The strangeness of Sonnet 104

I’m taking an acting class (for the first time in 45 years) and one of the assignments I was given was Sonnet 104. It’s an odd one, but I never realized how odd until I had to imagine speaking it out loud to someone. Part of the assignment was to work out for myself: what reaction am I trying to elicit from the other person with each line?

The first 8 lines seem pretty straightforward. The person I’m speaking to has noticed crow’s feet or something, and is suddenly worried that he (or she?) is aging and is no longer beautiful. I’m trying to be reassuring. The reaction I’m trying to elicit is relief.

To me, fair friend, you never can be old; 
For as you were when first your eye I eyed, 
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold 
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride; 
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen, 
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned 
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green. 

The problem comes with the next four lines.

Ah yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand, 
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand, 
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived. 

What I’m saying, quite literally is: hmm. Maybe you’re right. Time waits for no one. Maybe you are changing and it’s happening so slowly I just haven’t noticed it. How the hell is that supposed to be reassuring? My acting teacher was surprised when I suggested there seemed to be some resentment at the partner’s beauty buried in these lines. But that’s how it reads to me. It’s hard for me to see these lines as anything but mean-spirited.

And then in the last two lines, it whipsaws, and then whipsaws again:

For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead. 

On the one hand, yeah, I’m promising you immortality of a sort: I’m going to tell all future ages that you were the most beautiful creature who ever lived.

But there’s that damned last word. Last words are always important. And the last thing I’m also going to tell all future ages is that you’re dead.

That’s just great, Will. Way to go. I feel so much better now. Thanks for stopping by. Now if you don’t mind I’m going to go put on some face cream.

Shakespeare’s Consuls, Cardinals, and Kings

I happened to be browsing through my chaotic bookshelves this afternoon, looking for one thing, and as often happens I found something else: a book I’d forgotten I had, Dick Riley’s Shakespeare’s Consuls, Cardinals, and Kings (Continuum, 2008). It provides a handy introduction to the history behind Shakespeare’s English history plays and his Roman plays.

I looked up what he had to say about Richard II and especially about the question of Bullingbrook’s intentions when he returned to the kingdom with an army. “One of the underlying historical questions behind the scenes that follow is the degree to which Bolingbroke always intended to claim the crown, rather than simply his inheritance as the new duke of Lancaster,” he says. “…Whether Bolingbroke began his invasion with this end in mind or with the ultimate goal of gaining the crown itself is an issue debated by historians.”

And bloggers. Always nice to know I’m not crazy.

Riley also fills in some of the background from Holinshed — something I should have done myself, but being an amateur rather than a professional, I didn’t.

What Northumberland and Bullingbrook did was far more elaborate and sinister than Shakespeare gives out, and would seem to go a long way toward answering the question Riley poses. About that famous Act 3 scene at Flint Castle? Well… Richard didn’t start out at Flint Castle; he started out at Conway. Northumberland persuaded him to leave that castle by a trick, then brought his army out of hiding and surrounded him. It was Northumberland himself who brought Richard to Flint, under armed guard. There, to all intents and purposes a prisoner of Northumberland, he was confronted with Bullingbrook’s army, and at that point he surrendered.

I’m not suggesting this settles the question of how Shakespeare’s scene should be played. Its deliberate ambiguity leaves plenty of room for actors and directors to ply their trade. But I’m always fascinated at the choices Shakespeare made as he went through the process of selecting and condensing the historical record when he was fashioning his history plays.

Riley has some choice words to say about the reign of Henry IV as well. But I’ll get to that later, when I talk about those plays.

There are lots of other guides to Shakespeare’s history plays. I think Dick Riley’s is one of the better ones.

Richard II: an audio survey

Here beginneth a comparison of several audio productions of Richard II.

If I were more ambitious, I’d carry it a step further and bring video productions into it too: after all, The Hollow Crown did a nice job with Ben Whishaw as the King, almost a prisoner in his own royal regalia; the old black and white program The Age of Kings devoted two episodes to the play; and the BBC Shakespeare series from the late 1970s gave us a memorable Derek Jacobi coming down from the windy heights of Flint Castle into the base court.

But there are two reasons for me not to include video here: one is that I’m not that ambitious; the other is that I’ve had a particular affinity for audio all my life and, with the consumption of a couple of thousand audiobooks and radio plays under my belt (including one or two that I produced myself), I might almost qualify as a kind of expert.

OK, OK, so not an expert: a fanboy. But at least I’m a serious fanboy.

Of course, me being me, I can’t talk about productions of the play without first going back and talking some more about the play itself, and in particular about two issues that especially interest me. One is the dramatic structure of the play; the other is whether it’s possible to identify the play’s protagonist, or if it even has one.

I don’t claim that any great insight will result from considering either of these questions. I only claim that they interest me — and that they are closely connected. And I’m going to warn you ahead of time that this is going to be a long digression that ultimately has no clear resolution — but I’m going to go there anyway.

If you want to study the structure of plays, I find popular screenwriting manuals more interesting guidebooks than most books about “drama”. An important caveat here, because I can hear the voices screaming in the background: I’m talking about plays with conventional plots, and that includes many, if not most, of Shakespeare’s plays. Screenwriting manuals, with one eye glued to the marketplace, are obsessed with the nuts and bolts of how you get an audience to respond in a certain way, and that means understanding how to present your dramatic material in a certain way. There are, of course, some major drawbacks to this approach, and I hope to point out one of the biggest ones shortly.

The guru of gurus, when it comes to screenwriting manuals, has to be Syd Field. He even calls his structural model The Paradigm: a lovely, symmetrical timeline where Act 1 takes up the first 25% of the film, Act 2 the next 50%, and Act 3 the final 25%. The transitions between the acts are marked by “plot points,” events that hook into the action and pivot it around into the next phase. Plot Point 1 pivots us into Act 2, and Plot Point 2 pivots us into Act 3.

Why only three acts? Because Aristotle said plays have a Beginning, Middle, and End, of course. You have read Aristotle, haven’t you?

For the sake of illustration, and since we’re talking about Shakespeare, let’s apply this to Hamlet. The proportions aren’t quite right — it doesn’t divide nicely into 25%-50%-25% segments — but the basic principle is sound as far as it goes.

Act 1 — by which I mean Field’s Act 1, not the act division imposed on Shakespeare’s script by later editors — is the Setup: Hamlet is at the Court of Elsinore. Plot Point 1: the Ghost reveals the murder and makes Hamlet swear to avenge his death. OK, the issue has been joined: we’ve pivoted into the major Conflict, or in other words into Act 2.

Act 2 is where all the backing and forthing and upping and downing takes place. Hamlet figures out who his friends are, who his enemies are, proves his uncle’s guilt to his own satisfaction, and is all set to do the deed…

Except that he runs up against Plot Point 2: having murdered Polonius, he is banished to England. Now what the hell is he going to do?

We are now pivoted into Field’s Act 3. We watch Hamlet work his way back to Denmark, where he positions himself to complete the assignment he has taken on. In the final moments of the play, he succeeds in avenging his father’s death — at the cost of his own life, sure, but we did call it the Tragedy of Hamlet, right? No false advertising here.

I don’t think there’s any question that Field is onto something when he carves up the script into segments and talks about key events that “pivot” the action from one segment into the next. The problem is with that long and shapeless second act. There are no clear guidelines for how the action in this part of the play should be developed, how tension can be maintained and increased, how there can be any sense of growing dread, or how any of the conflict can be shown to contain the seeds of its own resolution.

It took the longest time for Field to admit this was a problem and to notice that most movies and plays — again, we’re talking about the ones with conventional plots, like Hamler — have another “plot point” right square in the middle of Act 2, one that neatly divides that act into two smaller and more manageable halves. Field christened this the Midpoint. He never seems to have noticed or been willing to admit the obvious truth: that conventional dramatic structure, as he envisions it, naturally divides into four acts, not three. And what he’s calling (rather lamely, in my opinion) the Midpoint is not just another plot point that is somehow secondary to the ones that pivot the action into Acts 2 and 3: it’s the hinge of the whole fucking play.

What happens at the “midpoint” of Hamlet?

He stages “The Mousetrap,” which finally proves to him once and for all that his uncle is guilty. It’s the culmination of all his planning and scheming up to this point. But it serves another purpose as well, a purpose vital to the dramatic structure of the play — a purpose I would argue this “midpoint event” serves in most conventionally-structured plays.

It locks Hamlet into a life-or-death struggle with his uncle. It represents a quantum increase in what the screenwriting manuals like to call “the stakes.” (“Audience getting bored? Ratchet up the stakes.”)

He no longer has a choice about whether to continue with his project or not. Not only does “The Moustrap” show Hamlet that his uncle is guilty of the murder; it shows his uncle that Hamlet knows he is guilty — which means that to all intents and purposes, Hamlet is now a walking dead man: his uncle has marked him out as his next victim. Everything that’s happened in the play up to this point is reversible. Prior to staging “The Mousetrap”, Hamlet could, at least in theory, have abandoned his quest for revenge, but now he is locked into place: he can’t walk away from it, because his uncle won’t let him.

What happens at the “midpoint” of Macbeth? Macbeth murders Duncan: point of no return. Or — since we dragged Aristotle into this — let’s step back a few thousand years and take a look at Aristotle’s favorite play. What happens at the midpoint of Oedipus? He hears that Laius was killed at a place where three roads met — and begins to suspect for the first time that he may himself be the killer of Laius. Point of no return, no matter how desperately Jocasta begs him to abandon his investigation.

Like I said: it’s not just another “plot point.” What happens at the midpoint usually turns out to be the hinge of the whole fucking play.

It also, and not coincidentally, makes it clear who the protagonist of the play is, in the formal sense of which character is driving the action forward. Who stages “The Mousetrap”? Hamlet. Who murders Duncan? Macbeth. Who susses out the information about the three roads? Oedipus.

But wait a minute. We were talking about Richard II, right? What happens in the middle of Richard II? The scene at Flint Castle, when Bullingbrook confronts Richard and Richard ends up as his prisoner. So let’s take a stab at it and say that the “midpoint action” is this: Bullingbrook takes Richard prisoner ar Flint Castle.

Great. There’s only one problem with this. Bullingbrook doesn’t “take him prisoner.” Richard simply surrenders to him without being asked.

So which one of them is the one who takes the decisive action? Which one of them is the “protagonist”? Could we say the “midpoint action is Richard surrenders his authority to Bullingbrook at Flint Castle? Maybe; but then what to make of the fact that almost all of the moving and shaking in the play is done by Bullingbrook?

Good God: does the play have two protagonists?

Or none?

I have no idea.

And of course it doesn’t really matter. Shakespeare isn’t playing by the rules, or at least not by the rules laid out by me or Syd Field. Shakespeare doesn’t care about rules or theories or Paradigms: if you told him a play could only have one protagonist, he’d write one with three of them just to spite you. The only rule he seems to have paid attention to instinctively is the one that says: everything hinges on what happens in the dead center of the play.

And what happens more or less in the dead center of Richard II is a three-line exchange:

What you will have, I’ll give, and willing too,
For do we must what force will have us do.
Set on towards London, cousin, is it so?

Yea, my good lord.

Then I must not say no.

With these lines, Richard surrenders everything to Bullingbrook. He puts his very life into Bullingbrook’s hands. And here’s where I have the biggest problem understanding the play and figuring out who’s controlling who. Richard surrenders everything to Bullingbrook, but Bullingbrook hasn’t asked for it — has he? Not in so many words.

What did I miss?

Richard makes an incredible leap of logic: we must set on towards London, cousin, is it so? — but where the hell did that come from? Who said anything about London? Bullingbrook started out the scene by kneeling in front of Richard and swearing fealty to him — conditionally, it’s true: swearing fealty on the assumption that Richard is willing to restore his titles and lands; but Richard says right off the bat he’ll do that. Then, out of nowhere, almost as an afterthought, he adds: “we must to London?” — and Bullingbrook admits that he’s right, that’s where you and I are both going.


The only way to explain it that I can see is that Bullingbrook has been lying to everyone from the moment he landed; that seizing the throne was his plan from the beginning; that everyone knows he’s lying and simply goes along with it; that Richard knows that as well as anyone; that Bullingbrook, after all, gives the game away by murdering the King’s three closest advisors as soon as he sets foot in England, before he’s even met with the King. He can’t possibly escape being convicted and executed for treason after doing that — unless he can put himself in a position to completely rewrite the rules of the game. Richard’s behavior only makes sense to me if he and everyone else knows the extrajudicial murders were a calculated first step in Bullingbrook’s play for the crown.

But that’s not ever what Bullingbrook says, and it just doesn’t seem like Shakespeare to be so maddenly oblique about it. Where are his rhetorical arts, usually employed with such extravagance in expanding and elaborating on every necessary question of the play? How many other usurpers in Shakespeare seize the crown without ever once admitting they were planning to do exactly that?

Bullingbrook is what we used to call in my IT days a black box.

I’m going to have more to say about this in a few days, when I take up the question of William T Price and his theory of the Dramatic Proposition. But I’ll leave it at this for now: Richard sets his own destruction in motion by seizing Bullingbrook’s estates; Bullingbrook responds by returning with an army and taking, or at least accepting, Richard into custody. Those are the two key actions of the first part of the play, and they roughly correspond to what Syd Field would call Plot Point 1 and the Midpoint. The question to be answered by the rest of the play is clear at that point: will Richard survive?

Before I get to the audio productions, a handful of additional comments about the play itself.

That fifth act is a busy one — in fact quite a bit too busy for its own good. The conspiracy to kill Bullingbrook, with its family drama involving York, his wife, and their son, the conspirator Aumerle, descends into badly written farce. Bullingbrook even says as much himself. It comes out of nowhere and it goes exactly nowhere. There are zero consequences, at least for Aumerle and his family. At the end of the scene, we are back to square one.

Something about Aumerle seems to have disarranged Shakespeare’s thinking. A somewhat earlier scene in the play also centers around him: Richard’s favorite, Bagot, accuses him of being the chief agent in the murder of Thomas of Woodstock, which he angrily denies. This leads to a large-scale throwing down of gages and counter-gages, as the assembled nobles take up one side or the other: it’s another activity that borders on farce — and another one that goes exactly nowhere. Nothing ever comes of any of these challenges; they are never mentioned again, no combats result, and Aumerle’s apparent complicity in Woodstock’s murder leads to…. zero consequences.

Anybody looking to streamline the play with a few judicious cuts could do worse than focusing on the Aumerle-related subplots. In fact, I’m not sure “subplot” is even an accurate term to use, because “plot” implies that something happens, and nothing happens when it comes to Aumerle. The scenes are a textbook case of sound and fury signifying nothing.

The play is like a coiled spring. Richard is tightly wound, and we keep waiting for an explosion — and Shakespeare gives us one of his most satisfying outbursts of violence in Richard’s final scene, when he finally decides he’s had enough and begins laying waste to the men who have come to kill him.

The devil take Henry of Lancaster and thee!
Patience is stale, and I am weary of it.

[Beats the Keeper.]

Help, help, help!

[The murderers, Exton and Servants, rush in armed.]

