Happy April Fool’s Day! Today I’d like to look at the rich history of Shakespeare’s fools and clowns! Clowns are some of Shakespeare’s classic comic characters, but fools are complex characters that entertain, satirize, and even philosophize. They may dress the part, but they are no fools.
This clip from Mel Brooks’ comic masterpiece History of the World, Part I, has the writer/director perform as Comicus, a ‘stand-up philosopher’ from Ancient Rome- a philosopher who is basically a stand-up comic. As you’ll see, unlike clowns, most of Shakespeare’s fools basically fulfill this role- to satirize and make fun of people and institutions.
What Is A Fool?
Fools and clowns are based on medieval minstrels who, as this video from Monty Python’s Terry Jones shows, were itinerant entertainers who had to do a number of jobs including play music, dance, sing, compose poetry, juggle, and on occasion- START A WAR!
Fools Vs. Clowns
A fool is the renaissance version of a minstrel- an official royal entertainer who worked at royal courts. A clown is a comic part in a play. The often danced, sang, and did improv comedy. To illustrate the difference, here’s a short video about the life of Henry VIII’s favorite fool- Will Sommers
Foolish Founding Fathers
All of Shakespeare’s fools and clowns are based on ancient Italian sources-from the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terrence to the improvised comedy known as Commedia Del ‘ Arte
Commedia is based on stock character types that Shakespeare adapted and fleshed out- Arlequinno became the constantly hungry Dromio, (among others), while Capitano became Falstaff and Pistol. Even Shylock has remnants of Brighella in his DNA. According to Dario Fo in his book: Manuale Minimodell’Attore, Shakespeare adapted stock characters from commedia to be his clowns, and sarcastic characters called sots, who commented on the action to become his fools (Fo, 107)
Will Kempe- Shakespeare’s First Great Clown
Despite his strength and skill as a dancer, Kempe specialized in playing oafish buffoons like Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Falstaff in the Henry IV plays, and Peter in Romeo and Juliet. In the Second Quarto edition of Romeo and Juliet, you can see in the stage directions “Enter Will Kempe,” right before Peter speaks:
According to Will In the World by Steven Greenblatt, Kempe and Shakespeare had a falling out in the late 1590s, which many scholars have assumed might have been due to Shakespeare’s distaste for clowns wasting time with jokes that bogged down the play:
Let those that play your
clowns speak no more than is set down for them. For there
be of them will themselves laugh, to set on some
quantity of barren spectators to laugh too. Though in the
meantime, some necessary question of the play be then
to be considered. That's villainous, and shows a most pitiful
ambition in the fool that uses it. Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii.
Kempe, for his part, seemed a little big for his britches; he and his fellow clowns seemed to think that Shakespeare's scripts were just vehicles for his own jokes and songs (Reynolds, 247). He then sold his share in the Chamberlain's Men, derriding them in print as "My notable Shake-rags," and then staged a publicity stunt where he danced across England!
1600-1613: The Golden Age Of Foolery
Kempe’s replacement was Robert Armin, an accomplished writer and singer, who specialized in playing satirical Fool roles, which appeared in a number of Shakespeare’s plays after 1599.
Unlike Kempe, Armin’s characters invariably support the themes and ideas of the plays they are a part of. As Feste in Twelfth Night, Armin makes jokes that make fun of the overly-serious Orsino and Countess Olivia:
Feste. Good madonna, why mournest thou?
Olivia. Good fool, for my brother's death.
Feste. I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
Olivia. I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
Feste. The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's
soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen. Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene v.
Sometimes Armin’s characters are satirical mirrors into Elizabethan society; in As You Like It, Touchstone the Fool mocks the culture of dueling; implying that there are hundreds of loopholes that a gentleman may use to challenge a man to a duel, without actually fighting.
Touchstone. I did dislike the cut of a certain courtier’s beard; he sent me word, if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the mind it was. This is call’d the Retort Courteous. If I sent him word again it was not well cut, he would send me word he cut it to please himself. This is call’d the Quip Modest. If again it was not well cut, he disabled my judgment. This is call’d the Reply Churlish. If again it was not well cut, he would answer I spake not true. This is call’d the Reproof Valiant. If again it was not well cut, he would say I lie. This is call’d the Countercheck Quarrelsome. And so to the Lie Circumstantial and the Lie Direct.
