On “Shakespeare Uncovered,” Derek Jacobi Uncovers Shakespeare as (Surprise!) Edward de Vere

Derek Jacobi has been fearless in espousing a controversial view about Shakespeare’s true identity.

Derek Jacobi is a brave man. The acclaimed Shakespearean actor, apparently unafraid of peers castigating him as a heretic, boldly argues on PBS’s “Shakespeare Uncovered” that the Bard was not the son of a glove maker from Stratford, but the nobleman Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Little more than half way through an episode of the program about the play Richard II, Jacobi explains that Oxford wrote the Shakespeare plays anonymously and allowed William of Stratford to take the credit.

Among other facts, Jacobi cites that the Stratford man’s children were illiterate, and that his will makes no mention of books, manuscripts of plays, or the theatre, strong evidence that the Stratfordian was not the playwright.

Jacobi acknowledges that the Shakespeare authorship question is “hugely controversial.”

The PBS show includes a rebuttal by Oxford University professor Jonathan Bate. Bate asserts that the “middle class grammar school boy” from Stratford who became an actor could understand “courts and kings and politics” because he performed at court, and “courts and kings and politics are things you can read books about.”

I imagine Bate’s remark elicited chuckles from “Oxfordians,” those who believe Edward de Vere was Shakespeare.

I find it surprising that Jacobi was allowed to express his opinion about Shakespeare’s authorship on “Shakespeare Uncovered,” given that its producer, Richard Denton, considers it “nonsense.”

It’s also interesting to me how some folks belittle the view that Shakespeare was de Vere’s pseudonym, given that many serious people – such as the esteemed historian David McCullough – have concluded there’s convincing evidence to support that view.

I found Jacobi’s discussion of Richard II, which included clips from a 1978 production featuring him in the lead role, fascinating, making me want to see again the only play Shakespeare wrote completely in verse.

In the subsequent installment of “Shakespeare Uncovered,” Jeremy Irons provides an analysis of the Henry IV and Henry V plays that’s well-worth watching. Irons is an Oxfordian, too. However, unlike Jacobi, he steers clear of the authorship question.

PBS will broadcast the last two installments of “Shakespeare Uncovered” on Friday, February 8. They will feature David Tennant discussing Hamlet, and Trevor Nunn discussing The Tempest.

Ethan Hawke is Engaging in “Shakespeare Uncovered”

Hawke

In the first part of “Shakespeare Uncovered,” the new PBS series which tells “the story behind the stories of Shakespeare’s greatest plays,” Ethan Hawke delivers an engaging narrative about his desire to understand Macbeth and play its lead character.

Hawke’s study of Macbeth is worth watching. He focuses on how the character’s mental state evolves throughout the play, and even consults with a forensic psychoanalyst to better comprehend the criminal mind. His discussion is light on topical references to Macbeth, with only a passing mention of King James I and his interest in witches.

Nor does Hawke look to Shakespeare’s biography for help in interpreting the play. Instead, we watch him struggling to connect with Macbeth on a personal level, as an actor. In the end, he seems ready to take on the part and one hopes he does.

The second part of “Shakespeare Uncovered” features Joely Richardson discussing Shakespeare’s comedies, with an emphasis on “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night.” For me, Richardson delivers a surprise.

First, a bit of background. Richardson played the young Queen Elizabeth I in Roland Emmerich’s 2011 film, “Anonymous,” which depicts Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the playwright using the pseudonym William Shakespeare. Richardson’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave, played the older Queen. The controversial film shows the Queen and de Vere (alias Shakespeare) as lovers who have a child together.

In a 2011 interview, Richardson stated that it’s “highly improbable” that William of Stratford-upon-Avon was Shakespeare, and that the Earl of Oxford “easily” could have been Shakespeare. With some justification one could have called Richardson an “Oxfordian.” But now, listening to her on “Shakespeare Uncovered,” it sounds like she has shifted her position 180 degrees.

Her analysis of Shakespeare’s comedies is full of allusions to William of Stratford’s putative biography. For example, we hear that the loss of his son, Hamnet, influenced his writing of “Twelfth Night,” in which Viola thinks her brother Sebastian has drowned at sea.

