After having a thoroughly amazing trip to London focusing on Shakespeare, I think I now have a better, albeit still more limited than I’d like, view of Shakespeare. During the trip, we saw two productions of Shakespeare’s works: a production of Henry VI Part III and a production of Much Ado About Nothing. These shows are very different, one a comedy and the other an epic historical play, and the productions we saw of both also had very different design philosophies to match.
Henry VI Part III was marketed as a sort of inspiration for Game of Thrones, and the similarities are surprisingly obvious; you can see where George R.R. Martin took inspiration from. This play is not produced very often, but I would say that this production really played up the fights. There were tons of very nicely choreographed fight scenes, with people dying right and left in the super cool gravel pit stage they had built.
On the other hand, Much Ado About Nothing was not in a highly technical theater and was out in the semi-open of the Globe Theatre. We had standing tickets and got a little bit of rain on us, but it was not too bad. This production played up the physical comedy of the play, and there were so many parts of the play that I had not understood/got while reading the text that ended up being just hilarious seeing live. The direction and vision behind this production were just inspiring, in my opinion. The fathers of Hero and Beatrice (the two leading ladies) were instead played by two women as mothers, and this change added so much to the play. There were so many scenes where the jokes and shenanigans just made so much sense with them as mothers instead of fathers. I found myself forgetting they were ever fathers in the first place, and I wondered how this play could be performed any other way! The direction and acting were both simply rife with fun in this production. There was so much joy in the performers, and this was shared with the audience even more through audience participation. This was a thoroughly enjoyable production that took what I had construed as an unfunny text that might’ve been funny 500 years ago to a hilarious romp through post-WWII Italy (I forgot to mention they changed the setting too).
Both of these productions were very different in almost every way, yet they found new ways to adapt Shakespeare’s works which have lasting impact. Although we don’t have kings in the same sense anymore, Henry VI Part III is still a super entertaining and epic tale of battle and succession. A play which also shows how the actions/inaction of leaders and other political figures can lead to Civil War and turmoil. Meanwhile, Much Ado About Nothing is not entirely outdated and can be played around with to bring new life into the ancient words! Overall, both of these productions were a joy to see, and through changing up certain aspects and casting diverse and differently-abled actors, these classics can remain relevant and continue to inspire audiences.
During the trip early on, I was reminded that Shakespeare can be found in all parts of modern life, especially in the United Kingdom. A few days into the trip, we were touring the British National Gallery, and I noticed a striking image. Upon further investigation, I found it to be titled “Ophelia among the Flowers,” created by Odilon Redon in the early 1900s.
This painting immediately stuck out to me. The hazy, dreamlike quality of this depiction of Ophelia captures some interesting elements of the scene. Ophelia’s death in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a highly recognizable and renowned one, and much has been said and debated over the years. Whether or not it was purposeful, did she fall or jump? Was Ophelia really “mad,” and how much agency did she have in her actions? The scene still elicits many questions for me. This painting seems to reflect this. The proto-surrealism style evokes questions with the abstract portrayal of Ophelia floating amongst the flowers. Although I am not very familiar with the finer mechanics of this type of art, I still find it intriguing to observe and connect the piece with the Shakespearean work that inspired it. Doing a tiny bit of research, I found a quote by Redon that describes his art well: “My drawings inspire and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.” I was a little surprised to see reference to Shakespeare in the gallery; however, this inspiring painting helped me to connect visual arts with Shakespeare’s writing/theatre.
An interesting concept that Professor Petersen introduced during our trip was the idea that Shakespeare used his many historical productions as a way to question the future of rulership in his time. Before this trip, my knowledge of English history was a bit hazy, I knew some of the names of English rulers, but I did not really know who each was and their basic stories. After having spent a week or so learning about these rulers through Shakespeare’s plays, I think it is intriguing to examine the lasting ideas about leadership and royalty from these plays that remain relevant today. Henry VI Part Three features three kings (one who is crowned after the events of the play); each is quite different, but none of them last.
With all of this said, I think that Shakespeare’s time of uncertainty regarding royalty and kingship mirrors the modern occasion with the royal family and politics of the United Kingdom. Right now, the royal family is deeply unpopular and mired in numerous scandals and issues; meanwhile, the Prime Minister is a seemingly shameless figure who is facing much public disapproval yet clings to power. All of this is set against the backdrop of the Platinum Jubilee for Queen Elizabeth II, a huge and costly celebration of the 70th year of her reign.
Maybe we, like Shakespeare did in his time, need to examine our expectations and wants for royalty and leadership. During his time, the ruler was Queen Elizabeth the First, the virgin queen, who made it illegal to talk about the line of succession towards the end of her reign. So, Shakespeare, in a way, used his historical plays to ask what qualities should be wanted of royalty and leaders. Now, as London celebrates 70 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, the United Kingdom again ponders what they want of their royalty. Should the leader of the UK be strong and militaristic like Henry V? Nonviolent and refined like Richard II? Or something else? With the figurehead position of modern royalty in the UK, the question of their basic worth is also called into question. In conclusion, I would say that despite my initial misgivings, I have found Shakespeare’s histories to be a very revealing look into his time and the worries and thinking that accompanied it. His plays have lasting relevance to current day United Kingdom and continue to incite important conversations and questions.