For the spookiest and most cursed month of the year, I’ve chosen Shakespeare’s Macbeth as my play of the Month for October because it’s full of witches, ghosts, and other supernatural creatures. It also shows the terrible effects of fear on people’s minds. Plus, as I explained in my post on Shakespeare and Halloween, most Halloween witches would be all but silent without Macbeth’s witches.
It’s hard for me to be objective about this film. I watched it when I was 16, and it started my lifelong love affair with Shakespeare. For the vast majority of people, I feel this movie will not appeal- it’s Shakespeare, it’s set in the past, and it’s FOUR HOURS LONG! That said, I ADORE this movie, and I probably always will.
There is a long tradition of actors directing and starring in Hamlet from Irving to Garrick to Olivier and Guilgud. It’s very much an actor’s play and since the lead part also orchestrates much of the action, it’s understandable that he or she would also want to direct.
Once Kenneth Branaugh started filming this film, he had already played the part onstage and as a radio play. Branaugh’s director, Derek Jacobi, was himself a celebrated and acclaimed Hamlet of the 1970s, and Branaugh would later cast him as Claudius in the film. So, once he approached making the film, Branaugh had lots of experience behind him.
Much like Antony Sher, Branaugh was aware that any film he made, would probably be compared to Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film. Sir Laurence’s film was dark, gothic, focused on dark, Freudian psychological disorders, and was mostly a star vehicle for Olivier himself.
Branaugh’s concept was to do an inverse of Olivier- his castle Elsinore is bright, more modern, set in a sort of Napoleonic era, with cannons, muskets, and soldiers with mutton chops. While Oliver’s film was a contemplative look at the protagonist’s mind, Branaugh’s film focuses on intrigue and court drama. One of my favorite features of the film is Branaugh’s use of a hall of doors that contain two-way mirrors. In this castle, you never know who’s watching you.
While most of the castle was shot at Shepperdon Studious in England, Branaugh filmed most of the exterior shots at Blenheim Palace, the home of the Duke of Marlborough, and Sir Winston Churchill:
Unlike every other Shakespeare movie, Branaugh chose not to cut a single line of Hamlet, which is why his version is four hours long. He chose to use the text of the second Quarto of 1603, the longest edition of the play.
I am deeply conflicted about this choice. On the one hand, the long run time makes it nearly impossible to show the whole movie in a classroom or a theater. On the other time, like Gone With the Wind or Dr. Zhivago, what Branaugh has done is created an epic full of lush settings, gorgeous music, and incredible performances that will at least always be remembered as an incredible artistic achievement.
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest part and has 40% of the dialogue, which means Branaugh has the majority of the screen time. Yet, Branaugh isn’t the biggest star in the film. His casting choices emphasize the notion that, since anyone can enjoy Shakespeare, anyone can perform it too. With only two exceptions, I love every performance in the film. Here are some of my favorites:
Nicholas Farell as Horatio
Horatio is a rather thankless part, since mostly what he does is give Hamlet someone to talk to. In one production I saw, they did away with the part entirely and made the audience Horatio. That said, Farell does a beautiful job portraying Horatio’s patience, boundless empathy, and his slow discovery of these “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts.” Just watch how heartbroken he is as he watches Hamlet slowly die:
Brian Blessed As “The Ghost”
As I said in my review of “Henry V,” Branaugh usually assigns the core of his cast to his Renaissance Acting Troupe. Accordingly, Branagh cast Brian Blessed as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father. Brian already is a physically imposing man (he’s actually climbed Mount Everest), and we see through flashbacks that when he was alive, the former king was a powerful, warlike ruler, yet tender to his wife and son.
As the ghost, however, Blessed seems shaken to his core, which might be due to the pain he suffered as a result of the murder, or (as I mentioned in my Shakespeare On Ghosts Post), he might also suffer in the afterlife because Claudius killed him while he was sleeping. Seeing such a powerful man worn to a whisper and full of pain and fear, is a great way to spur Hamlet to his revenge.
Charlton HEston as the player king
When the company of players arrive in the middle of Act II, Scene ii, Hamlet is filled with joy and treats the Player KIng like an old friend and surrogate father. I’ve seen productions where the same actor plays the Ghost and the Player King, which helps drive this point home.
In the play, the Player King inspires Hamlet with a passionate speech. Hamlet at first muses how, while the Player is able to conjure emotion and tears when talking about the fictional Queen Hecuba, Hamlet has done nothing yet to revenge the Ghost. Then, thinking about the Player’s performance gives Hamlet the idea to stage a play-within-a-play, to test whether or not Claudius is guilty:
About, my brain! Hum, I have heard
That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,
Have by the very cunning of the scene1665
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murther, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ, I'll have these Players
Play something like the murther of my father1670
Before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick. If he but blench,
I know my course. Act II, Scene ii, lines 1663-1674
With all this in mind, The Player King is very important to Hamlet’s journey and Heston’s mighty delivery is inspiring and full of passion.
Robin Williams as osric
It seems like an insane idea; cast a stand-up comedian in a Shakespeare movie? Yet, in fact, the late Robin Williams was a classically-trained actor and studied at New York’s Julliard academy, so he must have done Shakespeare in the past.
Branaugh clearly loved working with Williams. Not only did he keep all of Osric’s lines (like all the other lines in the play), Branaugh gave Williams more to do, making him basically a second Horatio who cares for Laertes in the final act of the play.
Usually Osric is played as a classist-joke. He’s a sychophant, a social climber who, because he wasn’t born a noble, the nobles treat him as a suck-up and a fool. Williams gives Osric much more warmth and depth, in addition to his manic charm. Branaugh even gives him a tragic death, to make him stand out even more!
Kate Winslet as Ophelia
I summarize Ms. Winslet’s performance in one word: Heartbreaking. In Oliver’s version, she seems like an airhead, and Helena Bonham Carter plays the part as sort of a rebellious teenager. Winslet’s performance is just as if not even more tragic than Branaugh’s and it is truly heartbreaking to see her journey.
In the 1990 stage production of Hamlet, Jacobi decided to turn “To Be Or Not To Be” from a soliloquy into a speech that Hamlet says to Ophelia, which then plants into her mind the ideas of madness and suicide that she herself follows to their tragic conclusion. In Branaugh’s film, it seems very clear that he gave Winslet that same direction, (even though the speech is filmed like a soliloquy). Before “To Be” and the subsequent “Get Thee to A Nunnery” scene, Winslet’s Ophelia is happy, sweet, obedient to the men in her life, but still her own person. We see in flashbacks her sneaking off to be with Hamlet and she seems to enjoy her secret romance (probably Branaugh pulled some ideas from her role in Titanic too). But Polonius and Laertes shut her down at every turn and keep her from being with Hamlet. Winslet shows beautifully Ophelia’s struggle to be an obedient daughter and Hamlet’s girlfriend.
