Today is Shakespeare’s birthday (probably). It’s almost definitely his death day, but that has a less festive feel to it, so let’s go with birthday. Happy Birthday, Bard!
(Image from http://tudorhistory.org/people/shakespeare/ )
I love Shakespeare. I was lucky enough to fall in love with him at school and I love him still. I know he’s not for everyone, so I’m only going to discuss one play. But firstly, I thought I’d try and convince you of what I firmly believe, that he is for everyone. This has probably been done before, so if it has and it was you, please accept my sincere apologies and let me know and I’ll credit you. I promise I haven’t stolen this from anyone as far as I know. I thought I’d try one of those “if you liked…” lists that are so annoying when used by retailers to try & get you to buy more stuff, only in this case I’m using (mainly) Hollywood films (the modern equivalent of a Shakespeare play) to try and get you to buy into the drama. In no order at all, just how they occurred to me:
|If you liked….||Then you may like to try…||Because…|
|The Godfather||Julius Caesar/Coriolanus||There are power struggles, machinations & murder|
|French new wave||Hamlet||Nothing happens, and he tortures himself a lot|
|Rom coms||Much Ado about Nothing/As You Like It||Bit obvious, this one|
|Indecent Proposal||Measure for Measure||Sexual bribery abounds|
|Lord of the Rings||The Tempest||It’s magic|
|Hansel & Gretel/Snow White||Macbeth||Witches & violence|
|1930s screwball comedies eg It Happened One Night||Taming of the Shrew||It’s a battle of the sexes, sometimes physically|
|The Simpsons’ Movie||Henry IV parts 1&2||I’ve totally stolen this idea from Dr Emma Smith, who convincingly draws parallels between Homer & Falstaff|
|Scarface||Titus Andronicus||It’s a bloodbath|
|Grease||Love’s Labour’s Lost||There are boys, there are girls, they all get together|
|War films||Henry V||Battles & bloodshed|
|Some Like It Hot||Twelfth Night||Cross-dressing is the route to true love|
|Trading Places||Comedy Of Errors||Mistaken identities, a focus on money, it all works out in the end|
|John Grisham adaptations||Merchant of Venice||Features the greatest courtroom speech ever, even better than “You can’t handle the truth!” (seriously)|
|In the Loop/Political thrillers||Richard III||Power corrupts…|
|Game of Thrones||King Lear||A kingdom is divided, power struggles and torture ensue (no incest or wedding massacres though)|
|Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas||Midsummer Night’s Dream||It’s trippy…|
|Psychological thrillers eg Sleeping with the Enemy||Othello||The course of possessive love n’er runs smooth|
|The Wolf of Wall Street||Timon of Athens||Money is the root of all evil|
|Romeo + Juliet||Um, ….Romeo and Juliet||Take a guess…|
Any further or different suggestions are very welcome!
For the second part of this post I thought I’d discuss one of the plays that isn’t that well-known (for a Shakespeare play) or frequently performed, but I really like it, and I’m a bit baffled as to why it’s ignored: King John. King John is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, a history play that looks at arguments around royal succession. If that sounds yawnsome, the arguments involve battles, betrayals and murder, as so often in the medieval history plays.
What makes this play so interesting is the central character, who arguably isn’t King John, but his half-brother Phillip Falconbridge (who has more lines than anyone else). However, no-one calls him by this rather dashing name, or the new one he is given at the start of the play, Richard Plantagenet; he is consistently referred to in the text as The Bastard. As the illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart, he is of royal lineage, but legitimacy being of huge significance at the time, he is not an heir. Other illegitimate children in Shakespeare are somewhat troublesome: Edmund in King Lear and Don John in Much Ado both cause no end of grief. The Bastard however, is one of the more appealing characters in a play filled with dark, devious, self-serving manipulators. He has a way with words, and his own morality is uninfluenced by society. His response to his mother about Richard the Lionheart being his father does not berate her for stigmatizing him:
He that perforce robs lions of their hearts
May easily win a woman’s. Ay, my mother,
With all my heart I thank thee for my father!
…Come, lady, I will show thee to my kin;
And they shall say, when Richard me begot,
If thou hadst said him nay, it had been sin:
Who says it was, he lies; I say ’twas not.
Pretty liberal for the time. He goes on to fight for King John, and prove himself brave, clever, and more humane than others in what is quite a bleak play:
But as I travell’d hither through the land,
I find the people strangely fantasied;
Possess’d with rumours, full of idle dreams,
Not knowing what they fear, but full of fear:
Cheeky and irreverent when he’s in court, The Bastard is a man of action who is actually a more accomplished leader than any of the courtly power-wielders. His illegitimacy places him outside of things, and as such he is able to cast a wry and sardonic glance at the action. “Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!” King John is weak, and the play demonstrates that rather than a god-given right to rule, kings are as flawed and human as the rest. The Bastard gets the last lines of the play, and in his mouth the words:
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.
become not an assertion of England’s strength, but an ironic observation on the weakness and hypocrisy of rulers. The Bastard isn’t a historical figure or in any of Shakespeare’s sources. He is entirely invented, and one of the many reasons that Shakespeare is still as Ben Jonson described him: “The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage”. Happy Birthday William Shakespeare – “Shine forth, thou star of poets!”
To end, one of the most famous portrayals of King John, back in the days when he was still a prince: