I love the BBC Kids show “Horrible Histories,” based on the books by Terry Deary (who also appears in the show). The show is a Monty-Python like variety show that jumps from various periods in English history, (primarily), while highlighting the “gory, ghastly, mean and cruel,” elements of history that our teachers tend to gloss over.
One period of history in which the show excels at satirizing is the Tudor period; devoting several songs, sketches, and animations to the reigns of Mary I, Good Queen Bess, and of course, Henry VIII. Here are some of my favorite clips from the series, with Ben Willbond as Henry VIII:
One really fun thing I like to see each Thanksgiving is the live previews of some of Broadway’s hottest shows. You may remember that I first became acquainted with the musical “Something Rotten,” after seeing a live performance at the Macy’s Day Parade. I am just ecstatic to see and talk about this year’s hit Broadway Musical Six. It swept the Tonys, and has opened up touring productions across the country.
This vibrant, clever retelling of Tudor her-story was created by TOBY MARLOW & LUCY MOSS in association with the Chicago Shakespeare Festival.
The show is incredibly smart, and creative, and delves into the lives of some fascinating women, re-told as a singing contest with the characters singing their lives for you to judge what it was like being the queen of England, and living with the turbulent and fickle Henry VIII. What really appeals to me in this show is that like Hamilton, the musical takes these six semi-mythical women and tells their story in a way that is fresh and exciting.
Part I: Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII:” How NOT to tell a queen’s story
Around 1613, Shakespeare wrote his final play- his 10th history play which loosely told the life of English king Henry the Eighth.
I happen to know a lot about this play since I was in it back in 2008, as you can see in the slideshow above. As you might notice, this play doesn’t tell the story of all of Henry’s wives. We only see the last few years of Catherine of Aragon’s life, and the beginning of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Most of the drama actually centers around Henry and his scheming advisor, Cardinal Wolsey. Maybe I’m biased because I played this role, but frankly, Woolsey is treated in the play as a stereotypical Machiavellian villain, who conveniently leads the king astray so he can be the hero of the play. Woolsey does all of Henry’s dirty work; taking over his government, spearheading his divorce to Catherine, and trying to dissuade the king from listening to Anne Boleyn’s Protestant ideas, dismissing her as a “spleeny Lutheran.” Shakespeare leaves it ambiguous as to whether Henry actually told Woolsey to do any of these things so the audience will blame Woosey, instead of the king.
I’ll be blunt, aside from the courtroom scene at Blackfriars, where Katherine pleads for Henry not to dissolve their marriage, and the fun dances and costumes in the scene where Anne flirts with Henry, the play is really quite boring. though I blame Jacobean censors more than Shakespeare for this. Even after the entire Tudor dynasty was dead and buried, powerful people in the English government controlled what Shakespeare could say about them.
Part II: The women take wing
During Shakespeare’s life time, the wives of Henry VIII were bit players at best. With the exception of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (who in most narratives have often been cast as either virgins or whores), the lives of Jane Seymore, Anne of Cleaves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr were barely told until the 20th century, where new feminist scholarship sparked renewed interest in these women and how they lived.
TV series like The Tudors, movies like The Other Boleyn Girl, and of course books and documentaries by
Well, I can’t yet give an objective view of the plot and characters of “Six,” because I haven’t seen it…(yet). But until then, let’s just say that like “Hamilton,” it is great to see history be recontextualized and shared in such an accessible way. We all know that European history is dominated by the names of white guys- king whoever, duke what’s-his name. To see important women in history be given a voice by a multi-ethnic cast is a great way to make it acessible.
Educational links related to the six wives of Henry VIII:
Tomorrow is the first session of my course on Shakespeaere’s tragedies! I’m so excited to teach this great group whom I’ve worked with before. To mark this occasion, I present this silly, catchy, and informative song about the tragic fates of Cleopatra, Juliet, Hamlet, and others.
If you want to sign up for this course or request a private session, you can do so at http://www.outschool.com, or by scanning the QR code below:
It’s November, the month when we Americans ponder perilous journeys to new worlds and give thanks to the people who settled our country. As this clip from “Shakespeare In Love” illustrates, Shakespeare clearly had these kinds of journeys on his mind. They influenced plays like “Twelfth Night,” “The Comedy Of Errors,” and especially “The Tempest.” It’s not surprising that long journeys to America were on Shakespeare’s mind; he lived right at the time of the first settlements in America, and the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving only four years after Shakespeare died:
However, as I said in my “Is Shakespeare Being Cancelled?” post, the people who colonized America were hardly saints and they did impose their own culture on the indigenous people that lived there. This tension between the romantic ideal of taming the unspoiled wilderness of America and the reality of colonization is deep within Shakespeare’s last solo play. Its hero is a magician with the power to control spirits and who enslaves the only creature living on the island before he came- Caliban.
Though Prospero did not come to the island by choice, he certainly imposes his will on the creatures and spirits of the island and even calls himself the lord of it. On the other hand, he eventually leaves, pardons Caliban, sets Ariel free and resumes his former life as the Duke of Milan, so the story isn’t entirely about colonization. At its core, The Tempest is a story about revenge, savagery, and redemption. Audiences back in 1611 would probably see Caliban as a savage with his rough manner, bizarre appearance, and peculiar religious beliefs. But the real savage is Prospero, who like Dr. Frankenstein, gives in to his baser desires for control and revenge; enslaving Caliban, and conjuring the Tempest to take his revenge on his brother Antonio. But Prospero eventually repents and abandons his quest for revenge and this decision improves everyone’s lives, especially his own. He can now move on and become a better duke and a better man.
This play is fascinating to ponder and it has spawned countless re-interpretations. As I said before, this journey to a strange new world has influenced both the Horror and Science Fiction genres. The themes and characters of The Tempest can be found in works such as Frankenstein, to Brave New World, to Star Trek, which is why this month, I will be not only analyzing The Tempest, but also the Shakespearean roots of one of my favorite TV shows- Star Trek: The Next Generation!
If you are your child are interested in learning more about this fascinating play, I actually teach a class about it as part of my course on Shakespeare’s Comedies which starts November 5th at 4PM, EST. Below is a trailer and link:
“Upon Such Sacrifices: King Lear and the Binding of Isaac”
I’ve compared King Learto a fairy tale in the past, but i haven’t compared it to a story from the King James Bible, even though Shakespeare, in all likelihood wrote and performed it for James himself. This article form the Jewish Review of Books is a comparison between Lear and the Old Testament Bible. First, the author has a tantalizing historical tidbit that might explain why Shakespeare chose to write Lear for King James:
Before ascending to the English throne, James VI of Scotland wrote a political guide, Basilikon Doron, for his eldest son advising him never to divide his kingdom (as Lear does) but “make your eldest son Isaac, leaving him all your kingdoms.”
The article also draws some fascinating parallels between Lear and other Biblical patriarchs especially the sacrifice of Isaac, which takes place in Genesis 22, or as it’s known in Jewish tradition, the akeda.
The akedah prompts different questions than King Lear does, not of how so much tragedy could have sprung from a foolish love test, but how the God of all creation could have put his faithful servant to such an unconscionable test in the first place. And so there is a long interpretive tradition that labors to elide that fact in increasingly creative ways. Surely God never intended Isaac to be a sacrifice—the boy was merely to be present at the sacrifice! How could Abraham have thought otherwise, when God had already sworn that it was through Isaac that his promise to Abraham would be fulfilled? Or, alternatively, surely Abraham never doubted that God was merely testing him—after all, Abraham tells Isaac himself that God would provide a lamb to substitute!
It’s interesting to see the parallels between Lear and an Old Testament patriarch. He constantly asks his gods for help and swears by them when he pronounces his doom, yet arguably he has no real faith in his gods or his daughters, which is why his foolish love test in Act I, serves as the catalyst that corrodes and destroys his kingdom and his life. However, maybe Lear sees himself this way, as a king appointed by God, with the authority to test his daughters’ love as God tested Abraham. Ian McKellen seems to share this view and sees Lear as a priest who is unwilling to give up his “special relationship with his gods.”
