How did Hamlet’s Father Die?

I’m helping to direct a young actor playing Hamlet and we’re going over the “O That This Too Too Solid Flesh” speech. Going over the text, it occurred to me: what happened to Hamlet’s father?

Shakespeare makes it clear that Claudius poisoned Hamlet’s father with a vial of poison that he put in the king’s ear:

Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body. Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 796-805.

The Ghost calls the poison “cursed hebannon,” which fis a poison that Shakespeare made up. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s original source for Hamlet makes no reference to poisoning, but that the king was stabbed in front of his own court. I think Shakespeare might have changed this simply because Queen Elizabeth was concerned about assassination herself, and Shakespeare didn’t want to make it look like he approved of assassination. Then again, maybe he changed it so that the murder didn’t seem like a repeat of Julius Caesar, (which Shakespeare’s company performed the year before Hamlet, (Source: New York Times, 1982).

The Ghost describes how, when the poison went through his ear canal, he experienced violent swelling, sores, and unimaginable pain. He actually compares himself to Lazarus, Jesus’ friend in the Bible who died of leprosy.

And with a sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body. Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 807-811.

Detail from “The Raising of Lazarus” by Rembrandt c. 1630

Sadly, Leprosy is still prevalent in third world countries so its symptoms are still very well understood: CONTENT WARNING: DISTURBING IMAGES IN THIS VIDEO

The poison is made up, but could such a poison actually exist? I found a wonderful article from the Journal of ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat), where the author John Riddington Young posits the kinds of real-world poisons that might have this horrific effect on Hamlet’s father.

What actual poison was used? Shakespeare states, “the juice of cursed Hebenon” [6] but sadly, there is no such drug. Did he mean hemlock, or perhaps henbane? Laurence Olivier actually substitutes the name hemlock in his 1948 film. Belladonna, aconite and nicotine have all been suggested, but the most likely culprit is taxine from the yew tree. It is a deadly poison and its Old English name was heben. Shakespeare would certainly have known of it; he says in Richard II, archers bend ‘their bows of doubly fatal Eugh’ [7] (implying that apart from the arrows killing foes, there is an intrinsic toxicity in the wood).

JOHN RIDDINGTON YOUNG:
“History of ENT – Murder most foul, strange and unnatural”

I found a case study of a real case of Yew poisoning that emphasizes that it is incredibly fast-acting, “Fast as quicksilver”, that it can be misdiagnosed as another poison (like a snake bite, as Claudius later claims), and that it has no known antidote, the perfect way to kill a king:

. The taxine alkaloids (for example, taxine A, 2-deacetyltaxine A, isotaxine B, 1-deoxytaxine B) derived from p-dimethylaminohydroxycinnamic acid are the effective poisons of the yew [1]. In chemical terms, the compound is structurally related to veratrine, and the presence of an unsaturated lactone group makes this group of alkaloids similar to digitalis. Poisoning with the latter may be falsely diagnosed during a toxicological examination. Cardiac disturbances after intoxication by yew are ascribed mainly to the alkaloids paclitaxel and taxine B, affecting sodium/calcium permeability in cells [2]. The taxine alkaloid is absorbed through the digestive tract very rapidly, and the signs of poisoning manifest themselves after 30 to 90 minutes. An infusion made from 50 to 100g of needles is considered to be fatal [35], as no antidote is known.

Vališ, M., Kočí, J., Tuček, D. et al. Common yew intoxication: a case report. J Med Case Reports 8, 4 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1752-1947-8-4

So if you are playing Hamlet, in addition to the sadness and anger you feel after losing your father, you could also feel revulsion and pity at the painful, disgusting and cowardly way he was murdered. Truly, “MOST FOUL STRANGE AND MOST UNNATURAL.”

Slings and Arrows, Season 1

My personal connection to the show

In 2008, I was in grad school studying Shakespeare. My roommate Robbie invited me to watch this show on DVD. I loved the show at the first watch and bought my own copy soon after. I also shared watching them with the woman who would later become my wife. Watching this show was our unofficial first date!

So as you can see, I clearly have a bias and a nostalgic connection to this show, but I think it has garnered enough praise that I can justify my admiration of it. The creators are Tony award-winning writers. The actors are acclaimed stars on stage and screen, all of whom have experience with Shakespeare, musicals, improv-comedy, or all three! So we have a comedy written by talented theater practitioners, acted by professional Shakespearean actors, and half the dialogue is Shakespeare? Was this show made specifically for me?

The premise of the Series

Something is rotten at the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival- a fictional Canadian Shakespeare company that is loosely based on the Stratford Shakespeare festival. The Artistic Director, Oliver Wells has died in suspicious circumstances, right before he was to start rehearsing “Hamlet.” Wells’ successor is a volatile actor-manager named Geoffry Tennet, who, in addition to dealing with the work-a-day demands of running a theater, the backstage drama of directing a play, his own romantic feelings for lead actress Ellen, is also having ghostly visits from his old mentor, Olliver! What follows is a funny, tragic, bittersweet comedy about drama. It’s The Office for Shakespeare Nerds!

The Cast

The drama centers around the actors and actresses in the New Burbage Festival as they rehearse a Shakespeare play; Hamlet in Season 1, Macbeth in Season 2, and King Lear in Season 3. The subplots are more often than not workplace drama. Ironically, though the main cast parallels hamlet, the management team of Richard St-John (with a hyphen, played by Mark McKinney) and Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin), are unknowingly playing Lord and Lady Macbeth. The two of them plan to sabotage the production and eventually replace all Shakespeare shows with a more profitable musical-theatre-centered festival. It’s deliciously ironic that McKinney plays the scheming musical-loving Richard, since he himself is one of the Tony-award-winning writers of the Drowsy Chaperone.

Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennet

I’ve said before that Gorss gives a kind of animal intensity as Hamlet and Geoffrey, and this is especially true in Season 1. When we first meet him, Geoffrey lost his girlfriend, his sanity, and his career as a respected actor. Then he has to return to the theatre where the man who betrayed him works, and is forced to take over this same theater as Artistic Director.

Geoffrey’s Journey

If you’ve never seen the show before, I should warn you, GEOFFREY IS AN ABSOLUTE JERK in the first few episodes. Like I said, he starts out hating his job and pushing away everyone who comes in contact with him. However, little by little, he re-discovers why he loves theater, Shakespeare, and his friends and colleagues. Look at how he goes from a sarcastic pedant to a real director as he teaches these businesspeople how to act!

Rachel McAdams As Kate

Slings and Arrows Is the Show Rachel McAdams (and All of Us) Deserved
Rachel McAdams and Luke Kirby in “Slings and Arrows”

The most truly lovely thing about season 1 in particular, is watching Rachel McAdams’ charming and heartfelt performance as Kate. She plays a struggling actor who deeply loves the theater and dreams of becoming a respected actress. Her dreams are tested however when she falls in love with one of her co-stars and is accused of sleeping her way into a better role.

Rachel McAdams quote: I did do some Shakespeare on film, it's really  difficult...

McAdams is the perfect ingenue in this show: She is naive, charming, Ernest, and kind. You watch Kate struggle and desperately want her luck to turn around and then rejoice when she gets to fulfill her dreams.

 As Kate on Slings, she’s the understudy who knows better — happy to be cast, sad that she’s not really cast, and trying not to be bitter that the actual Ophelia is such a wreck. Her smarts and capability of course find her pairing off with Jake (Kirby), who’s more famous but less theatrical.

Slings and Arrows Is the Show Rachel McAdams (and All of Us) Deserved
By Margaret Lyons. Vulture Magazine, Aug, 2015.

Then you remember… she was Regina George! It’s easy to overlook how good an actor Ms. McAdams is since she frequently is overshadowed by her co-stars. Much like Ophelia herself, people heap all the praise on Hamlet and forget Ophelia. When I keep in mind the breadth of emotions Ms. McAdams has to portray, and how incredibly different this role is from her role in Mean Girls, I feel compelled to say her acting rivals Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennet

Season 1 Retrospective

Geoffrey: “Are you dead, or am I insane?

Oliver’s ghost: “I don’t see how those things are mutually exclusive.”

S&A Episode 3

My favorite episodes

I recommend watching all six episodes of Season 1 consecutively, but I can’t deny, some episodes are better than others, especially in Season 1. The first three episodes mainly focus on Oliver’s death and the tragedy of the falling out between Geoffrey, Oliver, and Ellen. This is important for backstory purposes, but it’s a little uncomfortable and sad to watch. My favorite episodes are episodes 4,5 and 6. Here’s why:

Episode 4: Outrageous fortune

After a drunken sword fight at his ex-girlfriend’s house, Geoffrey winds up in jail. This is his rock bottom. He even paraphrases Hamlet’s most famous speech as he contemplates ending it all in his cell. Thankfully, Oliver’s Ghost talks him out of it. Once he’s released, Geoffrey is re-energized and has a new purpose in life- directing Hamlet. Again, after three episodes of Geoffrey hurting, irritating, and sometimes even stabbing people, it’s nice to see our hero do what he was put here to do.

Episode 5:A Mirror Up to Nature

Geoffrey is finally fully committed to making the best Hamlet he can be, but he’s having problems with his Ophelia.

Geoffrey’s star is missing! With the production stalled, Geoffrey and Ellen finally have it out, and finally, share their tragic past with each other. Now the race is on to, “Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come, and fulfill their promise to Oliver.

So I hope I’ve articulated why I love this show and its characters. Just like anyone who’s ever had a boring office job loves and recognizes the characters from “The Office,” those of us in the theater recognize the crazy directors, the hopeful understudies, the divas, and the money-grubbing management. These characters feel like our friends and colleagues and they care so much about the universal dogma of “The show must go on,” no matter what kind of agonizing problems slow it down. Whether it be death, dementia, or a dislocated knee caused by a chameleon. the show within-this incredibly clever comedy about drama will catch your conscience… and your heart.

Play ME OUT CYRILL!

Duels in Hamlet

Hamlet Duel (1996)

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

Olivier’s Sword Fight in Act V, Scene iii (1948).

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.

PHrase One


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.
Hamlet. One.3925
Laertes. No.
Hamlet. Judgment!
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.

Phrase Two

Mel Gibson in “Hamlet” (1990)
  • Claudius. Come. [They play.] Another hit. What say you?3935
  • LaertesA touch, a touch; I do confess’t.
  • ClaudiusOur son shall win.
  • GertrudeHe’s fat, and scant of breath.
    Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows.
    The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.3940
  • HamletGood madam!
  • ClaudiusGertrude, do not drink.
  • GertrudeI will, my lord; I pray you pardon me. Drinks.
  • Claudius[aside] It is the poison’d cup; it is too late.
  • HamletI dare not drink yet, madam; by-and-by.3945
  • GertrudeCome, let me wipe thy face.
  • LaertesMy lord, I’ll hit him now.
  • ClaudiusI do not think’t.
  • 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.

Phrase Three

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:

  • HamletCome for the third, Laertes! You but dally.3950
    Pray you pass with your best violence;
    I am afeard you make a wanton of me.
  • LaertesSay you so? Come on. Play.
  • OsricNothing neither way.
  • LaertesHave at you now!3955

[Laertes wounds Hamlet; then] in scuffling, they change rapiers, [and Hamlet wounds Laertes].

  • ClaudiusPart them! They are incens’d.
  • HamletNay come! again! The Queen falls.
  • OsricLook to the Queen there, ho!
  • HoratioThey bleed on both sides. How is it, my lord?3960
  • OsricHow is’t, Laertes?
  • LaertesWhy, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric.I am justly kill’d with mine own treachery.
  • HamletHow does the Queen?
  • ClaudiusShe sounds to see them bleed.
  • GertrudeNo, no! the drink, the drink! O my dear Hamlet!3965
    The drink, the drink! I am poison’d. [Dies.]
  • HamletO villany! Ho! let the door be lock’d.
    Treachery! Seek it out.

[Laertes falls.]

  • LaertesIt 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.
  • HamletThe point envenom’d too?
    Then, venom, to thy work. Hurts the King.
  • AllTreason! treason!3980
  • ClaudiusO, yet defend me, friends! I am but hurt.
  • HamletHere, 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.

Sources:

Sources-

  1. Ur- Hamlet
  2. Lear source- Hollinshed’s Chronicles
  3. Holm ganner
  4. JSTOR
  5. Dr. Cole
  6. Bf paper on duels
  7. Tony Robinson’s Crime and Punishment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yz9VLkNHJU&feature=youtu.be
  8. Truth Of the Swordhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFL2ghH0RLs
  9. Secrets Of the VIking Sword http://youtu.be/nXbLyVpWsVM
  10. Ancient Inventions- War and Conflict http://youtu.be/IuyztjReB6A
  11. Terry Jones- Barbarians (the Savage Celts) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSuizSkHpxI
  12.  Joe Martinez book

If you enjoyed this post, and would like to do some stage combat of your own, sign up for one of my stage combat classes on Outschool.com!

Title image for my Stage Combat Course

Book Review: Year Of the King

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.

Sher rehearsing for Richard.

“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

Drawing of Olivier’s iconic Richard by Antony Sher, 1983.

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.

The Physicality

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).

Sher and Brian Blessed in the final play.

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.

Richard (Antony Sher) is killed by Henry Tudor at the play’s conclusion.

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!

Mafia Tropes in “Richard III”

Last month, I took a short vacation to Las Vegas, where, as some of you know, I went to Area 15 and the Omega Mart Exhibit. I also visited the Las Vegas Mob Museum. I’ve been fascinated by the mob for years. The Mob (AKA The Outfit), has within its many threads a potent combination of corruption, seduction vice, and violence all hidden behind the veneer of honorable men who do what they feel they have to to protect their families and their communities.

Not surprisingly, while at the museum, I saw parallels between the history of organized crime and Shakespeare, specifically his most popular history play about a powerful family that takes over the crown of England in a brutal turf war, and then one of its most feared soldiers bribes, intimidates, and murders his way to the top; Richard III.

A Protection Racket: Feudalism vs. La Cosa Nostra


The structure of the mafia paralleled the feudal system. In a world where a police force didn’t offer much protection for marginalized communities, the mafia thrived by offering protection for these communities, (especially to immigrants and people of color in the 19th and early 20th century).


Much earlier than that, the feudal system of the middle ages, which started to crumble after Richard’s reign ended, was designed specifically so poor peasants could get protection from wealthy landowners after the fall of the Roman Empire. These lords offered the protection of their knights to these peasants i. Return for labor and a percentage of their income working the field. Like the mafia, these peasants paid tributes to their lords and these lords demanded loyalty. In the museum, there’s an interactive video where you can become a ‘made man,’ which means become an official member of a mafia crew. Like a king knighting a lord, this ceremony meant pledging your life to your superiors, and being at their beck and call no matter what. In addition, like medieval knights, mafiosos were not allowed to murder other made men without permission from their capo or boss.


However benevolent they might appear, In both cases the Dons and the medieval lords were extorting their underclass. Failing to pay tribute to their lords would cause the peasants to lose their lands, and any disloyalty to the mafia would be severely punished. These powerful, violent thugs used their private armies to intimidate the weak into giving them what they wanted.

Part II: The Two Families

To thoroughly explain the parallels between the Wars of the Roses and the mob, I need to make clear that Richard iii is more than just the story of one man’s rise to power, although there are also mafia stories that fit this mold such as Scarface, White Heat, and the real-life story of Al Capone.

As this hilarious “weather report” from “Horrible Histories,” makes clear, during the Wars of the Roses two powerful families, (each with a claim to the English crown) fought each other in a brutal turf war. As Shakespeare characterizes in his play Henry VI, Part III, the battles between the houses of York and Lancaster shook England like a mighty storm, and for a while it was hard to tell who would prevail:

Henry VI. This battle fares like to the morning's war,
When dying clouds contend with growing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,1105
Can neither call it perfect day nor night.
Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea
Forced by the tide to combat with the wind;
Now sways it that way, like the selfsame sea
Forced to retire by fury of the wind:1110
Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered:
So is the equal of this fell war.
Henry VI, Act II, Scene i

During the Wars of the Roses, it was King Henry’s incompetence and mental illness that gave the Yorkists the ability to challenge the House of Lancaster for the crown. In the 1920s, the passage of the 18th amendment, (which made alcohol illegal, and thus a profitable commodity for organized crime), that allowed the mob to rise to unheard-of power through illegally buying, distributing, and selling alcohol. As the photo and subsequent video shows, Prohibition largely led to the rise in organized crime in America, especially in Chicago. During Prohibition, the Italian Sough-side Gang fought for control of Chicago’s bootlegging trade and subsequently destroyed their competition from the Irish gangs through corruption, intimidation, and violence.

The Don rises- Richard Vs. Al Capone

Opening Scene from Ian Mckellen’s 1995 movie of Richard III.

Like the Italian and Irish gangs In Prohibition-era Chicago, the Yorkist and Lancastrian armies battled for the English throne. As Ian McKellen’s excellent movie (set in the 1930s) shows, Richard was instrumental in destroying the leading Lancastrians at the Battle of Tewkesbury, including Prince Edward and King Henry.

In Chicago, the most feared mobster soldier was Al Capone, who many scholars believe was responsible for killing off high ranking members of the Irish gang during the infamous St. Valentines Day Massacre, where the gang members were ‘arrested’ by South Side gangsters disguised as cops. As the Irish stood against the wall with their hands behind their heads, the phony cops pulled out Tommy guns from their coats and let out a hail of bullets on their unsuspecting quarry.

In Shakespeare’s play, the only Lancastrian to survive the war is Queen Margaret, wife to the murdered King Henry, and mother to the slaughtered Prince Edward. In this scene from Al Pacino’s “Looking For Richard,” she curses Richard for his cruel slaughters. It’s not surprising that Pacino was so drawn to Richard II that he starred in and directed this film. After all, Pacino is famous for playing mafia characters who slaughter their way to the top.

Once Capone killed the competition, he ruled a multimillion-dollar empire of bootleggers and maintained that empire through corruption, intimidation, and by constantly playing innocent, just like Richard himself.

Hypocrisy, Corruption and hidden violence

“Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see, but few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are; and those few do not dare take a stand against the general opinion.”

Niccolo Machiavelli

Both Richard III and mobsters are masters of double-speak, that is, seeming to say one thing and meaning something else. Look at this passage where Richard talks about killing his nephew, then denies it:

Las Vegas: The town that bedded and abetted the mob.

After Al Capone’s demise and the repeal of Prohibition, the mafia found another vice to capitalize on: gambling. As the video below indicates, using their connections with the Teamsters Union and midwestern bookmakers, the mob in the midwest financed, built, and run almost every casino in Las Vegas, including The StarDust and the Hassienda. Once the casinos were built, the mob extorted millions of dollars from the casinos every month!

The profits from the casinos bought the mob even more power and influence, but this skim depended on making sure the bosses controlled their underlings, and defended their casinos from cheaters and snitches, which is why they defended their casinos through intimidation and violence.

Murders in The White tower and the city of sin.

A series of quotes from Las Vegas Mobsters

“Simple, plain, Clarence. I do love thee so, that I shall shortly send thy soul to Heaven.”

—Richard III, Act I, Scene i

When Richard of Gloucester starts his quest to become king, he begins by convincing his brother King Edward to execute his other brother George. Richard bribes the murderers to kill George before the king can reverse the death sentence. Richard has thus eliminated another obstacle in his way, and gained two loyal followers who will do anything for his gold.

Richard hires two murderers to kill the duke of Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne).

The mafia dealt the same way with traitors, stool pigeons, and anyone who tried to challenge the bosses. Look at this tour of the Mafia museum, where the grandson of the gangster Meyer Lansky starts by reminiscing about the glamourous lifestyle of Las Vegas mobsters, but the tour quickly takes a dark turn as Lansky II talks about how his grandfather ordered brutal executions for anyone who crossed The Las Vegas Outfit.

The Mafia Museum, Las Vegas
Exterior of the Mafia Museum

It was an enormously interesting trip going to the Mafia Museum, and if you can get out to Las Vegas, be sure to visit, (don’t forget the password to visit the speakeasy bar in the basement!) It was eye-opening for me how prevalent the sort of corrupt protection racket that started in the middle ages and continued into most of the 20th century helped define The Wars of the Roses and the mafia. As long as the strong prey on the weak and the law can’t protect everyone equally, these kinds of violent thugs will be lurking in the shadows, waiting for a shot at the crown.

The Fashion Is The Fashion 5: Richard III

Sketch I made for a production of Richard III.

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.

Design for Queen Elizabeth Woodville by me.

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.

Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2017 BBC TV mini-series “The Hollow Crown.”
Design for a suit of armour for Henry Tudor

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.

Ian Mckellen in the 1995 movie version of Richard III.