Redgrave also appears in “Shakespeare Uncovered,” conversing with daughter Joely about the Bard’s comic heroines. Interestingly, however, Redgrave says nothing to support her daughter’s apparent new thinking that Stratford Will was Shakespeare. I, for one, was surprised to hear Richardson espouse that view, although I guess it’s possible she hasn’t changed her position but is merely reading the script written for her for “Shakespeare Uncovered.”

The next two installments of the series air on Friday, February 1. In the first hour, Sir Derek Jacobi will discuss Richard II. According to one advance review, Jacobi will observe that the Earl of Oxford was Shakespeare.

Jeremy Irons will host the second hour, which covers the Henry IV and Henry V history plays. Irons, too, is known as an Oxfordian. Will he surprise us?

 

PBS Shakespeare Series Has “Oxfordians” Onstage

Vanessa Redgrave

Sir Derek Jacobi

Jeremy Irons

Joely Richardson

 

 

 

 

 

 

For three consecutive Fridays beginning January 25, PBS is treating Shakespeare lovers to “Shakespeare Uncovered,” a new series that “tell the story behind the stories of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.” Each night will include two 1-hour episodes with different hosts (check local stations for airtimes). Here’s the line-up:

  • January 25:  Macbeth with Ethan Hawke (1st hour); As You Like It and Twelfth Night with Joely Richardson and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave (2nd hour)
  • February 1: Richard II with Sir Derek Jacobi (1st hour); Henry IV and Henry V with Jeremy Irons (2nd hour)
  • February 8: Hamlet with David Tennant (1st hour); The Tempest with Trevor Nunn (2nd hour)

It’s interesting to me how PBS enlisted “Oxfordians” – those who think “William Shakespeare” was the pseudonym used by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford – to narrate several episodes.

Richardson, Redgrave, and Jacobi all appeared in Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s controversial 2011 film that presented Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans) as Shakespeare. Irons, too, is an Oxfordian.

Indeed, if one counts the number of narrators and plays they discuss, Oxfordians have a slight edge: 5 plays and 4 hosts, versus 3 plays and 3 hosts for non-Oxfordians — those who maintain William of Stratford-upon-Avon was the Bard, or who remain neutral on the question of authorship.

PBS has not been lily-livered when it comes to the controversy over whether Shakespeare was a pseudonym. “The Shakespeare Mystery,” a PBS program broadcast in 1989, is described on PBS’s website as making “a strong case that the most celebrated writer in the English language was not the man from Stratford. Rather, ‘Shakespeare’ was a clever nom de plume used by Edward de Vere, a learned Elizabethan court insider, to publish his incomparable, but often politically scandalous, writings.”

Given that probably over ninety percent of the theatrical world still believes that William of Stratford was Shakespeare, I’m sure PBS could have found plenty of “Stratfordians” to host all the episodes of “Shakespeare Uncovered.” It striketh me that somebody made the conscious decision to include hosts holding the minority opinion about Shakespeare’s true identity. Or it could be just a coincidence.

In any event, how much difference can an Oxfordian perspective make when telling “the story behind” a Shakespeare play?

Without previewing the first “Shakespeare Uncovered” episode, one can only guess what Ethan Hawkes, who I assume is in the non-Oxfordian camp, will say about Macbeth.

Hawke invites viewers to join him “in his quest to play Shakespeare’s murderous Thane of Cawdor by uncovering the true story that served as inspiration, immersing himself in some of the most memorable and innovative productions and discovering Shakespeare’s extraordinary insights into the criminal mind.”

The orthodox (Stratfordian) view generally holds that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth around 1607, several years after Oxford’s death when Will of Stratford-upon-Avon was still in his forties. According to this view, the play was intended to flatter James I, who had reached the top of the career ladder by going from King of Scotland to King of England. James narrowly escaped death in the infamous Gunpowder Plot, in which Catholic radicals tried to blow up Parliament. Stratfordians see in Macbeth topical references to the Gunpowder Plot. In his book, “Will of the World,” Stephen Greenblatt writes that, “Some playwright affiliated with the King’s Men [the acting company] — perhaps Shakespeare himself — grasped that this story would make an exciting play.”

Oxfordians hold a very different view about Macbeth. Besides believing Shakespeare wrote the play much earlier than 1607, they think a grim drama involving witches and multiple murders would hardly be one to flatter James who, if he saw the play (there’s no documentary evidence he did) might have felt that it cast doubt on his own succession. You can read more about the Oxfordian view of Macbeth here: http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com/?p=533.

On “Shakespeare Uncovered,” I expect Ethan Hawke will stick to the Stratfordian view and likely mention connections to King James and the Gunpowder Plot, in addition to delving into the Bard’s sources for the play and history about Scottish royal succession.

With Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave discussing As You Like It and Twelfth Night, one shouldn’t expect any references linking those plays to Stratford Will, such as those Greenblatt describes. Greenblatt emphasizes Stratford Will’s “folk” environment, connecting his father’s vocation as a wool dealer and glove-maker to lines in As You Like It such as, “we are still handling our ewes; and their fells, you know, are greasy.” Greenblatt’s take on Twelfth Night includes linking Count Orsino’s advice that “the woman take an elder than herself” to Stratford Will’s marital unhappiness after being dragged to the altar by an older woman.

As Oxfordians, Richardson and Redgrave, in my opinion, will dispense with such linkage. Instead, they’ll likely focus on the personalities of Rosalind in As You Like It, a character Harold Bloom calls “first in poise of all Shakespearean characters,” and on Viola, the female heroine in Twelfth Night, arguably the best of Shakespeare’s comedies.

In sum, one can expect the Oxfordians featured on “Shakespeare Uncovered” to leave out any discussion of topical references and links between the author’s life and his work, and instead take the approach that “the play’s the thing.”

New Shakespeare Derivative Works Coming to Washington, D.C.

The remainder of the 2012-2013 Shakespeare season in Washington, D.C. offers an eclectic mix of some of his most popular plays and several derivative works.

Through October 28, the Chesapeake Theater Company is staging Richard III, certainly one of the most-performed plays in the world, in nearby Ellicott City, Maryland. Set outdoors among the marvelous stone ruins of Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, the company’s “Moveable Shakespeare” production directed by Ian Gallanar has the audience following the players from scene to scene. According to one review, it’s worth seeing just to take in Vince Eisenson’s portrayal of the demented monarch.

From November 15 through December 30, the Shakespeare Theatre Company will stage the tried-and-true A Midsummer Night’s Dream, under the direction of Ethan McSweeny.

Mignon Nevada (1886-1971) as Ophelia in Ambroise Thomas’s opera, Hamlet, circa 1910. Washington National Opera performed the opera at the Kennedy Center in 2010.

In December, “Enter Ophelia, distracted,” created by Kimberly Gilbert with Shakespeare’s text, will be performed by Taffety Punk Theatre Company, directed by Marcus Kyd. In my opinion, Taffety Punk produces the most innovative Shakespeare in town. The upcoming show is described as immersing “Ophelia into a sonic landscape that frames and follows her descent into madness.” Gilbert recently played Ophelia in the company’s “bootleg” production of the Bad Quarto of Hamlet. If the new show is anything like the company’s last one, a musical concert version of The Rape of Lucrece in which Gilbert played the lead (and bass guitar, too), Enter Ophelia, distracted should be special indeed.

The new year marches in with Folger Theatre’s production of Henry V, directed by Robert Richmond (January 22-March 3). As part of the Folger’s lecture series, Robert Shapiro will speak on January 25 about the Earl of Essex’s late 16th century military campaign against rebels in Ireland and its link to the play.

From February 21-24, the Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre will stage “Brutus,” an abridged version of Julius Caesar directed by Allison Fuentes. According to the theater’s website, this version “refocuses the classic tale from Brutus’s viewpoint, revealing the path toward his ultimate ‘call to fate’ and contemplating how thin the line can be between hero and villain.” Sounds fascinating.

In a similar vein, from March 28-June 2, the Shakespeare Theatre Company follows with a production of Coriolanus as part of its “The Hero/Traitor Repertory.” David Muse will direct Shakespeare’s tale of the proud soldier-turned-traitor who ultimately redeems himself in tragedy. Coriolanus also has links to the Earl of Essex, as observed in a review of Ralph Fienne’s excellent film version of the play.

A poster for the Federal Theatre Project in Los Angeles, which Congress cancelled in 1939 due to the project’s left-wing leanings.

From April 18-26, the Hartke Theatre will stage Ken Ludwig’s Shakespeare in Hollywood. Winner of the 2004 Helen Hayes Award for Best New Play.  This derivative work lands Oberon and Puck on a 1934 Hollywood movie set. Jay Brock directs what should be a nice complement to the Shakespeare Theater Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Rounding out the season, from April 30 to June 9, the Folger will stage Twelfth Night – which I thinks is his funniest – under the direction of Robert Richmond.

