The Awesome world of “Six”

One really fun thing I like to see each Thanksgiving is the live previews of some of Broadway’s hottest shows. You may remember that I first became acquainted with the musical “Something Rotten,” after seeing a live performance at the Macy’s Day Parade. I am just ecstatic to see and talk about this year’s hit Broadway Musical Six. It swept the Tonys, and has opened up touring productions across the country.

The Cast of “Six” perform live at the 2021 Tony Awards.

This vibrant, clever retelling of Tudor her-story was created by TOBY MARLOW & LUCY MOSS in association with the Chicago Shakespeare Festival.

The show is incredibly smart, and creative, and delves into the lives of some fascinating women, re-told as a singing contest with the characters singing their lives for you to judge what it was like being the queen of England, and living with the turbulent and fickle Henry VIII. What really appeals to me in this show is that like Hamilton, the musical takes these six semi-mythical women and tells their story in a way that is fresh and exciting.

Part I: Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII:” How NOT to tell a queen’s story

Around 1613, Shakespeare wrote his final play- his 10th history play which loosely told the life of English king Henry the Eighth.

I happen to know a lot about this play since I was in it back in 2008, as you can see in the slideshow above. As you might notice, this play doesn’t tell the story of all of Henry’s wives. We only see the last few years of Catherine of Aragon’s life, and the beginning of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Most of the drama actually centers around Henry and his scheming advisor, Cardinal Wolsey. Maybe I’m biased because I played this role, but frankly, Woolsey is treated in the play as a stereotypical Machiavellian villain, who conveniently leads the king astray so he can be the hero of the play. Woolsey does all of Henry’s dirty work; taking over his government, spearheading his divorce to Catherine, and trying to dissuade the king from listening to Anne Boleyn’s Protestant ideas, dismissing her as a “spleeny Lutheran.” Shakespeare leaves it ambiguous as to whether Henry actually told Woolsey to do any of these things so the audience will blame Woosey, instead of the king.

I’ll be blunt, aside from the courtroom scene at Blackfriars, where Katherine pleads for Henry not to dissolve their marriage, and the fun dances and costumes in the scene where Anne flirts with Henry, the play is really quite boring. though I blame Jacobean censors more than Shakespeare for this. Even after the entire Tudor dynasty was dead and buried, powerful people in the English government controlled what Shakespeare could say about them.

Part II: The women take wing

During Shakespeare’s life time, the wives of Henry VIII were bit players at best. With the exception of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (who in most narratives have often been cast as either virgins or whores), the lives of Jane Seymore, Anne of Cleaves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr were barely told until the 20th century, where new feminist scholarship sparked renewed interest in these women and how they lived.

III. Why “Six” Slaps

Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have.
Emilia, “Othello,” Act IV, Scene iii.

Well, I can’t yet give an objective view of the plot and characters of “Six,” because I haven’t seen it…(yet). But until then, let’s just say that like “Hamilton,” it is great to see history be recontextualized and shared in such an accessible way. We all know that European history is dominated by the names of white guys- king whoever, duke what’s-his name. To see important women in history be given a voice by a multi-ethnic cast is a great way to make it acessible.

Bravo.

Educational links related to the six wives of Henry VIII:

Books

TV:

Web:
https://www.history.com/news/henry-viii-wives

https://sixonbroadway.com/about.php

Resources on Shakespeare’s History Plays:

Books

  1. Shakespeare English Kings by Peter Saccio. Published Apr. 2000. Preview available: https://books.google.com/books?id=ATHBz3aaGn4C
  2. Shakespeare, Our Contemporary by Jan Kott. Available online at https://books.google.com/books/about/Shakespeare_Our_Contemporary.html?id=QIrdQfCMnfQC
  3. The Essential Shakespeare Handbook
  4. The Essential Shakespeare Handbook by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding Published: 16 Jan 2013.
    77ace26dfdee4259bf48d6eed1a59d57
  5. Will In the World by Prof. Steven Greenblatt, Harvard University. September 17, 2004. Preview available https://www.amazon.com/Will-World-How-Shakespeare-Became/dp/1847922961