In the “Get Thee To a Nunnery Scene,” it’s not clear whether Hamlet knows he’s being watched (at first), so when he speaks to her gently, he might be trying to get her to leave to protect her. But once Polonius audibly closes a door, Hamlet is full of mysogynistic fury. Again, he might be playing mad in order to deceive Claudius and Polonius, or he might be genuinely mad at Ophelia for going along with this attempt to spy on him, but in any case, It certainly breaks her heart, and Winslet plays that heartbreak with a great deal of skill and passion.
Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger
Again, it seems bizarre to cast an American comedian as a Shakespearean character, but Crystal did a great job making this 400 year old comic bit seem like he wrote it himself! Plus, Crystal listens very quietly and attentively during the “Alas Poor Yorrick” speech, and doesn’t pull focus.
Kenneth Branaugh as Hamlet
Even though this was a four-hour Shakespeare movie of a play I had not yet read, at 16 I was hooked by Branaugh’s performance. Like Olivier before him, Branaugh knows Shakespeare’s reputation as being boring and out-of-touch, so his film is full of violence, sex, and manic energy. This also comes across in his own performance. Branaugh lost weight and dyed his hair to appear younger and attractive (since he knows Hamlet is supposed to be just out of college). He fills the mad scenes with a dark and silly sense of humor, and he plays the angst of Hamlet in Act One very much like a grieving teenager, lashing out at his stepfather and his mother.
That said, Branaugh is also capable of great depth and gravitas in the soliloquies. I particularly love his delivery of “How All Occasions Do Inform Against Me…” soliloquy in Act IV.
The long tracking shot makes it look like Hamlet is expanding his worldview as he contemplates his role in the play, after failing to avenge his father’s death. It’s almost like this young man is growing up in the course of the movie; from a confused and angsty little rich kid, to a man who would make a good king if his life wasn’t tragically cut short.
For a more sober audience, Branaugh’s energy could probably be seen as annoying and lacking subtlety, but for 16 year old me- I ate it right up.
Branaugh’s interpretation of “To Be Or Not To Be.” Every actor who takes on Hamlet frets over the problem of how to make this speech engaging and fresh. Fortunately, Branaugh did a great job of staging and delivering this speech for the screen. He uses the two-way mirrors brilliantly creating an atmosphere of suspense where Claudius and Polonius are watching this speech, but it’s not quite clear whether Hamlet knows they’re there. His delivery is hushed but intense. It seems like he’s trying to unnerve Claudius without letting him know Hamlet plans to murder him. Everything from the performance, to the filming, to the setting is iconic, and no matter what people think of the film, this version of the speech should be remembered as an achievement in and of itself.
2. Kate Winslet In “The Mad Scene” Just as “To Be Or Not To Be” is the test for any Hamlet, Ophelia’s greatest challenge is the Mad Scene, Act IV, Scene v. After her brother leaves, and her boyfriend is banished for murdering her father, Ophelia has nothing left to lose, except her mind. Many actresses play the mad scene as a chance for Ophelia to let loose, and explode with all the pent-up emotions she’s been repressing- rage, sexual desire, grief, etc. Winslet plays all of them and is very distinct when and why they hit. She refuses to let the men in the court touch her, except for Laertes, and seems disgusted by Claudius. With her brother, she seems to regress into a childlike state, pretending to hold flowers to give to him. The only lucid moment she has is when she quotes songs (simmilar to the Fool in King Lear), where she expresses sorrow that Hamlet abandoned her, grief for her father, and a nihilistic sadness that her life no longer matters, much like the frustration Hamlet expresses in “To Be Or Not to Be.”
3. All of Act II, Scene ii. I found myself rewatching this scene, the longest scene in the play. It’s the scene where Polonius claims Hamlet is mad for Ophelia’s love, where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spy on Hamlet, the Player King delivers his aforementioned speech, and Hamlet has his “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy.
Every performance is fast-paced and entertaining. Even Don Warrington, as the often-cut character of Voltimand, who only gives one long speech about how Fortinbras is totally NOT GOING TO INVADE DENMARK, captivated my ear with his beautiful voice. The drama keeps coming as new characters keep coming in and interacting with Hamlet, and his mood changes drastically throughout the scene; he’s silly and condescending to Polonius, jovial to the players, guarded and brooding to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and tortured and full of grief and remorse once he’s finally alone.
Branaugh actually starts the soliloquy with Hamlet taking a series of huge, heaving breaths as if performing for all of these people is truly exhausting. It’s almost like a movie within a movie, and everyone is wonderful in it.
4. The Duel As I detailed in my post on the duel at the end of Hamlet, there are three separate bouts which each have a different feeling- ranging from a sporting fencing match to a deadly blood combat. Branaugh shows the character shift of the duel incredibly well, with his use of music, choreography, and costume. First, the combatants meet before the king, dressed in their white fencing uniforms. Their fight is quick and agressive, but not yet tense or lethal. Then, once Gertrude takes the poisoned cup, the action stops. Claudius is frozen and his voice is only a whisper. Laertes starts to ramp up the tension as he prepares to really attack Hamlet, which he does by slashing his uncovered shoulder!
From this moment in the duel, all Hell brakes loose. Branaugh chases Michael Maloney all around the castle, not stopping until he grabs Laertes’ sword. Meanwhile, Osric shouts for help as Gertrude is dying near the throne. A string quartet ramps the music up up to a wild, whilrling low-pitched tremulo, with the violins playing pizzicato on top. Plucking their strings like the lethal poison that plucks all the characters’ lives.
Even though this film is long, I adore every scene. Branaugh’s boundless energy and endless love of Shakespeare translate through his direction and performance. At the same time, he lets the other actors shine and takes to heart the lessons of Olivier, Gielgud, Jakobi, and others to create a Hamlet that is epic in scale, beautiful to the eye, and timeless in its handling of the material. Clearly, Branaugh wanted this film to be his masterpiece, and whether you like it or not, it certainly is that.
My advice is If you choose to watch it yourself, read a summary of the play first, then watch the film. Also, take some breaks in between the scenes and watch it in chunks. I actually taped it off of live TV so I could watch it in segments.
If you like this analysis, you might be interested in signing up for my Outschool Course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies. I also have a class on Shakespeare’s writing where I analyze “To Be Or Not to Be:”
Though Shakespeare’s Hamlet is very much the story of a renaissance prince, it’s important to remember that the play’s sources date back to the Dark Ages. The anonymous “UR-Hamlet,” (later published in the early 1590s ), is based on an ancient legend about a prince who fights to the death to revenge his father’s murder. Shakespeare’s adaptation still contains a nod to this ancient culture that praised and highly ritualized the concept of judicial combat.
