Thursday, October 10, 2013

Rewriting Shakespeare's Histories

I dislike Shakespeare.

Glad I got that off my chest.

I understand the reverence in which he is held to an extent. He is, for an early modern playwright, remarkably accessible. And his writings cover a range with more talent than anyone else in the era. If you want one many for histories and tragedies and comedies and sonnets, well, you can do no better than Shakespeare.

But, and I know this is not a new or original critique, if you want one thing executed perfectly, never look to Shakespeare. None of Shakespeare's tragedies can touch Marlowe's Edward II (which I suppose is more properly a history) or Faustus. I prefer Beaumont's Knight of the Burning Pestle and Johnson's Alchemist for comedies, and I favor Donne and Milton as poets.

So maybe the proper thing to say is not, "I dislike Shakespeare" but "I disagree with the notion that he is the greatest playwright of his era, let alone the argument that he is the greatest ever."

All the same, I'm always a little appalled when someone tries to re-write Shakespeare, and especially appalled when that person is a homophobic whacko. It has been demonstrated time and again that the internet was specifically designed to mock people like that.

But the Scott Lynch piece I linked above reminded me that just a couple weeks ago, a friend and I were working on a five act adaption of Henry IV 1, IV 2 and Henry V.

We saw a really great touring production of American Shakespeare Center's Henry IV Part 1, which was marred only by the fact that it was a production of Henry IV Part 1.

Let me explain:

There are three great moments in IV 1. The first comes in the fifth act, when Falstaff offers his soliloquy on honor, which underscores the dominant theme of the play. The second comes in the third act, when Mortimer and Lady Mortimer must say goodbye as Mortimer rides off to war; Mortimer speaks no Welch and his Lady speaks no English. I found this especially moving in the ASC production, and I was reminded that this will be Prince Hal's fate as well- at the end of Henry V, Hal is married to a French princess who speaks no English. IV 1's greatest moment comes at the end of the second act, when Hal and Falstaff play at being Hal and his father, and they debate whether Hal should banish Falstaff from his life. Despite Falstaff's protestations, Hal promises "I do. I will."

And in those great moments lie all the troubles. If you haven't seen Henry IV 2 and Henry V, then two of the three greatest moments in the play have no payoff. You watch five acts, but that's only one third of the story.

So, over lunch, we agreed that modern audiences would be better off if we condensed the Bard's three plays down to one.

"Oh, for a muse of fire..."

Act 1:
Scene 1
Hal convinces Falstaff to rob the King's treasurers, then turn around and robs Falstaff in disguise
Scene 2
Falstaff reports the robbery to Hal, exaggerating all the way. Hal calls him on it. A messenger arrives to summon Hal to see the king. Hal muses on his state ("herein will I imitate the sun"). Hal and Falstaff talk ("banish not him thy Harry's/company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world... I do. I will").

Act 2:
Scene 1
Hotspur and Mortimer plan their rebellion. The scene with the wives ("I understand thy kisses and thou mine,/ And that's a feeling disputation:/ But I will never be a truant, love,/ Till I have learned thy language.")
Scene 2
England prepares for war. Falstaff thinks of honor ("What is in that word honour? what/ is that honour? air.")
Scene 3
Henry and Hotspur fight. England puts down the rebellion.

"Open your ears..."

Act 3:
Scene 1:
Falstaff talks with his page about new suits and STDs ("borrowing only lingers and lingers it out/ but the disease is incurable").
Scene 2:
Henry IV talks with his advisors about his success in winning the civil war ("Will fortune never come with both hands full?"). Henry and Hal talk of kingship ("God knows, my son,/By what by-paths and indirect crook'd ways/ I met this crown"). Henry dies.
Scene 3:
Henry V speaks to calm the fears of the noblemen and banishes Falstaff ("I know thee not, old man").

Act 4:
Scene 1:
Henry is mocked by France and declares war ("We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us")
Scene 2:
The English land in France and storm Harfleur ("Once more unto the breach" and ensuing scenes)

Act 5:
Scene 1: At Agincourt, where Harry again rallies the troups ("We few, we happy few")
Scene 2: Henry and the King of France negotiate peace, with Henry marrying the French princess, Katharine ("I am/ glad thou canst speak no better English; for, if thou couldst, thou wouldst find me such a plain king").

And that's how you re-write Shakespeare!

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