¶ I don’t think I have to tell you this was a bizarre year. Everything in public life seemed to be going straight in the bin, and yet things for me professionally have only progressed positively. A number of long-awaited publications came into print, including the recent volume of Shakespeare Studies. I attended several conferences and workshops in three countries, saw far too many Much Ado About Nothings, started doing a great more public outreach, and blogged through two Shakespeare festivals—one at the American Shakespeare Center and the other with my hometown company, the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival. Here are some of your (and my!) favorite posts from Bite Thumbnails this past year.
¶ 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?