TV:

The Tudors (TV Show- HBO 2007)

“The Six Wives of Henry VIII” (BBC, 1970)

Websites

The Lion In Winter On Discord

Please join me and the Shakespeare Online Repertory Company on Discord.com at 1PM. We’ll be reading “The Lion In Winter” by James Goldman, which, you may remember was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1968:

Original 1968 trailer for the film, “The Lion In Winter,” starring Timothy Dalton, Anthony Hopkins, Katharine Hepburn, and Peter O’Toole.

As many of you know, I’ve been in two plays with the Shakespeare Online Rep before, and like the production of “Lear” I did last month, this play is about a king, (the historical King Henry II played by Peter O’Toole), and his three children, who ruins his kingdom through his selfishness and inability to connect with his children. In addition, his wife Elenor De’Aquitaine (Hepburn) is powerful, cunning, and ruthless and will stop at nothing to get power away from Henry. She even manipulates her own children against Henry; John (the infamous king of the Robin Hood Legend), Richard (known later as Richard the Lionheart), and Jeffrey.

The acclaimed TV show “Empire” owes a lot to “King Lear,” but as you can see, it owes a lot more to “The Lion In Winter.” The character Lucius Lyon is much more based on King Henry, with his violent past, his mistresses, and his powerful wife Cookie, who is clearly an African American Elenor De’Aquitaine. Furthermore, the children are even more clearly derived from the three Plantagenet children: Hakeem, the spoiled, foolish philanderer played by Bryshere Gray, definitely has echoes of Kanye West, but Prince John is definitely in his DNA. Similarly, the talented Jamal, who is loved by his mother and hated by his homophobic father could definitely swap stories over dinner with Richard the Lionhearted, (though I doubt Jamal ever went on crusades). And lastly, the emotionally damaged Andre does have some Macbeth-like traits with his vaulting ambition and his brilliant, cunning wife Rhonda. But unlike Macbeth, Andre uses his business-savvy mind and his ability to manipulate his brothers to take power away from his father, which is exactly what Jeffrey does in “The Lion In Winter.”

Will our production be as cool as Empire, or as star-studded as the movie? Honestly, no. But I will say that after working with these actors before on multiple projects, this production should be fun, exciting, and moving, and definitely worth the hearing.

Watch “Shakespeare Made You Die (Dumb Ways to Die Parody)” on YouTube

Tomorrow is the first session of my course on Shakespeaere’s tragedies! I’m so excited to teach this great group whom I’ve worked with before. To mark this occasion, I present this silly, catchy, and informative song about the tragic fates of Cleopatra, Juliet, Hamlet, and others.

Title page for my course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

If you want to sign up for this course or request a private session, you can do so at http://www.outschool.com, or by scanning the QR code below:

The trailer for my course.

Thanks for reading and have a good weekend!

My Top 10 Favorite Shakespeare/ Star Trek Actors

This list is not about skill or the talent of the actor. This is to honor the contributions of Shakespearean actors who also appeared in one of my favorite film and television franchises of all time: Star Trek. Accordingly, some of the actors who weren’t essential to either Star Trek or Shakespeare or both are placed lower on the list even if I personally love the actor or the character they portrayed.

#10: Marina Sirtis

The English actress played Counselor Troi on Star Trek: TNG. Like John DeLancie, however, aside from playing Ophelia in Hamlet, I was unable to find much Shakespeare in her credits, which is a shame because she has an incredible speaking voice. I frankly think the creators of the show spent way too much of the series trying to sexualize her and didn’t create enough opportunities for her to use her telepathic abilities or her empathic abilities.