Jaques (lord). And how oft did you say his beard was not well cut?
Touchstone. I durst go no further than the Lie Circumstantial, nor he durst not give me the Lie Direct; and so we measur’d swords and parted.
The Fool in “King Lear”
Perhaps Armin’s greatest comic creation was The Fool in King Lear; the ultimate satirist who makes fun of the king’s foolish choices. He tries to talk sense to the increasingly mad king, until he vanishes entirely, and Lear himself starts making fool-like cracks at the audience:
Lear Thou hast seen a
farmer's dog bark at a beggar?
Earl of Gloucester. Ay, sir.
Lear. And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold
the great image of authority: a dog's obeyed in office.
The usurer hangs the cozener.
Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pygmy's straw does pierce it.
None does offend, none- I say none! Get thee glass eyes
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not. King Lear, Act IV, Scene vi.
Through realizing his own foolishness, Lear recovers his sanity, and makes peace with his daughter, which beautifully shows the importance of fools, clowns, and satirists; to question ourselves, to sharpen our critical thinking, and to endure hardships with good humor. Therefore on this April Fools Day, I say,
“Here’s to the fools, to folly, to farce. Let them push the wealthy on the ar— APRIL FOOLS!”
Best, Michael. “Shakespeare’s Actors: Will Kempe” Internet Shakespeare Editions, University of Victoria, 28 Sept. 2016, ise.uvic.ca/Foyer/citing. Accessed 30 Sept. 2023.
I teach a class specifically on Shakespeare’s comedies where I’ll talk a lot about the way Shakespeare writes clowns. I’ll also delve into the history of Commedia Del’Arte and how it influenced Shakespeare’s characters! For more information, visit http://www.outschool.com
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I can think of no better wrapup to my play of the month “Twelfth Night,” than by reporting on my visit to an actual Twelfth night Party, presented by the Society For Creative Anachronism.
What’s a Twelfth Night Party?
If you took my class on Shakespearean Christmas traditions or read my blog posts, you know that, back in Shakespeare’s day, Twelfth Night was a party to end the Christmas season. It was presided over by a Lord of Misrule, who would lead people in games and songs. The party would also have a Twelfth Night Cake with a bean in the center. If you found the bean, you’d have good luck for the year! So I was pleased to come to a real-life Twelfth Night party and see these traditions come to life!
What is the society for Creative anachronism?
The short answer is- it’s LARPING for history nerds. Rather than creating a D&D persona and then getting arms and armor to play-fight in the backyard, SCA members create personas based on real medieval history, make or buy real historical arms and armor, (or arts and crafts as the case may be) and spend years of their lives studying and perfecting their immersion in that character’s life. SCA-ers learn how to fight with swords, daggers, spears, etc, how to sing medieval songs, medieval dances, and many other medieval ‘mysteries,’ which in this case means arts, crafts, and professions.
The Shire of Owlsherst
Owlsherst is the SCA’s local chapter in York PA. They have a number of dedicated members who specialize in textiles to rapier-dagger fighting. I’ve posted some videos of their fighting demonstrations on Youtube and Tiktok and their archery master has his own Tiktok channel. They hosted this year’s Twelfth Nigh party and have many other events throughout the year. For more information on this chapter, go to https://owlsherst.eastkingdom.org/
Every SCA event is a great way to celebrate people who are passionate about history and have talents for arts and crafts. Everything from the tapestries to the to the food, to the adorable owl toys, was made by hand by these dedicated people (most of whom brought their own medieval costumes). More members were doing live demonstrations of rapier/ dagger fights, binding books in cow leather, and singing medieval Christmas songs. I was inspired by everyone’s dedication and hard work to put this together. I also wonder if this is how Shakespeare himself felt when, as a child, he went to sheep shearing fairs and saw his friends and fellow artisans put on amateur bible plays on medieval pageant wagons.
I should warn you that, like a lot of historical reenacting societies like Civil War reenactors, etc, this society is more aimed at hardcore history nerds, than anyone else. This isn’t Medieval Times or a big-budget renaissance fair which is aimed at children and casual fun seekers. As such, it wasn’t really family-friendly. There aren’t many activities for kids and many of the arts and crafts are too delicate for toddlers and young kids. Also, this event isn’t particularly immersive or organized. People mostly just mingled, ate, and watched the various demonstrations. Keep in mind, this is just one chapter and just one event, which means your experience may vary. Nevertheless, because of the organization’s amateur historical nature, I would caution you to manage your expectations. Like I said before, this isn’t some big-budget Disney theme-park ride, but it is a chance for hardcore history nerds to get together, share their knowledge, and celebrate the traditions of a bygone era. If that’s your thing, I highly recommend it!
