Tag Archives: 1 Henry IV

Creative casting: Shakespeare featuring Game of Thrones actors

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.

Spacey as Francis Underwood in House of Cards

Spacey as Francis Underwood in House of Cards

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.

Craster is unimpressed with Jon Snow's snooping

Pugh as Craster, unimpressed with Jon Snow’s snooping

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!).

Pugh as Glendower, with Joe Armstrong as Hotspur in The Hollow Crown

Pugh as Glendower, with Joe Armstrong as Hotspur in The Hollow Crown

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!

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Bullying in Shakespeare

To engage young people in the wonderful world of Shakespeare, educators tend to begin with old faithful: Shakespearean insults. The exercise is easy to set up and on top of being hilarious, the obscure jokes help educators to sneak in little lessons on Shakespeare’s language: “Why is that particular word insulting? Here’s a history lesson!” Truth be told, most of the expressions are slang for erectile dysfunction or venereal disease! Pretty risqué!

Today, while watching The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part 1 (2012, dir. Richard Eyre), I thought about another way of bringing Shakespeare into classroom conversation: let’s talk about bullying. So often we read Shakespeare’s speeches as meditations on virtues we should possess: selflessness, mercy, and courage. But what about when Shakespeare shows us a really awful character, someone who has charisma, but delights in causing others pain? Do we ignore those characters? Not a chance.

A drunk Hal and Falstaff

A drunken Hal and Falstaff

We find a Shakespearean bully in Prince Hal, Henry IV’s son and the future Henry V. Hal spends all of his time at a tavern in a scummy part of town, and it pains his father that he’s not participating in his courtly duties. Hal delivers a soliloquy about how he’s just waiting for the perfect time to show the whole kingdom that he’s worthy of the crown. Yet, even after he shares these lofty aspirations, Hal maintains his persona as the guy who can “drink with any tinker in his own language during my life”; he prides himself on being able to speak the language of the common people, and sees that as a selling point for his new generation of kingship.

But is it possible that Hal genuinely enjoys being at the pub because he can lord himself over all the guests and staff? This is a big change from being shamed by his father back home at court! Hal asserts his dominance at the Boar’s Head Tavern by playing a trick on the slack-witted busboy, Francis. Francis has a busy role, and as all the customers call out to him, he delays helping them by calling back, “Anon, anon!”, showing that he’ll be there soon. Hal gets his buddy Poins to call out to Francis from another room, while Hal monopolizes the busboy through meaningless conversation. Francis is forced to keep shouting “Anon, anon!” to Poins, but Hal laughs hysterically because he asks Francis stupid questions that he keep answering with, “Anon, anon!” This goes on for a while, much to Francis’s increasing anxiety.

Hal and Poins: Besties.

Hal and Poins: Besties.

Francis’s limited vocabulary is the butt of Hal’s joke; it’s easy for the one brought up by the kingdom’s finest tutors to laugh at the uneducated, but I find Hal to be the worst kind of hypocrite because he prides himself on his ability to speak the language of the people and then uses it to exploit them. Francis is overworked and underpaid, and instead of pitying his need to work so hard, Hal creates more obstacles to prevent him from getting his job done.

It’s important to ask: Why is Hal doing this? We know he does this to share a laugh with Poins – is it because Hal doesn’t have friends in the manipulative world of court, and is trying to cement his friendship with the bar rat Poins, instead? The joke definitely indicates something about Hal’s self-consciousness. Even beyond his desire for friendship, I see a character that is so busy delaying his own coming of age that he’s displacing his own anxieties onto the innocent Francis.

What might seem to be a silly prank is nonetheless bullying because Hal is exploiting Francis’s subservient position.  No matter how loudly Poins calls for him, Francis is obviously going to delay helping Poins (calling back “Anon, anon!”, on cue) because it is his responsibility to make the Prince comfortable; his livelihood depends on the Prince’s favour. So it is okay when Hal finally lets Francis finally leave by bellowing at him, “Away, you rogue! dost thou not hear them call?”? No! He’s exploiting his social inferior for his own amusement! That’s not fair, and it’s not the kind of attitude that people should emulate when trying to be “princely.”

Goneril and Regan: don't mess with these two.

Goneril and Regan: Don’t mess with these two.

So the next time you’re studying one of Shakespeare’s plays, look for the bullies. It could be Gratiano in Merchant of Venice, the terrible Demetrius and Chiron in Titus Andronicus, or maybe the bully is a woman, like Goneril or Regan in King Lear. Watch out for them: Shakespeare’s bullies are everywhere. They offer us the chance to learn about the motivations and weaknesses of all kinds of difficult people, and with those lessons, we can develop strategies for how to overcome negative influences and channel our struggles into something positive.

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The Hollow Crown: Henry IV part 1

One way to fight the winter blues is to accept that it’s too cold for any sane person to leave the house. Instead, we must find ways to enjoy the great indoors. My proposed solution is twofold: the first is the miracle of slow-cooked applesauce. While you don’t get the pleasure of licking the tinfoil lid off the childhood favorite, eating it warm, straight out of the slow cooker, will change your life forever. The second part of the solution is to get into your jam-jams and comfiest robe, and watch lots and lots of movies.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

…Shakespeare movies, that is! I’ve been downloading way too many BBC adaptations and watching too few, so last night I decided to change that. I’ve been on a little Tom Hiddleston kick lately (can you blame me?), so I started with 1 Henry IV. I consider this the most unfortunately-named Shakespeare play, as its boring title doesn’t signify its compelling main character (Prince Hal), the fun he has with Shakespeare’s most comic character (Falstaff), and coming of age that Prince experiences in this play.

Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy

Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy

This production is certainly well cast. Few actors make better brooding, guilt-ridden rulers than Jeremy Irons, slightly less lecherous than in his role as Rodrigo Borgia, and Hiddleston plays a bright-eyed mischievous Prince Hal. Michelle Dockery, fresh from Downton Abbey, glows, alabaster as ever, and I really enjoyed the way Richard Eyre amped up the flirtiness between Kate and Hotspur, who is often portrayed as loving his horse more than his wife.

Prince Hal and Falstaff

Prince Hal and Falstaff, besties for life?

Simon Russell Beale, who has been treading the boards of the English stage nonstop for the past couple of years, was a good Falstaff. Good, not great, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why. I love the character, an irresponsible, lecherous, glutton who leeches off friends both high and low, yet his true devotion to Hal peeks through. What I don’t appreciate is that Richard Eyre thought it necessary to back each of Falstaff’s sympathetic speeches with an affecting violin track. I recognize that medium of film allows for certain enhancements to the text that the stage does not, but that does not mean that Shakespeare’s words themselves need more enhancing than an actor’s clear voice. Take, for example, the following speech:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.

This is one of the most profound speeches in the Shakespearean canon. Honour inspires me to fight, by why should I, when I might just die? What is the value of dying in the name of honour? Will honour heal my bloody wounds? Will honour take care of my family when I’m gone? The dead man can find few, if any, practical applications for honour, so why pursue it? Falstaff asks these rhetorical questions, offering a catechism in the name of the Abbot of Unreason, all the while showing just exactly how reasonable he is. Falstaff is the one to make us question the nature of heroism: is the king heroic for forcing his army to fight and kill a hundred thousand “rebels”, who on any other day would be counted as fellow countrymen? Is Hal heroic for leaving the tavern in order to aid the King in a war that was only brought on after his father took the crown from Richard II? Falstaff may be a leech on society, but Shakespeare’s words show he is the one shrewd enough to know the finality of death, a truth that need no violins to prove it.

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