All entries for Thursday 11 September 2008

September 11, 2008

Are they any good? The First Four Plays

This is a question I've been asked several times since taking up this project. If these plays are largely unknown, and generally ignored, is it simply because they're rubbish?

One of my first jobs has been to simply re-read the Apocrypha, re-familiarising myself with the plays in advance of starting the work on attribution, and I've been pleasantly surprised at how much I've been enjoying them. Here's a selection of what I've read so far. These aren't academic readings of the plays, just passing observations from quick read-throughs:

  • The Book of Sir Thomas More

This play is a top-notch historical biography, a genre which Shakespeare doesn't really engage with (though Henry VIII has a similar 'domestic' sense about it, in that it's a history not concerned with wars). Thomas More himself is one of the great characters in Renaissance drama. Genuinely funny, supremely clever and with great integrity, the play is structured around his rise (following on from his role in pacifying the instigators of the May Day riots) and fall (his failure to sign some unspecified articles, leading to his ultimate execution). It's a wonderful play, with its main weakness perhaps being the lack of fully-fleshed supporting roles - apart from the rioters, who dominate the first couple of acts, most characters only appear in one or two scenes. The execeptions are his family, who don't have much to do apart from bemoan More's downfall, and the Earls of Surrey and Shrewsbury who act as a voice of political reason against More's idealism throughout. Still, it's action-packed, particularly in the early rioting scenes, and surprisingly tense and moving as More loses his position and slides inevitably towards his death. Yet, even at the end, he's still joking on the gibbet. In terms of links, there are some moments that reminded me of Coriolanus in the interactions between nobles and peasants.

  • Edward III

A more traditional history play, dealing with the original conquering of France by Edward III and his son, the Black Prince. Particularly interesting in that this period is referenced constantly throughout Shakespeare's English history plays, and in many ways Henry V is a replay of the same actions, sieges and all. However, there's a surprising depth of character considering the relatively episodic nature of events. The Scottish King David is a particularly funny coward, for example, and the Duchess of Salisbury (in the scenes most traditionally attributed to Shakespeare) is particularly well-rounded. Her skill in thwarting the King's adulterous designs on her are breathtaking. There are some great discussions of honour during the war, particularly in an extended sequence relating to the French Prince guaranteeing Salisbury passage through his lands and the French King trying to renege on that promise. Downsides? Well, it's rather sickeningly patriotic in places, and doesn't seem to have a wider story to tell. It bears strong comparison to Henry V, though.

  • Arden of Faversham

The first of two domestic tragedies based on real events. Arden is absolutely fascinating for its pace and bloodiness, and also for its bizarre humour. The murder of Arden has been planned by his wife and her adulterous lover by the time the play starts, and for much of it I found myself laughing at the repeated thwarted attempts on Arden's life as the hapless murderers continually made mistakes. Yet there's also some great character work between Alice, the wife, and Moseby, her lover, as they test each other's committment. She's a real piece of work. There are also moments of interest among the minor characters; local landowners who have grievances against Arden; the servant who is bribed into taking part in the murders by being promised the girl he loves; and, in a moment of shocking injustice, the ultimate execution of Bradshaw for simply carrying a letter to Alice. Considering the play's brevity, there's so much going on.

  • A Yorkshire Tragedy

An evil little play, which crams some truly horrible stuff into its few pages. The only named characters are three servants in the first scene who have no important impact on the rest of the play, and after that it's all 'Husband', 'Wife', 'Son' etc. The Husband, the man who commits his crimes, is beyond redemption, an utterly evil man who has gambled away all of his - and his faithful Wife's - money and prowls their house, snarling at everything and crying out against his wife's infidelity (which, of course, is all in his mind). Suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere on the page, he kills his Son, then tries to kill the rest of his household (succeeding in killing another son), before he is stopped. Only in his final moments, confronted with his wounded wife and dead children, does repentance finally hit him. Short and shocking, the play brings onto stage what one imagines would have been going on in Othello's mind, extending the homicidal jealousy found in other plays of the period to its extreme limit, turning a local scandal into a grimly fascinating depiction of a murderer at work. It bears comparison to the killing of Macduff's family in Macbeth in terms of content. Savage.

Whether or not they're by Shakespeare, or have his hand in them, these four plays are great in their own ways. These are probably the best known of the group, and the most performed (though that's not saying much in terms of the apocrypha). Whatever my findings in terms of authorship, it's going to be really rewarding to work on these in more depth.


I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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