The actor playing Lear can benefit from studying the sort of old-fashioned patriarchs presented in the Bible because they help shape his worldview. In addition, the concept of faith and how it is tested is another big theme in Lear and contrasting how men in the Bible keep their faith while Lear loses it is an illuminating way to contextualize both works. Was Shakespeare trying to write a parable for kings? Perhaps, but he certainly encapsulates very well the struggles and anxieties of keeping power, and the desire for divine intervention when a kingdom bleeds.
Shakespeare’s King Lear is an age old tale. Like Cinderella it has been reinterpreted throughout time and in many different cultures. Here are a few interesting highlights in the old legend and how it got to Shakespeare in the 1600s.
The Princess Who Loved Her Father More Than Salt
This is an old folktale from my favorite podcast, Journey With Story, which starts with the Cordelia/ Lear plot of a foolish king who banishes his honest daughter. Then through extraordinary circumstances it becomes a Cinderella story. I think at some point these two stories were one and the same until they diverged and one became a story about an absent father and a wicked stepmother, while the other became about a wicked father and a dead mother.
The ancient ballad of King Leir, which helped inspire Shakespeare. It serves as a cautionary tale against flattery, and it places equal blame on Lear and his daughters:
And calling to remembrance then His youngest daughters words, That said the duty of a child Was all that love affords: But doubting to repair to her, Whom he had banish'd so, Grew frantick mad; for in his mind He bore the wounds of woe:
Which made him rend his milk-white locks, And tresses from his head, And all with blood bestain his cheeks, With age and honour spread. To hills and woods and watry founts He made his hourly moan, Till hills and woods and sensless things, Did seem to sigh and groan.
Even thus possest with discontents, He passed o're to France, In hopes from fair Cordelia there, To find some gentler chance; Most virtuous dame! which when she heard, Of this her father's grief, As duty bound, she quickly sent Him comfort and relief
The characters of Gloucester and his children, Kent, and the Fool are absent in this ballad, but unlike the fairy tale above, both Lear and Cordelia die in each other’s arms.
The Annonymous History of King Leir, (first published c. 1594)
This play was written for Shakespeare’s rival acting company The Queen’s Men around 1590). Since the Queen was patronizing the company, most of their plays were government-funded propeganda. For instance, it was the Queen’s men who first did a tragedy of the wicked King Richard III.
If you watch the first 20 minutes of the documentary above, you will see that Wood and many other scholars believe Shakespeare must have worked for the Queen’s men, or at least performed their scripts, since they did their own versions of King Lear, Richard III, King John, and Henry V.
However Shakespeare got a hold of The Queen’s Men’s scripts, he didn’t adhere to them rigidly. Their King Lear follows the fairy-tale / history format of having Cordelia be banished, disguise herself as a peasant (like Cap ‘O Rushes in the earlier version), and eventually she is restored to her rightful place. Shakespeare’s version must have been a MASSIVE shock to anyone who read these old tales and ballads. In Shakespeare’s version, everyone dies and there is no guarantee that the kingdom will survive. Every other tragedy ends with a new king or emperor to take over the kingdom but Lear leaves the audience with a sense of apocolypse; that Lear’s madness and Edmund’s machinations have doomed England and all these characters’ lives will be erased by Time.
As pessimistic as Shakespeare’s Lear is, it does seem more true to life than the previous versions. Perhaps this is because of a legal case from 1603 that might have inspired Shakespear to adapt the story: In 1603, two daughters tried to have their father declared insane. By an astonishing coincidence, the third daughter, who protested, happened to be named Cordelia! Perhaps Shakespeare, (who had three children and was preparing to retire), might have been inspired by this case and worried he might suffer the same fate.
Slings And Arrows is a Canadian sitcom about a theater festival loosely based on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. Its hero, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), in addition to dealing with the seemingly endless problems (or should I say, “Slings and Arrows?”) mounting a Shakespeare play, is also worried he’s going mad, since he keeps seeing the ghost of his old mentor/ director Oliver Wells (Stephen Ouimette). For a recap of Season One and Two, click here to read my review.
I describe this show as a funny, tragic, bittersweet comedy about drama. It’s The Office for Shakespeare Nerds!
Season 3 Retrospective: The Promised End?
