One reason why I love to watch and rewatch Shakespeare’s plays is because I get to see my favourite actors play my favourite characters. Some actors cement public perception of a character, such as Laurence Olivier’s Oedipal Hamlet. Other times, I find an actor’s best-known role tends to colour my understanding of any other role they ever play. In the past I’ve called this inter or intra-dramatic doubling, but now I tend to call it “creative casting.”
The “creative,” in this case, is our creativity as viewers who interpret a production’s casting. Our insights can often be anachronistic, because in the age of Netflix, we don’t necessarily watch an actor’s filmography in chronological order. As such, our impressions of an actor in a later but better-known performance might influence our impressions of their earlier roles.
For example, Kevin Spacey is currently making waves as the anti-hero Francis Underwood. In 2011, he played the title role in the Old Vic’s Richard III, which inspired his performance of the fourth wall-breaking, 21st century Machiavel in House of Cards. Yet, if I were to watch Spacey’s Richard III again today, my understanding of his performance would be coloured by my impressions of how Richard’s devious machinations are akin to Frank’s. To learn more about Spacey’s journey into the role of Richard, check out his film, NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage.
Even though the Bard himself has no say in how his plays are produced today, it is nonetheless worthwhile to think about the significance of contemporary casting choices. By looking at who is being cast, how we know them, and why we know them, we can learn more about the Shakespearean characters they play.
Let’s take Robert Pugh, for example. His name might be unfamiliar, but his piercing blue eyes will remind you that he plays Craster on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Just before he terrified as the morally twisted wildling, Pugh filmed BBC’s Hollow Crown Series, specifically Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1. In the movie, Pugh plays Owen Glendower, leader of the Welsh rebels. Glendower may be rebelling against Henry IV, but his time onstage is devoted to verbal battles with the defiant Henry Percy, aka Hotspur. When Pugh as Glendower boasts that he “can command the spirits from the vasty deep,” Hotspur doesn’t take him seriously, but I certainly do. This is because when I see Pugh, all I can think of is the character that does terrible things to appease what lurks beyond the Wall (no spoilers!).
Hotspur, on the other hand, is less cautious. Percy laughs at his host’s ostensible superstition, responding: “Why, so can I, or so can any man; / But will they come when you do call for them?” Glendower defends his pride, justifying himself with talk of even darker deeds. He tells Percy: “Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command / The devil.” Hotspur pushes all bounds of common courtesy by insulting the Welsh leader’s sense of spiritual authority, retorting: “And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil / By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil.” Hotspur isn’t particularly spiritual himself: if an activity doesn’t call for a sword in hand and a horse underfoot, he laughs it off as cowardice.
In some productions of this play, the Hotspur/Glendower scene is comic relief – two bumbling villains who are too busy fighting each other to think up a smart plan to fight Henry IV. Whereas in the play itself, Hotspur and Glendower meet at the Archdeacon’s house, in this film, they seem to meet at Glendower’s own home. With this production’s particular choices in casting and setting, I have every reason to be afraid of Glendower’s spiritual powers. Hotspur may not be scared of him, but I am. I know what those remorseless blue eyes are capable of, and know that those who care more about the spirits care far less about honour. If Hotspur were watching Game of Thrones, he’d know to be more gracious to his host. If recent seasons have taught me anything about being a houseguest, it’s that even sacred hospitality laws can be broken!