Back in Anglo-Saxon times, private disputes, (such as the murder of one’s father) could be settled through means of a duel. In this period, England was occupied by the Danes, (which we would now call Vikings), and several Viking practices of judicial combat survive. For example, the Hólmgangan, an elaborate duel between two people who fight within the perimeter of a cloak.
At the end of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the revenge cycle between Hamlet, Leartes, and Fortinbras, comes to a close using a duel. Hamlet has murdered Leartes’ father but Hamlet did not intentionally kill him. This kind of legal dispute would certainly have been settled with a duel in Saxon times. This is one reason why Leartes scorns Hamlet’s offer of forgiveness at the beginning of the scene, and instead trusts in the outcome of the fight to prove his cause. Hamlet and Leartes begin fighting officially under the terms of a friendly fencing match, but it becomes clear early on that at least in the mind of Leartes, this is actually a blood-combat. He is demanding blood for the death of his father, as the Danes would have done during the Anglo Saxon times when Shakespeare’s source play of Hamlet was written.
What happens in the fight
The sword fight at the end of Hamlet is surprising in many ways. First of all, it is much more choreographed than many of Shakespeare’s other fights which are usually dramatized on the page very simply with two words: “They fight.” In Hamlet by contrast, Shakespeare has a series of important and descriptive stage directions. Furthermore, the fight is divided into three distinct bouts or phrases, or if you like “mini fights.” Below is the full text of the fight. I shall then explain what happens in each phrase.
Shakespeare it very clear that Hamlet gets a normal fencing rapier, while Leartes gets a sharp one, they fight one fencing bout where Hamlet scores a point. This is the most “sportsman like” part of the fight:
Enter King, Queen, Laertes, Osric, and Lords, with other
Attendants with foils and gauntlets.
A table and flagons of wine on it.
Claudius. Come, Hamlet, come, and take this hand from me.
[The King puts Laertes' hand into Hamlet's.]
Hamlet. Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong;
But pardon't, as you are a gentleman.
Laertes. I am satisfied in nature,
Whose motive in this case should stir me most
To my revenge. But till that time
I do receive your offer'd love like love,
And will not wrong it.3890
Hamlet. I embrace it freely,
And will this brother's wager frankly play.
Give us the foils. Come on.
Laertes. Come, one for me.
Hamlet. I'll be your foil, Laertes. In mine ignorance3895
Your skill shall, like a star i' th' darkest night,
Stick fiery off indeed.
Laertes. You mock me, sir.
Hamlet. No, by this hand.
Claudius. Give them the foils, young Osric. Cousin Hamlet,3900
You know the wager?
Hamlet. Very well, my lord.
Your Grace has laid the odds o' th' weaker side.
Claudius. I do not fear it, I have seen you both;
But since he is better'd, we have therefore odds.3905
Laertes. This is too heavy; let me see another.
Hamlet. This likes me well. These foils have all a length?
They Prepare to play.
Osric. Ay, my good lord.
Claudius. Set me the stoups of wine upon that table.3910
If Hamlet give the first or second hit,
Or quit in answer of the third exchange,
Let all the battlements their ordnance fire;
The King shall drink to Hamlet's better breath,
And in the cup an union shall he throw3915
Richer than that which four successive kings
In Denmark's crown have worn. Give me the cups;
And let the kettle to the trumpet speak,
The trumpet to the cannoneer without,
The cannons to the heavens, the heaven to earth,3920
'Now the King drinks to Hamlet.' Come, begin.
And you the judges, bear a wary eye.
Hamlet. Come on, sir.
Laertes. Come, my lord. They play.
Osric. A hit, a very palpable hit.
Laertes. Well, again!
Claudius. Stay, give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is thine;3930
Here's to thy health.
[Drum; trumpets sound; a piece goes off [within].]
Give him the cup.
Hamlet. I'll play this bout first; set it by awhile.
Claudius. Come. [They play.] Another hit. What say you?3935
Laertes. [aside] And yet it is almost against my conscience.
Again, Hamlet gets the upper hand and scores a point. While his mother is celebrating his victory, she accidently drinks the poisoned cup that Claudius meant for Hamlet. Now Claudius is enraged, Laertes is angry because of losing the first two bouts, and Hamlet is blissfully unaware that he is in mortal danger.
When Hamlet isn’t expecting it, Leartes wounds him with the poisoned sword. From there, the fight degenerates into a violent, bloody mess where Hamlet disarms Laertes, then stabs Leartes. After this, the Queen dies, and Hamlet kills Claudius:
Hamlet. Come for the third, Laertes! You but dally.3950 Pray you pass with your best violence; I am afeard you make a wanton of me.
Gertrude. No, no! the drink, the drink! O my dear Hamlet!3965 The drink, the drink! I am poison’d. [Dies.]
Hamlet. O villany! Ho! let the door be lock’d. Treachery! Seek it out.
Laertes. It is here, Hamlet. Hamlet, thou art slain;3970 No medicine in the world can do thee good. In thee there is not half an hour of life. The treacherous instrument is in thy hand, Unbated and envenom’d. The foul practice Hath turn’d itself on me. Lo, here I lie,3975 Never to rise again. Thy mother’s poison’d. I can no more. The King, the King’s to blame.
Hamlet. The point envenom’d too? Then, venom, to thy work. Hurts the King.
Claudius. O, yet defend me, friends! I am but hurt.
Hamlet. Here, thou incestuous, murd’rous, damned Dane, Drink off this potion! Is thy union here? Follow my mother. King dies.
God’s providence in Hamlet (or lack therEof)
It is telling that everyone dies in this scene, which indicates that the concept of providence seems somewhat ambiguous in this scene- yes, Claudius dies but so does Hamlet. In addition, Leartes dies justly for his own treachery as he claims, but he also tries to avoid damnation. Leartes is guilty of treason for killing Hamlet, but Hamlet is guilty of killing an old man and a young maid, so Leartes asks God to forgive Hamlet for two murders, while he has only committed one. Providence doesn’t seem clear which crimes are worse. Further, Providence fails to reveal the guilt or innocence of Queen Gertrude- did she know her second husband murdered her first? Did she support Hamlet’s banishment? Did she know the cup was poisoned, and is therefore guilty of suicide, or was she ignorant and punished by fate for her adultery and incest? Knowing the conventions of judicial combat help the reader understand the compex world of Hamlet, a world devoid of easy answers.
How Would I Stage the Fight?
Phrase 1 I want the two combatants to start en guarde, their blades touching, then there will be a series of attacks on the blade. Hamlet will advance and attack the low line of Leartes’ sword Hamlet will advance and attack the high line of Leartes’ sword Leartes will advance and beat attack the high line of Hamlet’s sword Leartes will advance and attack the low line of Hamlet’s sword
Hamlet performs a bind on Leartes’ sword, sending it off on a diagonal high line. Hamlet attacks Leartes leg and Leartes will react in mild pain.
Phrase 2 Leartes is no longer fighting in polite manner, so this will be the real fight where he’s actually going for targets Hamlet and Leartes come together and bow, Both go into en guarde and Osric signals the start of the fight. Hamlet attacks Leartes’ blade high Leartes attacks Hamlet’s blade low Leartes suddenly does a moulinet and attacks Hamlet’s right arm. Hamlet does a pass back and parries 3 Leartes attacks Hamlet’s Left Arm. Hamlet does another pass back and parries 4 Leartes cuts for Hamlet’s head. Hamlet passes back and does a hanging parry 6, which causes the sword to slide off. Hamlet ripostes, slips around Leartes’ ________side, and thrusts offline in suppination. He then flicks the sword, hiting the back of Leartes’ knee. Phrase 3 Concern- you need to have enough space for Hamlet to chase Leartes DS, and for Leartes to slice Hamlet with the forte of his sword. Before the bout is supposed to start, Hamlet walks toward the sword, point down to Leartes US L or USR “I am afeard you make a wanton of me” Leartes: “You mock me sir!” Hamlet: “No, by this hand” Hamlet presents his hand. Leartes places his sword on it, and slices it Leartes gives Hamlet a stomach punch Hamlet falls to his knees dropping the sword. If necessary, Hamlet can pull out a blood pack to put on his hand.
Leartes points his blade above Hamlet’s head, then brings it back, preparing to strike off Hamlet’s head. Leartes: “Have at you now” Hamlet ducks to the right, with his leg extended. Leartes Passes forward, trips on Hamlet’s leg. Hamlet does a slip and goes behind Leartes’ back. Hamlet rabbit punches Leartes on the back, picks up Leartes’ sword, noticing the blood on it Leartes slowly rises, then notices Hamlet with his sword, he quickly grabs Hamlet’s weapon Hamlet shoves Leartes DS into a corp a corp, then traps Leartes’ blade The two push each other for a while
Osric: “Nothing Neither way” Hamlet pushes Leartes downstage, then slices him across the back. Leartes stops DS, and falls to the ground
Murder of Claudius If Claudius is standing, we can have Horatio grab the king around the neck, Hamlet places the sword across Claudius’ stomach, and slices him. If Claudius is seated, Hamlet picks up the goblet with one hand, slices the king’s leg, then, (after establishing a good distance), Hamlet points the blade off line, just left of Claudius’ neck. Hamlet is giving Claudius a choice- drink or be stabbed. When Claudius chooses to drink, either Hamlet or Horatio can give him the cup. If Horatio gives it to Claudius, it might give him the idea to die later.
Today I pay tribute to a remarkable book written by a great actor, who has inspired me and countless others.
I was privileged back in 2011 to see Anthony Sher on stage playing is playing Edmund Kean in John Paul Sartre’s pastiche of Shakespeare entitled “Kean.” It was a very good casting because this actor very clearly had a lot of raw energy and at the same time charisma and wit. But at the same time, he also seemed to have tenderness, sadness, and insecurity behind his eyes. I didn’t realize it but this actor, Sir Antony Sher, who sadly passed away just last year, would change my life.
When I was still in college I knew that I was going to go to grad school, and I wanted to write a graduate thesis on Richard III. Through my research, I came to realize that this same actor produced what is still regarded it as one most acclaimed and influential productions of the play ever. In 1984, Sir Antony played an iconic Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company which was revolutionary for its raw energy, tragic emotions, and creative physicality. Mr. Sher played the role on crutches and was able to scuttle around the stage like a spider.
I feel very therefore very privileged that I was at Able to see him perform live and to research his performance for my thesis.
One of my greatest aids for this was Sir Antony’s own book about the process of writing Richard that he wrote while in the process of doing Richard, “A Year Of the King. It’s organized in the form of a diary and a lot of the pages are available for free on Google Books. I strongly recommend it. In this review, I’m going to praise his massive preparations for the role talk about the effects of the production going forward in future productions of Richard III.
In 1982, Sir Antony was playing the Fool in a production of King Lear with Michael Gambon, (the future Dumbledore from Harry Potte). During during the performance, Sher suffered a leg injury that required him to be on crutches for several months. In his diary, Sher records how angry being perceived as disabled made him feel. His physical therapy took place at the Remedial Dance Clinic, Harley St. Six months later in August of 1983 Sher was cast in Tartuffe with Bill Alexander as director, (who would later direct him again in Richard III). A chance meeting with Trevor Nunn, (who was the Artistic director at the time), put the idea of him playing Richard into Alexander’s head. After another meeting with Terry Hands, Sher was offered the role.
“The truth of the matter was I was terrified of the verse, ashamed of my inexperience with it and nursing a fear that I was trespassing anyway. Wasn’t classical theatre the territory of handsome, rich-voiced Brittish giants like Gielgud and Oliver, and out of bounds for little Cape Town newbies like me?”
Sher, Year Of the King, page 9
Fighting with Olivier
When Antony Sher approached the role of Richard in his 1984 RSC production, his first intention was to make his portrayal of Richard’s deformity and disability different from Laurence Olivier’s. Sher and Olivier believed Richard is both physically and mentally deformed, therefore, Sher’s massive preparation for the role included thorough research into the physical effects of real disability and a deep examination of its psychological effects. Unlike Olivier, Mr. Sher believed that Richard’s deformity was the key to understanding his character and that every aspect of Sher’s characterization stemmed from his interpretation of that deformity. This work produced a captivating physical characterization and a startlingly human re-conception of Richard’s mind.
Sher’s characterization of Richard’s body resulted in an image, which he referred to as “The Bottled Spider.” Richard had a massive hump in the center of his back, massive arms, and two crutches that fitted onto Sher’s forearms, allowing him to scuttle across the stage, giving the impression of a poisonous spider. Sher created this iconic physical characterization through a combination of textual research, sketches, medical research into real deformities, image research, and real-life experience. The guiding principles that Sher used in creating Richard’s deformity were creating a severely deformed character that the audience would identify with. At the same time, Sher attempted to create a physicality that he could sustain through the run of the show without major injuries (21 &30). According to Sher, the role of Richard III is legendary for crippling actors who sustain severe damage to their backs and shoulders (39). Thus Antony Sher’s Richard was physically designed to be both functional for the actor, and both realistic and remarkable for the audience.
The first step towards Sher’s physical characterization of Richard was going through the text for clues. Sher found several references to what Richard’s deformity looks like in the speeches of Queen Margaret, (unlike Cibber, Sher’s version kept the character of Margaret in the play). Margaret refers to Richard repeatedly as various beasts, alternating between Boars, hounds, and the bottled spider that would become so important to the final characterization. Before Sher settled on a spider as the animal Richard most resembles, he experimented with several others including boars, apes and bulls. Sher did several sketches of bulls, which he saw in a BBC TV program. Sher was attracted to bulls and their raw power and massive shoulders. Sher wanted an animal that was threatening and powerful to give his portrayal a ‘tragic dimension’ (64).
Having to say ‘I was born in South Africa’ stuck in my throat like a confession of guilt.’
Sher, p. 25
Another image from the text that Sher thought about repeatedly was the image of Richard’s hump as a mountain. When Richard refers to his hump as “an envious mountain on my back,” Sher thought back to the Lion’s Head mountain in Kingstown South Africa. Sher grew up in South Africa and visited there during apartheid. The mountain spoke to Sher’s notion of Richard’s raw, tragic power. Sher sketched the mountain several times, and combined it with other images of bulls and spiders and this became the overall concept for Richard’s hump- an image of thick power that simultaneously weighs down the figure of Richard, and gives him his strength.
I feel he should be severely deformed, not just politely crippled as he’s often played. Bill says one should identify with him: a man looking in from the outside and thinking, ‘I’ll have some of that.’
November 7, 1983
The most memorable part of Sher’s physical performance as Richard was the way he manipulated the two arm crutches that he wore for the first half of the performance. Sher’s Bottled Spider image mainly depended on his ability to manipulate the crutches. The crutches became part of Richard’s body (Cerasano 621) and, far from making Sher’s movements clumsy or stiff, they gave him the ability to transform himself into a strange four-legged creature that would move around the stage incredibly fast. Director Bill Alexander told Sher during rehearsals that he intended to use the crutches in as many ways as possible. For example, the crutches also served as a weapon because of Sher’s ability to swing them around like clubs. One chilling moment of the performance occurred when Sher’s Richard entraps lord Hastings (Brian Blessed) by folding his crutch-arm across Hasting’s neck; foreshadowing Richard’s later decision to chop off Hastings’ head (Cerasano 621).
The problem in playing him extremely deformed is to devise a position that would be 100 per-cent safe to sustain over three hours, and for a run that could last for two years. Play him on crutches perhaps? They would take a lot of the strain off the danger areas: lower back, pelvis and legs. And my arms are quite strong after months at the gym. Also I was on crutches for months after the operation so they have a personal association for me of being disabled. They could be permanently part of Richard tied to his arms. The line, ‘Behold mine arm is like a blasted sapling wither’d up,’ could refer to one of them literally. The crutches idea is attractive, too attractive at this early stage. Must keep an open mind on the subject.
Sunday Nov, 19, 1983
Physical therapist Charlette Arnold, helped Sher get into clinics for people with real disabilities. She also provided Sher with books on back disorders, which led Sher to choose the back disorder Kyphosis as the model for Richard’s hump. Kyphosis causes a large central hump in the back, which Sher immediately adopted because it resembled the mountain image of his sketches. Also, the central hump was different from Olivier’s side hump. Sher’s research on back disorders was of great use in the coronation scene in which he and Lady Anne appear with bare backs. Bill Alexander hired makeup artist Christopher Tucker to create a lifelike prosthetic for Richard’s back. The audience was thus forced to see Richard as a naked, deformed man, contrasted next to the beautiful bare back of his wife, creating a powerful moment that re-enforced Richard’s humanity. Sher would also use a humanistic approach to his portrayal of Richard’s mind, which, like Richard’s body, he developed through extensive research.
Psychology- Richard III on the couch
“In several copies I’ve looked at it’s called The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Yet a tradition has evolved of playing it as black comedy. I’ve never seen anyone play Richard’s pain, his anger, his bitterness, all of which is abundant in the text. It seems to me that Richard’s personality has been deeply and dangerously affected by his deformity, and that one has to show this connection.
November 19, 1983 p. 30
In his research, Sher made the link between deformity and psychopathology. Unlike Oliver, who played Richard as a paranoic, Sher played Richard as a psychopath. In his research into psychopaths, Sher uncovered the idea that psychopaths often suffer childhood traumas. The text of Richard suggests that Richard’s mother hated him, and such a lack of affection could realistically change a boy into a psychopath. Through this probing of the text and research into psychology, Sher concluded that Richard’s deformity is a realistic source of desire for revenge.
Sher talked to his own psychiatrist, Monty Berman who provided him with insight into Richard’s mind. Monty helped Sher dispel the idea that Richard is a superhuman fiend. On the contrary, Richard’s persona is very similar to real live psychopaths. Berman theorized that the pain at being deformed, coupled with the violent upbringing Richard had living through the Wars of the Roses, could transform Richard into a remorseless killer.
Sher: “How do you explain Richard the Third then?” Monty: “Well, how did you feel when you were on crutches last year?” Sher: “I hated people staring at me.” Monty: “What did you want to say to them?” Sher: “F#$% off! What are you staring at?” Monty: “Precisely. Anger. Richard is revenging himself on the whole world, destroying a world he sees as hating him.”
Monty: “We treat the disabled appallingly. They come up against dreadful prejudice. The disabled person experiences frustration and if given the chance, will lash out.” Sher: “So are you saying Richard’s behavior is normal?” Monty: “Under the circumstances, absolutely normal.”
Sher and Berman also believe Richard has the humor of a psychopath- a sardonic wit that has no regard for the feelings of his audience. Sher looked at the parallels between Richard III, and serial killer David Nilsen, who would invite people over for tea and strangle them, and boil their heads on his stove. Nilsen once told police with Richard-like humor that; “Having corpses was better than going back to an empty house.” One could easily hear the same sort of gruesome wit in the phrase: “I do love thee so, that I shall shortly send thy soul to heaven,” (R3 I,i).
A psychopath like Richard kills in order to try and feel emotion; “Each murder is an attempt to release anger, an attempt at catharsis, and each time it is unrelieved. It’s like promiscuous sex without love. Each climax is less and less fulfilling so the appetite grows until it is insatiable.” Thus Berman allowed Sher to break with the tradition of playing Richard as a completely inhuman monster, and play him as a very real, very human tortured soul.
Although Antony Sher attempted to play Richard as a psychopath, his portrayal of Richard’s pain could become sympathetic. His observation of people in clinics and his own personal experience of being on crutches taught him about the cruelty that the disabled suffer. However, although he did very great work to try and understand the condition of being deformed and disabled, his portrayal was still an affected disability; an act. In the book “Framed: Interpreting Disability in Today’s Media,” the author speaks about how watching an able bodied actor play disability can actually alienate the audience from the character he is portraying. The performance is seen as an act, a novelty, not an honest representation of real people. One way to eliminate this barrier between character and actor is to cast a Richard who really does suffer from a disability or deformity. I’ve talked in previous posts about how last month’s Public Theater performance was a deliberate attempt to move away from theatrical illusion and re-contextualize Richard’s deformity in the form of race, and contextualize disability by letting actors with disabilities play the heroic parts, while only Richard was able-bodied.
In a way, like Olivier, Sher’s performance is a new monolith that actors must work hard to distinguish themselves from. He spent an entire year building his Richard from the ground up, experimenting with new ways to portray his deformities, his disability, his psychology, and of course, how he looks and moves onstage. Reading this book, an actor gets a great appreciation for all the work Sir Antony Sher included in this wonderful performance, and hopefully, the book will inspire new and creative ways to portray this character in the future.
Thank you for reading. If you want to see some of Sher’s physical and psychological techniques in practice, please watch the thesis presentation that I did at the Blackfriars playhouse below. If you are interested in signing up for one of my acting courses, click here. Thank you!
Today I’m going to talk about the unique costume challenges in dressing the cast for a production of Shakespeare’s history play, “Richard III.”
The play is set in 1483, a time period where, even though many European countries were at war, many nobles had sumptuous, more form-fitting clothes with fur, gold, leather, and other exotic fabrics. If you look at the sketch I did above, I gave Richard designs using velvet, leather, fur, and gold. After all, Richard is a powerful duke even before he takes the crown. For more information about this period, visit Fashion History.edu.
Further, If you’re interested in finding pre-made patterns of 15th century-inspired costumes, go to your fabric store and look for kids like the ones I photographed below.
My design was based on a drawing by the 19th century illustrator HC. Seleous, and the color were taken largely from Richard’s royal portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. I also used a royal portrait of Elizabeth Woodville, queen to Edward IV, (Richard’s brother).
Donning the Hump
Interestingly x-ray photography has recently revealed that Ricahdr’s alleged hump was added to his portrait after his death. In reality the king only suffered from a curvature of the spine. Just like in Shakespeare’s play, the Tudor Chroniclers literally defaced Richard’s image to make him look like an evil, deformed maniac.
Costume designers are vital to help the actors realize the deformity when playing Richard III, and they have done so in many ways. Ian Holm wore a boot on his leg. John Harrel had a bowling ball fastened to his hand, and Antony Sher had a large hump in the center of his back, both a cloth one that was built into his clothes, and an elaborate makeup prosthetic for scenes where he was partially undressed. When I researched for my thesis, I consulted Sir Antony’s book “Year Of the King,” where the actor explained his research into real spinal deformities, and how he incorporated them into the performance. You can see how my actor Matthew figured out how the hump would impede his walk and other movements.
For the final battle between Richard and Richmond, one has to decide on the period and think carefully of the fitness of the actors. 1485 was at the height of the era of suits of armor, and many films have chosen to have Richard fight to the death, while encased in a heavy metal coat of plates.
However, this has not always been the case. Ian McKellen had Richard fight in a gas mask in a 1940s British military uniform, driving around on a jeep that gets stuck once Richard utters his most famous line:
Richard III is a play about political intrigue, mafia-like turf-wars, and literal backstabbing and the clothes need to reflect this brutal and Machiavellian world. The costumer needs to help all the actors, not just Richard realize their place in the corrupt medieval political landscape of The Wars Of The Roses, as these characters go from an uneasy peace, to the last gasp of civil war.
Since July is my month to celebrate Shakespeare’s Henry V, I’d like to talk about one of the most celebrated versions of the play, Kenneth Branaugh’s Academy Award Winning film from 1989.
Like many directors trying to re-adapt an old story, Branaugh began by looking at Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1944 movie version of Henry V, deliberately inverting a lot of Olivier’s choices.
Olivier’s version has a framing device where the audience watches the play in a movie-set recreation of the Globe Theater, (since Henry V was probably the first play ever performed when the Globe originally opened in 1599). For the first 30 minutes, you are not watching a movie but a filmed play, albeit one where your fellow audience members are dressed in costumes from 1599.
While watching the play within a movie, and seeing ‘audience members’ clap and cheer for Henry, and boo and hiss the French, you get a keen sense of the theatrical illusion of the play, and its importance to English patriotism in 1599. This makes sense since the film itself was commissioned by Winston Churchill to help raise morale during the D-day invasion in 1944.
While Olivier’s film is theatrical and patriotic, Branaugh’s is cinematic and introspective. His film opens on an empty movie set with the Chorus (Derek Jacobi), giving us a tour of the set. He laments that, even with all the cinematic wizardry of modern movies, this movie cannot capture the true glory of Henry V.
Branaugh’s performance as the titular king is also quite different from Olivier’s. While Olvier is jovial and charismatic, Branaugh’s King Henry switches between cold and calculating, to intensely passionate. This isn’t to say that his acting is bad; but that Branaugh’s King Henry is a self-conscious actor. The king changes his performance to suit the scenario he’s in: diplomatic and calculating in the throne room, demented and violent on the battlefield, calm and confident with his troops, and pious and merciful in victory.
When I studied the play in college, my teacher posited whether Henry V is a Machiavellian king, and I think Branaugh’s certainly is, in that he knows kingship is a job; one that requires the king to constantly playing roles to get what he wants from people- love, awe, respect, or fear. He’s so good at acting, he even teaches his soldiers how to act like fearesome warriors in his famous “Once More Unto The Breach” speech.
What really sets Branaugh’s movie apart from Olivier’s is the way he handles battles. Again, Olivier in 1944 wanted to raise morale during WW2, when British soldiers were actually invading France to supplant a tyrant. Branaugh in 1989, had seen the world’s response to the Vietnam War, and the decades-long violence in his home country of Ireland. Therefore his version literally takes a dim view of war in general.
Branaugh’s world is not colorful or cheerful- the council scenes are full of candlelit shadows. Branaugh’s fireside chat with his soldiers is a smoky, shadowy look into the terror of men who know they must fight and die tomorrow. Look at the excellent performance of Michael Williams (Judy Dench’s late husband), who takes the king to task while looking at the campfire, almost as if he can see the fires of hell, coming for the English:
The most striking difference between the two films is how both directors stage The Battle of Agincourt. Olivier’s is a sun-kissed charge on white horses. Branaugh’s is a grimy, mud-stained mess, overcast with a fog of moral ambiguity. Even though the English win, they are meant to question whether or not they have been fighting for a worthy cause. Even after the King proclaims victory for God and country, and the music swells with the gorgeous notes of Non Nobis Dominine (composed and sung by Patrick Doyle), Branaugh has a long tracking shot of all the bodies slain on both sides in the battle. This is the film in a nutshell- a wonderfully acted, exciting, cleverly done thrill ride, that still pulls back and shows the inherently grim and destructive nature of war, that defiles all it touches.