Before settling in to write this review, I went back and read some of your comments on the whole of the series, and if there was a common thread to them, it was the idea that season three is almost too painful to bear by the end, that watching these last three episodes where everything we’ve come to love so much utterly falls apart is something like ripping off a Band Aid. I can see that. I usually watch season three all in one gulp, and having to delay my viewings every week became almost torturous, both because of the plot momentum the show builds up and because I had a week to let the things happening at New Burbage stew away in my brain. What makes it even worse is that nobody here is a bad person.
To succinctly summarize this season, it’s a bad season with a good finale. This season is the show at its most raw, and frankly most of it I can’t bear to rewatch. Accordingly, this won’t be a review of the season, so much as a review of one great episode; the series finale, “The Promised End”. But first, I’ll talk about the characters and tropes that got us there.
William Hutt as Charles Kingman
The majority of the drama around season three revolves around Charles Kingman (William Hutt). Mr. Hutt was a distinguished Shakespearean actor and while he was working on this season, Hutt was struggling with leukemia. The final episode aired on August 28, 2006, and Mr. Hutt died peacefully in his sleep on June 27, 2007.
Hutt delivers a great performance as Lear and Charles, and you’d never know he was dying with all the incredible energy and skill he delivers. However, once you know he’s dying, the arc of his character and the way Charles talks about age and death is heartbreakingly poignant:
Stephen Oimette as Oliver Wells
I’ve avoided talking about Oliver because he’s honestly more of a comic relief or a Shakespearean fool for most of the series. In this season, however, he becomes a real character as this clip shows. Geoffrey finally goes to therapy, (which Oliver twists into a ghost couple’s counseling session). It’s wonderful to see them finally address their love-hate relationship and I think it carries over into Geoffrey’s arc (more on that later).
Again, Darren Nichols is mostly comic relief, but he actually becomes a full-fledged antagonist in Season 3. In Seasons 1-2 he was a character foil- a director who hates theater, except as a vehicle for himself. In Season 1 he’s literally a foil for Geoffry, (in that he clashes with Geoffrey with literal fencing foils). In addition, he crams his production of Hamlet with pointless spectacle. In Season 2 Darren is a foil to Sarah in Romeo and Juliet– he loves being clever and cynical and wages war on the sentimentality of the love story. In this season, first Daren is a foil to Richard- mocking the sentimental storytelling of musical theatre, (as you can see in the clip above). Next, he becomes Richard’s pawn; taking credit for Richard’s skill as a director and propelling himself to become the new Artistic Director. He’s basically Edmund in King Lear- a narcissist and a cynic who loves to mock and tear down institutions.
Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennet
Geoffrey has a very dynamic arc this season, but to achieve it, he actually regresses a lot. In the first few episodes, Geoffrey seems to hate being at this theater even after his Macbeth became a great success. He starts crying randomly, which I interpret to mean he’s horrified at the possibility that he might have to be in this theater for another year. In essence, after a full year of growth, Geoffrey has regressed to the selfish, obsessive jerk he was in Season One. As you’ll see later, this regression was necessary in order to justify his arc, but I find it nearly unbearable to watch.
That said, it’s nice to see that Geoffrey isn’t a perfect person, and he still hasn’t addressed the source of his pain- his breakdown, Oliver’s betrayal, losing Ellen, and losing his job as an actor. The only glimmer of hope in this bleak season is that Geoffrey finally confronts his pain and learns to make peace with himself, with Ellen, and Olliver.
King Lear tropes in Season 3
Trope 1: a kingdom divided
Shakespeare wrote King Lear at the same time that King James was trying to unite England and Scotland, which is why a big theme of the play is how foolish it is to divide a kingdom. In Season three of Slings and Arrows, the Lear production has to share the theater with a new musical about addiction (loosely inspired by Rent). As you can see in this clip; while they rehearse this corny, ridiculous musical, Charles is telling the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Often in theater rehearsals, actors will tell the story of the play from their character’s perspective. What’s brilliant about this clip is that, while the musical demonstrates a paper-thin understanding of addiction, dramatic storytelling, or even good musical theater, Charles is conveniently leaving out Lear’s cruelty to his daughters, his failure to see their flattery, and his insane clinging to power when he has already given it away. Charles’ inability to see Lear’s flaws also mirrors his inability to see his own, which brings me to my next trope:
Trope 2: Love, or enabling addiction?