How now, what means death in this rude assault?
Villain, thy own hand yields thy death’s instrument,

[Snatches an axe from a Servant and kills him.]

Go thou and fill another room in hell.

[Kills another.]

After this explosion, the final dreary scene with Bullingbrook is an anticlimax but a necessary winding-down.

It has always seemed to me that Richard II requires a greater knowledge of the historical background than most of Shakespeare’s other history plays. The murder of Thomas of Woodstock is alluded to, but the references are brief and often cryptic — even in the first scene, a scene where virtually everything that happens depends on the murder and a knowledge of Richard’s complicity in it. If you don’t know about Woodstock, the Lords Appellant, Richard’s delayed revenge, and the rest of the sad, sick, sorry story, much of the first scene is going to be incomprehensible. (Books by Peter Saccio, John Julius Norwich, and Dan Jones provide the necessary background. But it would be nice if the dialogue itself were not so maddenly elliptical.)

Then there’s the business about the deposition scene. When first printed, the play was missing that scene. It seems like a clear case of censorship. But it’s at least possible that Shakespeare left it out of the play at first, and went back and added it later. From an emotional standpoint, the play absolutely demands the deposition scene. But from a purely narrative and expository standpoint, it can work without it. York announces that Richard has resigned his crown to Bullingbrook, and Bullingbrook, standing in front of the throne, announces the plans for his coronation. He exits, leaving behind a group of conspirators who decide that he needs to die, a subplot that will come to fruition a scene or two later. When we see Richard in the next scene, he is being dragged off to prison. There is, in fact, no obvious gap in the exposition.

One final brief note about the play, looking ahead to the next one. In his last scene, Bullingbrook worries about the wild life of his son Hal and his absence from court. Has anyone seen him? he asks. I have, says someone — and that someone turns out to be the very same Hotspur who becomes such a prominent opponent of Bullingbrook and such a prominent foil to Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 1.

The question arises, in my mind at least, as to whether Shakespeare had already mapped out a trilogy of plays when he started writing Richard II, or if the idea for Henry IV came to him as he was wrapping up this one. It’s tempting to think the idea grew in Shakespeare’s mind as he was writing the first play. But there’s one piece of evidence that he may have had a larger design in mind from the beginning. That evidence is that Hotspur is portrayed from his first appearance in this play as a young man. Bullingbrook is a contemporary of the Earl of Northumberland, and Northumberland’s son, Hotspur, has never met Bullingbrook until his return from exile at Ravenspurgh. This is a direct contradiction of known history: it was Hotspur, not his father, who was a contemporary of Bullingbrook. Why would Shakespeare make this change unless he was already thinking of using Hotspur as a foil for Prince Hal?

Now let’s take a look at a collection of audio productions of the play. I’ll start with three that, by design, attempt to present a standardized, by-the-book reading of the whole play, and then look at several variations: one an adaptation of an actual stage production; two designed as radio plays from the start; and one developed as a multi-part educational podcast for American public radio.

The Argo version

The Marlowe Dramatic Society recordings date to the 1950s and 1960s and have recently been restored, remastered, and remarketed by Argo. (For convenience, I will refer to them as “the Argo version.” ) They represent an older style of Shakespearean audio production: declamatory and stagey, with no effort to create an illusion of reality. For example, some audio productions bring in horses when they fit the action, but not so here — in fact, one characteristic of the recording is that characters often enter and exit with no discernible indication of their movement at all. Instead of creating a “soundscape,” the effort here is on giving a coherent, dramatic reading with great clarity. You might find the style creaky and off-putting at first, but if you let it be what it is, its steady rhythm and lyricism can grow on you.

Apparently much work was done preserving and cleaning up the original recordings — getting rid of pops and buzzes and even removing the occasional faint traffic noises that had managed to penetrate the studio. If you’re interested in knowing more about the provenance of these recordings, there’s an interesting article about the project on the PrestoMusic web site. (A footnote: I wish the same effort had been put into preserving the Caedmon Shakespeare recordings: that’s another series from about the same period, and the Caedmon production of Richard II will be discussed below. The Argo recordings encompass the Complete Works. The Caedmon recordings did too, originally, but only about 20 of the plays are still available.)

Unfortunately the preservation effort doesn’t seem to have extended to the cast list. If the people who put this collection together had access to it, they didn’t bother to include it in any of the downloaded materials. The marketing for the series mentions names like Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, and Ian McKellen, but the opening and closing credits for each play identify only the play, not the players: this is true, at any rate, for the Complete Works download, which is the one I’m working from. Audible sells the plays individually as well, and their entry for Richard II does list some of the members of the cast, such as Richard Pasco, Timothy West, George Rylands, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, and Clive Swift. But the names are not matched with the roles. Presumably Richard Pasco, being first in the list, played Richard, but that’s just a guess. I can usually recognize Timothy West and Clive Swift by voice, but they slipped past me in this one.

So in discussing this particular Richard II, I’m forced to talk about the quality of the voices rather than the names of the performers. And in that respect, a few things immediately stand out: Richard II sounds much older than he is usually played — quite a bit older, for example, than Bullingbrook and Mowbray. Bullingbrook is a snide son of a bitch, with a sometimes unpleasantly nasal tone; and the actress playing Richard’s Queen is even more histrionic than most of the other members of this generally histrionic cast.

In many respects, the production hasn’t aged well. The overall tone is one of reverence for the text; the music often consists of simple drum rolls and tinny-sounding trumpets; and the dialogue at times sounds like it was recorded in a barn. One scene often follows another with only a brief pause between them, and if you’re not familiar with the play, it’s not always immediately obvious that the scene has changed. For another, as mentioned earlier, characters often enter and exit with no audible cues, so that it’s also not always obvious when the configuration of actors within the scene has changed. Sound effects are often weak. Richard’s shattered looking-glass here sounds more like a tinkle than a crash.

Other expected sound effects are missing: in the farcical scene involving Bullingbrook, the Duke of York, his wife, and Aumerle, there is much implied business involving pounding on the door, the locking and unlocking of said door, the swinging open of said door, the drawing of swords, and the rushing to and fro of various anguished participants; but the only thing we hear in this production is the pounding on the door. (York is on the outside pounding on the door one minute, and inside the room haranguing the King the next, but we never hear anything to indicate the transition.)

The murder of Richard is particularly disappointing: there are no pounding feet, no clashing of arms, no screams of dying men; it’s all done with words, and not even much in the way of anguished shouting at that. Anybody who thinks that’s what Shakespeare intended doesn’t know much about Elizabethan staging comvention and the buckets of pig’s blood that were often used in death scenes. The emotional release I was hoping for, when the tightly wound Richard suddenly explodes, never came.

For anyone who’s experienced the glorious immersion of a well-produced radio play, the overall effect of the Argo recordings will be thin and unsatisfying.

But even given those drawbacks, it would be a mistake to write these productions off. You may not experience the full range of emotion that could be offered by the play, but you will certainly hear and understand what is being said. In general, the production is of a time when the goal was (mistakenly, I think) to “let the Bard’s lines speak for themselves,” but while the scenes are generally pitched at a low key, emotionally speaking, they are not devoid of emotion: as one example, the confrontation between Richard and the dying John of Gaunt is shot through with anger — even rage at times — on both sides. The risk of a “standardized,” no-frills production like this is that a character like Richard II may come across as a collection of emotive speeches rather than as an idiosyncratic locus of motivations and personality traits: you may go searching in vain for what the Stanislavskians would call the “spine” of the character.

It depends on what you’re looking for. As I said, given half a chance, the steadiness and clarity of the line readings here can be seductive. Hearing the words spoken aloud by a professional cast, especially a distinguished professional cast like this one, is going to give you a better grasp of the emotional core of the play than reading the text by itself would be able to do. Hard as it may be to identify individual players, it remains the case that the Argo series captures performances by some of the leading Shakespearean performers of the mid-Twentieth Century.

In fact, I would suggest that a recording like this might work well as a read-along companion. Text and audio can serve to amplify each other, and the low cost of the Argo series — I’ll get to that later — puts it within reach of a lot more people than most of the other series under discussion here: certainly more so than the only other complete Shakespeare under discussion, the Arkangel Shakespeare.

The Caedmon version

The Caedmon Shakespeare, almost all of them directed by Howard Sackler, came along a couple of years after the Argo. In many ways it reflects the same approach to audio Shakespeare: the text is performed in a straightforward, respectful manner with few sound effects. There are some notable improvements: the performances are often more passionate, and the trumpet calls between scenes have been pieced out with occasional interludes on a lute. The Caedmon recordings, where they are available, are also excellent companions for a read-along exercise.

That “where they are available” is the catch. I believe all of the plays were done, but like the early episodes of Doctor Who, not all of them have been preserved. In this tetralogy, the only ones I could find were Richard II and Henry IV Part 1. As an example of how spotty the preservation has been, Paul Scofield’s brilliant turn as King Lear can be downloaded, but not his wonderful 4-hour Hamlet. Where is Henry IV Part 2? Where is Henry V? I have no idea.

Credits are almost as hard to come by here as for the Argo performances. John Gielgud is identified as the lead for Richard II — the one case where an identification isn’t necessary, because his voice is so distinctive it is instantly recognizable. The only other voice I’m sure about in the cast is Michael Hordern, another instantly recognizable voice, who plays the Duke of York. Piecing together information available here and there yields some other possible names, including Edward Hardwicke, Leo McKern, and Jeremy Brett, but none of these are matched with the roles they play, and although I’d swear I could pick any of their voices out of a crowd, I couldn’t pick any of them out of this crowd.

For someone who values audio performances as much as I do, this is unforgivable. If I am ever able to pin down the cast with some degree of accuracy, I will update this writeup with the information.

The greater energy and passion in the Caedmon production makes it easy to recommend it over the Argo version. (The Arkangel series is an order of magnitude better than either, but we haven’t gotten there yet.) It would still make for rough going without a script to follow along: entrances and exits are signalled only by voices moving closer to or further away from the microphone, and sometimes not even that. The dialogue is never modified (as it is, rarely but sometimes, in the Arkangel series) to clarify who is being addressed. There is no attempt to back the dialogue up with any kind of environmental ambience: outdoor scenes sound the same as indoor scenes, and Richard’s scene in prison could be happening in the same room as his deposition, as far as any aural coloring is concerned.

That said, there are some attempts at creating a world around the play. The tournament at Coventry is accompanied by crowd noises, and Richard’s colloquy about Bullingbrook with his crew of minions is peppered with nonverbal reactions. His announcement that he is robbing Bullingbrook’s estate generates an audible gasp from the Duke of York. His breaking of the looking glass in the deposition scene is loud and arresting. These are small touches, but they help someone listening keep the larger picture in mind.

So what about the performances themselves? A disappointment to me, for the most part. Michael Hordern is an effective and passionate Duke of York, as is the actor who plays the small role of the Bishop of Carlisle. Bullingbrook is OK, no great shakes. But the real disappointment is Gielgud himself. I’ve heard and seen him give some passionate Shakespearean performances — as Hamlet, as Lear, as Cassius — but this isn’t one of them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was just “phoning it in,” whatever that means, but I think for this outing he fell back on his brilliant and supple command of his “vocal instrument” rather than trying to plumb the depths of the character. His voice runs up and down the scale and hits all the right notes in all the right places, and almost every one of them rings false. It’s an externalized, virtuoso performance. I found myself growing increasingly irritated as I listened to it, frustrated at what seemed like a lost opportunity.

The music is a huge disappointment as well. The music on some of the Caedmon recordings, much of it relying on lutes and spinnets, creates a wonderful period atmosphere. But this one relies heavily on the same kind of tinny trumpet calls used in the Argo production, and their trilling and sometimes triumphant notes often clash horribly with the tragic action that is taking place on either side of them. The dead march at the end lasts barely three seconds and consists of a single rat-a-tat-tatting drum. The producers seem to have decided to use the drum-and-trumpet motif simply because it’s a history play, not because it fits in any way with the mood of the production.

While the Caedmon version is generally superior to the Argo one — more passionately acted, at any rate, something true in general about Caedmon as compared to Argo — the completist in me rebels at starting something I can’t finish; and I can’t finish the tetralogy if only the first two plays are available. If someone ever digs up and gives the “Argo” treatment to the missing plays in the Caedmon series, it would be an easy choice between the two roughly contemporary series, at least in terms of dramatic value. There’s still a strong economic case to be made for the Argo, however.

The Arkangel version

One of my first reactions listening to the Arkangel performance of the play was to celebrate the sound design. Footsteps! Doors! Horses! Swords! And among other things, Clive Brill, the brilliant director who assembled this masterful collection of audio productions, provides numerous examples of that one thing that lends so much life to audio: the audible but nonverbal reactions of other characters to the person who is speaking. This can take the form of sighs, groans, gasps, grunts of assent or disagreement: the point is to remind the listener that others are present and interacting with the speaker. If you’re watching a stage production, you automatically get that by seeing the other actors, and in particular seeing the expressions on their faces. But I f you can’t see the other actors, the one speaking is in danger of becoming a disembodied voice.

A couple of examples of how sound can be used and is used to enhance this presentation: In the confrontation between York and Aumerle over the document that reveals the conspiracy, we hear them struggle over the document, and then we hear York struggle to put on his boots. In the following scene between Bullingbrook and Aumerle, we hear Aumerle closing the door — obviously a big, heavy one — and turning the lock. We hear Bullingbrook drawing his sword when he hears York accuse Aumerle of treachery. All of these sounds are missing from (for example) the Argo recording.

At the same time, with the inane (if not insane) refusal of all of these productions to employ a narrator, the limitations of an audio-only approach are evident. At the end of the deposition scene, a handful of characters remain onstage and hatch a conspiracy against Bullingbrook. We hear their voices floating through the ether, but we have no clue who any of these people are. And later, in an even more crucial scene — Richard in prison — it is evident by the end of the scene that Richard is dead, but all of the details of his climactic struggle with his assailants are a mystery. Only by paying very close attention and applying careful logic to every single word — on repeated listenings — would you be able guess that Richard, in a shocking explosion of rage and violence, killed two of his attackers with their own weapons.

How can you advertise something as a complete production of the play when so much of the intended effect is missing?

I do not and will never understand the reluctance to use a narrator in these situations. If you’re writing a radio play from scratch, you can arrange the dialogue and sound effects in such a way as to avoid the need for one. If you’re recording dialogue that was written for the stage 400 years ago, you need to intervene every so often to let people know what’s happening. It can be done in a minimalist and nonintrusive way. At the barest minimum, it could, on principle, be limited to reading existing stage directions, when the action is not otherwise obvious, or sometimes (as in the situation described above) indicating who remains on stage at a certain point in a scene. Without this information, the audio is only half the experience of the play, because the person hearing it doesn’t have enough information to interpret what they’re hearing. Why can’t any of these people understand that?

Setting that concern aside, the Arkangel performances are uniformly outstanding. Julian Glover — this is anticipating the next play — surprised me with what an aggressive and effective Bullingbrook he makes, because he turns in a disappointingly pallid performance as Henry IV in the sequels. Rupert Graves was another surprise. He is an actor with a lot of stage and screen experience (he is one of my all-time favorite Inspector Lestrades), but I don’t believe he had much experience with Shakespeare before he tackled this play. Yet he handles the language beautifully and gives a brave and nuanced performance as the alternately petty, defeated, sarcastic, and raging King. His parting scene with the Queen, played by Saira Todd, is especially poignant and effective. And he makes a good end.

The scene at Flint Castle is a notable example of the superb sound design of this production. The scene itself shifts in a complex way between two widely separated viewpoints, Bullingbrook below and at some distance from the castle, and Richard above on the castle walls, coming together only at the end when Richard descends to the “base court.” Here, as the focus changes, the voices come and go between far distance, middle distance, and close proximity, sometimes over the course of the same speech, in a subtle and kinetic way, and everyone sounds like they’re outdoors, with the wind whipping around them.

(A footnote about the sound design and modern download technology. The recordings don’t work unless you can hear them in reasonably high-quality stereo. Given the specs, I wouldn’t think Audible’s “high-quality” download format — it’s a stereo format, but at a surprisingly low bitrate — would be good enough; back in the days when I was ripping my own CDs, anything less than 128kbps, even for spoken word, especially in stereo productions like this, sounded awful. But there’s some secret sauce in there somewhere, because the plays in their Audible versions actually sound really good, and the intended shifts in distance and direction work as intended.)

One question I was left with after listening to the play was this: why did Bullingbrook choose the moment of the play’s opening to level his accusations against Mowbray? The murder of Thomas of Woodstock, which was the real precipitating cause, was old news. What changed? Knowing full well, as everyone did, that Richard himself was behind the murder, what did Bullingbrook hope to gain by initiating a confrontation at this particular moment? What was happening in Richard’s reign that made him seem vulnerable in Bullingbrook’s eyes? Presumably something has happened just before the play begins that sets Bullingbrook in motion. But what? This part of the historical background remains unclear to me. What was Bullingbrook trying to accomplish by putting Richard on the spot in this way?

One other brief note. There are no tinny drums or trumpets here. There is instead an outstanding score written by the phenomenal Dominique le Gendre, who wrote the music for all of the Arkangel recordings. I don’t like the style she chose for every single play in the series (the “breaking glass” motif in King Lear comes to mind), but the work she did for this play fits it like a glove. It is truly one of the outstanding productions and the one I would most heartily recommend to anyone wanting to experience the play in its entirety. It has one other advantage, for those who care about such things: the text is that of the first edition of the Pelican Shakespeare. It’s not that the first edition of the Pelican Shakespeare is better than other edition of Shakespeare, although the Pelican Shakespeare is one of my favorites; it’s that it’s unusual to know which text an audio Shakespeare is using at all, but even more unusual for it to use one with a known pedigree. This was a deliberate decision on the part of the production team.

When you’re listening to the play, though, keep in mind what I said about the lack of a narrator. If you don’t already know the play well, you’re going to need the script at hand for the Arkangel production every bit as much as far the Argo or Caedmon outings. That’s not necessarily a drawback. It depends on what you’re looking for.

The Oregon Shakespeare version

Unlike the other productions described here (as far as I know), the Oregon Shakespeare Festival version is the only one based on an actual stage production. It’s part of a series of Shakespeare adaptations produced by OSF in conjunction with Blackstone Audiobooks. In each case, the stage production — in most cases with the original cast — has been fitted out with music and sound effects to create a real radio play, a genuinely immersive audio experience. Seven or eight plays have been done so far, including Richard II, Measure for Measure, and several of the tragedies. (If you want a glimpse of the original staging of this play, you can see a trailer for it on YouTube.)

These are not adaptations for purists. The Oregon festival typically takes a startling amount of freedom with respect to period and to race and gender in casting: in the case of Richard II, for example, Hotspur is played by a woman, and Bagot has become Lady Bagot (and in the process has taken over the functions played by Salisbury and Scroop in the original: for example, in the “sad stories of the death of kings” scene, it is “Lady Bagot” who brings the news of the disappearance of the Welsh army and the defection of the Duke of York to Bullingbrook’s side). I find this flexibility in casting refreshing, but not everyone will.

One side effect of Bagot’s doubling in the earlier scene — becoming the one who brings the bad news to Richard — is that it emphasizes the contrast between his fate and that of his comrades Bushy and Greene. Bagot is the one who stays closest to Richard during his Irish invasion, yet even in the play as Shakespeare wrote it, he is the one who seems to have gone over to Bullingbrook’s side, to support his accusations against Richard, or at least against some of his erstwhile adherents; at any rate, he is the one who survives. As far as we know from anything in the play, Bagot is still alive and still an active courtier at the end.

OSF didn’t go as far with their doubling of Bagot as the 2007 RSC Shakespeare production. That production, the RSC Shakespeare informs us, used Bagot to replace the character of Exton: in that production, Bagot himself is the man who kills Richard. Oregon didn’t do that. They did something else instead. But more about that in a minute.

The OSF production is largely uncut; the scenes are mostly intact; but that doesn’t mean the text is completely untouched. OSF created a stir some years ago by advertising an effort to create completely new versions of the plays — “translations”? — with the help of poets and playwrights hired for the purpose. I don’t know what happened with that project. But they have never been shy about changing a few lines here and there for the sake of clarifying the context for a modern audience. The BBC Radio productions do this too, but OSF does it with a far freer hand.

Two examples from early in this production: when Gaunt addresses the Duchess of Gloucester as “Sister,” it becomes “Sister-in-Law”; and the line

Thou go’st to Coventry, there to behold
Our cousin Hereford and fell Mowbray fight.


Thou go’st to Coventry, there to behold
Your dear son Hereford and grim Mowbray fight.

I have no problem with changes like this, especially in a production aimed at a general audience.

Later in the play, the ground is prepared for the Henry IV plays with a small change: Hotspur’s line, “My lord, some two days since, I saw the prince” becomes “My lord, some two days since, I saw Prince Hal.” In the Aumerle-and-the-gages scene, there are other modest changes made in the interests of clarity. Hotspur is conflated with Fitzwaters, reducing and streamlining the number of gages and challenges thrown down; and references to the absent “Norfolk,” a name rarely used in the first part of the play, are consistently changed to “Mowbray,” a name used repeatedly in the earlier scenes to refer to that character. It goes almost without saying that the nonverbal responses to the accusations and counteraccusations are far more vigorous and varied than in most of the other productions described here.

One of the greatest liberties they take with the text, however — and the one where, in my opinion, they go completely off the rails — comes in the aftermath of the Aumerle-the-Traitor-to-Bullingbrook scene. As that scene ends, Bullingbrook forgives Aumerle but vows to destroy the other conspirators.

Shakespeare wrote:

Good uncle, help to order several powers 
To Oxford, or where’er these traitors are 
They shall not live within this world, I swear, 
But I will have them, if I once know where. 
Uncle, farewell, and, cousin, adieu...

The Oregon festival adds a line to this.

Good uncle, help to order several powers 
To Oxford, or where’er these traitors are 
They shall not live within this world, I swear, 
But I will have them, if I once know where. 
Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?
Uncle, farewell, and, cousin, adieu...

The added line is the one that a character named Exton later reports hearing Bullingbrook utter: it’s the line that seals Richard’s doom, because Exton uses it as the justification for arranging Richard’s murder. But we never hear Bullingbrook say this, and it’s possible that this ambiguity is an important part of Shakespeare’s design: he may have wanted us to have some doubt about Exton’s truthfulness. OSF here seems to be using Jean Anouilh’s Becket rather than Shakespeare’s own play as the controlling framework: will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?

But there’s a method in OSF’s madness. They added the line to the scene to pave the way for an even bigger surprise two scenes later. They have, like the 2007 RSC production, cut the character of Exton completely. But Richard has to be murdered by somebody. So they pick somebody who was present in the scene where Bullingbrook utters the line they’ve added to the text.

They pick Aumerle.

Yes: in this OSF production of the play, Aumerle is the man who stabs Richard to death in prison. In a way, they’re doing no more than they did when they eliminated the characters of Salisbury and Scroop and gave their lines to Bagot. But here the process is taken to an almost insane conclusion. Yes, it achieves closure for Aumerle, something Shakespeare himself couldn’t manage; but in the process it blows apart everything Shakespeare has told us about this insolent, hapless, weather-cockish, cowardly young man. The man who wept with Richard at Flint Castle is not a man who would take a sword to Richard to curry favor with the new King.

The 2007 RSC production did similar violence to Bagot’s character, but Bagot has at least given some evidence in the play of his willingness to support Bullingbrook in his accusations against Richard. Aumerle has given evidence of nothing except his desire to save his own skin — and killing Richard “don’t enter into it.”

I’ll say one thing for it. It certainly is a dramatic change.

Some further notes about some of the audio qualities of the production.

If the Arkangel production brings in doors, footsteps, and horses, the OSF production brings in crunching boots on the ground, trucks, and motorcycles as well. A whole world of movement is created, and a dozen sound effects are pulled out of the hat to give a modern audience a sense of what’s happening. The poignant final scene between Richard and the Queen takes place in a pelting rainstorm. John of Gaunt’s death scene is accompanied by the beeping of a heart monitor — and (lest we miss the point) it flatlines at the end as Gaunt breathes his last. Richard’s prison scene is filled with electronic buzzers and clanking, motorized gates, and the music Richard hears is a plaintive jailhouse harmonica. (It is, I should note, the only production where the music stumbles and fails to keep time the way Richard describes it as doing.)

If the Arkangel production includes audible reactions from other characters to a speech, the OSF production goes over the top with sycophantic giggles, gasps, and laughter to nearly every utterance Richard makes. I say “over the top,” but I actually enjoyed it: I’d rather have this sense of constant interaction between the speaker and the others in the scene than have the sense of actors playing out their roles in isolation booths. And no one could ever complain about a “flatline” reading of the lines in the Oregon staging of any of these scenes. Christopher Moore, who plays Richard II, gives an impassioned performance of a disturbed, unstable, bipolar ruler: “WE WERE NOT BORN TO SUE BUT TO COMMAND!” is practically screamed at the others on the stage. His Richard is closer to the Richard I see in my head when I read the play than any of the others I’ve listened to. His Richard is a Richard that one can imagine being deposed for good reason: he’s a basket case. And his performance is strengthened by the sense that he is making things up as he goes along. This Richard is not someone who knows what he’s about to say before he says it: he improvises.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is an American festival through and through, and thank God they have never made an attempt to sound British. The speeches are delivered throughout with the flat accents of standard American speech; the only two characters who speak otherwise are the very Welsh captain and Richard’s Queen, who has a slight French accent. It takes some getting used to at first. But Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and his language sounds equally rich even in mid-Atlantic or mid-Western tones, especially when it has as strong an emotional coloring as the actors in this production give it.

The OSF productions are also notable for their original music. There is nothing in this one as startling (or as potentially controversial) as the rap music for the play-within-the-play for their production of Hamlet, but it is all effective and well-placed.

You may have gathered from these comments that among all the productions of Richard II I’ve listened to, this one — for all the liberties it takes, even the ones that caused me the greatest dismay — is one of my favorites. You would be correct. It’s one I hope to listen to again, and soon: it’s Shakespeare as pure story-telling power.

The CBC version

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation adapted and abridged Richard II with a vengeance. Their version of the play avoids any confusion about the historical background involving Thomas of Woodstock and the Lords Appellant by simply omitting that part of the the play entirely. In fact, the first three scenes of the play are missing. (The adaptation is credited to someone named Donald Ericsson.) When the CBC production begins, Bullingbrook has already been banished, and Greene (not Aumerle) is telling Richard about his departure. When I began listening to the production, I thought there was a glitch in the download: but no, that’s how the production was designed to work. It takes the idea of beginning in media res to an extreme. Bullingbrook’s very first appearance in the play is the scene where he confronts his uncle, the Duke of York, after his illegal return from banishment.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it does simplify and streamline the action of the play: it boils everything down to Richard vs Bullingbrook, sharpening the contrast between them, and it takes everything else out of the equation. Mowbray is missing; Aumerle is missing; there is nothing in this production about plots against Bullingbrook following his coronation; nor does the new king ask anxiously after his wayward son.

The action moves swiftly and dramatically from a description of Bullingbrook’s departure to Richard’s arrival at Gaunt’s deathbed — a scene that includes the harangue about Richard being the landlord of England rather than its King, but omits the speech where Gaunt broods on the downfall of “this precious stone set in the silver sea… this blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” And it jumps from there to the news that Bullingbrook has landed at Ravenspurgh, and from there to the scene between Bullingbrook and York. Blink once, and Bullingbrook is having Bushy, Greene, and Wiltshire executed for the unforgivable crime of opposing him.

In the course of this rapid movement, a necessary question of the play is left hanging: why was Bullingbrook banished? You won’t find out from this production. Nor will you hear anything about the death of Thomas of Woodstock, about Mowbray, or about the aborted trial by combat at Coventry. It’s all gone. (One small trace of the play’s murderous background remains: preparing to go against Bullingbrook, York says, “I would to God / (So my untruth had not provok’d him to it) / The King had cut off my head with my brother’s.” The line slips by so quickly, it barely registers: but really, for those whose only experience of the play is this production, the question would have to arise: what the hell is he talking about?)

Bullingbrook’s banishment is simply one of the facts on the ground that the play begins with, like the fact that Richard is king and John of Gaunt and the Duke of York are his uncles. We are left with a single example of Richard’s unfitness, his willingness to steal Bullingbrook’s inheritance. Apart from the line quoted above, there is nothing about his willingness to murder his enemies, even when they are members of his own family, and nothing about his capriciousness — organizing the trial by combat, letting all the preparations for it move forward, and then aborting it at the last possible moment — and nothing about his willingness to throw his own minions, like Mowbray, under the bus.

It’s a radical approach, in the medical sense of the term radical. But on its own terms, in the context of this production, it works. Clearly there was no intention here to present a “definitive” or complete version of the play: this is not one you can use to prepare for a discussion of the play. The intention was to create a version that unfolds quickly and goes down smoothly, and it succeeds at that. If you can accept the fact of Bullingbrook’s banishment as a starting point, with no anxious reaching for an explanation of its cause, the rest of the play drives forward with logic and passion.

The production is stripped down in more ways than one. There is no music, not at the beginning, not at the end, not between any of the scenes, and not even when Richard, in prison, complains that the music he is listening to is “madding” him. There are almost no sound effects, although I have to say Richard’s mirror-breaking was one of the more satisfying renditions of that moment in any of these productions.

Even with all the cuts, the production still takes almost two hours. What the cuts have made room for is a clearly-spoken and well-paced delivery of Shakespeare’s language. Richard — played by Peter Haworth, if I heard the spoken credits correctly (as with all of these productions, there are, almost criminally, no written credits) — is especially effective at conveying Richard’s many complex changes of mood. The defeated speech he makes after returning from Ireland is one of the best of any of the ones I’ve listened to. I often find the speech self-indulgent and tedious, but this time I found it moving. Likewise his explosion of violent passion just before his murder. It is a supple and convincing performance.

The BBC Radio version

The BBC Radio version of Richard II tries to sidestep the problem of historical exposition by splitting the scene between John of Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester into two parts. It uses the first part, where the two discuss the murder of Woodstock/Gloucester — and Richard’s role as the prime mover in that crime — as the first scene of the play. They are interrupted by the appearance of Richard, Bullingbrook, Mowbray, and the rest of the court, who act out Bullingbrook’s challenge. So even if some of the details of the historical background are murky — it may still not be clear to most audiences who Woodstock/Gloucester is (or was) — we at least begin with a stronger sense of what a balls-out risk Bullingbrook is taking. He is, after all, openly accusing one of the King’s courtiers of a murder that everyone knows (and that we also know, thanks to the rearrangement of the dialogue) the King himself is responsible for.

After the confrontation, when the stage is cleared, Gaunt and the Duchess come back together to finish their scene. It’s a clever way of solving the expositional problem, and it’s one I would copy if I were ever in a position to direct the play myself. It manages to get the main point across without a single invented line of dialogue. Every word is Shakespeare’s own.

Samuel West gives an authoritative performance as Richard. He is a more commanding presence than Christopher Moore in the OSF production: brainier, more controlled, maybe a little more sinister — at least in the beginning. He doesn’t come across at all as an unstable or bipolar monarch: he was indeed not born to sue, but to command, and he does so with fortitude and determination. To some extent his explosion of violence in his last scene is a return to form rather than a shocking transformation. At the same time, the way he comes apart at the seams is somehow all the more convincing: the bully is exposed as a coward when he realizes his power base has deserted him.

Damian Lewis is a wonderful, menacing Bullingbrook; his murder of the “caterpillars of the commonwealth” is particularly ice cold. Joss Ackland is a gravelly and barking Gaunt who gives the best of all the renditions of “this realm, this England”, and Sophie Okonedo a heartbreaking Queen. Listening to the production, I was convinced the Duchess of York was being played by Eileen Atkins, but it is in fact someone named Margo Lester; so far I haven’t been able to turn up any information about her. It’s an excellent performance. The Duchess of Gloucester, a much smaller role, is played by Janet Suzman.

As in all of their other radio productions, the BBC pulls out all stops in creating a world for listeners to immerse themselves in. The audible “stage business” that accompanies each scene doesn’t always correspond to anything in the dialogue: for example, when Richard and his courtiers gather to gossip about Bullingbrook’s departure, we can hear the clicking of cues and pool balls in the background. You could argue that it helps to characterize Richard and his courtiers as frivolous, but I think the real point is to create a sense of life that goes on outside the action of the play. It’s the same reason the BBC puts Polonius and Ophelia in a horse-drawn carriage that clatters away from the dockside when they leave Laertes, who is heading to France. It has nothing to do with the scene between father and daughter, but it has everything to do with making us believe they are living in a real world.

(Curiously, the BBC Radio production of Much Ado About Nothing also features a game of pool in one of the scenes. Is there a pool table in the basement of the BBC Radio headquarters?)

The original music that always accompanies the BBC productions is also deployed effectively here, providing haunting background themes for Richard’s breakdown on the beach, for his last poignant meeting with his Queen, and for his final scene as a doomed prisoner meditating on his life and whatever future may remain to him. Music is also used to accent certain actions in the play: for example, the breaking of the mirror is highlighted by a quick burst of music, as are the many throwing down of gages, especially in the Aumerle scene — which to some extent only emphasizes how ridiculous and pointless that scene is.

The play is substantially complete, though there are some cuts and rearrangements like the splitting of the Gaunt/Duchess scene described earlier. These are always done in the interests of clarity, though sometimes that “clarity” simply means “avoiding awkward questions raised by confusions in the text.” One example is the scene where Exton comments to his men that Bullingbrook clearly wants Richard dead; they all just heard him say that, right? They agree that they did. The problem is that the sequence of scenes implies that Exton is referring to a meeting between Bullingbrook and his councilors that just occurred, and we know that Bullingbrook said no such thing; we were there. The BBC sidesteps this problem by moving the Exton scene before the meeting with Bullingbrook, so that it appears to refer to another meeting altogether. (As it turns out, that “meeting with the councilors” has been trimmed to the bone as well: the original largely concerns Bullingbrook’s concerns about the wayward Prince Hal, and that discussion has been cut, presumably on the theory that it would be a distraction.)

The net result is a production that is sharp, thoughtful, clear, beautifully acted, intelligently abridged, as professional as they come, and thoroughly enjoyable to listen to. It is once again no substitute for the full play, but at least they didn’t have somebody other than Exton killing Richard. With very few exceptions, if I wanted to go back to one of Shakespeare’s plays for pure entertainment purposes, I would almost always pick a BBC Radio version if one is available. That is certainly true in this case — although if the OSF version had not done such violence to Aumerle’s character, it might be harder to choose between the two of them.

One curious note about this presentation. Richard Eyre introduces most of these recordings with a few brief comments, usually no more than a minute or two. In this case, the text of his introduction closely follows the wording of Jonathan Bates’s RSC Shakespeare introduction. I have to assume that Bate worked with Eyre on the introduction and later reused the material, although he is not credited anywhere here, as far as I can tell. I’m not sure if this is a one-off situation or if it’s true about other plays in the series. I’ll keep my eye out for it.

There’s another oddity that puzzles me: this one is not about the play itself but about the way it’s packaged. These BBC Radio Shakespeare plays were initially sold individually, and they still are; but they were recently repackaged in anthologies, so you can buy a set of Histories, Tragedies, Comedies, and Roman Plays. For some bizarre reason, Richard II and the two Henry IV plays are packaged in the Histories anthology with — of all things on the face of the earth — Pericles, which has not a single ounce of historical material in it anywhere. Pericles would belong, if anywhere, in a Romances anthology, and it’s a shame the most recent BBC packaging doesn’t include a volume of those. Not only that, but the plays are ordered in the anthology in such a way that Richard II appears after the Henry IV plays. That makes no sense in terms of either the historical chronology or their order of composition. I have no idea what they were thinking. It can’t be a simple matter of wanting to fill out the anthology with four plays, and realizing that since they never got around to doing Henry V, they had to stick something in. The Roman Plays anthology only has three plays, and the Comedies anthology has six or seven plays, so the BBC has no problem with “asymmetrical” packaging.

In any case, if they wanted to fill out the Histories anthology with one of the later plays to make a set of four, Cymbeline would have been the logical choice. That at least has some basis in English history, although the history it involves is legendary. (There is a recent BBC Radio production of Cymbeline that might conceivably have been used for this, but it was not part of this series as originally conceived.) Whatever the explanation, the inclusion of Pericles in this anthology is bizarre.

I’m curious as to why the BBC didn’t finish the tetralogy with a rousing production of Henry V. Was it too jingoistic for current tastes? Maybe, on the surface, but I think there’s more to that play than flag-waving nationalism. More about that when I get there. It’s a ways off yet.

The Public Theatre version

This production was a late discovery for me and a complete surprise. “Free Shakespeare on the Radio” was an educational effort, a project undertaken not just to perform Richard II but to explore the play, and to do so in a very specific context: America in 2020, on the verge of an election where one of the candidates was a fascist determined to stay in power even if he had to commit treason to do so. In fact he did commit treason, but fortunately the institutions held together — barely — and he was forced, against his will and the determination of his armed supporters, to relinquish his office to the man who actually won the election.

The production was also staged in the context of unrest related to the Black Lives Matter movement, which at times led to additional loss of life — mostly at the hands of other armed fascists determined to maintain the racist status quo. The production as a whole is in fact dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement — a movement that I strongly endorse and that I support financially. Significant numbers of cast members are men and women of color.

So now you know where I’m coming from. If any of this is a surprise to you, then you haven’t been paying attention to the rest of my blog.

The remarkable thing about this production, a joint effort of WNYC and New York’s Public Theater — released as a podcast and available at no charge through most “podcatchers” — is exactly this educational component. None of these other productions include a discussion of the play or an attempt to assess its relevance to our current situation. And none of them include a discussion of the historical background needed to understand the complex opening of the play, something covered quite effectively here. The commentary on the podcast suggests at one point that you don’t need to know anything about the historical background to appreciate the play. I disagree sharply with this. Fortunately it’s a moot point here, because no other production gives you so many tools for understanding that context.

And one of the greatest and most surprising of those tools is A NARRATOR! Yes! THIS PRODUCTION HAS A NARRATOR‼️

I almost fainted when the play opened and she started speaking… and then spoke again when the gages were thrown down… and then again when they were picked up. Whenever the narrator was needed to clarify anything that was happening — especially for a first-time listener — she was there with a few concise comments to do exactly what needed to be done. (This essential job was carried out calmly and efficiently by Lupita Nyong’o.) There is one surprising exception. In Richard’s prison scene, his murder goes unnarrated, and the audio-only presentation of the action remains as confusing here as in any of the other productions. I find that exception baffling. Granted the scene is written to happen quickly, but a little imagination and experimentation would have revealed a way to integrate narration into the scene effectively.

The production was assembled in the middle of the pandemic, with the actors almost literally phoning in their performances over Zoom. Such is the technical wizardry of the production team that you would never suspect for a second that they were not all standing together in the same studio with identical microphones in front of them and a substantial group of musicians off to the side. The timing is perfect; the delivery is seamless. (The one noticeable exception is Estelle Parsons’ performance as the Duchess of York: there is a tinny quality to her lines in the Aumerle scene that does not blend in smoothly with the surrounding audio.)

Apart from the use of a narrator, the production itself bears some similarities to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival version. It’s a very American version in both accent and general level of energy, and there is quite a bit of cross-gender casting: Bullingbrook is played by the actress Miriam A Hyman (but thankfully without rewriting any of the dialogue: Bullingbrook is still Gaunt’s “son”). No complaints here: Hyman is a powerful presence as Bullingbrook, and this flexibility, which after all requires no more suspension of disbelief than anything else in theater — certainly no more than the practice of boys playing women in Shakespeare’s own day — gives the actress a chance to do something few female roles in Shakespeare would give her an opportunity to do: kick ass and take names.

The same kind of freedom is also exercised in adapting the language in the interests of immediate comprehension. For example, when Mowbray protests the severity of his sentence, Richard tells him — in the original — “it boots thee not to be compassionate.” This of course uses an older meaning of the phrase: to “be compassionate” was to “piteously lament,” as the RSC Shakespeare glosses it. The Public Theatre production avoids any confusion over this unfamiliar meaning by rendering the line: “it boots thee not to be so passionate.” That kind of thing doesn’t bother me if it’s kept to a minimum (and if it doesn’t affect some of the more familiar lines).

And the Public Theater shares with OSF a freedom in the use of sound effects designed to help a modern audience identify more rapidly with the onstage circumstances. As in the OSF production, the dying John of Gaunt is hooked up to a heart monitor that beeps quietly in the background throughout his scene — until he dies, when it obtrusively flatlines. Again, no real problems with any of that here. It may help the audience, and even more than that, it may help the actors in their struggle to create an emotional reality.

That scene with Gaunt, by the way, points up the liberties taken by the production in adjusting dialogue to fit the mise-en-scene envisioned by the director. Gaunt, being hooked up to a monitor, is naturally enough lying in a hospital bed (which we hear rattling) and attended by a nurse. He collapses in a fit of coughing, but he doesn’t walk offstage, and Northumberland doesn’t return with the news that he is dead. Instead, Gaunt coughs, gags, and goes silent; the monitor flatlines; someone frantically calls for the nurse; footsteps rush about; and then the nurse quietly intones: “No pulse. No warmth. No breath” — and switches off the monitor. At that point Richard picks up with his “eulogy”: “The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he.” While I regret the “additional dialogue by Samuel Goldwyn” nature of some of these changes, they are at least consistent with the staging and the situation.

Other changes include adding or modifying names to simplify the references or compensate for the absence of visuals. As has been done elsewhere, occurrences of the title “Hereford” are typically altered to “Bullingbrook”; otherwise first-time listeners are likely to think two different people are being referred to. And people being addressed are sometimes named, even though they are not called out in the original text. In an audio production, it makes sense to do this from time to time. On stage it would be obvious who is being addressed, but with only the audio to go on, it would in some cases be impossible to know that unless the name is added to the text. This is something Arkangel does as well, but it is done much more frequently here.

The technique is sometimes used even when the situation doesn’t require it. For example, in the scene in the garden where York dithers about his resources, he asks a number of generic questions: “Are there no posts dispatched for Ireland? How shall we do for money for these wars?” In this production, these questions are directed specifically in turn to Bushy, Bagot, or Greene: “Bushy, are there no posts dispatched for Ireland? Bagot, Greene, how shall we do for money for these wars?” I think the idea here is simply to remind the audience that these other characters are still present in the scene. That would be obvious in a stage production, but in an audio production that fact might slip out of the audience’s awareness.

Purists may object. Not me. Audio-only adaptations of plays that were not written with audio-only productions in mind are a special case. They need to do things to compensate for the absence of visual cues. And in any case, nothing in any of these changes rises to the egregious level of OSF’s substitution of Aumerle for Exton as Richard’s executioner. Spoiler alert: this Public Theater production retains the role of Exton.

The discussion of the political context might lead you to think the extensive commentary in the podcast is heavily weighted toward those themes. And the political themes are certainly a big part of the discussion: there is much talk about the significance of hearing so many Black and Brown voices interacting with Shakespeare’s text. But even more than that, there is a great deal of fascinating talk about the significance of actors interacting with Shakespeare’s text: how they reacted to his language, what it did to them, how it challenged them, how it helped them grow. The scholars Ayanna Thompson and James Shapiro add additional value to the discussion.

André Holland’s Richard seems older and more in control of himself than in many of these productions. But his rapid disintegration in the “stripping away” scene on the beach is powerful. He begins the scene on a high note of optimism, and his kissing of the earth is surprisingly affectionate. To me, Miriam Hyman’s Bullingbrook was the big surprise: an outsized, dynamic performance, she plays someone you can easily imagine deciding on the spur of the moment: the hell with it, I am going to take the crown; Richard has no business being King, and I dare anyone to try and stop me. Her comments about the role, and about her responses to Shakespeare’s language, are especially compelling. She talks about the meaning of the word “banished” to her as an African American woman, cut off in so many ways from her rightful estate: it’s an aspect of the language that I had never considered.

Financial Considerations

While it has nothing to do with the relative quality of the performances, I feel the need to say a few words about money: how much do these different productions cost?

The Public Theater offering is free, and as such it’s an almost absurdly extravagant value. You get a dynamic performance and an extensive commentary on the play that touches on both the historical background and its contemporary political relevance. The commentary includes insights from two prominent American Shakespeare scholars. If you’re an American who is new to Shakespeare or new to the play, this could be a wonderful place to begin your involvement with the play. From the standpoint of my own project, the main drawback is that only Richard II was given this treatment.

The cost of the other productions is best considered in terms of audiobook credits. Most audiobook distributors sell their wares through monthly memberships that cost $10-12 USD per credit, and most of them charge one credit per audiobook. You can get the Argo, Caedmon, CBC, OSF, Arkangel, and BBC productions for one credit each from most of the major audiobook vendors.

