R & J – The Feud

In Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Shakespeare: The Biography’ he says:


…It has been estimated that there were thirty-five serious disturbances or riots in the city [of London] between 1581 and 1602. There were food riots, riots between apprentices and gentlemen of the Inns of Court, threats of riots against immigrants or ‘aliens’…Of course in a city where male citizens customarily carried daggers or rapiers, apprentices had knives, and females were armed with bodkins or long pins, there was a constant danger of violence…Cases  of violent assault…were as common as cases of theft or over-pricing.


I would suggest that, though R & J may be set in Verona, it is based on the London Shakespeare lived in as described above and that the violence he describes in the play is ready to explode as it has done before (for practical literary reasons, if a really serious fight had actually broken out earlier in the action too many of the main protagonists would be dead too early – especially Romeo!). So, Shakespeare teases us with dangerous violence underneath the surface barely controlled by the Prince’s edicts.



The feud is ‘ancient’ as we learn in the Prologue and, although the Prince does not say it has broken out into fresh fighting within the past month it would appear to be recent. Dramatically, it needs to be so because, in the light of my previous comment, violence must be simmering , ready to explode in the fight scene where, after all, two of the major leads are killed off, not at the end of the play, like ‘Macbeth’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ or ‘Hamlet’, but at the beginning of Act III.


The attitudes of the crowd and the combatants is, I would suggest, ambivalent and, to some degree not dissimilar to our own society’s attitude to war – glorious as it is done in the name of honour, loyalty and defence of one’s own, and, very annoying if it disturbs our sleep or peace of mind (not in our backyard). Are they that immature – are we?


As for long running feuds and almost tribal memory, we have only look to some fundamentalist Christians’ views on Jews, Protestants on Catholics and vice versa, or consider Rwanda, Serbia and Iraq to see that memories can stretch back centuries?

June 27, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Noting Much?

Much Ado About Nothing is, as the title for the Shakespearean play on offer at the moment, simultaneously straightforward and subtle. It is a complex pun, a playing with words that operates as a triple entendre and, reflects upon itself, since it means that there will be much action, business or fuss about nothing in particular. There will be no substance to slander, no hostility behind insults, no truthfulness in convictions. It is a romantic comedy, possibly even a farce, where two pairs of ‘star-crossed lovers’ make and unmake matches with each other and where ‘everything ends up happily ever after’. It involves many errors of perception, major deceptions and much misjudgement – Prince John’s reformation; the masked costume party; the staged ‘overhearings’ where Beatrice and Benedick learn of the other’s love; Borachio’s plot to blot Hero’s reputation; Leonato’s overreaction and then her ‘death’, amongst other features.


One of romantic love’s features is ‘whispering sweet nothings in your (lover’s) ear’ and this is as common today as it was then.


Moreover, since ‘nothing’ was, in Shakespeare’s day, pronounced ‘noting’ (rather like it would be in today’s Caribbean, ‘nothing/ noting’ is also music which Count Orsino in Twelfth Night declares is the ‘food of love’ and popular music on the theme of love is ageless and global.

June 27, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bad Press for Richard III?

Was Richard III a villain in the mould of Shakespeare’s Iago, Shylock or, even, Macbeth? Or was the Sainted Bard, the Holy Cow of Chroniclers, rewriting history (as he demonstrably did to stoop and scrape to the Stuarts with ‘the Scottish play’) in order to toady up to the Tudors by planting one on the Plantagenets?

 We know little about Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England from 1483 to 1485, and, what we think we know, may well not be true. There is a saying, even a cliché, that, ‘History is written by the victors’. On August 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth, a rightful king and the line he might have sired, expired. At a later point, due to Shakespeare’s hatchet-job and the demonisation of the previous regime required by the Plantagenet’s successors – the Tudors – the birth of a myth occurred, a legend about a person who was presented as a caricature – a deformed, depraved cartoon image of the reality. This misrepresentation dispossessed him of what made him a human being and replaced it with a one-dimensional villain.  Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was born almost at the start of a civil war, the War of the Roses, that lasted for fifty-three years and revolved around who was or was not a legitimate claimant to be king. Edward IV, of the House of York (and Richard’s brother), seized the throne from the mentally ill and unstable Henry VI, of the House of Lancaster, when Richard was only nineteen years old. Henry VI was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he was murdered on 21st May 1471.  Folk myth has accused Richard of this act, as well as the murder of Henry VI’s son, Edward of Westminster, his brother Clarence and his wife. Edward IV suddenly died eleven years later, leaving two young sons – the twelve year old who would have become Edward V, and Richard, Duke of York. These two Princes in the Tower did not live and Richard III has been indicted for their murder as well. Such is the fate of serial killers, he ruled less than two years before he was killed on Bosworth Field. 

Was he a ‘politicide’? Did he ruthlessly remove those who were between him and orb, crown and throne? Or did the well-organised Tudor propaganda machine and Shakespeare, its pre-eminent ‘spin doctor’, conspire to convert Richard into the fictional, but quite monstrous, Hannibal Lecter of the Elizabethan period (minus, presumably, the cannibalism)? As Ronald R. Stockton said in A Meditation Upon the Life of Richard III,

‘Let us think for a moment about the villainy attributed to Richard by his most famous detractor, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare describes Richard in the following way: unfinished, a lump of foul deformity, inhuman, unnatural, misshapen, with a dissembling nature, a rooting hog, the slander of his mother’s womb, the loathed issue of his father’s loins, a yonder dog, a hell hound, a carnal cur, a bloody dog, scum, and vomit. Shakespeare says Richard incited the king against his conspiratorial brother Clarence, even though historians agree Richard was Clarence’s chief defender; Shakespeare says Richard killed his own wife so he could make a more propitious marriage, although historians say he was distraught at her death; and Shakespeare says Richard had his trusting nephews killed to clear his way to power, although there is no firm evidence of this and much of the evidence that exists (all of it circumstantial) points to his enemies and accusers as the possible culprits.’The Richard III Society has been established to counter the bad press he received and its mission statement is,‘In the belief that many features of the traditional accounts of the character and career of Richard III are neither supported by sufficient evidence nor reasonably tenable, the Society aims to promote in every possible way research into the life and times of Richard III, and to secure a reassessment of the material relating to this period, and of the role in English history of this monarch.’Somewhere is the balance that is the truth and that is how history comes to life.But is he the pantomime baddie to be hissed and booed or the tragic hero to be worshipped from afar?

June 27, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment