defeat of the British army at Bordeaux, and the death of Talbot. Joan is captured and condemned to death. The play ends with an uneasy peace, as Henry marries Margaret, the daughter of the Duke of Anjou, instead of the Earl of Armagnac’s daughter.

King Henry VI Part 2 (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Discussion of King Henry VI, Part 2 has been dominated by examinations of the providential pattern of God in history and the insurrectional eruption of rebels in society: of the high and the low forces of history. The play has also been viewed from the perspectives of Senecan poetics, feminism, the carnivalesque and burlesque.

This text uses the 1613 Folio as the control text. The play also appeared in a shorter, reconstructed form in three quartos entitled The Contention . . . The play was composed and performed before 1592, an issue that is linked to the dating of Henry VI, Part 1. The question of authorship — whether Shakespeare is the sole author, or collaborated, or revised an earlier play—is unresolved.

The English court is still fractious, and ill at ease with Henry’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou, which was arranged by Margaret’s very close confidant Suffolk. The Cardinal (Bishop of Winchester) and Buckingham are suspicious of the King’s Protector and uncle, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, and they conspire with Margaret and Suffolk to disgrace him, tricking his wife Eleanor into meeting a witch. She is banished, and Henry takes away Gloucester’s Protectorate; the conspirators accuse him of treason and losing the remaining territories in France, and secretly plan to kill him.

Meanwhile York has persuaded Salisbury and Warwick of his claim to the throne, and told them he is biding his time. The King sends him to quell the rebellion in Ireland. York explains that he has persuaded a man called Jack Cade to pose as York’s dead ancestor and start a rebellion against Henry’s rule.

Henry discovers Gloucester’s murder and exiles Suffolk. The Cardinal dies raving; Suffolk is killed at sea. Cade’s violent insurrection swells, until the memory of Henry V quiets the rebels. York returns from Ireland with an army and two of his sons Edward and Richard, and fights the Lancastrians at St Albans. The King and Queen flee the battlefield; the Yorkists pursue them.

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

King Richard II (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

King Richard II is the first play in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, the set of four plays whose events are often regarded as the root of the Wars of the Roses. The play teleologically points to the domestic conflict that haunted the country for generations after Richard’s deposition: ‘The blood of English shall manure the ground … this land be called / The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls’.

The play relates the events surrounding the dethronement of the inept (but divinely appointed) Richard II by his more able (but illegitimate) cousin Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. Following the death of his father, John of Gaunt, during his six-year exile abroad, Bolingbroke returns to England to demand the reinstatement of his estates from Richard. Richard, unpopular due to his court favourites, his arrogant belief in his own pre-ordained right to kingship, and his ever-increasing taxes, is losing supporters. Under duress, he eventually hands over his crown to Bolingbroke. Misinterpreting the words of the new king, one of Bolingbroke’s followers kills Richard in his prison cell. With the murder on his conscience, Henry IV vows to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to clear his troubled soul. Critical discussions of the play often focus on the play’s protagonists and the ambivalence of their characters. Is Richard a tyrant or a martyr? Is Bolingbroke a pious social hero or a self-serving Machiavel?

First performed c. 1595 at the Theatre, the Lord Chamberlain Men’s Shoreditch venue, the play was first titled a ‘tragedie’ in the first quarto of 1597 (Q1), and later a ‘historie’ in the First Folio of 1623 (F). The deposition scene (in this edition, Act 4 Scene 1) was omitted in Q1, not appearing in print until 1608. The final years of the ageing, heirless Elizabeth’s reign were marred by rebellion and uprising. Deposition was a real and present threat: in 1601, supporters of the Earl of Essex, a one-time favourite of Elizabeth’s, paid for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put on the play (by this point, a relatively agèd production) less than a week before their doomed rebellion. Post-Restoration, the political clout of the play was still being acknowledged, with Nahum Tate attempting to suppress performances at Drury Lane in 1680. In the twentieth century, the role became a favourite of John Gielgud, who performed it three times over four decades. The effeminacy that has come to be associated with the role came to a peak with Deborah Warner’s 1997 production, which saw Fiona Shaw play an androgynous Richard.

King Richard III (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Richard III is the final play of Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, the culmination of the War of the Roses and the inception of the Tudor dynasty. The play picks up where Henry VI Part 3 left off, with the Lancastrian king dead and the house of York in the ascendant. Richard, the youngest son of York, orders the murder of his middle brother, the Duke of Clarence, and awaits the death of the eldest, King Edward IV; he marries the Lady Anne, the late Prince of Wales’ widow, to seal his power. In his role as Lord Protector to Edward’s young sons, Richard rules as a tyrant and orders the deaths of the two princes as they lie in wait at the Tower of London. Meanwhile, the Lancastrian heir, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, is gaining support in England and France to launch an attack on Richard’s Yorkist army. They come together at the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Richard is killed, and Henry becomes the first Tudor monarch, King Henry II, uniting the houses of York and Lancaster through his marriage to Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV.

The play first appears in the 1597 first Quarto (Q1) as The Tragedy of King Richard the third. Containing, His treacherous Plots against his brother Clarence: the pittiefull murther of his iunocent nephews: his tyrannicall vsuration: with the whole course of his detested life, and most deserued death. While he has been regarded as a medieval Vice, or a Machiavellian devil through and through, the characterization of Richard as a ‘lump of foul deformity’ has come under scrutiny in recent years. Shakespeare’s written sources were all sixteenth-century chronicles or ‘histories’; historians have argued that sources such as Thomas More’s History of King Richard III (1513) present a biased account of disjointed Plantagenet rule in order to emphasise the ‘Tudor myth’ of the harmonious, united reign initiated by Henry VII. By the 1623 First Folio (F), the play is catalogued in the Histories section. F is significantly longer than Q1 (the second longest play in the Folio, after Hamlet), with manifold textual differences; this edition incorporates both, generally deferring to F).

From 1700 until the mid-nineteenth century, the play text used in performance was not Shakespeare’s original, but a revised and abridged version by Colley Cibber, The Tragical History of King Richard III. Twentieth-century performances of Richard ranged from the king as monstrous, bestial caricature (Anthony Sher, 1984) to extreme right-wing dictator (Ian McKellen, 1995 – film based on earlier stage performance).

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

Macbeth (Arden Shakespeare Second Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

‘The Scottish Play’ is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, but its characters are some of the most memorable in his oeuvre: the misguided Macbeth, the ruthless Lady Macbeth and the otherworldly Weird Sisters are recognisable as classic Shakespearean roles. Saturated with blood and despair, the tragedy of Macbeth is a concentrated study of guilt and ambition inflamed by the supernatural. The protagonists’ visceral soliloquies are much prized as revelations of desperate and harrowed psychology, and as Shakespearean reflections on the multifaceted nature of good and evil.

On their return from battle, Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches, who prophesise both Macbeth’s rise to the Scottish crown, and that of Banquo’s ancestors (including the monarch at Shakespeare’s time of writing, James I and VI of England and Scotland). Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to murder the current king of Scotland, Duncan, and as the dead king’s sons flee the country, Macbeth continues on a murderous and paranoid rampage, removing anyone who threatens his vision of a lengthy rule.

Desperate to know more, Macbeth revisits the witches, who warn him to beware Macduff and tell him that his life will remain unthreatened until Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane. They say that he is safe from any man ‘of woman born’. Meanwhile, Macduff and Malcolm join together in England to raise an army against Macbeth. Their army carries branches from the trees of Birnham wood towards Dunsinane to disguise themselves – thus fulfilling part of the witches’ prophecy. Before the armies meet, Macbeth receives word that Lady Macbeth, having lost her mind, is dead. The armies meet: Macbeth fights with Macduff, discovering in the course of the action that he was delivered by Caesarean section, and is therefore not ‘of woman’. Macduff kills Macbeth, and Malcolm is made king.

Witchcraft was a real and frightening concern in Shakespeare’s England. King James I was himself fascinated by and fearful of witches, and had even published a book, Daemonologie, in 1597, advocating witch-hunts. Criticism of the play has frequently noted, however, that it is not the Weird Sisters who force Macbeth’s hand; they merely prophesise events, and have no physical effect. This leaves us with troubling and unanswerable questions about free will, and how and why good people can be led down dark and evil paths – how ‘Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.’

Macbeth first appears in the 1623 Folio, though its date of composition is usually agreed at 1606: several plays appear around that date (including Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607)) which make reference to and/or parody the appearance of Banquo’s ghost. Simon Forman, a doctor and diarist from Salisbury, records seeing ‘Mackbeth at the Glob’ in 1611. The Folio text is thought to be taken from a prompt book, due to its many stage directions. Shakespeare’s play takes the entries for Duncan, Macbeth and Banquo in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) as its source matter, although it plays with these historical narratives to a great extent. Several of the witches’ scenes and songs, and the introduction of the queen of the witches, Hecate, have been credited to another playwright, Thomas Middleton, as they also feature in his later tragicomedy The Witch, produced by the King’s Men in the later 1610s. It is thought that these extracts were inserted around 1618.

English drama during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) showcased England’s first great era of the theatre, crowned by the emergence of the world’s most renowned dramatist, William Shakespeare. Other prominent writers of the Elizabethan age included the University Wits – Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, and others – whose work for the stage shows the influence of ancient Greek and Roman playwrights, especially Seneca.

The first English tragedy, Gorboduc, was written and performed by law students of London’s Inner Temple in 1562 with Elizabeth in the audience. The first extant English comedy, Ralph Roister Doister by Nicholas Udall, was performed around 1563. Distinct genres to emerge during the era include Revenge Tragedy and the Citizen Comedy.

Some 21,000 Londoners, or one-eighth of the population, attended the theatre at least once a week. Elizabeth herself saw only about five professional productions a year, for which she paid each company about ten pounds. She banned plays about religious or political subjects because these had been used as propaganda in earlier reigns; the mystery play was also prohibited.

As unlicensed actors were classified as vagabonds, they often sought the patronage of noblemen; among the companies supported in this way were the Chamberlain’s Men and the Admirals’ Men, together with several boy companies. During plague periods, the London theatres closed and actors went on gruelling tours of the regions in order to survive. Many actors became famous, however, such as Richard Burbage, Edward Alleyn, and William Kempe, while those who had financial interests in the theatres in which they performed also became wealthy.

The first permanent public playhouse in England, the Theatre, was opened in 1576 by James Burbage, Richard’s father. Others quickly followed: the Curtain Theatre in 1577, the Rose Theatre in 1587, the Swan Theatre in 1594, and the famous Globe Theatre, at which many of Shakespeare’s works were given their first performances, in 1599. The average audience capacity was 2000 to 3000 people. The venues were classified as ‘liberties’ beyond the city’s jurisdiction.

from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011).