From May 9 to June 23, the Shakespeare Theater Company will stage The Winter’s Tale, one of the Bard’s “problem plays” according to some,under the direction of Rebecca Bayla Taichman.

Washington, D.C.’s incredibly rich Shakespeare scene is one reason why living here is so much fun.

Shakespeare Matters: “The Rape of Lucrece”

Many people don’t know it, but William Shakespeare first achieved fame as a poet.

His long narrative poem Venus and Adonis was published in 1593, followed a year later by a second one, The Rape of Lucrece.

Shakespeare dedicated both poems to Henry Wriothesely, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, a young, popular nobleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Southampton is widely viewed as the Fair Youth adored in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

“What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours,” Shakespeare wrote to Southampton in the dedication of Lucrece.

Renowned American stage actress Katherine Cornell (1893-1974) starred in “Lucrece” on Broadway in 1932. Her performance put her on the cover of Time Magazine.

While Venus and Adonis tells an amusing story of seduction, Lucrece presents the grim tale of Lucrece’s rape by Sextus Tarquinius, the lust-driven son of the reigning Roman king, and her subsequent feelings of shame and self-blame that lead to suicide. Her death causes the ouster of the Tarquins from power in Rome, after which the “state government changed from kings to consuls.”

In a 1964 biography of Shakespeare, A.L. Rowse writes of Lucrece, “There is clearly a deepening experience behind this poem, a greater knowledge of the shadowy side of life, the exploration of sin and remorse, the full realization of consequences, as always with [Shakespeare].” David Bevington, in his 1997 introduction to the poem, says that “Shakespeare’s real interest is not in the characters themselves so much as in the social ramifications of their actions.”

Drawing parallels in the poem to the abduction of Helen and the Trojan War, Shakespeare’s Lucrece shows how outrageous behavior that’s unbecoming of nobility makes not only for personal tragedy, but also takes down the royal powers that be.

Charles Beauclerk, author of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, extends this idea, arguing that Lucrece represents Queen Elizabeth I, the mythical Virgin Queen who, in truth, was anything but chaste.

“[T]he piercing of the virgin’s veil or exposure of the queen as a whore – symbolized by the rape of Lucrece – could lead to the end of Elizabeth’s reign, even to the end of monarchy itself,” writes Beauclerk.

It’s a startling interpretation, but then again Shakespeare most often wrote about nobility, particularly the English nobility in his numerous history plays. A poem dedicated to a nobleman that attempts to symbolize Queen Elizabeth through the veil of verse seems an undertaking befitting of Shakespeare, an artist who liked to take risks. One shouldn’t forget the trouble his Richard II  stirred when it was publicly performed — with the incendiary scene of the King’s deposition — on the eve of the Essex Rebellion against Queen Elizabeth.

Taffety Punk Theater Company is performing Shakespeare’s Lucrece as a “concert poem” at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington, D.C. (metro: Eastern Market) through October 6.

I caught the opening show last night and recommend seeing this creative melding of Shakespeare and rock music. You’ll need to act quickly, there’s just five more performances.

Backed by original music performed by Marcus Kyd on guitar (Kyd also directed), Kimberly Gilbert on bass, and Dan Crane on drums, Tonya Beckman is an engaging narrator of Lucrece. Joel David Santner is compelling as the rapist Tarquin, and the physical struggle between him and Lucrece, played by Gilbert, is skillfully handled by the actors as they stay in synch with the part-dialogue, part-narration story-telling.  Katie Murphy dances gracefully as “Lucrece’s shadow” under the choreography of Erin Mitchell.

Gilbert is outstanding as Lucrece. I found her singing quite moving (“In vain I rail at Opportunity/At Time, at Tarquin, and uncheerful Night”). Like the notes of her bass guitar, Gilbert’s words don’t miss a beat.

Taffety Punk is to be applauded for their bold yet faithful adaptation of Lucrece and infusing Shakespeare with new energy. I hope the company continues on their unique path.

William Shakespeare, rock thee on!

In Washington D.C., See London (Twice!)