#9: John Delancie

Like I said before, I am judging these actors for their cumulative contributions to Shakespeare, and unfortunately, I didn’t find many Shakespeare credits for Mr. DeLancie. That said, he is one of my all-time favorite Star Trek actors and was part of Star Trek The Next Generation all the way through the series. As the omnipotent entity Q, Mr. DeLancie plays a Richard III-like villain who manipulates the poor humans around him for his own amusement. He is also very interested in human nature and engages in many debates with Picard on the virtues of humans, like in this epic scene:

Q (John DeLancie) and Picard (Patrick Stewart) debate the virtues of the human race (Hide and Q, episode 10).

John DeLancie actually started acting in a high school production of Shakespeare’s Henry V, and later performed at the American Shakespeare Center in Connecticut: (Source: https://www.johndelancie.com/pages/my-past-work) ,


#8: Leonard Nimoy

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek envisioned the 23rd century as a time when mankind would be united in purpose but all people would keep their cultures and racial identities. Accordingly, a lot of the cast came from a diverse cultural background; African Americans, Russians, and very notably, Jews. One man who brought his own Jewish background into the core of Star Trek was Leonard Nimoy- son of Russian Jews who spoke Yiddish. In the article above, Nimoy mentions how he incorporated the famous Vulcan hand gesture of “Live Long And Prosper,” from the blessing his rabbi gave his congregation, which Nimoy saw as a boy:

https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/leonard-nimoy-on-spock-yiddish-theater-and-the-vulcan-symbols-jewish-inspiration

Nimoy started out as a theater actor, starting with Yiddish theaters in Boston and New York, and he continued to work in theater and radio before and after Star Trek. His first foray into Shakespeare happened in 1975 when he was cast as Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

“I’ve been studying and reading and watching Shakespeare long enough to feel excited and positive about it. The biggest problem an actor has is finding good material. With Shakespeare, you know that not only do you have good material, you have a proven piece that has been staged successfully many times.”

— Leonard Nimoy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1975.

Though Nimoy is now internationally beloved for his work on stage, screen, and radio, as a child had to overcome prejudice because of his Jewish roots. I wish Nimoy had played Shylock in the Merchant of Venice since he had the potential to play the role with a lot of passion and pathos. Just goes to show that Mr. Nimoy was a man of great accomplishment and creativity, and a Renaissance Man to boot.

#7 George Takei

I studied at the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford Upon Avon in 60s. So it is with great joy that I will be making my London stage debut this January!

George Takei

With his iconic deep, smooth voice and skill as a fencer I wasn’t surprised to find out that the actor who played Hikaru Sulu was a classically trained actor. Sadly, I was unable to find many Shakespeare credits for Mr. Takei, which is a shame since I wanted to find some clips of him performing Shakespeare to put here. The best I could find was this clip from TOS.

I was able to find this interview where the actor shares his thoughts on Shakespeare. I’m actually going to see Mr. Takei in a live show in April of 2023, and I suggest you do too if you can. He’s a fascinating guy and a great activist for Asian Americans and the LGBTQ+ community. Like Leonard Nimoy, he has overcome discrimination and oppression and spread his wings creatively through many different media. Hopefully, I can update this list once I see him live to include more quotes and thoughts about Shakespeare from the man himself.

#6: Brett Spiner

Fan art of Data (Brett Spiner) holding the head of his evil brother Lore. 2017 by Kaylen M Bennett

Brett Spiner is a multi-talented veteran of film, stage, screen, and radio, so it makes sense that he has a grounding in Shakespeare. More than that, Spiner’s character, the andriod Lt. Commander Data, (one of the best characters of Star Trek: The Next Generation), faces a Shakespearean dilemma- he wants to understand what it’s like to be human, though he isn’t. He is not only mechanical but he doesn’t have emotions. Therefore he offers an objective commentary on the way the human characters interact, not unlike Horatio in Hamlet or the Fool characters in many other Shakespeare plays.