Two of them are also available as part of packaged offerings. The BBC Radio production, as noted, is part of the Histories package of Shakespeare plays, available for a single credit; so is the Argo production. The difference is that the Argo Histories package includes all 10 of Shakespeare’s history plays; the BBC package includes only 3, plus one oddly out-of-place romance. If you were looking to build your collection, it would make sense to begin with one of these anthologies rather than with the individual plays.

But before you buy the Argo Histories anthology, consider this. They have another ace up their sleeve. Alone among the producers under discussion, Argo offers an audiobook package that includes all of Shakespeare’s plays — the Complete Works — in one 98-hour download, available — from Audible, at least — for a single credit. While you can find better productions of the individual plays, you will never find a better overall value anywhere. For the sake of comparison, to collect all of the Arkangel recordings you would need to use 38 credits, or somewhere between $300-500 USD — and even then, you wouldn’t have the Sonnets, which are included in the Argo package.

I realize that’s a hopelessly mercenary way of looking at the situation. But it needs to be said, because — if you’re looking to make an investment in this kind of programming — everything I’ve said about the relative merit of the performances needs to be weighed against those financial considerations. Don’t start buying the recordings impulsively. Which ones do you want, what do you want them for, and how much are you able and willing to spend on them?

The real world is always ready to make itself felt.


What’s the “verdict”? Well, to start off with, that’s the wrong word: this isn’t a trial, nor is it an awards ceremony. That being said, my own feelings should be clear. If you want a straightforward presentation of the play uncomplicated by historical exposition, the CBC version is an attractive option; just be aware that you’ll never pass an exam about the play if this was your only experience with it. For pure entertainment purposes, your best bet is either the BBC Radio version or the one from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Of the two, the OSF has the edge in terms of sheer energy, but it does more violence to the text. If you want an American take on the play, your choices are OSF and the Public Theater version. The Public Theater version is the better all-around choice, but it requires a greater investment of time: with the supplementary discussion, it takes about four hours to get through. If you want a masterful presentation of the complete play in a respectably-edited text, get the Arkangel. If you want a good, sturdy, and economical reading of the play, especially one to use in conjunction with the text, get the Argo. And if you’re a John Gielgud completist, get the Caedmon.

That basic configuration is unlikely to change for any of the other plays in the tetralogy, depending (of course) on which plays are available from any given source. In my experience, the Arkangel is almost always going to have the most compelling production of the unabridged text. The BBC and the OSF may compete for the entertainment ticket, but there are far more titles available from the BBC.

Richard II is an austere play, written entirely in verse, much of it rhymed, and entirely devoid of humor. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast with the next play in the tetralogy, Henry IV Part 1. I believe — and if memory serves, this will turn out to be the case — the BBC will come out ahead in entertainment value there as well, and Arkangel will come out ahead in production values for the complete text. But everything depends on Falstaff, and all of them have giants of the craft in hand for the job: Timothy West plays Falstaff for the BBC, Richard Griffiths for Arkangel, and Anthony Quayle for Caedmon. As usual, I have no idea who plays the role in the Argo production. There is also a two-hour LA TheatreWorks production of a conflated Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, performed in front of a live audience — one of the things that distinguishes the LATW productions and makes them such a joy to listen to; and that one has the additional attraction of having as one of the adapters David Bevington, one of the my Shakespeare scholar-heroes. I’m looking forward to the assignment. I’ve said for years that Henry IV Part 1 is the Shakespeare play to watch for people who don’t like Shakespeare.

And I would say “once more into the breach,” but… well, it’s been done.

Richard II: why it’s taking so long

I said I wanted to read the second tetralogy, listen to some audio versions of the plays, and write about them. Ever since then, I’ve been working on Richard II. Why is it taking so long?

One reason is that I’m an undisciplined scatterbrain. I typically start a dozen books before I finish one, and so it takes me forever to finish anything. But in this case it’s partly because of the volume of resources available.

My original plan included the Argo Shakespeare, the Arkangel Shakespeare, and the BBC Radio Shakespeare. Fair enough; but why rule out others, if others are available? And glancing around the web site of the nameless corporation that rules the audiobook world, I found that there were three other (possibly) interesting variations on the theme, one of which I already owned, and another one part of a series I’ve enjoyed in the past. So… why not? They’re not part of a Complete Works set, but neither is the BBC Radio version.

The one I owned was the Caedmon Shakespeare recording of Richard II, with John Gielgud as the King. Apparently Leo McKern and Edward Hardwicke are also in the cast, although I haven’t been able to find out what roles they play. The one that was part of a series I’ve enjoyed in the past is the Oregon Shakespeare version: they’ve taken a number of their actual stage productions and adapted them to full-on radio plays. The Oregon festival often turns a refreshingly blind eye to race and gender in casting, and they also often have quite interesting music. So… yeah. And the third one was a little number from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, severely abridged in places but well-performed. So I decided to put that one in too.

And then, just when I was ready to close the books and get down to work, I discovered that the Public Theatre — Joseph Papp’s old organization — started a podcast a couple of years ago called Shakespeare for Free — and that the one play they actually released was… Richard II. It was originally going to be produced in 2020 as part of the Shakespeare in the Park series, but the Covid pandemic shut that down; so they did it on the Internet as a radio play instead, in four episodes, with scholars like James Shapiro to guide the discussion. I hadn’t thought about Richard II in connection with the traitor Donald Trump, but it makes sense.

Why not just blog about them serially? Because I’m finding that each new recording yields insights into the ones before it, as well as into the play itself, and I didn’t want to keep backtracking and correcting or expanding on what I’d written before. So I’m going to take my time and post a longer essay that includes at least a few comments about all of them.

As expected, the Arkangel with Rupert Graves remains my preferred workhorse. But that’s anticipating. It will have to wait its turn on the carousel.

The good news is that I’m enjoying the play a lot more than I remembered. It’s an austere play, all of it in verse, much of it rhymed, and with very little humor (unless you count the ridiculous scenes involving Aumerle as intentional jokes). But Richard is a deeply affecting character, and Bullingbrook is by no means the monolith that he appears to be at first glance.

RSC Shakespeare, 2nd Edition: the ebook version

I now have the ebook version of the second RSC Shakespeare, and I have to say I think they did a very nice job of it. Some of the formatting problems that plagued the electronic version of the first edition have been resolved. As one example, in the Kindle version of the first edition, the line numbers sometimes overprinted the text; that is no longer the case.

It’s also significantly cheaper than the print edition.

From the standpoint of usability, all of the notes — both the glosses and the new “staging notes” that draw on specific RSC productions — have been put into popup windows, similar to those in the online Norton Shakespeare. It’s amazing how much easier it is to read the play when you don’t have to go bouncing back and forth between page-with-text and page-with-notes.

The one distracting aspect of the text is that each word or phrase with a gloss is given its own superscripted and bracketed footnote number. This means the text is peppered with added links, sometimes two or three per line. You can’t have everything. I’d rather have it this way than the way it was in the previous edition, where each line with a gloss was given a single superscripted number, and you had to flip back and forth between pages and guess which word on the line was the one with the gloss.

The text is not in PDF format. You can change the typeface and font size. You can opt for full- or left-justified text. It adapts well to larger screens (like my tablet) and smaller screens (like my phone): this is not the case with other etext Shakespeares like the Norton and the New Oxford.

So I can whip my phone out of my shirt pocket anywhere, since I always have it with me, and immerse myself in a carefully edited and annotated (and readable) text of any one of the plays or poems. I may not agree with all the principles used in the editing, but it’s worlds beyond the public domain texts that are the ones most commonly available in one-volume Complete Works.

Given the specialized nature of the text, I’m still not sure this qualifies as a “general reader’s Shakespeare,” but it certainly comes closer to suiting my purposes.

The second tetralogy: a project

Writing about the RSC Shakespeare got me interested in the Henry IV plays again, and that planted the seed of an idea for a somewhat larger project.

What I’m going to try to do is this: re-read the plays in the second tetralogy — Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V — and compare a set of audio plays based on them. There are two complete series, one by the Marlowe Dramatic Society, an old collection recently republished by Argo Classics; and of course the Arkangel Shakespeare; and the BBC Radio Shakespeare, which is missing Henry V, an omission that I propose piecing out with the production of that play from Naxos. (That has the interesting advantage of having Simon West playing Henry V, who also plays Richard II in the BBC production.)

There are, of course, lots of other adaptations that could be included. Why not bring in The Hollow Crown? I never did finish watching that, and this would be a perfect opportunity. But if I do that, why not also include the older Age of Kings series, which is also sitting there on my to-do list? Or the Branagh or Olivier films? Or the old BBC television adaptations? Or the Caedmon recordings? (I may in fact bring those in, although I’ve only been able to track down the first two plays in the tetralogy from that wonderful series.)

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that while I can read anything, I can’t read everything. I have to draw the line somewhere. As much as I love movies and television, I’m an audio hound at heart, so I think I’m going to stick with that.

RSC Shakespeare, Second Edition

Most of my blog entries are records of me thinking out loud. This one is even more so. Reading over it, I find myself going back and forth a lot more than I realized — and in the end not coming to as convincing a conclusion as I’d hoped.

Maybe my basic premise is wrong. My basic premise is that the world needs a good, well-annotated one-volume edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare. There’s something about me that’s drawn to vast collections of knowledge compressed into single volumes. When I was in high school, one of my favorite books was The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia: it was published in one obscenely thick paperback, with thousands of short but extensively and ingeniously cross-referenced articles. One of my favorite hobbies still is reading one-volume histories of the world (or literature, or philosophy, or whatever).

In the one-volume Shakespeare world, my current favorites are the Norton Shakespeare and the RSC Shakespeare. The RSC just came out with a second edition — literally just came out with it — and originally this post was going to be about how it was different from the first edition and what, in general, makes the RSC Shakespeare unique. But being the rascally comparative knave that I am, I kept dragging the Norton into it, and then it became a contest to see which of the two was “best.” And the problem, of course is: best for what? and best for who?

There are, of course, many other one-volume Shakespeares to choose from. The most recent ones I’m familiar with are the New Oxford Shakespeare and the Complete Pelican Shakespeare, both of which have unique and useful features. The Pelican especially appeals to me: the slim Pelican single-play paperbacks were my favorites back when I was reading all of Shakespeare on the subway back in the day. The notes are concise and are conveniently keyed to the line numbers. The print in the one-volume edition is a bit small, but it’s still quite legible, and while the volume is large, it’s nowhere near as unwieldy as many of the others — the RSC, for example, has to be read sitting at a table. The New Oxford has stirred some controversy, although I think the controversy is more directed at the volume on authorship and collaboration than at the one-volume collection of modernized texts. That volume of texts has been richly annotated in the margins with suggestions about different ways the scenes can be played — a feature that bears comparison to a feature of the RSC Shakespeare, to be discussed shortly. Lack of a strong orientation toward the theater is one of the main weaknesses of the Pelican.

(I wonder if the Folger Library will ever get around to publishing a one-volume Shakespeare? I love the careful, balanced approach of the Folger text, but the notes would have to be severely abridged for a one-volume text, and they would probably declare that to be contrary to their mission.)

I may get around to those others eventually. For this particular blog entry, I’m sticking mostly to the RSC and the Norton.

I have friends who swear by the Arden and think the whole quest for a one-volume Shakespeare is an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. But for whatever reason, I’ve never really warmed to the multi-volume Arden, or the Oxford, or the New Cambridge series: the introductions are enlightening, extensive, and glorious — scholarship to revel in, to get lost in for hours at a time — but I sometimes find the notes suffocating rather than stimulating. I realize that by making this confession I am permanently relegating myself to amateur status in the Shakespeare world. But I was there anyway. Given a choice, I’d rather read all of Shakespeare one more time than read anyone’s critical analysis of his work. And yes, the irony of making that statement in a blog devoted to an analysis of Shakespeare does not escape me. I prefer to think of this blog as a celebration of Shakespeare anyway.

But back to the topic that inspired this post in the first place: one-volume editions of the Complete Works in general, and the second edition of the RSC Shakespeare in particular.

I have always liked the idea of the RSC Shakespeare more than I liked the execution of it. As a sometime playwright myself — I have an MFA in playwriting, my sole qualification for having anything resembling a professional opinion about theater — I’ve always believed that Shakespeare revised his plays, that revision is as likely to account for the differences between texts as anything else, and that the texts in the Folio probably represent his “last word” on several of the plays. For plays like Hamlet and King Lear, I find the cuts in the Folio text to be (with a handful of exceptions) well-considered, and it’s quite credible to me that they are cuts made by Shakespeare himself in response to theatrical experience and feedback. (“Yo, Will! That speech ‘How all occasions do inform against me’? Man, does that slow things down. If you’re gonna keep that new bit about the little eyases, man, something’s gotta give.”)

So the idea of having a one-volume edition of Shakespeare’s plays based on the Folio appeals to me. I also love having Jonathan Bates’s introductions. They are always clear and engaging and cover most of the essential points in just a few pages.

The drawback to a Folio-based edition is that sometimes the Quarto texts are manifestly superior. One place where this is indisputable — even Bates and Eric Rasmussen, the textual editor for the RSC, acknowledge this — is in the presence of oaths in the text. Shakespeare’s dialogue is peppered with exclamations like “Sblood!” and “Ods bodikins!”; yet because of the 1606 “Act to Restrain the Abuses of Players”, most if not all of these were removed from the plays before the Folio was printed. Some of the most famous lines come across in their Folio versions as pallid imitations of the original.

In the first edition of the RSC Shakespeare, the omission of the oaths is mentioned but allowed to stand. Even the one-volume editions of the plays, with a much more extensive critical apparatus, make no effort to correct or enhance the Folio text in this respect. The second edition makes a concession that partly addresses the problem, although in an indirect way. The major difference between the first and second editions is that the second edition includes thousands of marginal notes about performance choices that were made in specific RSC productions of the plays. This gives the editors a chance to say things like, “In production P1 the RSC used the oath from the Quarto here, so in that production the line actually read thus-and-so.” (This has the side benefit of making the one-volume edition absolutely and for all time the RSC Shakespeare. The single-play paperbacks were already unmistakably RSC “property” by virtue of their extensive interviews and essays drawing on RSC productions, material not included in the one-volume text for reasons of length. The marginal notes pull some of that knowledge back into the “parent” volume.)

These marginal notes provide concrete suggestions about ways to visualize the action based on ways the play has actually been staged. They also indicate useful ways the text has been cut in performance, in many cases simplifying and clarifying the flow of the dialogue. It’s easy to get lost in these notes, especially for someone as compulsive as me — see my comment about the Arden notes above — but they are marginal, and printed in a small enough font to be disregarded if you prefer to do so. (My one complaint about this is that the font for the marginal notes is so small that I find them hard to read at times. I am, after all, dangerously close to septuagenarian status.) One reason my tolerance for notes like these is greater than for the kinds of notes filling the Arden is that (a) they’re about performances, and (b) they’re about performances that actually happened, not speculations about how somebody might stage a scene.

This helps address some of the deficiencies of the RSC editorial methods, but it’s not perfect. I’m not going to do a detailed review of the whole edition; I’m not competent to do that anyway. But I am going to go through one of my favorite scenes, the second scene of Henry IV Part 1, and show how the new edition handles — or doesn’t handle — some of the dramatic rhythms and cruxes of this scene. As a kind of control text, I’ll compare it at key points to the text of the Norton Shakespeare, 3rd Edition. The Norton text for this play, like almost every other modern edition, is based on the Quarto rather than the Folio.

So, here goes: THE FIRST PART OF HENRY THE FOURTH, with the Life and Death of Henry surnamed Hotspur: Act 1 Scene 2.

Enter Henry, Prince of Wales, and Sir John Falstaff.

As promised in the general introduction, editorial stage directions are kept to a minimum. In fact there are only three: one to mark the entrance of Poins; one to mark Falstaff’s exit; and one at the very end to mark Hal’s exit.

Here’s one oddity that deserves comment: for some reason, the editors placed Poins’s entrance three lines after Falstaff has started speaking to him. This makes it seem that when Falstaff cries out “Poins!”, he is not greeting him but calling for him to come in. Maybe that’s what the editors were trying to suggest — but it makes no sense to set it up that way, since there has been no prior indication that Poins has been waiting in the wings. (Not only that; see the note about the Quarto below.)

Despite the paucity of editorial stage directions, the RSC Shakespeare includes dozens of marginal notes describing how the scene was actually staged in two notable RSC productions: one in 2007 directed by Richard Twyman and one in 2014 directed by Gregory Doran. The latter production featured Antony Sher as Falstaff.

Most of the notes from the 2007 production describe cuts made in the text. For example, in 2007 this whole passage was omitted:

And is not my hostess of the tavern a most sweet wench?

As the honey of Hybla, my old lad of the castle. And is not a buff jerkin a most sweet robe of durance?

How now, how now, mad wag? What, in thy quips and thy quiddities? What a plague have I to do with a buff jerkin?

Why, what a pox have I to do with my hostess of the tavern?

Well, thou hast call’d her to a reck’ning many a time and oft.

Did I ever call for thee to pay thy part?

No, I’ll give thee thy due, thou hast paid all there.

Yea, and elsewhere, so far as my coin would stretch, and where it would not, I have used my credit.

Yea, and so used it that were it not here apparent that thou art heir apparent —

I can understand the thinking that these lines would baffle a modern audience and slow the scene down. But the completist part of my brain regrets their omission all the same.

As a result of the cuts, the 2007 scene would have gone like this:

Thou say’st well, and it holds well too, for the fortune of us that are the moon’s men doth ebb and flow like the sea, being governed, as the sea is, by the moon. As, for proof, now: a purse of gold most resolutely snatched on Monday night and most dissolutely spent on Tuesday morning; got with swearing ‘Lay by’ and spent with crying ‘Bring in’, now in as low an ebb as the foot of the ladder and by and by in as high a flow as the ridge of the gallows.

Thou say'st true, lad. [...] I prithee, sweet wag, shall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king? And resolution thus fobbed as it is with the rusty curb of old father antic the law? Do not thou, when thou art a king, hang a thief.

I find this fascinating.

The 2014 production cut less from this passage, omitting only these lines:

As the honey of Hybla, my old lad of the castle. And is not a buff jerkin a most sweet robe of durance?

How now, how now, mad wag? What, in thy quips and thy quiddities? What a plague have I to do with a buff jerkin?

So in 2014, the exchange would have gone thus:

Thou say’st well, and it holds well too, for the fortune of us that are the moon’s men doth ebb and flow like the sea, being governed, as the sea is, by the moon. As, for proof, now: a purse of gold most resolutely snatched on Monday night and most dissolutely spent on Tuesday morning; got with swearing ‘Lay by’ and spent with crying ‘Bring in’, now in as low an ebb as the foot of the ladder and by and by in as high a flow as the ridge of the gallows.

Thou say'st true, lad. And is not my hostess of the tavern a most sweet wench?


Why, what a pox have I to do with my hostess of the tavern?

Well, thou hast call’d her to a reck’ning many a time and oft.

Did I ever call for thee to pay thy part?

No, I’ll give thee thy due, thou hast paid all there.

Yea, and elsewhere, so far as my coin would stretch, and where it would not, I have used my credit.

Yea, and so used it that were it not here apparent that thou art heir apparent — but I prithee, sweet wag, shall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king? And resolution thus fobbed as it is with the rusty curb of old father antic the law? Do not thou, when thou art a king, hang a thief.

Both productions restored the oaths from the Quarto, and those changes are noted in the marginal notes. So we are informed that instead of “No, not so much as will serve to be prologue to an egg and butter,” both productions gave the line as “No, by my troth, not so much as will serve to be prologue to an egg and butter.” (I have to admit that it’s hard for me to understand how that could have been offensive even in 1606.) When Falstaff cries “Where thou wilt, lad, I’ll make one,” both productions used the Quarto’s version of the line: “Zounds, where thou wilt, lad, I’ll make one.”

As I said earlier, this helps to counter the editorial decision to stick rigidly to the Folio text even in situations where that text was obviously censored. It was a bad decision, really to my way of thinking indefensible, especially in a one-volume edition aimed at general readers. The Folio text is emended in thousands of places in the RSC Shakespeare (see the comments about Hamlet further down for one of the more surprising examples); why not emend it when the text was obviously and explicitly censored? This leads the editors into howlingly bad decisions. For example, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the character Ford disguises himself as a man named Brooke, and a number of puns are based on the name. A powerful family found this comic use of their name offensive, and when the Folio was printed, the name was changed to Broom — making a hash of the puns. The RSC editors acknowledge that this was blatant censorship and suggest that in performance the original name Brooke should be used, because otherwise none of the puns work. But so rigidly do they adhere to their “principles” that they retain the Folio’s “Broom” in their text. I put “principles” in quotes because this isn’t really an example of sticking to principles; it’s an example of stupidity.

Even on its own terms, this use of production notes to supplement and “correct” the text falls short. The first scene between Falstaff and Prince Hal gives a glaring example. The RSC text follows the Folio:

An old lord of the council rated me the other day in the street about you, sir, but I marked him not, and yet he talk’d very wisely, but I regarded him not. And yet he talked very wisely, but I regarded him not; and yet he talked wisely, and in the street too.

Thou didst well, for no man regards it.

If this was the only version of the exchange you were familiar with, you might not notice anything unusual about it. They are clearly riffing on a passage from the Book of Proverbs, and both men contribute their widow’s mite to the jest. But in this case the marginal note in the RSC actually confuses things. It indicates that the 2014 production followed the Quarto here, “giving Prince Henry the longer, clearer jest.” But what is that longer, clearer jest? The note doesn’t say; nor do the glosses at the bottom of the page. The only way to resolve it is to look up the text in another edition, one that follows the Quarto text, as the Norton Shakespeare does.

An old lord of the Council rated me the other day in the street about you, sir, but I mark’d him not, and yet he talk’d very wisely, but I regarded him not, and yet he talk’d wisely, and in the street too.

Thou didst well, for wisdom cries out in the streets, and no man regards it. 

This more clearly echoes the scriptural passage and also gives Hal the punch line, which is consistent with his character: in most of the exchanges between the two men, Hal is usually the one who gets to slip the knife into Falstaff’s ribs at the end. In the Folio version of the text, the effect is dissipated. Let’s be clear about what I’m saying. I’m not suggesting that this is an example where the editors should have modified the text. I’m saying that their marginal notes should have been fuller: they should have quoted enough of the Quarto exchange to make it clear what the “longer, clearer jest” was. Why they didn’t do so is a puzzle. There is plenty of space on the page to do so: the right-hand margin is drowning in white space at that point in the text.

So: marginal notes: oaths and cuts. But the marginal notes serve another important purpose, which is to help the reader visualize the action by documenting the stage business from specific productions. Here’s how the opening business of this particular scene is described:

In P2 [the 2014 production], the scene began with Prince Henry in flagrante delicto with two prostitutes; after they left, Falstaff emerged from beneath the coverlet. 

This is a delightfully specific bit of action. A similar touch appears at the end, just before Hal announces his Machiavellian intentions.

In P2, jolly tavern music swelled as Poins exited, then stopped abruptly for Prince Henry’s soliloquy. 

I love being told not how something might be done but how it actually was done in a particular production.

And what about the glosses at the bottom of the page? The RSC Shakespeare advertised its first edition as being especially uninhibited. I don’t know that it was really any more ribald in its glosses than other recent editions, but it rarely misses an opportunity to point out double entendres. So we’re told here, in glosses on the line “As is the honey of Hybla, my old lad of the castle. And is not a buff jerkin a most sweet robe of durance?”:

carouser (plays on ‘Oldcastle’, Shakespeare’s original name for Falstaff; castle may play on the sense of ‘stocks’, instruments of public punishment in which a thief might be confined; a London brothel called The Castle may also be alluded to, appropriately named given that castle was slang for ‘vagina’)

buff jerkin: 
tight leather jacket worn by sheriff’s officers (plays on the sense of ’naked vagina’)

I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of the association of either word — “castle” or “jerkin” — with “vagina.” And part of me still isn’t.

My biggest complaint about the glosses in the RSC isn’t their fullness (or lack thereof) or their content but the fact that they are, in the old, traditional, useless way, printed at the bottom of the page with nothing to help you zero in on which line contains the word being glossed. To look up the meaning of something, you have to dart your eyes back and forth between the text and notes, looking for the nearest multiple of 5 and counting up or down from there. I’m looking forward to the electronic version, which should be available next month: in the electronic version of the first edition, hyperlinks in the text designated which lines had notes, so that even though you still had to tap on the link, read the note, and tap again to link back to the text, at least you knew when to go looking.

How does all this compare with the Norton text? I’ll leave aside a detailed comparison of the notes. Other editions — even the young-adult-oriented Folger Library Shakespeare — have much longer and more detailed notations, but nobody formats notes better than Norton. Single words are glossed with superscripted bullets in the margins, and longer notes are keyed to the text with actual numbered footnotes. (What a concept! Actual numbered footnotes! Who came up with that idea?) The Digital Edition is even better. Words and passages with glosses and notes are very lightly underlined; tapping on them opens a popup window with the explanatory text, and tapping back in the text closes the popup window. Go thou and do likewise — unless Norton has patented that approach, I guess.

Thus the notes. Let’s talk about the text itself.

To begin with, being an edited presentation of the Quarto text, the Norton includes all the oaths in their proper place, and the banter between Falstaff and Hal about Wisdom has the expected structure — with Falstaff setting up the joke and Hal delivering the punchline. This is important from a dramatic standpoint, in my opinion, for reasons stated above.

It appears the stage directions in the Quarto were fuller. The editors of the Norton have supplied only one additional direction, Falstaff’s exit. Poins makes his entrance at the expected place, before Falstaff begins addressing him: this is exactly where the Quarto puts it. This makes the placement of the editorial direction in the RSC text even more bizarre. Are they so biased against using the Quarto to correct the Folio that they couldn’t even do this much?

While there are no references to specific productions in the printed version of the Norton, it does try to highlight some of the performance choices available in a number of “Performance Comments” that appear at the bottom of the page. These comments invariably conclude by referring the reader to the Digital Edition for more information — and the Digital Edition constitutes the Norton Shakespeare’s superpower. (I regret the fact that it requires a computer and an internet connection, because even though this is 2022 as I write this, not everybody can afford that kind of access, not even everyone who can afford to purchase the printed volume. But I’m not sure what else the publishers could have done to make such a wealth of information available, and lavish kudos to them for making the Digital Edition available to everyone who does purchase the print edition at no extra charge.) The Digital performance comments are far more detailed than the skimpy ones that appear in print, and they are only one of the many valuable resources available at the site. (Those resources usually include, though for some reason not for this particular play, edited versions of both Quarto and Folio texts where both are available, and also page-by-page facsimiles of the original printed texts when they are available.)

Let’s take a look at the printed Performance Comments first. In the case of this scene, there are two of them. One at the beginning echoes the marginal note in the RSC Shakespeare.

This scene frequently begins with stage business suggesting one or both characters waking up from a night of hard drinking. Their ensuing banter can be hostile or lighthearted depending on how the production stages their relationship.

The other performance comment, preceding Hal’s soliloquy at the end of the scene, puzzles me.

This speech has often made the Prince seem cold and calculating. It can, however, be played as a hastily composed self-justification for Hal’s continued presence in the tavern. 

Made the Prince seem to be cold and calculating? What are they smoking? ’Twere to consider too curiously to consider thus. Shakespeare is clearly intending to show Hal as a Machiavel par excellence here: Hal announces exactly what he’s going to do in this first scene, and that’s exactly what he does do. His cold, cynical behavior is of a piece from first to last throughout both parts of Henry IV.

I am not a fan of Prince Hal. Did you notice?

On to the Digital Edition. One of the first things to notice about the fuller online notes is that they do sometimes refer to specific productions. For example, the first performance comment goes on to say in its digital form:

Dominic Dromgoole’s 2010 production at Shakespeare’s Globe began the scene by having a prostitute emerge from a trapdoor, followed by Hal (Jamie Parker) with his pants around his ankles. The staging thus made clear that Hal had no reasonable claim to moral superiority, and so the two partners in debauchery seemed to trade barbs with impunity while setting a convivial tone for their exchanges to come.

And this follows a discussion of the opening that is already considerably more detailed than the very brief note in the printed text:

Productions frequently indicate that one or both awaken from a hard night of drinking, so whether Hal wakes a late-sleeping Falstaff or Falstaff wakes him can argue that Hal’s jibes come from a place of comparative innocence or from a desire to excuse his own guilt by implicating his friend. In either case, the actor must decide whether to enhance or temper the aggression that characterizes Hal’s early speeches, in keeping with the degree of respect or intimacy the production aims to establish between them.

The fuller discussion in the Digital Edition also clarifies what was meant by the somewhat confusing note about Hal’s soliloquy at the end of the scene. It does this by once again describing Jamie Parker’s performance.

In the Globe’s production (2010) Jamie Parker used direct address and comic exaggeration to ironize or undercut anything likely to give offense, the speech then playing as a clever attempt to explain away Hal’s degeneracy. By the final couplet, Parker seemed delighted by the idea that he had a plan after all, and the audience had little reason to take his intentions to abandon his friends seriously. In this case, softening the soliloquy also served to heighten the surprise and pain of Hal’s treatment of Falstaff later in the play, particularly when Hal became suddenly earnest in his criticism during the role-playing scene at the tavern (2.4).

I’m tempted to say that in many ways, the Norton one-volume Shakespeare — a tip of the iceberg that represents the vast universe of the Digital Edition — is a more satisfying edition. And for the general reader, that’s probably true. There are just too many odd decisions that follow from the RSC’s decision to stick to the Folio text even when it is manifestly wrong. And when all else fails, the Norton blows the bloody doors off the formatting of notes.