No, you aren’t hallucinating. This is a clip from the short-lived Warner Brothers kids cartoon show “Histeria,” an educational variety show, sort of like Horrible Histories or “Who Was.” This clip is a song about the life of Henry VIII.
The show was produced by Worner Brothers for the WB back in 1996. It starred many successful voice actors from other WB projects like Billy West (Renn and Stimpy), Tess McNeill (Tiny Toon Adventures), and Frank Welker (The current voice of Curious George). In addition, the show was created by Tom Ruegger, Executive Producer of Warner Animation, who also created Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, and Pinky and the Brain. Those of you who grew up in the 90s know that the WB occasionally sprinkled their shows with educational sketches especially with Animaniacs:
So the idea of using these creative people to create a show about history was not a bad one in and of itself. It could have been a modern-day Schoolhouse Rock. The problem is that the characters are TERRIBLE.While Tiny Toons had likeable characters who were the modern-day successors to classic Warner characters like Buster Bunny, Plucky Duck, and Hampton pig, Histeria has lame characters nobody knows or has any interest in like Froggo, World’s Oldest Woman, and Big Fat Baby. In addition, there is no through line to any of these sketches so it seems like a bunch of random skits. While the Animaniacs was about crazy weird characters trying to escape from the Warner Bros. lot, it seems unclear as to why these characters are talking to me about history.
In short, Histeria feels like a bunch of talented people were forced to make it, and they gave little thought to how to make it a popular series. Still, the animation is good, the voice acting is top-notch, and occasionally, the jokes land very well, and the songs are very catchy. Not surprisingly, my favorite song is this one, where the cast summarizes in song, all 37 plays of William Shakespeare:
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.
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.
TV series like The Tudors, movies like The Other Boleyn Girl, and of course books and documentaries by
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.
Educational links related to the six wives of Henry VIII:
If you have two ears, you’re probably familiar with the Broadway Musical Hamilton. It swept the Tonys, has opened up touring productions across the country, and there’s already talk of a movie.
This historic American musical was the brainchild of writer Lin Manuel Miranda, who also originated the role of Alexander Hamilton.
The show is incredibly smart, creative, and delves into the seminal moments of American history.
What’s really exciting to me is that Hamilton also has a depth and complexity that mirrors some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, specifically the history plays.
Between about 1590 and 1613, Shakespeare wrote 10 plays about the lives of English kings, from the vain Richard the Second to the heroic Henry the Fifth, to the diabolical Richard the Third. Here is a list of Shakespearean history plays, with links to online study guides, listed in chronological order by reign, not publication date.
Are these Shakespearean history plays historically accurate by our standards? No, not by a long shot, though Shakespeare is only partially to blame for that. While Lin Manuel-Miranda had Hamilton’s own essays, his letters from friends and loved ones, and of course, every American history book at his disposal, Shakespeare’s sources were few, and mostly propaganda. They were, (to paraphrase Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin), “A series of lies, composed by winners, to excuse their hanging of the losers.”
Shakespeare’s genius however, was to turn these two-dimensional propaganda stories into three dimensional characters with which we can all identify. Miranda did the same thing in reverse- distilling his wealth of historical information into a universal story of a man’s quest for the American Dream. Hamilton went from being an immigrant, to a soldier, to a pioneer in American law, government, and finance and the musical reflects his struggle to achieve his dreams through each stage of his life. It is also a love song from America to a man who dreamed of a future for America, one not dissimilar to the ode Shakespeare wrote to his “Star of England,” Henry the Fifth. The greatest compliment I can give Miranda is to say that he created an American musical, with the scale and breadth of Shakespeare.
Part I: War and Peace
In Shakespeare’s histories, particularly the first tetracycle of plays that include Richard the Second, the three parts of Henry VI, and Richard, III, there is a constant shift between war and peace, as scholar Robert Hunter observes. These plays cover the 200 year period of Wars of the Roses, and the end of the Hundred Years War. In all of these plays there are some very violent and very opportunistic young men who see war as an opportunity to rise above their stations. In war, they win glory in death, honor, respect, and status in life. However, in peacetime, they have “no delight to pass away the time,” as Richard III observes, and they struggle to survive in the political landscape of peace.