Data’s struggle to understand humanity even extends to reading and performing Shakespeare himself, as this clip shows:

Data even impersonates a Shakespearean actor playing Puck in the episode Time’s Arrow, (a preview of Spiner’s role as Puck in Gargoyles):

I might be cheating a little by putting Spiner this high on the list, since technically he hasn’t done many full Shakespeare plays, but doing these little snippets as Data on Star Trek, or as Puck on Gargoyles was a way to introduce Shakespeare to younger viewers, which as I will discuss later, is one of the great gifts Star Trek gave Shakespeare fans like me.

#5: William Shatner

To be honest, I don’t care much for William Shatner as an actor or a person. He drove away a lot of his fellow cast members on Star Trek, his ego is infamous, and his delivery of Shakespeare is clipped, slow, and I would argue, lazy. That said, Shatner is very good at playing characters who are arrogant, and he does know a lot about how to deliver Shakespeare for TV.

I will give credit to Shatner; he’s good at playing smarmy or arrogant characters which is why Captain Kirk was a good role for him. He was also surprisingly good as Marc Antony- he really sells the verbal irony as he subtly attacks Brutus in the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech. Like Kirk, Antony is (to quote General Chang in Star Trek VI), “An insubordinate, unprincipled, career-minded opportunist,” and Shatner plays both of them with skill and relish.

Shatner actually got his first break in the theater as an understudy in a production of Henry V, where he got to take on the title role when Christopher Plummer got sick (more on that later). As this video above shows, Shatner continued to play Shakespeare throughout his career, and as Kirk, he explored the ‘brave new worlds of Star Trek with a Shakespearean curiosity.

#4 Benedict Cumberbatch

Though his contribution to Star Trek is comparatively small- playing the villain Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Benedict Cumberbatch is quickly becoming the best of the new generation of Shakespearean actors who have made the leap to the Final Frontier. I covered his Shakespeare work in other posts such as my review of his Hamlet. So let’s just enjoy the Machiavellian villainy in this clip, where he taunts Spock with Richard III-like glee.

#3 Christopher Plummer

[William] Shatner was Plummer’s understudy in a 1956 production of Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Plummer could not go on one evening due to illness, which led to Shatner’s big break. “He didn’t do what I did at all,” Plummer recalled in a separate interview. “Where I stood up to make a speech, he sat down. He did the opposite of everything I did. And I knew that son of a $%*# was going to be a star.”

BY RYAN PARKER
Hollywood Reporter FEBRUARY 5, 2021

Christopher Plummer, who tragically died last year, was a loss to both stage, screen, and by all accounts, everyone he knew or worked with. He was a dear man a consummate professional, and he brought that skill with Shakespeare and a love of Star Trek to create one of the greatest villains in Star Trek history.

General Chang, the war-mongering Klingon in Star Trek VI, who assassinates his own Chancellor Gorkon to start a war with the Federation, is a great antagonist, especially considering that Kirk was tempted to do the same thing himself. Kirk hates the Klingons and wishes death and destruction on the whole race. This film came out just two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the blind hatred between the Klingons and the Federation is a brilliant metaphor for the last days of the Cold War.

Shakespeare appears at the center of this metaphor- Chang assassinates Gorkon like Brutus killed Caesar, fearing that his peace talks with the Federation would destroy the Klingon empire. Chang hates The Federation and Kirk in particular. The only human he has any affection for is Shakespeare, (whom he himself believes is Klingon), and he taunts Kirk with Shakespeare quotes relentlessly. Chang’s character also has echoes of Macbeth- killing his king and then blaming someone else in a show trial where he serves as the prosecution. Finally, Chang dies fighting when the Enterprise figures out how to shoot at his ship while it’s cloaked.

