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Shakespeare Matters: All’s Well That Ends Well

It’s not ranked among Shakespeare’s best plays, which doesn’t mean it’s any less of a gem. All’s Well That Ends Well is a shining example of the Bard’s ability to combine drama, romance and comedy with seamless shifts in tones that make for a highly enjoyable play.

In this portrait Shakespeare looks comfortable in his nobleman’s clothes. A great majority of his plays, including “All’s Well That Ends Well,” are set in royal courts.

I just saw a delightful All’s Well at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual “Free For All” in Washington, D.C. Placed in an attractive Victorian setting, the play’s strong cast features Golden Globe winning and Oscar-nominated actress Marsha Mason (Countess of Rossillion), Miriam Silverman (Helena), Tony Roach (Bertram), Paxton Whitehead (Lafew), Adam Green (Lavatch), Cameron Folmar (Parolles), and Ted van Griethuysen (King of France). Van Griethuysen played the same role when the company last performed All’s Well at its Free For All in 1998. The choreography and music are bonuses in the current production, and van Griethuysen dances nimbly on stage in his excellent performance.

Now, here are few more reasons to see All’s Well That Ends Well.

The Bed Trick. I think Shakespeare must be second to none in using the bed trick as a plot device. The bed trick, in which one character sleeps with another without knowing who it is, becomes the main catalyst that drives All’s Well to its odd conclusion, and you’d probably be hard pressed to find a story that does it any better. The bed trick is not the only bawdy element of the play. Early on, there’s extended off-color dialogue about virginity and a rift on a sexual taboo. A prostitute plays a big part in the story. All’s Well ranks high on the Shakespeare bawdy scale along with Pericles and Measure For Measure, the latter another play where a bed trick is central to the plot. (Why is Shakespeare so fixated on bed tricks? Good question!)

Women Rule. On the surface the King of France is in charge, assisted by various male attendants and servants. But it’s a group of strong-willed women who work together to do the impossible and bend Bertram to Helena’s will. Men in the play largely come off as fools — speaking of which, the servant Lavatch is one of Shakespeare’s best clowns. In a sense, however, it’s Helena who does the best fooling, and it’s worth watching her incredible efforts to come out on top.

Parolles. A swaggering, boastful rascal whose name means “words” in French, the character Parolles is the spark that energizes All’s Well and provides some of its funniest moments. At turns sleazy and buffoonish, this character appears so natural it’s hard to believe Shakespeare didn’t base him on some real scoundrel. In the performance I saw, Cameron Folmar’s animated rendition of Parolles stole the show.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free For All production of All’s Well runs through September 5. If you’re in the Washington, D.C. area, check out the company’s easy on-line method of obtaining tickets.

Shakespeare Matters: The Hamlet “Bad” Quarto

Thomas Keene played Hamlet in the United States during the 1880’s. This poster depicts the major scenes of the play, all of which are included in the “bad” quarto though it’s little more than half the length of later versions.

It’s been called a “rough draft” with “shortcomings,” “fragmentary and unreliable.” It’s the “bad” quarto of Hamlet, the first printed text of the play. Published in 1603, it’s just over half the length of the first “good” version that appeared in 1604.

No one knows with much certainty when Hamlet was written, with some believing it could have been as early as 1589.

The “bad” quarto famously mangles Hamlet’s soliloquies, such as: “To be, or not to be, that is the point.” It has other oddities which include giving no name to Hamlet’s uncle other than “King of Denmark,” the man who murders Hamlet’s father, marries his mother (Queen Gertrude), and becomes the new King. He’s called Claudius in the 1604 version.

In the “bad” quarto, the new King repeatedly addresses his nephew Hamlet as his son. Perhaps that’s not unusual since the new King is Hamlet’s stepfather. Yet in the “good” versions of Hamlet, the new King (Claudius) refers to Hamlet as his son much less often, and more often refers to him as Queen Gertude’s son (“your son”).

In an absorbing study of Hamlet, Marc Shell, a Professor of English at Harvard University, shows how Hamlet’s paternity is ambiguous, and that the new King could well be his biological father. With its numerous references to Hamlet as the reigning monarch’s son, the “bad” quarto perhaps intended to get that point across. We’ll likely never know why the later versions change or delete many of those references.

The Taffety Punk Theatre Company played up the strangeness of what it calls the “bad ass quarto” in a recent performance at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. 

The company’s “bootleg” production — for which the actors rehearsed together for the first time on the day of their one and only performance — had the crazy Prince of Denmark (played by the boyish and highly likeable Marcus Kyd) streak across the stage bad-ass naked in front of a packed audience. It was Shakespeare delightfully in the raw (full disclosure: I’m a Taffety Punk supporter).

Directed by Joel David Santner, the Taffety Punk show featured additional strong performances by Eric Hissom (King of Denmark), James Beaman (Ghost of Hamlet’s father), Todd Scofield (Corambis), Kimberly Gilbert (Ofelia), Shawn Fagan (Laertes), Esther Williamson (Horatio), Joe Brack (Rossencraft) and Tonya Beckman as (“Gilderstone”).

Yes, those are how the characters’ names are spelled in the “bad” quarto.

So just how bad is the “bad” quarto of Hamlet? From the viewpoint of the most powerful man in Queen Elizabeth’s court for most of her 45-year reign, the answer would be, very bad.