But what about those theatrical cuts? Going with Norton would would mean giving up an enormous amount of information contained in the new RSC about how the text has been cut in performance, and frankly I find that an exciting and useful addition to the text. As with the descriptions of action, it helps me visualize the play in motion. It makes the process of reading the play an iterative, interactive one.

But I can’t leave off this discussion without talking about the first scene of the play, and especially about the ghostly figure of Sir Walter Blunt. In some ways this shows the RSC Shakespeare to even better advantage than the second scene.

Let’s begin with King Henry’s opening speech. He appears to be addressing a formal council, gathered to discuss his plans for a Crusade. The plans for the Crusade have to be put on hold because of domestic disturbances. But he begins the scene on a high note.

So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant,
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenced in strands afar remote.
No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood.
No more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flow’rets with the armèd hoofs
Of hostile paces.

Why? Because I’m about to launch a Crusade against the infidels in the Holy Land, that’s why.

(The marginal notes in the RSC tell us that in the 2007 production, “Henry IV stood alone, washing his hands, and spoke” the first line; “then others entered on a light change, and he continued speaking.” In 2014, “he crowned himself while the ghost of Richard II watched from above.”)

There’s something really odd about this scene. Henry’s motivation has always puzzled me. His ostensible reason for this meeting is to find out how the plans for the Crusade are progressing, something that had just been discussed at a previous meeting at which he was not present.

He is about to find out, from Westmorland, that not much progress was made. News was received that the English army suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the Welsh, and Henry interjects that the news must have caused the discussion about the Crusade to be suspended. Westmorland says yes, it did, especially because there was news about another battle as well, this one at Holmedon in the North: the Scots have risen in revolt. Henry lets Westmorland give his whole shpiel about this second battle, even though — as far as we can tell from the text — he already knows more about it than Westmorland. What the hell is he playing at? Why doesn’t he say yeah, yeah, I know all about that one? For that matter, why doesn’t he start off the meeting by saying: I know we were supposed to talk about the Crusade, but I’ve just heard some news that you may or may not know about yet.

He knows about the outcome of the Battle of Holmedon because Sir Walter Blunt has just arrived at court with a full report of the engagement. When Westmorland indicates that he knows the battle occurred but doesn’t know how it ended, Henry reveals the news about the English victory that he learned from Blunt.

I’m about to embarrass myself. I’ve reviewed the notes in the Arden and several other editions, and I realize that a lot of editors, maybe even most of them, disagree with what I’m about to say. But I’d be curious how many of them have actually directed the play for the general public.

This is what Shakespeare gives us, according to the RSC.

On Holy Rood day, the gallant Hotspur there,
Young Harry Percy, and brave Archibald,
That ever-valiant and approvèd Scot,
At Holmedon met, where they did spend
A sad and bloody hour,
As by discharge of their artillery,
And shape of likelihood, the news was told,
For he that brought them, in the very heat
And pride of their contention did take horse,
Uncertain of the issue any way.

Here is a dear and true industrious friend,
Sir Walter Blunt, new lighted from his horse,
Stained with the variation of each soil
Betwixt that Holmedon and this seat of ours,
And he hath brought us smooth and welcome news.
The Earl of Douglas is discomfited,
Ten thousand bold Scots, two and twenty knights,
Balked in their own blood did Sir Walter see
On Holmedon’s plains. Of prisoners, Hotspur took
Mordake, Earl of Fife, and eldest son
To beaten Douglas, and the Earl of Athol,
Of Murray, Angus, and Menteith.
And is not this an honourable spoil?
A gallant prize? Ha, cousin, is it not?

How this is staged depends on what you think Shakespeare meant by “here.” Personally, when he said “here,” I think he meant HERE — as in, right here in front of my face. It’s exactly what anyone unfamiliar with the detailed notes in the Arden and in other scholarly venues would expect him to mean, hearing the words uttered on stage. So I have to scratch my head in bewilderment when I read notes like this in the Arden and hear them echoed in the Norton:

here at court; many editions have Blount already present or have him enter with this line ("Here", then, marking the King’s gesture toward him), but the early texts have no entry for him, he has no lines in the scene, the description of his person would be unnecessary if he were visible to the audience, and in any case the King obviously already knows what news Blount has brought from the battlefield.

To my way of thinking, none of these objections holds water. Is it the case that a significant character never appears in a scene unless he or she has something to say? Is the lack of an explicit entrance in the early texts really a serious objection to having him on stage? (I mean, come on, Arden: how many “Enter so-and-so” directions have you supplied when they were missing from the early texts? And didn’t we just notice the lack of an entrance for Poins in the Folio text of Scene 2?) Is it the case that no one ever remarks on someone’s physical appearance — for the benefit of the audience — even though the details of that appearance are obvious to everyone in the same fictive space?

In fact, characters in Shakespeare plays often describe specific details of another character’s appearance, even though those details are obvious to the other characters on the stage and to the audience as well. A couple of examples come to mind immediately, both from Hamlet.

What art thou that usurp’st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? 

Aha! The Ghost has taken on a fair and warlike form! — but we knew that already; we can see it.


Such was the very armor he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated.
So frown’d he once when in an angry parle
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.

Well, OK, we didn’t know that he wore that same armor when he was fighting the King of Norway; but we did know he was wearing armor, because we can see it.

(Interesting footnote. One of the things I find delightful about the RSC Shakespeare is the way they render this passage:

So frowned he once when, in an angry parle,
He smote the steeléd pole-axe on the ice.

I’ve written about this at length before, and I won’t beat that dead horse again here. The editors may be wrong in emending “sleaded” or “sledded” to “steeléd,” but nothing will ever convince me that Shakespeare was talking about Polacks rather than a pole-axe in this passage. King Hamlet didn’t like the way the negotiations were going, and he scowled and slammed his pole-axe down on the ice — and the expression on the face of the Ghost reminded Horatio of that anger. This is the example of significant emendation I was talking about earlier, when I suggested that the editors could have taken it a step further and undone obviously censored lines without violating their overall “principles”.)

In the next scene, Hamlet describes himself.

’Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly.

I dunno. Think maybe we can tell that he’s wearing an inky cloak and has a dejected havior of the visage, even before he says something?

The point is that Henry’s description of Blunt’s mud-stained clothing is a stupid rationale for suggesting that Blunt isn’t onstage, and the Arden editor should know better. It’s the worst kind of ivory-tower critical analysis, divorced from practical stage experience. Shakespeare reinforces the visual stage impression with concrete language when it suits his dramatic purpose to do so. It rarely has anything to do with “the description of his person” being “unnecessary” if the character is already “visible to the audience.”

Here is what the Norton has to say about it:

It is not clear whether Blount comes onstage now. He could have entered at the beginning of the scene; alternatively, as in this edition, he may not come onstage at all. Blount has no lines in the scene, and Henry could at this point receive a letter containing Blount’s news or could be reporting news he has already learned. “Here” would thus refer in a general way to Blount’s being at court.

“As in this edition.” No. No. No. No. No. From an acting standpoint, this is bullshit. It makes no sense at all. It leaves the audience wondering “what the fuck did he mean when he said ‘here he is’ when he obviously isn’t here?” It gives the actors on stage nothing to work with.

Shakespeare is nothing if not concrete. Blunt is standing right there. When Henry mentions him, everyone turns their attention to him.

But even that doesn’t quite address the problem. Somehow the actor playing Henry needs to have a reason to let Westmorland rattle on about a battle he already knows about, plus a reason for describing Blunt as “here.” The simplest and most obvious solution — following a hint in the Arden note, repeated in the Norton — is to have Blunt enter at that point, interrupting Westmorland’s speech, and hand Henry a document with the news about the battle. Henry can then read out not only the outcome of the battle but the list of prisoners. It could make for an awkward pause in the dialogue, but a creative director could devise some way to handle that. And it removes any awkwardness about Henry’s motivation in the scene.

The first edition of the RSC follows the party line of ambiguity. It glosses “here” as meaning “either ‘here at court’ or a line indicating Blunt’s presence among the ‘other’ lords in attendance on stage.” But when they came to prepare the second edition, the editors were forced to take into account how the scene had actually been staged by the RSC. And they did it with one simple marginal note:

In P2 [the 2014 production], Blunt spoke 66-73. 

In other words, with a slight adjustment in the wording of one of the lines, it would have gone like this:

On Holy Rood day, the gallant Hotspur there,
Young Harry Percy, and brave Archibald,
That ever-valiant and approvèd Scot,
At Holmedon met, where they did spend
A sad and bloody hour,
As by discharge of their artillery,
And shape of likelihood, the news was told,
For he that brought them, in the very heat
And pride of their contention did take horse,
Uncertain of the issue any way.

Here is a dear and true industrious friend,
Sir Walter Blunt, new lighted from his horse,
Stained with the variation of each soil
Betwixt that Holmedon and this seat of ours,
And he hath brought us smooth and welcome news.

The Earl of Douglas is discomfited,
Ten thousand bold Scots, two and twenty knights,
Balked in their own blood did [I myself] see
On Holmedon’s plains. Of prisoners, Hotspur took
Mordake, Earl of Fife, and eldest son
To beaten Douglas, and the Earl of Athol,
Of Murray, Angus, and Menteith.

And is not this an honourable spoil?
A gallant prize? Ha, cousin, is it not?

A few lines further down, when Henry is telling Westmorland about the prisoners Hotspur refuses to give up, a marginal note tells us that in this same production “Henry IV looked at a paper given him by Blunt.” This is so close to what I’m suggesting that I wonder if the same production had Blunt enter during Westmorland’s speech, whisper something in Henry’s ear, and hand him the paper indicated in the note.

Probably not: it seems the RSC editors would have noted an important directorial decision like that. But we’ve already seen in the discussion of Scene 2 that these marginal notes sometimes leave out important bits of information. And staging the scene without an intervention by Blunt at this point leaves dangling the question about whether Henry knows any of this before the scene begins; because if he does, to my way of thinking his behavior in the scene is inexplicable. If he is being a Machiavel with Westmorland, what point could he possibly be trying to make? The only way to make sense of Shakespeare’s muddy writing is to stage it so that Henry learns about the outcome of the battle at the same time the audience does.

And yes, that also means that “here” means “here.”

Thus endeth my screed.

All this considered, the marginal notes are a valuable addition to the RSC Shakespeare, are a tremendous resource in understanding how the plays have been staged and can be staged, and fully justify the existence of the second edition.

It’s a shame they didn’t carry it one step further. As I said, I wish they’d also taken the opportunity the new edition gave them to amend their editorial principles to say: we’ll stick to the Folio except in cases where the Folio has clearly been censored, and the original can reasonably be recovered. Had they done that, I’d honestly be tempted to move most of my other one-volume Shakespeares to the third-floor bookshelves — my “offline archives.” I’d even be willing to live with their outmoded method of sticking the notes at the bottom of the page, with nothing in the text to indicate the presence of a note.

(Now, if someone would only undertake a revision of the Riverside Shakespeare…)

The Duchess of Malfi and the BBC

I’ve been listening to the BBC Radio production of The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster. And as usual, I’ve been making notes as I go along, some of which concern the cuts that were made. As with the BBC production of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, some of the cuts are pretty drastic. I’ve decided that, rather than try to organize my haphazard notes into a post for the blog, I want to listen to the production again with the text in front of me and mark the exact passages that were cut. I think there are some interesting observations to be made about that (and about the process of adapting a play like this for radio), but I’m not ready to make them yet.

The Winter’s Tale at the Quintessence

We saw a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Quintessence Theatre in Philadelphia this afternoon. It’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, but I’ve never actually seen it done, so I was especially eager to see this. Quintessence is a talented group and has in the past done stellar productions of difficult plays like Saint Joan and The Cure at Troy (Philoctetes). They pulled this one off too.

The stage was a rough approximation of a Renaissance English thrust stage; there was a facade with three openings at the back and an upper playing area used for occasional effects.

I don’t have the energy to give a full review. I do want to single out Jered McLenigan, who played Autolycus: it’s a brilliant, musical, insane part to begin with, and he pulled out all the stops, carrying a good bit of the second act single-handedly.

And there were two striking bits of staging in that last heart-rending scene: as directed here, Hermione’s statue was facing away from Leontes. When it came to life, her first movement was to turn her face toward him with a look of ineffable sadness and longing — and reach out a trembling hand toward him. And the last thing we saw was Perdita, the Child Who Was Lost, reminding us of that other child who was truly lost by picking up Mamillius’s old teddy bear from behind a doorway and gazing at it with a look that was at first puzzled and then shocked. It was a risky move, running counter to the celebratory mood of the closing, but for me it worked: it was an essential callback.

Update 28 March 2022. It seems unfair to single out only one of the leads in this excellent cast. Michael Zlabinger as Leontes, Hillary Parker as Hermione, Amari Ingram as Polixenes, and Eleni Delipoulos as Paulina all did an outstanding job. Zlabinger’s Leontes was somewhat more melodramatic than the rest of the cast, but it was still a powerfully affecting performance.

Then there were the rustics. Well… Joseph Langham played the Shepherd and Lee Thomas Cortopassi played his son, and they were straight out of Hee Haw, mugging and gaping and prancing around for all they were worth. It was disconcerting at first, but once I adjusted to the level of the comedy, it was fine — and it provoked plenty of welcome laughs. (Langham doubled as Antigonus, swallowed up by a huge bear-prop that rolled out of the central doorway and dragged him back in. Cortopassi also doubled as one of the Sicilian lords. In fact, pretty much everybody in the cast doubled as at least one other character.)

Travoye Joyner and Kristin Devine Jones were the romantics, Florizel and Perdita. They are not especially challenging parts — at least they didn’t seem so to me; they usually aren’t in Shakespeare; see Hero and Claudio for comparison — but they carried them off convincingly.

McLenigan’s ubiquitous guitar as Autolycus wasn’t the only instrument wielded by this musically talented cast: there were banjos and fiddles and something that looked like a makeshift bassoon. The first act is a stark tragedy. The second act is a nearly uninterrupted party. One of the remarkable things about the production was how lively the sheep-shearing scene was with only six or seven people on stage.

It was a lovely afternoon. Quintessence is alternating The Winter’s Tale with Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, which we’re scheduled to see next week — another one I’ve read a couple of times but never seen. Same set, same cast. I’m looking forward to it. Since I haven’t had anything to say about Ben Jonson here, I’ll try to take the opportunity to expand on that a bit when I write about it.

BBC Radio: Much Ado About Nothing

What follows is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts about the BBC Radio Shakespeare productions that have been available on audio for upwards of 20 years or so. I downloaded my first batch of these from Audible not long after subscribing to that monument to capitalism, starting with — if I remember correctly — Michael Sheen in Hamlet. These have recently been reissued in omnibus form, with anthologies devoted to the Comedies, Histories, Tragedies, and Roman plays.