Like I said earlier, Charles understands the positive aspects of Lear, but fails to see the negative, which is why he also fails to see them it in himself. Lear is not just a dear old man who was betrayed for no reason; he’s a selfish deluded violent old narcissist who cares about no one but himself. That is why he goes mad- he defines himself by power and when he loses it he loses his identity.
What’s really great about this season is that it doesn’t just show the dark and light aspects of Lear, it also questions the ethics of Kent and Cordelia, the heroes of the play who try to save him. Geoffrey eventually plays Kent in the final episode, and it’s quite obvious that he mirrors Kent’s arc; sacrificing everything to help Charles play Lear one last time. He and Anna (who is basically Cordelia in this season), even get Charles drugs to help him with the pain of cancer. Charles’ desire to play Lear mirrors Lear’s desire to play the king; they are both addicted to something that is ultimately killing them.
But as you look at the season as a whole, you have to ask, was it worth it? Was it worth it for Geoffrey to lose his job and his theatre, get a bunch of other people fired, and eventually lose the festival as we know it just for one man?
Episode Six: The Promised End
Just like in Season two, we get a beautifully directed, beautifully shot condensed version of “King Lear” in the final episode, but the tone is completely changed. Everyone has been told that if they do this show, they will be fired, and they do it anyway meaning that onstage and on screen for the actors and characters this is a bittersweet last-ride for everyone.
The truly heartbreaking moments are with Geoffrey, Oliver, and Charles. We see how amazingly good Charles is, once he accepts his age and mortality. In essence, making this everyone’s last performance made it better all around.
“A Higher Purpose”
In a great twist of fate, Geoffrey has to fill in for Jerry as the Earl of Kent. He’s horrified since the last time he acted he had a nervous breakdown. This has been a problem the whole series for Geoffrey- he blames Oliver for his breakdown and he hates the New Burbage theater because it reminds him of his breakdown. But now, he must confront his fears and get back onstage and who helps him? Oliver. He coaxes Geoffrey through his stage fright by getting Geoffrey to focus on Charles. This, by the way, is how all actors deal with it- we find an objective and spend 2-3 hours fighting for it so we don’t have time for fretting about the audience.
It’s truly lovely to watch Oliver coaching Geoffrey- not only does it mirror Geoffrey doing the same thing for Jack in season one, but we see the story of Lear from Kent’s perspective- a man trying to serve his king. This puts Geoffrey’s arc through the season into sharp focus as well- he was trying to save Charles, not Lear- Charles.
“What are we doing here?” “Putting on a play.”
Like I said before, Geoffrey starts this season with a real self-destructive streak and it’s telling that in therapy he admits that he has no work-life balance. He defines himself by making art. Through playing Kent and doing something outside the theater, Geoffrey finds meaning in his life offstage. This is why I can bear to watch this episode instead of the others- yes the theater is gone, yes Darren and Richard win and all the characters I care about have been fired, but at least Geoffrey, Ellen, Oliver, and Charles finally grow and get to move on. Charles can die in peace now that he gets to do one last performance, (without letting it drive him mad). Geoffrey gains a new perspective on his life, and thus he doesn’t need Oliver anymore. I now have reason to hope that he and Ellen can now make a life together and not mess it up like they did the last time.
In conclusion, Season Three is not fun or cheerful, and there’s no satisfying conclusion for most of the characters. That said, this might be the best-written, most amazingly performed, and most heartrending sign off for a series I’ve ever seen, and if it took so much toil and pain to get here, so be it. It’s also a tremendous tribute to a great actor, William Hutt; I feel privileged to see his final performance on this show, and rejoice that at least one more time, I got to see the king bow:
When we our betters see bearing our woes, We scarcely think our miseries our foes. Who alone suffers suffers most i’ th’ mind, Leaving free things and happy shows behind; But then the mind much sufferance doth o’erskip When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship. How light and portable my pain seems now, When that which makes me bend makes the King bow
Edgar, Act III, Scene vi.
Play ME OUT CYRILL!
Shameless plug! If you’re here for more Lear, I’ll actually be playing Kent in an online radio play this Saturday, October 22nd, at 1PM EST. Here’s a link to the Youtube channel where it will be broadcast: