Sunday, November 21, 2010

Revenge Tragedies not by Shakespeare

While this is a Shakespeare blog and Shakespeare is undoubtedly the focus, there were many other wonderful playwrights and plays from the 16th and 17th centuries. This year, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater will present Hamlet, so I thought I'd list some of my other favorite revenge tragedies of the period.

As anyone who came to the lecture two weeks ago knows, I love Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. What's not to love about a play where Revenge and a ghost watch the entire action, where the revenge takes place in a play within a play where each character speaks a different language, and where the main character bites out his own tongue?

Another weird and wonderful play of the period is The Revenger's Tragedy by Thomas Middleton. The world of the play is deeply cynical, but the language is beautiful and Vindice (the main character) is fascinating--what Hamlet would have been like if he'd brooded on revenge for years instead of days. This is the only play of the period for which there is a good film version.

 The Duchess of Malfi Homepage calls it "one of the greatest achievements of English Renaissance drama" and I agree. The Duchess is the equal to Shakespeare's Cleopatra in the richness and majesty of her character, the love between her and Antonio is, hands down, the most moving portrait of married love created in the period, and the psychological tension is almost unbearable.

Finally, I have to mention the fabulously named 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, about which I have only one thing to say: Romeo and Juliet with incest. Okay, I'll say one other thing. You will actually find yourself rooting for the brother and sister/lovers. Really.

While it would be wonderful if we could see these plays acted, they all read very well (especially 'Tis Pity She's a Whore) and all the plays are available in reasonably priced, well footnoted editions. So if you're looking for something to while away the long winter nights, any of these plays would go wonderfully with the dark and cold of late November!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Queen Elizabeth

For most of his life, Shakespeare would have celebrated November 17th as a national holiday, marking the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the throne. It is hard to overstate the importance of Elizabeth's reign, to England or to Shakespeare, and there are many wonderful biographies of her, so there is no need to go into details about her life, but the anniversary of her accession seemed like a good time to pause and consider a few salient points.

The first point, often overlooked, is simply that Elizabeth didn't die. After the six year reign of her brother, Edward VI, and the five year reign of her sister, Mary I, the simple fact that Elizabeth lived and ruled until 1603 (almost half a century) provided England with much needed stability.It could have ended very differently--Elizabeth was struck with smallpox in 1563, just five years into her reign, and came near death. If that had happened, there would likely have been civil war, with no clear claimant to the throne and Catholics and Protestants each supporting their own candidate. With the clarity of hindsight, we look back and see the Elizabethan era as one of stability and continuity--Merry Old England the way it should be. In reality, it was, for many decades, a period of uncertainty, politically, religiously, internationally and even economically. It was not until after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, in 1588, that the Elizabethan Era can really be said to have arrived (and even then, fear of Catholic spies and invasions, and concern over who would succeed Elizabeth remained)

The second point develops from the uncertainty described above. It seems undeniable that one of the reasons the theater of this period was so incredibly rich is because of Elizabeth. When Shakespeare, and the other early playwrights--Marlowe, Kyd, Heywood and so on--were writing, they had constantly before them a living paradox. Elizabeth as she famously put it, had "the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but..the heart and stomach of a king." She was an unmarried woman in a patriarchal culture, yet she was more powerful than any man. She was the Virgin Queen who was a huge flirt and constantly dangled her marriage as a prize to be won (or bought). She was constantly second guessing and changing her mind, driving her council to distraction, but on certain things she was immovable. And she was incredibly skilled in how she presented herself, in language, in costume and in action. The greatest playwrights of the day grew up in her shadow, absorbed her lessons, and created a theater of complex characters that have never been equaled on any stage.

So everyone who loves Shakespeare, who has ever admired Cleopatra, Juliet, Rosalind, or even Lady Macbeth, raise a glass in honor of Queen Elizabeth I this November 17th. She helped make all those characters possible!