¶ On the boards this last night of the Blackfriars Conference was “Much Ado About Nothing.” Going in I had to remind myself that I had “Much Ado” saturation. It happened a few years ago with “Hamlet,” too. You see so many versions of the same play in a short period of time—on campus in March, multiple OPS Fest performances in July, in Montreal and in London as recently as August—that it is hard to both not get a bit bored and a bit critical. And yet.
¶ Sometimes simple is best. A brilliant view helps.
¶ Plays about the life and times of Henry V, affectionately referred to as Hal (Nikolas Hoback), were big business in 1580s and ’90s England. There were multiple versions, some treating him as a hero and others as a villain who comes to be reformed, before William Shakespeare came on the scene. The History play genre was a new thing, brought to great success by an earlier company called the Queen’s Men. (Check out their plays, here.) I am convinced by Jim Marino’s argument that “The First Part of Henry IV with the life and death of Henry sir-named Hotspurre” was a revision, rethought by Shakespeare as part of a tetralogy, what some call the “Henriad” after Homer’s Iliad, rather than a stand-alone piece.
¶ Similar to thinking about Shakespeare as an expert reviser, watching an “original practice” or First Folio performance take on any of the plays challenges your assumptions about what is and isn’t there. I discussed in a previous post the useful and necessary fiction that are critical editions of plays: they pull together all the extant versions of a play with a name like “King Lear” into one place. This isn’t really a different act than Shakespeare’s revising an old play new again, except that critical editing isn’t interested in (and typically doesn’t retain) performative coherence. And it’s not objective either: critical editing creates its own myths about what we want a play to mean at a particular point in time. Watching an O.P. production, a performance that picks one version of Shakespeare’s text and sticks with it, illuminates just what those myths are.
¶ So what happened in this performance, where the actors trust their text?