Hamilton is a man of this same mold: When we first meet him, he is a poor immigrant from the West Indies with no title or money to improve his status. He spends the first third of the musical wishing he could become a commander in the Revolutionary War, especially in the song: “My Shot”
Once Hamilton joins the revolution, his fortunes start to improve; he becomes George Washington’s aide-de-camp, then becomes a war hero in the Battle of Yorktown, and marries Eliza Schyler, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in America.
Hamilton in war bears similarities to Shakespearean characters like Hotspur, Richard Duke of York, and even Richard III; people who see war as a chance to either die in glory, or become honored, wealthy, and powerful.
Unfortunately for Hamilton, he fares less well once the war ends. Even though he becomes Washington’s first Secretary Of the Treasury, his success and closeness to now-President Washington makes him a walking target to his political adversaries. Even worse, his ambition and inability to compromise makes Hamilton equally vulnerable to people who see him as a loudmouth, an elitist, and a would-be demagogue who wants to control America’s finances and live like a king, similar to the way the British Prime Minister controls England’s finances.
The character Hamilton resembles most in peacetime is Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.
I happen to know a lot about this character since I played him back in 2008. Wolsey controlled Henry VIII’s finances and was hated by most of Henry’s court because he was the son of a poor butcher in Essex, and became the king’s right-hand man. Throughout Shakespeare’s play, the lords of court are whispering about how Wolsey really controls the government; they even call him the ‘king cardinal’!
The real life Wolsey appears to have been hated just as much by Henry’s lords. Just look at the faces of the people of the court in this painting of the king and Wolsey by Laslett John Pott; the lords on the right are clearly jealous of Wolsey’s closeness to the king.
In both plays, Washington and King Henry are treated like gods- invulnerable, aloof, and completely above reproach.
Whenever anything bad happens in the play or musical, the legislature blames Wolsey and Hamilton, not the King or the President. Also, in both plays each one falls from grace and is destroyed by his enemies when the king and president no longer supports their right-hand-men.
Wolsey and Hamilton both fall because of their position as the financial advisor, which makes them a target to their enemies. Both are accused of using their country’s finances to enhance their personal wealth, which leads him to scandal and disgrace.
In Henry the Eighth , Wolsey is certainly guilty of conspiring to use his country’s wealth to line his own pockets- he pays the cardinals in Rome to influence their vote in the hopes that he will become the next Pope!
What should this mean?
What sudden anger’s this? how have I reap’d it?
He parted frowning from me, as if ruin
Leap’d from his eyes: so looks the chafed lion
Upon the daring huntsman that has gall’d him
Then makes him nothing. I must read this paper;
I fear, the story of his anger. ‘Tis so;
This paper has undone me: ’tis the account
Of all that world of wealth I have drawn together
For mine own ends; indeed, to gain the popedom,
And fee my friends in Rome. O negligence!
Fit for a fool to fall by: what cross devil
Made me put this main secret in the packet
I sent the king? Is there no way to cure this?
No new device to beat this from his brains?
I know ’twill stir him strongly; yet I know
A way, if it take right, in spite of fortune
Will bring me off again. What’s this? ‘To the Pope!’
The letter, as I live, with all the business
I writ to’s holiness. Nay then, farewell!
I have touch’d the highest point of all my greatness;
And, from that full meridian of my glory,
I haste now to my setting: I shall fall
Like a bright exhalation in the evening,
And no man see me more. Henry the Eighth Act III, Scene ii.
Again, though Wolsey is guilty, like Hamilton he also used his financial genius to bring England into a new age of prosperity after centuries of war. The Tudors were some of the richest and most powerful monarchs in British history, and Wolsey helped establish their dynasty, but thanks to his enemies, he is turned out of court in disgrace:
O Cromwell, Cromwell!
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies. Henry VIII, Act III, Scene ii.
Hamilton is also accused of embezzling his wealth by his enemies, including James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson
Hamilton’s enemies argue that his banking system benefits New York, where Hamilton was part of the House Of Representatives, as well as the Constitutional Convention. The main difference between Wolsey and Hamilton is that he didn’t embezzle America’s money, he is actually guilty of a far worse sin- adultery. Hamilton is accused of having an affair, and embezzling funds to keep it quiet, which he denies in a spectacular fashion:
In both plays, the moment where the main character begins to fall is dramatized in a stirring, metaphor-rich soliloquy. Wolsey compares himself to the Sun, who, once he reaches the zenith of the sky, has nowhere to go but down to the west, and set into night.
Hurricane From “Hamilton: An American Musical. Reposted from Deviant Art.com
Hamilton compares his situation to being in the eye of a hurricane, a particularly apt metaphor, since the real Alexander Hamilton’s house was destroyed by a hurricane in 1772. In addition, Lin Manuel Miranda‘s parents come from Puerto Rico an island that has, (and continues to be,) ravaged by hurricanes.
In the song, “Hurricane,” Hamilton remembers that when he lost everything as a boy in 1772, he beat the hurricane by writing a letter which was published in the newspaper, and inspired so much pity that the residents of the island raised enough money to send Alexander to America.
Later in the song, Hamilton decides to try to soothe the political hurricane that has engulfed him by writing a pamphlet, admitting the affair, but denying any embezzlement. Eventually the scandal destroys Hamilton’s career, but it doesn’t destroy his life; for that we have to look at the Shakespearean rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
Part II- The Duel: Hamilton and Burr V Henry and Hotspur.
Aaron Burr and Hamilton keep meeting at important moments in the show, as if their fates are intertwined like gods in some kind of Greek tragedy.
Hamilton and Burr appear as polar opposites in the musical. Hamilton is fiery, opinionated, uncompromising, and highly principled. He ruffles feathers, but his supporters know where he stands. Burr is the opposite. He keeps his views to himself, and waits for the most opportune time to act on anything. Throughout the play, Hamilton and Burr hate and admire different things about each other. Hamilton admits that Burr’s cool practicality helps him to practice the law and succeed in politics, while Burr admires Hamilton’s energy and his ability to work and write as if his life depends on it, especially in the song “The Room Where It Happens.”
After Hamilton endorses Jefferson in the election of 1800, Burr loses the race, and the job of Vice President. In the musical, he blames Hamilton, and their grievance grows into a deadly conflict.
The rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr mirrors many characters in Shakespeare, but the two I want to focus on here are Hotspur and Prince Hal from Henry the Fourth Part One
As this video from the Royal Shakespeare Company shows, these two combatants meet only once in the play, but they are constantly compared to each other by the other characters, who talk about them as if they were twins, (they even have the same first name)! Even the king remarks that his son could have been switched at birth with Hotspur.
Prince Henry (known as Hal in the play), is the heir to the throne. Like Burr in Hamilton, Hal is methodical, cool, keeps his feelings to himself, and is known by some as a Machiavellian politician. Hotspur, (or Henry Percy), is his opposite. Like Hamilton he is fiery, eloquent, and not afraid to die for his cause, which in Hotspur’s case is to supplant the royal family and correct what he believes is an unjust usurpation by Hal’s father, King Henry the Fourth.
In the scene below, the two men seem hungry to not only kill one another, but to win honor and fame as the man who killed the valiant Henry. Whether it’s Henry Percy, or Prince Henry who will die, is something they can only find out by dueling to the death.
If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.
Thou speak’st as if I would deny my name.
My name is Harry Percy.
Why, then I see
A very valiant rebel of the name.
I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory any more:
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;
Nor can one England brook a double reign,
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.
Nor shall it, Harry; for the hour is come
To end the one of us; and would to God
Thy name in arms were now as great as mine!
I’ll make it greater ere I part from thee;
And all the budding honours on thy crest
I’ll crop, to make a garland for my head.
I can no longer brook thy vanities.
They fight, HOTSPUR is wounded, and falls
O, Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me;
They wound my thoughts worse than sword my flesh:
But thought’s the slave of life, and life time’s fool;
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue: no, Percy, thou art dust
And food for– Dies.
Hamilton’s duel is also a matter of honor; Alexander wants to defend his statements against Burr, while Burr wants to stop Hamilton from frustrating his political career. Here is how their duel plays out in the musical Hamilton:
Just like Burr, Prince Hal feels remorse after killing his worthy adversary.
For worms, brave Percy: fare thee well, great heart!
Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough: this earth that bears thee dead
Bears not alive so stout a gentleman.
If thou wert sensible of courtesy,
I should not make so dear a show of zeal:
But let my favours hide thy mangled face;
And, even in thy behalf, I’ll thank myself
For doing these fair rites of tenderness.
Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven!
Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave. Henry IV, Part I, Act V, Scene iv.
III. The Times
In both Hamilton and all of Shakespeare’s history plays, the characters know that they are living during important events and their actions will become part of the history of their country, and none more than Washington. In the song, “History has its eyes on you,” he warns Hamilton that, try as one might, a man’s history and destiny is to some extent, out of his control, which echoes one of King Henry the Fourth’s most bleak realizations:
Henry IV. O God! that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors! O, if this were seen,
The happiest youth, viewing his progress through,
What perils past, what crosses to ensue,
Would shut the book and sit him down and die. Henry IV, Part II, Act III, Scene i.
Washington is keenly aware of his legacy and does his best to protect it. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV,the king also lies awake trying to figure out how to deal with the problems of his kingdom, which is why Shakespeare gives him the famous line “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Likewise, Richard II, makes a famous speech where he mentions how many kings have a gruesome legacy of dying violently:
As we see the whole story of Hamilton’s life, his fate changes constantly and his legacy shifts in every scene of the show: immigrant, war-hero, celebrated writer, Secretary of the Treasury, but then, once he published The Reynolds Pamphlet, Hamilton went from famous to infamous. After After Burr murdered him in the duel, Hamilton might have been utterly forgotten, in spite of all his great accomplishments. This is a key theme in all history and tragedies; the desire of every man to create a lasting legacy for himself, and thus transcend mortality.
The women who tell the story
Fortunately for Hamilton, the women of his story also help to preserve it. Historically, most of Hamilton’s archives were preserved by his wife Eliza Schyler, and she and her sisters help shape the story from the beginning to the end of the show. Hamilton’s sister in law Angelica sets up this theme by literally rewinding the scene of her first meeting with Alexander, and then retelling how she and Hamilton met from her own point of view.
Once her sister marries Hamilton, Eliza Schuyler asks to “be part of the narrative.” She knows she married a important man and that his life will someday become part of American history. Eliza wants to be a part of that historic narrative.
When Hamilton commits adultery and writes the Reynolds pamphlet though, Eliza is so hurt and scandalized that she rescinds her requests. In the song “Burn,” she destroys her love letters from before the affair, and all correspondence she had with Alexander when he revealed it. Lin Manuel Miranda explained that he wrote the song this way because no records during this period survived, so he invents the notion of Eliza destroying them as a dramatic device, to heighten her estrangement from her husband. Though this is a contrivance, it does re-enforce how, when part of the story is lost, it twists and destroys part of our impression of a person. Shakespeare knew this too; Henry Tudor went to great lengths to destroy the legacy of his predecessor Richard the Third, and literally repainted him as a deformed tyrant. Shakespeare couldn’t escape the narrative of Richard as a monster when he wrote his history play and sadly helped to perpetuate it to this day.
At the end of the play though, Eliza changes her mind yet again, as the final song I placed earlier shows, Eliza spends the last 50 years of her life to preserving and protecting her husband’s name, as well as Washington, all the founding fathers, and children who can grow up knowing that story at her orphanage. This song illustrates clearly that in the end, a man’s story is defined by the people who tell it, and Hamilton is fortunate to have such a creative, energetic and talented writer/ actor in Lin Manuel Miranda, and the cast of Hamilton, to preserve the story in such a Shakespearean way.
It’s always a great privilege to play a Shakespearean character, but especially to play one of Shakespeare’s villains. Playing Don John in this production is a great deal of fun, especially creating a character from the ground up. What follows is a short account of my process of creating this character, which, as I always do no matter what character I’m creating, begins with the text.
Don John only really talks about himself in one scene, Act I, Scene iii. This is the only scene in which Don John hints at the reason why he is so unhappy:
“I cannot hide what I am:
I must be sad when I have cause and smile
at no man’s jests, eat when I have stomach and wait
for no man’s leisure, sleep when I am drowsy and
tend on no man’s business, laugh when I am merry and
claw no man in his humour.”
— Much Ado About Nothing, Act I, Scene iii
Looking at the speech, the first thing I noticed is that it is all in prose, which is usually an indicator that the character is not speaking from his heart. Instead of making a confession of his true emotions, Don John tends to dominate the conversation and hit his listener over the head with his argument. Benedick and Beatrice also speak in prose when they are making fun of each other, but this kind of prose is much more terse and cynical.
Looking closer at the language of the speech, I also noticed the repeated usage of the word ‘no.’ In this speech Don John refuses to accommodate anybody, he reserves the right to ignore anyone, take from anyone, and irritate anyone he wishes without a thought for anyone’s feelings. Essentially, in this speech, he is refusing any kind of social grace or social interaction. Two kinds of people exhibit this kind of pattern; petulant children, and sociopaths.
Since Don John is an illegitimate child, he has probably been denied a normal, loving childhood, which can stunt his emotional growth. Like Edmund in King Lear, I decided that Don John doesn’t believe in any kind of love, except love for himself. Without the love of others, he refuses to give or show any himself, and only seeks to enhance his own ego, which explains Don John’s pointless war against his brother to improve his political status. This lust for power became my overall objective for the character which manifests itself in Don John’s utter contempt for everyone but himself, and the cruelty he shows to Claudio and the other people in the play.
However, I also made a decision that, unlike Keanu Reeves’ portrayal of Don John in the film version of Much Ado, I didn’t want him to just be a repellant psychopath that would be unpleasant to watch. I decided early on that I wanted to find a way to insert some comedy into the role. This is why I decided that when Don John complains about his melancholy and his unfulfilled desires, he pouts like a young child. I then summarized my concept for the role in four distinguishing characteristics:
Having established my character’s motivation and his overall personality traits, I concentrated on developing a voice and physicality. I thought to myself, “What person or character has these characters?” Then I saw this:
Neil Patrick’s character Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, matched these characteristics perfectly. He is a self-obsessed low level sociopath who sleeps with lots of women without loving any of them. He is also an illegitimate child who never knew his father, just like Don John. I therefore decided to borrow some mannerisms from Barney.
After watching a few episodes of the show, I noticed a few interesting details in the way Barney acts that I wished to replicate:
Posture- Barney’s posture is absolutely straight. He gives the impression of growing straight up out of the ground, which gives the impression of supreme confidence and arrogance. To keep my posture straight, I did yoga every day to keep my back and legs strong. I used a straight posture whenever Don John is in public but when he is alone and pouting, I let my shoulders hunch like Richard Nixon to give the impression that Don John, (like most bullies), suffers from extremely poor self-esteem, and his displays of ego are merely a front.
Eyebrows: As you can see in the photo above, Neil Patrick Harris can move his eyebrows independently, which allows him to appear incredulous or mischievous with a sly move of the eyebrow. It just so happens that I can move my eyebrows independently as well, so I use this in moment
The Chin: A lot of NPH’s acting comes from his chin. When he’s feeling very proud of himself, he thrusts his chin in the air like a lightning rod, absorbing mystical energy from the heavens. When he is feeling wicked, he chocks his head to the side and pops his chin out. I adopted these motions for moments in which Don John is plotting something.
Since Don John is upper class, he doesn’t need big gestures; the more upper class someone is the less they need to work to get people’s attention. However being the selfish brat that he is, his gestures are very flashy. I adopted subtle, fluid gestures that come from the wrist and only used full body gestures when the character is angry, or when he is playing up his own ego. In the video on the left, there’s a short rehearsal of a scene I did with Amanda Cash Snediker. At one point, when I want Tiarra Hairston to light Amanda’s cigarette, all I do is snap my fingers.
The iconic voice of a 1920s announcer is a reedy-voiced tenor with a slight slur in his words with a slight smile to his mouth. This kind of world-weary, loud-mouthed voice is exactly what I wanted to convey in Don John’s voice.
Costume “Let’s Suit up”
Just like Barney, I believe Don John is obsessed with his appearance. I looked up male fashions in the 1920s. Looking at this picture of Edward Beale McLean, (head of the Washington Post from 1916-1933), I saw a suit worth replicating. I found a great black pinstripe suit.
I also looked for a uniform that I thought would seem menacing and appropriately gawdy.
For More Info On Male Fashion from the 1920s, click on this link:
I’m beyond excited that I am able to offer three multiple week courses through Outschool for kids aged 6-12. If you scan the QR code below, you can see class descriptions and individual trailers. You can also check out the “My classes,” Page on this blog. I hope you and your family will join me this summer!