The city of London, the subject of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibition in Washington, D.C., Open City: London, 1500-1700, is mentioned in the Shakespeare canon more than five dozen times — but always in history plays, most of which are set in the 14th and 15th centuries.  So it’s no surprise that the Folger’s fine exhibition doesn’t spend time trying to connect the revered William of Stratford-upon-Avon to the London described by Shakespeare.

Panorama of London by Claes Van Visscher (1610)

While exploring such links between the Bard and the settings of his plays might be interesting (one wonders why he never mentions Stratford), Open City: London, 1500-1700 is not about how Shakespeare depicted London and environs such as Westminster, Smithfield, and Cheapside in works such as Henry IV, Henry V, Richard II, and Richard III, but rather how political, religious and economic forces, as well as plagues and the 1666 Great Fire, changed the city over the span of two centuries.

If you’re in the D.C. area, I highly recommend seeing the exhibition, which runs through September 30.

Open City: London, 1500-1700 covers three main areas of London life: the church, the theater and the market. Highlights include panoramic period maps of London remarkable in their detail, and a 1616 diptych (hinged panels that the viewer can open) of oil paintings of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Also on display are rare documents and books, including a 1609 edition of Shakespeare’s Pericles, and a 1689 printing of John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” You’ll also see the coat of arms of all companies and guilds doing business in London, circa 1596.

James McNeil Whistler, Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow (1876)

If you’d like to view more London of the past, a nice compliment to the Folger exhibition is Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London, at the nearby Freer Gallery. The Freer exhibition, which also runs through September 30, features watercolors and small oil paintings by James McNeil Whistler of the Chelsea neighborhood where he lived during the 1880s.

And if that’s not enough London for you, you may just want to go there!

 

 

 

 

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.

Shakespeare Matters: “As You Like It”

Shakespeare’s gem, “As You Like It,” is still going strong after nearly four centuries. The play hits all cylinders: strong characters, plot and themes, great comedy, and language that’s a treat for the ears, especially if one reads the play before seeing it.

First published in 1623, the play was already at least 270 years old when the acclaimed Helena Modjeska starred as Rosalind in an 1893 production.

Helen Modjeska as Rosalind in 1893.

I caught a performance of “As You Like It” last week at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Normal, Illinois. (The festival runs through August 11.) Gracyn Mix and Amanda Catania are superb in the roles of Rosalind and Celia, the two young women who dress up as men and flee a cruel duke by escaping to the Forest of Arden. Dylan Paul as Rosalind’s lover, Orlando, is also excellent. He and Mix have great chemistry on stage and, with Catania, carry the play.

Now, here are five quick reasons to see “As You Like It.”

It’s funny. Reading the play, I laughed out loud at the jokes and puns, often thanks to the “clown” Touchstone who accompanies Rosalind and Celia into the forest. This play is full of satire and parodies that are best understood by reading the text. Believe me, Shakespeare is much more satisfying when the audience gets the jokes and knows when to laugh!

It’s serious. One of many things Shakespeare does wonderfully well is presenting themes with contrasting plot elements that move the story forward. In expressing the play’s “love conquers all” theme, Shakespeare will use a tense, serious scene – when the life of Rosalind or Orlando is threatened, for instance – and then follow it with a comedic scene, all the while maintaining a steady pace and flow.

It’s fascinating. Watching Shakespeare is like watching people that lived four centuries ago, resurrected before your eyes. This is how our ancestors thought, spoke and behaved. In some ways they are quite different from us − for example, they believed that “falling in love” resulted from beams shooting from lovers’ eyes and entangling with each other − and in other ways they are exactly the same. In this sense, Shakespeare provides a very interesting (and entertaining) history lesson – not just about language and culture, but about our very consciousness, showing us where we came from.

It’s music to the ears. There’s a lot of music and poetry in “As You Like It,” and wonderful speeches such as the “All the world’s a stage” monologue given by the melancholy Jacques. The bonus is that Shakespeare also delivers parodies of songs and poems, almost as if he were making fun of himself.

It’s relevant. “As You Like It” still connects with audiences with a message of hope about the magical power of love, which can transform even the cruelest of people. It’s a feel good play – there are no deaths, except for deer and a lioness that live in the forest. Shakespeare extends compassion even for the poor animals, sounding like an early animal rights activist.

Maybe that’s part of the staying power of Shakespeare. He’s so ahead of his time he’s never outdated.