Beneath all the well-worn fantasy tropes and flashy special effects — the CGI dragons, the armies of evil ice zombies, the clichéd Christ allegories about magical heroes coming back from the dead — at its heart Game of Thrones is really just a giant mashup of European history. Twenty-five million or so rabid fans are certainly looking forward to watching computer-generated dragons torch equally pixelated ice demons in the new season that starts this Sunday on HBO, but the biggest thrills in Game of Thrones arguably come from seeing real-world history recreated onscreen in the guise of a fractured fairytale. Like Homer’s mythical reimagining of the Greek past or Sir Walter Scott’s best-selling historical novels in the 19th century, HBO has come to dominate the 21st-century cultural landscape by producing the most spectacular history lesson on TV.
The historical parallels in Game of Thrones are almost too easy to pick out. (Unless you’re looking for non-Western history; then you’re mostly stuck with flat racist stereotypes. More on that in a bit.) The continent of Westeros, where the show’s main action takes place, is shaped like Britain and Ireland, and the massive ice wall that keeps out the Wildling barbarians from the North just so happens to be at the exact same spot where the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall to keep out the Celtic tribes. Similarly, the civil war at the center of Game of Thrones mimics the 15th-century War of the Roses, when the houses of York and Lancaster fought a bitter internecine battle for the English throne — in Westeros, the Lancasters go by Lannister. The Ironborn raiders, who sail around in longships, are stand-ins for the Vikings, while the Free Cities on the continent of Essos represent the Italian city-states, right down to the island-city of Braavos, which is duly filmed in Venice. And the Valyrian Empire, which was famous for its engineering feats and military power, has crumbled into a pile of elegantly twisted ruins reminiscent of ancient Rome.
It isn’t just the real-world history behind Westeros that draws in fans, though. The made-up history within the show, much more than the dragons and ice zombies, is what drives the story forward. The plot hinges on big revelations about the personal histories of individual characters (who are Jon Snow’s parents?) and the larger political history of Westeros (who is plotting with Varys to restore the Targaryen Dynasty to the Iron Throne?). Readers of the original books by George R.R. Martin will appreciate just how critical the fictional history of Westeros is to the epic war the story depicts. Martin delights in taking long, world-building digressions to explain the minutiae of Westerosi history, from ancient patterns of human migration to the tangled lineages of important noble families, the source of all present-day conflicts. With a less agile and inventive writer, this would be a mind-numbing drag on the narrative, but in Martin’s lively prose, the history lessons can be even more entertaining than the fight scenes.
The classicist and critic Daniel Mendelsohn says that Martin writes with “Herodotean gusto”: Martin describes the wonders of the Westerosi landscape and the wars between its peoples in the same exuberant and exorbitantly detailed style as the (partly) factual travelogue, conveniently called the Histories, in which the ancient Greek Herodotus invented the genre of history-writing in the 5th century BCE. But Game of Thrones is better seen as a 21st-century echo of William Shakespeare. Martin’s plots borrow heavily from Shakespeare’s English history plays and the late-medieval time period they portray. More importantly, both Martin’s books and HBO’s TV adaptation have a distinctly Shakespearean view of how history works and why it matters.
When King Robert dies in season one, it sets off a war of succession between his friends, brothers, bastards, and opportunistic lesser lords that might as well be the War of the Roses. Shakespeare, of course, wrote eight or so plays about the War of the Roses and its backstory, starting chronologically with Richard II — in which Henry Bolingbroke usurps the throne from Richard II and names himself King Henry IV — and tracking the complicated fallout from Henry’s rebellion in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2, & 3, and Richard III. (You thought Hollywood was obsessed with sequels.) Both Shakespeare and Game of Thrones use the War of the Roses to explore how rulers seize and justify their power. In Richard II, when Henry usurps the crown through raw military force, he also makes sure that Richard II legally abdicates the throne and names Henry as his heir. In Game of Thrones, Cersei tears up King Robert’s will, bribes the city guards to help make her the Queen Regent, and forces the legal regent Ned Stark to publicly confess to treason. In these fictional recreations of factual events, both Shakespeare and Game of Thrones turn English political history into a tutorial on the workings of constitutional government. It’s political science 101, with dragons.