Many view the character named “Corambis,” the new King’s right hand man in the “bad” quarto, as a parody of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who served as the Crown’s Secretary and Treasurer under Queen Elizabeth I. The numerous links between Corambis and Burghley include the character’s recitation of precepts to his son, Laertes, which sound very similar to those Burghley had published.

Later versions of Hamlet change the character’s name from Corambis to Polonius. In 1869, George Russel French was the first to propose that Burghley was Polonius.

Burghley’s motto was “Cor unum, via una,” Latin for “one heart, one way.” By simply substituting “ambis” for “unum,” the first part of the motto becomes “Corambis,” giving it the pejorative meaning of “double-hearted” (“bis” in Latin means “twice”). Burghley created the Queen Elizabeth’s spy service. In the turning point of the play, Corambis, who’s been spying on Hamlet and his mother, is murdered by the prince.

Corambis comes off as a vicious parody of Burghley, a long-winded, meddling, sanctimonious fool. Little wonder that subsequent versions of Hamlet changed the character’s name to Polonius.

If Corambis/Polonius was meant to represent the powerful Lord Burghley, it’s hard to believe that he (or his nearly equally powerful son, Robert Cecil, or both) wouldn’t have demanded the name change if not banned the play altogether.

To Burghley, a performance of what’s now called the “bad” quarto of Hamlet would have been bad news indeed.

Shakespeare Matters: Richard III

From London to California, Shakespeare’s Richard III is all over the place. Mark Rylance, former artistic director of The Globe Theatre and one of today’s best Shakespearean actors, has returned to the London stage in the lead role to rave reviews. In Temecula, California, Shakespeare in the Vines is staging the play through August 25 at the Callaway Vineyards and Winery, a venue where there should be wine enough to fill the barrel into which Richard III’s murdered brother is stuffed.

Born in New York City, the tragedian Thomas W. Keene, the stage name of Thomas R. Eagleson (1840-1898), played Richard III for audiences in Cincinnati and Boston during the years following the American Civil War. The panel in the upper right illustrates the play’s seduction scene in which Richard woos Lady Anne, the wife of the man he’s just murdered.

The first play to be published under Shakespeare’s name (in 1598 – up until then his plays were published anonymously), Richard III has been staged thousands of times. Listverse ranks it number 6 on the list of the Top 10 Greatest Shakespeare Plays.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival just completed a run of the play, and The Michigan Shakespeare Festival (Jackson, Michigan) is performing it through August 12. The play is in New York through August 25 thanks to The Public Theater’s “Mobile Shakespeare Unit.”

In Baltimore, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company will showcase the play October 5-28.  Just down the road in Washington, DC, Brave Spirits Theatre recently finished a highly successful run of Richard III (full disclosure: I’m a Brave Spirits supporter).

Directed by Charlene V. Smith, the Brave Spirits no-frills production featured standout performances by Victoria Reinsel, Travis Blumer, and Jessica Lefkow, joined by seven other actors taking on 48 roles. Smith’s creative direction put comic relief into the scene of the murder of Richard III’s brother. For the ghost scene, Smith organized the spirits into a choir and, in an effective reordering of their  speeches, had them take turns haunting the villainous king before encouraging the Earl of Richmond, the play’s hero, to dream of victory.

Now, here are three quick reasons to see Richard III.

 A relevant story. To gain and retain power, a man slaughters his own countrymen and even children while plunging his nation into civil war. Sound familiar? It’s the story of Richard III and the story of today and, it seems, of every day, one reason audiences still connect with this play. It reminds us that no matter what century, ruthless, dictatorial leaders can make people suffer through the scourge of sectarian violence.

History lessons. Richard III offers not one but several history lessons. First, it’s a condensed version of the last seven years of the 30-year War of the Roses, a civil war in which two royal houses – York and Lancaster, the respective symbols of which were the white rose and red rose – duke it out for control of England. Historically, the play is also an early example of state propaganda. In the play, Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, slays Richard III, ending the War of the Roses and restoring peace and order to the realm. The earl, later crowned Henry VII, was the grandfather of Elizabeth Tudor, who became Queen Elizabeth I and occupied the throne when Shakespeare’s play premiered. As with all Shakespeare’s plays, Richard III opens a fascinating window into the history of our language and culture. It shows us, for example, how Elizabethans believed that a person’s natural physical appearance revealed his true nature. They also believed that toads were venomous and evil. In their eyes, Richard III, “rudely stamped” as a “poisonous bunchdback’d (hunchbacked) toad,” would be as evil as evil gets.

Showing the nature of evil. To modern eyes Richard III may not look particularly evil, but his actions prove him so – at least in comparison to the historical Richard III. By watching Shakespeare’s Richard III, you can learn a thing or two about evil men, for example how they can share the same flaws as good men, such as an overconfidence that leads to Richard III’s downfall. At its worse, evil is self-aware: Richard III is consciously bent (so to speak) on being a villain, using fear as his best tool. At the same time, evil can be charming. In one early scene, the demented protagonist manages to successfully woo Lady Anne whose husband he’s just murdered, in front of the dead man’s body no less!

Richard III’s incredible seduction scene is a challenge for actors to make believable, and another reason to see this hugely popular play.