For some unfathomable reason, Pericles is included in the anthology of Histories. I’m not aware of any relationship the story of Pericles has to history, certainly not to English history, which is what most people think of when the subject of Shakespeare and “history plays” comes up. If I were running things — and I think all reasonable people can agree that I should be — I would have set aside a fifth anthology for Romances, and would have included Pericles, Cymbeline (which appears here amongst the Tragedies), The Tempest (which appears here amongst the Comedies), and The Winter’s Tale, which the BBC didn’t see fit to include in this series at all, even though there is a wonderful production available that was released in audio only last year. I would have filled out the Histories anthology with fresh productions of Richard III and Henry V: as far as I know, there are no recent BBC Radio productions of those plays available. At the very least, with Richard II and both parts of Henry IV already included, it would be nice if the Histories anthology followed the Henriad all the way through to its logical conclusion. With those modest changes, this set of anthologies would be an unbeatable collection of world-class Shakespeare in audio. As it is, it’s a terrific collection but just a little bit short of being truly fantastic.

I’m starting with Much Ado about Nothing mainly because it’s the first one one in the Comedy anthology. I’ll circulate amongst the other anthologies in the future and make more of an effort to keep things in chronological order.

The music in this production of Much Ado, as is usually the case with these BBC Radio productions, is remarkable: in this case bright and celebratory, though “Sigh no more/Hey nonny-nonny” is appropriately melancholy. The pace is brisk throughout, aided by the usual judicious cuts.

Cutting Shakespeare is always a thankless but often essential task, and at least in this case the producers did not get carried away. (Other plays in the series were not so fortunate, but we’ll get to them eventually.)

Here’s an example of what I mean by “judicious.” As written, the first scene contains this passage:

I pray you, is Signior Mountanto return’d from the wars or no?

I know none of that name, lady. There was none such in the army of any sort.

What is he that you ask for, niece?

My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua.

O, he’s return’d, and as pleasant as ever he was.

He set up his bills here in Messina, and challeng’d Cupid at the flight, and my uncle’s fool, reading the challenge, subscrib’d for Cupid, and challeng’d him at the bird-bolt. I pray you, how many hath he kill’d and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he kill’d?  For indeed I promis’d to eat all of his killing.

In this BBC Radio Shakespeare production, this becomes:

I pray you, is Signior Mountanto return’d from the wars or no?

I know none of that name, lady. There was none such in the army of any sort.

What is he that you ask for, niece?

My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua.

O, he’s return’d, and as pleasant as ever he was.

I pray you, how many hath he kill’d and eaten in these wars? For indeed I promis’d to eat all of his killing.

If I were preparing the script for a theatrical performance, I would make exactly the same cuts.

And of course the audio production values are first-rate. It’s a current buzzword to describe the sound design as “cinematic,” but I wouldn’t go that far — and I don’t necessarily think that’s a virtue. But the production does try to take the play off the stage and put it out into a recognizable three-dimensional world.

Along with the judicious cuts, the BBC have occasionally made some slight changes in the order of the scenes. In Much Ado, Borachio proposes his Margaret-at-the-window scheme to Don John in Act 2, Scene 2 — before the contrived conversations between the Prince and his co-conspirators that set up the romance between Beatrice and Benedick (or at least force it into the open, depending on your understanding of the characters). Don John doesn’t propose his spying-on-Hero scheme to the Prince until Act 3, Scene 2. But in this production, the Borachio scene has been moved later so that it immediately precedes the scene where Don John brings the idea to the Prince and Claudio. I like this arrangement. In the same way that a careful cut can clarify a speech or a scene, this kind of adjustment can clarify the developing action — especially in audio, where the audience is limited in the number of anchors they have available for following the action.

When we get to Richard II, if we ever get there, we’ll see an even more significant use of this approach to adaptation.

One of the tricks the BBC resorts to in many of these productions is adding audible “business” to a scene in the same way a stage or film director might add a little visual dash to an otherwise static passage of dialogue. For example, in this play Don John hatches his initial plot over a game of pool. (Actually, if I remember correctly, Richard II’s courtiers resort to the pool table in the BBC Radio production of that play. Is there a pool hall in the BBC basement?) Some of the backstairs dialogue that occurs in the aftermath of the dance early in the play is accompanied by the sound of crickets, bringing home that this is happening at night on a quiet country estate. Some people may find this distracting, but I find it harmless; it adds to the aural texture of the production.

There are other touches. At the beginning of the disrupted wedding scene, Leonato instructs the priest: “Come, Friar Francis, be brief — only to the plain form of marriage, and you shall recount their particular duties afterwards.” In this production, he interrupts the priest, who has begun droning the standard Latin phrases that are part of the sacrament. He is basically saying “Cut the crap and get on with it.” It raises the question of how he expects his daughter to be truly married if the sacrament isn’t carried out to the letter; we’ve seen an example of this recently in the real world, with hundreds of baptisms declared null and void — all those people will have to be re-baptized — because a priest began by saying “we baptize you” rather than “I baptize you.” But from a purely dramatic standpoint, it motivates the line and serves to further embed the action of the play in a three-dimensional world.

Another technique common to these productions is to have other characters react audibly — with sighs, grunts, laughs, or gasps — when one of them is speaking. This may well belie the actual circumstances of the production, where for all I know actors were confined to individual soundproof booths; but it certainly creates the illusion that we are in the presence of a stage full of performers in close contact with each other, each with a private agenda but fully enmeshed in the developing action. The effect is one of liveliness and immediacy.

David Tennant and Samantha Spiro are great as the comic leads. David Tennant of course is in everything these days and is wonderful in everything — and yes, I’d noticed him on the horizon, even in the US, before Doctor Who plastered his face everywhere and made “I’m so, so sorry” a household phrase. I haven’t noticed Spiro in anything else that I’m aware of, though I see that she had a minor role as one of the Tarlys in Game of Thrones. She has also been praised for a highly sexualized performance as Lady Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2013. (I thought maybe I’d seen that, but my memory was faulty: I was in London in 2010, not 2013, and the production of Macbeth I saw there was notable mainly for its buckets of blood.) Chiwetel Ejiofor is Claudio, sounding a bit older than the part is usually played, but he is otherwise the same creepy unforgivable jerk the text makes him out to be. Emilia Fox — daughter of Edward and cousin of Laurence — is Hero. (I’ve seen her in a dozen things on TV, and she’s so unmistakably a member of the Fox family that you’d think I’d recognize her instantly; but such is not the case. She always seems to slip by under my radar.)

In listening to the play, as before, I found myself a little mystified by Beatrice’s apparent flirtation with the Prince. When she says she’d rather have a husband of his “father’s getting,” she seems to be going beyond the requirements of courtly flattery, and he responds to it as if it were a direct invitation. Yet her reaction to his proposal of marriage is so abrupt and so obviously embarrassed, it suggests that she wasn’t thinking clearly about what she was saying — that she simply uttered whatever came into her head and only afterwards realized what she’d said.

And what about his intentions? Was it a serious proposal? It could certainly be played that way — he is described at the end as being alone and “sad” — although (as the performance notes in the Norton edition point out) that runs the risk of throwing off the delicate balance of light and shadow in the play. If it is a serious proposal, and he is genuinely disappointed, it can’t be too bad: only moments later, he springs his mischievous idea on the group with apparent glee:

She cannot endure to hear tell of a husband.

O, by no means, she mocks all her wooers out of suit.

She were an excellent wife for Benedick.

Many scenes in these plays involve one set of characters spying on another, as (in this one) Benedick spies on the Prince and Leonato — who of course know they’re being spied on. The Elizabethan stage, with its non-naturalistic conventions, had no problem presenting these kinds of situations. There’s a slight wrinkle here I only came to learn in the last couple of days. I’ve always imagined the Benedick scene with Benedick “hiding” behind one of the pillars holding up the roof over the stage. But prompted by a recent podcast to reread Holger Symes’ essay on Shakespeare’s theater in the Norton Shakespeare, I was startled to note the statement there that the Theatre in Shoreditch — where this play was presumably first staged — may not have had a roof over the stage.

(Theater history is a moving target. The podcast in question, an interview with Syme, included the equally startling news — startling to me because I’m not able to keep up with these things in general — that the nearby Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch was rectangular and does not appear to have had a thrust stage: in other words attending a play at the Curtain may have resembled a conventional proscenium production of more recent times. Of course, as he points out, a rectangular space isn’t as unusual as it sounds: innyards and great halls, which also sometimes served as venues, were also obviously rectangular. It’s even possible that most theater spaces were rectangular and that polygonal spaces like the Globe were the outliers.)

One line jumped out at me this time around that I usually seem to miss. After Balthasar entertains the Prince and Leonato with his lovely song “Sigh No More,” the Prince says: “Yea, marry, dost thou hear, Balthasar? I pray thee get us some excellent music; for tomorrow night we would have it at the Lady Hero’s chamber-window.” What struck me about the line was that it was on just such an occasion that the Prince and Claudio spy on Hero and think they’ve seen her “conversing” with a man at that late hour. Was Shakespeare setting this up already?

Another line that jumped out at me this time around: during the party, when the Prince is wooing Hero on Claudio’s behalf, Beatrice says: “Good Lord, for alliance! Thus goes every one to the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry Heigh-ho for a husband!” And then a couple of scenes later, as she and Hero and Margaret are getting ready for the wedding, this exchange occurs:

’Tis almost five a’ clock, cousin, ’tis time you were ready. By my troth, I am exceeding ill. Heigh-ho!

For a hawk, a horse, or a husband?

For the letter that begins them all, H.

This little “callback” is something that occurs often in Shakespeare — actually in many if not most plays.

With its atrocious and impenetrable pun on “H” — apparently the word “ache” was pronounced the same way as the letter and was therefore hysterically funny to the Elizabethans — this passage also gives a perfect example of why judicious cuts can be your friend in present-day productions of Shakespeare. I’d murder this one in heartbeat. The BBC production gets around it by changing Beatrice’s line thus: “For the letter that begins them all: Ha. Ha. Ha.”

One of the delights of watching Shakespeare (or in this case listening to him) is seeing how freely his characters engage in the same thing his actors are doing: playacting. Sooner or later almost everyone puts on a performance. Certainly the various conspirators who are trying to “trick” Beatrice and Benedick into loving each other are playing roles — not always well-rehearsed roles, as the stumbling over who’s supposed to describe Beatrice’s lovesick behavior testifies, but designated roles all the same. The villain Don John and his henchmen play a different set of parts. Benedick is assigned a grim role by Beatrice — kill Claudio — and part of the fun is watching how he carries out that assignment. (He does it amazingly well, with an ice-cold challenge to Claudio that Tennant pulls off exceedingly well: this Benedick is not someone I would want to encounter on the battlefield.) The playacting is almost an afterthought in Much Ado, but it forms the backbone of much of the dramatic action in other plays. Hamlet, for example, is a metatheatrical essay almost from first to last: Hamlet’s very revenge depends on staging a play.

What actually happens at Hero’s window is a little ambiguous, and Shakespeare may have changed his mind about it as he was writing the play. Borachio initially describes it in fairly benign terms — he simply says he has been wooing Margaret and can make it look like he’s wooing Hero. But Don John presents it to the Prince and Claudio as something more sinister and more obviously damning: “Go but with me tonight, you shall see her chamber-window ent’red, even the night before her wedding-day.” So he expects them to see someone actually climbing into her window. In any case, the real damage came, we are given to understand, by Borachio’s later confirmation to the Prince and Claudio that yes, he has in fact been enjoying an illicit relationship with Hero — that he has had sex with her “a thousand times.”

Such is the spell that Shakespeare is able to weave that it’s possible to miss the fact that we never actually witness the encounter ourselves. This was too much for Kenneth Branagh when he came to direct his film (which I think is, on the whole, absolutely wonderful and a delight from start to finish). Branagh is rarely subtle or ambiguous in his directorial choices, and in this case he couldn’t resist showing the encounter — and couldn’t resist removing all doubt about its nature by making it as explicitly sexual as the film’s rating would allow.

For me, with its emphasis on chastity before marriage, the “main plot” of the play remains off-putting. (I’m putting “main plot” in quotes because it’s hard for me to get interested in Hero and Claudio in any case, but from an architectural standpoint their story does drive the action of the play.) I can’t get my mind and heart around the honor-and-shame morality of the patriarchal society Hero is trapped inside. To me, there is a world of difference between simple fornication in the absence of a committed relationship and secretive infidelity in the presence of such a relationship. The honesty, or the lying, is the important thing — not the sexual “purity,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.

And so over and over again, watching and reading and listening to this play, in this production and elsewhere, I run up against the biggest iceberg of them all. After the aborted wedding ceremony, the priest offers what he seems to think of as reassurance:

Come, lady, die to live; this wedding-day
Perhaps is but prolong’d, have patience and endure.

And I can’t help wondering, every single time: why on earth would she want to? Who on earth would want Claudio for a husband after he did something like that? If Claudio had read his New Testament more carefully, as I noted in my first pass at the play many months ago, he might have followed the example of Joseph: worried that Mary had jumped the traces, he resolved to “put her away” quietly. But Claudio is no Christian, despite his loud claims of personal virtue. He is an unmitigated bastard, and he clearly means to begin as he means to end. Why would Leonato want to saddle his daughter with someone who promised such a lifetime of cruelty? Why would Hero put up with it? — of course Hero probably didn’t have much choice. But Leonato certainly did. And the priest certainly did. And yet neither of them appears to have any problem asking her to reconcile herself to this shit, as long as he can be shown to be mistaken this one time.

It gets worse when Claudio finally admits his error and Leonato suggests a way he can atone for it.

Tomorrow morning come you to my house,
And since you could not be my son-in-law,
Be yet my nephew. My brother hath a daughter,
Almost the copy of my child that’s dead,
And she alone is heir to both of us.
Give her the right you should have giv’n her cousin,
And so dies my revenge.

To which I can only respond, after picking my jaw up off the floor: what the fuck?? Of course, we know that this is Leonato’s bizarre way of bringing the two “lovers” back together — “lovers” in quotes because I can’t bring myself to apply that label seriously to Claudio — but Claudio doesn’t. And he takes the offer at face value.

It’s just too damned pat. Shakespeare dismisses all the tragedy he’s wreaked in these people’s lives in a brief exchange at the beginning of the final scene:

Did I not tell you she was innocent?

So are the Prince and Claudio, who accus’d her
Upon the error that you heard debated.
But Margaret was in some fault for this,
Although against her will, as it appears
In the true course of all the question.

Well, I am glad that all things sorts so well.

Leonato is all too willing to let the Prince and Claudio off the hook — and he himself is hardly blameless; he turned against his daughter almost instantly and wished her dead, mainly because of the disgrace he thought she brought on him.

And yet. And yet. When Hero is finally revealed in a moment that anticipates the ending of The Winter’s Tale, Leonato spells out a stunning paradox: “She died, my lord, but whiles her slander liv’d.” Such is the power of Shakespeare’s language and his dramatic construction that I can hardly hear this line without tears. And this comes only seconds after the line that so arouses my ire, because it so perfectly encapsulates everything that I find so off-putting about the moral priorities of this world: “And surely as I live, I am a maid.”

And then of course comes the music and dancing; and whether it’s in Branagh’s glorious film, or in the joyous music that brings this BBC production to a close, even I have trouble hanging onto my curmudgeonly rejection of the play’s honor-and-shame morality. It all gets swallowed up in celebration.

In spite of everything, when all is said and done, I still love this play, and I love this spirited and joyful production.