Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Brush up your Shakespeare

The amount I've been blogging this year has been rather dismal. I have some family matters occupying my time and energy, so I tend to be just too pooped to post.

However, I'll just mention that I went to Ashland, Oregon, last week, to their Shakespeare Festival. I saw, in the following order:

Richard II
Twelfth Night
Timon of Athens
The Winter's Tale.

I was familiar with the major historical facts concerning Richard II from reading history, biographies, and also historical fiction. Also, Susan Howatch's novel, The Wheel of Fortune, is a modern retelling of the Plantagenet family from Edward III to Henry V. In that novel, the stand-ins for Richard II and Bolingbroke/Henry IV are the same age view each other as antagonistic doppelgangers. In Shakespeare's play, Richard is older Bolingbroke. 

Bolingbroke's usurpation of the throne from Richard II set the stage for the Wars of the Roses, the long conflict between the royal houses of York and Lancaster. Henry IV was the first Lancastrian king. It was the Lancastrians who finally triumphed with the victory of Henry Tudor over Richard III. He married the daughter, niece, and sister of the Yorkist kings, Elizabeth of York, and Henry VIII was the king who united the two houses in his person.

Shakespeare wrote in the reigns of Tudor descendants, so would be inclined to present the Lancastrians favorably; however, he doesn't show easy answers to the problems that fed into the conflict. Richard was an intelligent young man, but frivolous and wasteful, so that he eventually alienated the people he ruled. Yet, by the laws of the time, he was the legitimate monarch, and no one had the right to de-throne him. He was an anointed king--like Saul. But England suffered under his rule.

Henry Bolingbroke was a good military man, able to lead. But he wasn't the king and, arguably, wasn't even the heir presumptive, as the Yorkists would later argue. Richard treated him unjustly and he first went into exile, then came back to claim his inheritance. His confrontation with Richard over his inheritance escalated into a contest for the crown. Richard abdicated in his favor--but was the abdication voluntary?

Shakespeare deviates from history in having Richard II murdered by Aumerle/Rutland. Today historians believe that Richard was starved to death by his keeper, Sir Thomas Swynford, who was Henry's stepbrother, or perhaps that he starved himself.

Watching the play, one sympathizes in turn with Bolingbroke and Richard, then with both. Next year, the Festival will put on Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, so we'll see how it turns out for him. 

I also much enjoyed the performance of Hamlet. I read it in English class in high school, and watched the Laurence Olivier version, read it again in a Shakespeare course in college, and watched the Kenneth Branagh version fairly recently. It was good experience to be so familiar that I could recognize lines as they came up. And I also think that the older one gets, the more life experience one has, the more one can understand such great works as Hamlet.

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