As the quote above indicates, it’s fitting that Plummer played Chang since the two of them have had a friendly rivalry ever since they played opposite each other in Henry V. He’s a great antagonist onstage and a towering, dignified presence offstage. In a way, the two men were two sides of a coin- Shatner being loud and boisterous Plummer being a dignified, matinee-idol type, these big egos tussle extremely well in Star Trek VI, yet, as even Shatner admitted, they admired each other a lot:

https://variety.com/2021/film/news/william-shatner-christopher-plummer-1234904276/

Before I move on, I’d like to show you my favorite performance of Plummer’s. It’s a short monologue from Long Day’s Journey Into Night, where Plummer plays a washed-up Shakespearean actor, who ruined his career doing populist trash. One can see some of Plummer’s antipathy toward The Sound Of Music in his performance. Still, thankfully, Plummer didn’t meet the same fate as James Tyronne:

#2: David Warner

It’s appropriate that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which is a film named after a quote from Hamlet cast a beloved Hamlet. David Warner, like Patrick Stewart and Benedick Cumberbatch, was a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he played Hamlet back in 1975:

Warner’s character in Star Trek VI thinks that this speech is about the future, and like MLK, Gorbechav or Gandhi, he tries to bring a “brave new world” to fruition by making peace with his enemies through nonviolent means. This includes sharing his love for Shakespeare. I like to think that Gorkon knows that Shakespeare was actually human, and when he quotes him to the Enterprise crew, it’s a means to ingratiate himself to the humans by finding common ground.

Sadly though, Gorkon in his idealism forgets that the speech is actually about death (or possibly it was translated incorrectly into Klingon). Indeed, this misunderstanding of humans and Klingons is what costs Gorkon his life. The situational and verbal irony of this quote from Hamlet is worthy of Shakespeare himself and it helps Warner’s performance become one of the most memorable in the movie.

Amazingly though, as if one incredible Star Trek performance wasn’t enough, Warner came back again. Ignoring his performance in the infamous Star Trek V, Warner gave a truly chilling performance as the sadistic Cardassian Gul Navek in the two-part episode “Chain Of Command,” where he captures and tortures Captain Picard!

Like the Klingons, the Cardassians are a warlike race of conquerors who use their war machine to better their society through conquest. In subsequent portrayals, they seem like a metaphor for the Nazis since they attempted to exterminate the Bajoran race, and their military philosophy seems to be inspired by fascism. In this episode, Warner’s character echoes many horror stories of POWs enduring sadistic torture at the hands of the likes of Adolph Eichman, Heinrich Himmler, and many other monsters who told their torturers to “On no account show the slightest mercy.”

The chilling way Warner plays Gul Madred is one of the high points of the series. He and Stewart worked before on a production of Hamlet in 1965, and the way these two play off each other is masterful. Warner is powerful, in command, dangerous, and sly. Picard never knows when he is telling the truth, and as time goes on, Madred revels in how much closer he is to breaking

#1: Sir Patrick Stewart

You probably saw this coming. Not only is Stewart the most important character on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but he’s also one of the greatest living Shakespeareans, and has become a sort of icon for Shakespearean acting himself.

Stewart has given so many memorable performances over the years, but one of my favorites was fairly recent- when he played Marc Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. I mentioned how, in Julius Caesar, Antony is essentially the Captain Kirk of his time- brash, cunning, arrogant, and unprincipled. In the play that bears his name though, Antony is a shadow of his former self- a drunk, foolish old man who is completely blinded to the threat Octavian poses to him. Stewart said that he based his portrayal on his own father, who was an alcoholic and very abusive. With this in mind, the portrayal has a poetic justice to it that the man who lied and cheated so many Romans finally gets cheated by the foremost man of Rome. At the same time, Stewart makes us feel for him; we see this man whom so many people admire, play a man who is bringing himself low, and we want to save him from himself. It’s the definition of catharsis.

Sources:

The 1975 Star Trektacular and Twelfth Night

http://bardfilm.blogspot.com/2008/11/discoveries-in-undiscovered-country.html

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/christopher-plummer-was-a-diehard-trekkie-before-being-cast-in-undiscovered-country-4128612/