A repost of a much earlier blog post about Shakespeare’s history plays.
Broadly speaking, the history plays are historic.
This must be taken with a large pinch of greasepaint however, due to the fact that Shakespeare altered, edited and fiddled with them to reflect kindly on whichever royal family, patron or other exalted person with a fat purse and a hangman’s noose was paying the piper at the time. Cunning little he minx.
The histories don’t really have dancing or romance in. They have a lot of tragedy. They differ from the tragedies in that they also have a lot of politics. There is also politics in the tragedies but it is covert. The politics in the histories is overt. This can get quite confusing at times, particularly when anyone religious takes to the stage and starts reading from scrolls. You may want to drift off during these bits and save your energy for the fighting which, as any fule no, is the best bit. I like to try and spot cod pieces or unusual trouser formations at these times.
To add to the complications the histories also have a lot of people with the same name wearing different hats and trousers (which is why concentrating on the trouserage does actually help), all of whom are peculiarly related to one another. There is a lot of Anglo/French animosity. The French do not come out of it well. The Welsh have rather a hard time of it as well, although they do get to enact revenge by forcing people to eat raw leeks occasionally. These are the bits marked ‘light relief’. The forced leek eating and poking fun at foreigners gives the stage hands time to nip out with a mop and swab up some blood, so the actors don’t skid about too much during the next siege/charge/beheading.
Other things in the history plays include, the profligate use of tennis balls, much severing, lots of references to gardening, roses by the bucket load and annoying fat bastards called Falstaff who are just not funny no matter how many buckets of sack they quaff and how many lewd gestures they make with their shirts stuffed full of cushions.
Women are rather thin on the ground. In the space of about seven plays you have a couple of embittered queens (of the female variety. We are not doing transvestism now), two or three foxy foreign minxes of royal lineage, quite a lot of sobbing widows and some prostitutes with hilariously tawdry names like Madame Whoops There Go My Bloomers.’ It is not a woman’s world.
There are also battles galore and bodies upon bodies. If you wish to be an actor in a history play you must have the following attributes:
- The ability to remember which Richard, Henry or Edward you are at any given time in about a three hundred year time span.
- Thinness is key. You don’t want to be too fat. Lots of the dead bodies have to be lifted, shifted and hefted. Someone will get hurt eventually.
- Acrobaticism. You need to be able to lift, shift, heft and fight like a demon. Pilates is a required course.
- Fondness for stage blood. There is a lot of it.
- A fantastic dry cleaner. See stage blood point above.
All the history plays are linked together apart from King John. For some reason King John, despite being historical in nature is shunned and abhorred. It is not included in the history cycle and is very often ignored completely. Andrea has seen it once in over twenty five years of play going. I have never seen it. If it weren’t for Andrea’s swearing on a stack of Arden Shakespeare’s I would be unconvinced of its existence. I would believe it was rather like that tube station that London Underground claimed to have lost somewhere round Buckingham Palace, a load of old bollix. But Andrea swears on her calves’ lives that it is real and true.
I suggest to you that it may be a ‘problem play’. It may be so problematic that it is just too much of a faff to put on, which is why everyone ignores it. I shall report back.
N.B. Since I first posted this post I have actually been to see King John. I don’t understand why nobody shuns it and sends it off to live in a dark corner. They must have their reasons, but since theatres consistently revive Cymbeline, which is one of the most bonkers and impenetrable plays Shakespeare ever wrote I think King John is being unfairly snubbed.