The Plot Of the Play
King Henry takes the throne in 1413 after his father dies. No one thinks he will run the country effectively.
The Dauphin (the French Prince) provokes Henry into declaring war with France, (thus allowing him to claim the right of his predecessor, King Edward III).
Henry fends off the French at Harfleur, despite the fact that they are shooting at him with cannons.
Henry’s army starts getting sick. Henry decides to start heading back to Calais
The French raise a massive army and it marches towards Agincourt. Mountjoy the French herald warns Henry he will be annihilated and urges him to pay the French a ransom if he is captured. Henry refuses and marches his troops to battle the French at Agincourt.
Against all odds, Henry’s army defeats the French at Agincourt, with only about 30 English deaths, and over 10,000 French.
Henry and the French King make peace, and the play ends on a joyous celebration of peace and matrimony, though the Chorus also reminds us that once King Henry dies, his son will lose France and England will be torn apart by civil war.
My Favorite Moments
I love Branaugh’s performance and his take on the Battle of Agincourt, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other performances and moments of the play.
Armed Ultimatum: In this wonderful scene, we first see the overconfidence of the French, especially the hot-tempered Dauphin (Michael Maloney), who admits that he deliberately goaded Henry into declaring war because he wishes to personally fight with King Henry. His father the King, (played by Paul Scoffield) is a timid, melancholic individual, (historians often called him Charles the Mad), and he seems like an easily manipulated monarch, ripe for conquest by King Henry. We then see the imposing figure of the Duke of Exeter (Brian Blessed), who comes in full plate armor to warn the French that though the French outnumber the English, the English are a hardy and powerful people, and that King Henry will not stop until all of France is his.
Branaugh mainly casts his movies out of his Renaissance Acting theater troupe, which is why in almost all his movies you see familiar faces like Brian Blessed, Derek Jakobi, Richard Clifford, Richard Easton Michael Maloney, Paul Gregory and Geraldine McEwan. As someone who’s seen all of Branaugh’s Shakespeare movies, I get the curious sensation that I know these people, trust them, and find myself rooting for them since I saw them in other roles. Maybe Branaugh hoped his longtime viewers would be concerned for the lives of his “Band of Brothers.”
Welcome additions include Micheil Williams as Williams, as well as his wife Judy Dench as Mistress Quickly. These actors are just as home playing grubby common English peasants as they are playing kings and queens.
Emma Thompson and Geraldine McEwan sparkle onscreen as the French Princess Katherine and her maid Alice. The first time I saw the film, their French was so good, I didn’t believe it was really them! Likewise, the awkward wooing scene between Thompson and Branaugh (who were married at the time) is so charming, you forget all the violence and atrocities that happened on both sides earlier, and giddily enjoy their romantic banter.
In short, Branaugh created, at least for now, the definitive Henry V for our times. It is a world where war is not glamorous and rarely just. Where common men die and rich men survive, though they must carry their sins on their back,( just as Branaugh carries the young boy played by Christian Bale). Yet it is also a story about the power of great leaders overcoming adversity, caring for their subjects, and doing the best they can to bring peace and stability to their people.
Bonus: Here’s an interview with Branaugh about the process of creating the film:
Now put your shields before your hearts, and fight With hearts more proof than shields
Coriolanus, Act 1, Scene iv.
Shakespeare uses the word “shield” over 30 times, often as a verb meaning ‘to protect.’ However, there are a few very important references to this ancient tool of defense, and constructing one can teach you a lot about the history of a culture, and that culture’s methods of waging war.
A Brief History of Shields
The seven-fold shield of Ajax cannot keep
The battery from my heart
Antony and Cleopatra, Act IV, Scene 14.
As the quote above from Antony and Cleopatra mentions, the shield has been around since the dawn of history, certainly since Roman times. The Romans prized their large shields called scuta, which they used in defensive formations as the soldiers crashed through their enemies’ defenses.
In medieval times, Anglo Saxons and Vikings used new and more sophisticated shield formations in some of the most important battles in early British history. This included the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which ended the Anglo-Saxon era when the English abandoned the protection of their shield wall to chase the Norman invaders, who then annihilated their forces and proclaimed their leader William of Normandy, conqueror of all England.
In this excellent video, historian and fight choreographer Mike Loads traces the history of medieval shields and shows step-by-step how to make an authentic Anglo-Saxon shield!
[Enter SAMPSON and GREGORY, of the house of Capulet, armed with swords and buckles]
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet begins with servants armed with swords and small shields called bucklers. These shields were designed to be used in single combat (duels) and were very light and agile. According to Mike Loads, young men would wear their swords and bucklers on their hips and make a loud racket as they walked through the streets. The shield proclaimed that they were armed and dangerous. This macho swaggering is the origin of the term “swashbuckling,” which is probably how these servants see themselves since they spend the first scene of the play trying to pick a fight.
What Is heraldry?
Just as the sound of a buckler announced to the world that a young man was armed and ready to fight, the design on a nobleman’s shield announced his status, his house, and his family motto. The popular historical consensus is that once the medieval knight arrived on the battlefield, they started using their shields and tabards as a colorful display; one that made it clear that they were noble. In war, a knight or other nobleman could collect a hefty ransom if they captured another knight alive, so if you belonged to a rich noble house, your brightly decorated shield could save your life on a battlefield in more ways than one.
Each heraldric design would be registered in the College Of Arms, and many of them are still on record today. In Shakespeare’s Pericles, a group of knights presents their shields to King Simonides and his daughter Thaisa right before a joust and she reads their mottos. The shields are like the knight’s ID tags and help the princess know whom to award the prize money once the jousting is over:
Simonides. Are the knights ready to begin the triumph?
First Lord. They are, my liege;
And stay your coming to present themselves.
Simonides. Return them, we are ready; and our daughter,
In honour of whose birth these triumphs are,
[To Thaisa] 'Tis now your honour, daughter, to explain
The labour of each knight in his device.
Thaisa. Which, to preserve mine honour, I'll perform.
[Enter a Knight; he passes over, and his Squire]
presents his shield to the Princess]
Simonides. Who is the first that doth prefer himself?
Thaisa. A knight of Sparta, my renowned father;
And the device he bears upon his shield
Is a black Ethiope reaching at the sun
The word, 'Lux tua vita mihi.'
Simonides. He loves you well that holds his life of you. Pericles, Act II, Scene ii.
How to make your own shield!
Since shields are an important part of Shakespeare’s plays, here’s how you can make a shield activity at home or in the classroom.
Making the basic shape
If you want to make a buckler, you need a round surface a little bigger than a dinner plate. You should be able to hold it and move it like an extension of your fist. If you want to make a basic 14th-century type shield like the ones I have below, cut out the familiar, ‘state of Ohio’ shape below. I made mine about 11 inches long, and 10 inches wide. I used cardboard but you can also use paper or wood or metal if you have real craftsperson talent.
Choosing a color and design
I got a lot of good information on how people chose designs for their shields by visiting English Herritage.org’s Guide to Heraldry: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/guide-to-heraldry. The website has a lovely catalog of the colors and designs real knights and barons and lords used to make their shields/ coats of arms stand out. You can choose a simple background with a plant, animal, etc. in the foreground, or you can divide the shield into a cross, a diagonal line called a Fess, or into a triangle called a chevron.
The Personal Touch
You need not be constrained by historical precedent in coming up with your shield. Like any canvas, the only limits on your shield design are your imagination. Check out these designs I made with my kids!
Most mottos are single lines of text (usually in Latin), that illustrate what is important to the house that sports it. For example, Richard II’s motto was: “loyalté me lie,” (“Loyalty binds me.”). You could come up with a simple motto and Google Translate it into Latin or French, etc.
Now that you have your shield, with its own unique motto and design, it can be a useful tool to explain how people saw themselves in Shakespeare’s day. Nowadays we mainly see ourselves as individuals, but this kind of heraldry illustrates how knights, nobles and servants saw themselves mainly as part of a house, with its own values, its own traditions, and sometimes an us vs. them mentality against other houses.
This kind of household mentality is of course, at the core of Romeo and Juliet and the Wars of the Roses cycle of plays, and Shakespeare uses heraldry to illustrate this mentality. Look how the knights in the tournament scene from the 2013 film are dressed in their houses’ colors and the nobles and servants are also wearing those same colors:
Like sports fans who wear the jerseys of their favorite teams, shields and heraldry proclaim the allegiance of the servants and nobles who belong to powerful houses/ kingdoms. This kind of emblem can help students understand a piece of medieval and renaisance history, and how that history shapes our own mentalities today.
In 2012, I was text coach for a high school production of “Henry the Fifth,” directed by Sara Landis. Below is a series of photos, videos, and character information about the production, and the play itself.
On this Memorial Day, I’m inspired by a quote to ponder what it really means to “Support Our Troops,” living and dead. The quote comes from an epilogue written for a 1778 performance of Shakespeare’s obscure Roman Tragedy, “Coriolanus:”
The most interesting thing about the play is how modern it is. One of his few plays that deals directly with the drama of democracy. And more than that, it deals with the seemingly modern phenomenon of officials undone by public opinion. So many of Shakespeare’s characters have to answer to their God or their king, or (as Coriolanus does), his family. Only rarely, do they answer to the people.
Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s strangest and most controversial plays. Its principal figure is a warrior, exemplary in his courage and single-minded dedication, who finds it difficult to adjust to life away from the battlefield. Refusing to compromise and contemptuous of anyone who does not live up to his exacting standards, Coriolanus, not long after being nominated for the high political office of consul, is cast into exile, accused of treason and ends up leading an army to invade and destroy Rome.
Warren Chernaik, Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London
What do we not owe soldiers?
Throughout the play, Coriolanus shows nothing but contempt for popular rule. This certainly suggests that he is aristocratic in his political views, but arguably he is much more militaristic. Remember that to be a Consul or any kind of high ranking position in the Senate, the senators all served in the army for a set term. Coriolanus respects the Senate more than the Assembly because the former is full of his fellow comrades in arms.
Coriolanus is first and last a soldier and he represents a society run by the war machine. For centuries, authoritarian who rule through a cult of personality have propped up Caius Martius as an ideal of a military society. After all, it was Mussoluini who organized his fascist dictatorship around the Roman Empire, and the play Coriolanus was taught in literature classes during the Third Reich. They probably looked like Starship Troopers.
So to recap, though we owe soldiers a lot for their courage and sacrifice, nobody owes them Blind obedience, because that is the roots of fascism. Look at this actual excerpt from a literary textbook about Coriolanus that was given to children in Nazi Germany.
The poet deals with the problem of the peaople and its leader, he depicts the ture nature of the leader in contrast to the aimless masses; he shows a people led in a false manner, a false democracy, whose exponents yield to the wishes of the people for egotistical reasons. Above these weaklings towers the figure of the true hero and leader, Coriolanus, who would like ot guide the deceived people to its health in the same way as, in our days, Adolf Hitler would do with our beloved German Fatherland.
Martin Brunkhorst, “Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in Deutscher Bearbeitung. Quoted from Weida
.So now that I’ve established what we don’t owe our soldiers, what do we owe them?
What do we owe our soldiers?
[ ] Honesty- why are you fighting? Is dying for one’s country worth it? Unlike Henry V, in which Shakespeare makes it very clear why the king is trying to conquer France, we don’t really understand why Rome wants to destroy the Volskies, and it seems somewhat arbitrary. I think one of the ways we sympathize with Coriolanus is that he never “asks the reason why; his is but to do and die,” as Tennyson puts it. He has one speech where he rallies the troops, but it just seems flat and hollow without a clear reason why the soldiers should risk their lives.
[ ] A chance to heal When he comes home to run for Consul, Coriolanus is required to show his battle scars to the people, and refuses to stay in the room when people talk about them. This could be interepreted as more arrogance where he is disgusted to be in the same room as common men, but I think there’s another aspect. I think Coriolanus has PTSD, and every time he sees or hears about his scars, his repressed memories bubble up to the surface and drown him in fear. His story is partially a story of how all soldiers need help to deal with the trauma they endure on a regular basis.
[ ] Love for their courage and sacrifice. Whether the conflict is right or wrong men and women risked their lives for it, and that is worth compassion. [ ] Good leaders.Coriolanus is a play where arguably nobody cares about the people. Coriolanus and the Patricians look down on them, and the tribunes see them as a means to gain power. With all this political in fighting who is really trying to make life better? Better for the starving Romans? Better for soldiers like Coriolanus? In a republican society like Rome, we owe it to our soldiers to participate in politics so men like Coriolanus aren’t sent to die on a whim. If we don’t use our voices, we are the common cry of curs that Coriolanus characterizes us as:
Compassion– in John Osborne’s version the title character goes mad from his trauma and of course, in Shakespeare’s version, he’s driven out of Rome and then killed by Aufidius. Even today, many soldiers suffer from poverty, sickness, life-altering injuries, and of course, PTSD. This Memorial Day, let’s all try to help ease the lives of the men and women who have suffered for us.
SHAKESPEARE AND BRITISH OCCUPATION POLICY IN GERMANY, 1945-1949 by Katherine Elizabeth Weida B.A. (Washington College) 2011