Importantly, Shakespeare shows us the big-picture political clashes of English history from the viewpoints of individual characters — that’s why there are so many soliloquies in his plays, times when a single character onstage shares his or her hidden thoughts with the audience. In Henry IV Part 1, for instance, Prince Hal (the future King Henry V) is a drunken lout who likes witty banter and chasing after prostitutes and has to wrestle with what he truly believes, but when it’s time to fight a war to protect his father’s kingdom, he turns out to be a highly effective soldier. In Game of Thrones, Tyrion is a drunken lout who likes witty banter and chasing after prostitutes and has to wrestle with what he truly believes, but when his father orders him to defend the kingdom, he turns out to be a highly effective . (He also channels John Falstaff, the charismatic, ingenious outsider of Henry IV Part 1: Tyrion faces social stigma as a dwarf, where Falstaff is mocked for his “fat-witted” enormity.) Game of Thrones, like Shakespeare’s play, uses an outcast with a brilliant mind, a sharp tongue, a taste for wine, and a non-normative body to explore what makes a good leader and what obligations we owe to our family and country.
Take a final example, this one directly from Martin’s books. When the rebels overthrow the Targaryen Dynasty, they kill the king’s two small children, Rhaenys and Aegon. But Aegon, it turns out, may have survived — or at least a young man who claims to be Aegon arrives in Westeros with an army to retake his father’s throne. This mimics the bizarre real-life tale of Perkin Warbeck, a twenty-something pretender to the English crown who claimed that he was one of the two young princes famously murdered in the Tower of London by their usurping uncle Richard III. Perkin Warbeck crossed the English Channel to Kent in 1495, supported by nobles from Scotland and mainland Europe, and led a series of armed revolts before he was finally captured and hanged in 1499. Shakespeare’s contemporary John Ford wrote a play called Perkin Warbeck that tells this story in order to ask a fundamental question: what makes the king the rightful king? If you remember Varys and Tyrion’s drunken banter about what makes a good ruler on their road trip in season five (not to mention countless other characters’ disquisitions on the nature of power), you know that’s the big question at the heart of Game of Thrones too.
In his history plays, Shakespeare reimagines the English past in order to ask, again and again, what makes the king the king. Is the rightful ruler chosen by God, or determined by laws and constitutions written by human beings? Is the ruler simply the person with the most money and military power, or should the ruler be the person with the best record of actually getting things done? Game of Thrones uses European history for the same reason: to stage a debate about how leaders gain and lose the legitimate right to rule.
Martin’s books and HBO’s show give a dazzling array of different answers to that question. For Cersei, the answer is raw power — swords create legitimacy, and she refuses even to pretend to care about her subjects. For her son Tommen, the answer is religion: the backing of the Faith conveys political legitimacy. For Stannis Baratheon, the answer is law and blood, the laws of succession that determine who should wear the crown when each king dies. For Jon Snow, the answer is that a good ruler should be elected and should have the right intentions and high moral principles. Jon’s followers, of course, end up killing him because he follows his principles. Then again, Jon also gets resurrected like Christ.
Daenerys is the most interesting case. She experiments repeatedly with how to legitimate her rule, from blood (her father was the king) to marriage (her husband was the Khal) to divine right (she appears to be the magically anointed savior of the world) to moral principles (she frees the slaves) to pragmatic success as a ruler (she spends multiple seasons bogged down in Meereen trying to improve her subjects’ lives). Her career as a queen is like a laboratory where Martin tries out the different styles of leadership represented in Roman and English history.
Daenerys’s attempts to rule also reveal the profound shortcomings of the focus on European history in Martin’s books and HBO’s TV adaptation. Daenerys swoops in like a deus ex machina on dragonback to liberate the oppressed people of color from Game of Thrones’s equivalent of the Middle East. In doing so, she (and the books and TV show) writes out the many historical non-Western models for political legitimacy (Al-Farabi, say, or Ibn Rushd; Confucius, or the Bhagavad Gita) and implies that it takes a white person to run an enlightened political system based on individual liberty. This isn’t very surprising: Art reflects the society around it, and plenty of Americans couldn’t believe a black man was the legitimate president of the United States. On the other hand, Game of Thrones goes powerfully in on the idea that a woman can be the most legitimate political leader in a crowded field. For Daenerys in this upcoming season, the woman card might turn out to be a winning hand.
Game of Thrones’ obsessive anxiety about the roots of political legitimacy helps explain why it’s such a smash hit right now. The question of what makes a ruler legitimate has been the central issue in American political life for the last fifteen years, from the mainstream to the fringe. Who won all those hanging chads in Florida in 2000? Was 9/11 an inside job? Was the Iraq War a legally and morally legitimate use of force? Was George W. Bush within his rights to have terrorism suspects indefinitely detained and tortured? Was Barack Obama really born in America, or is he a secret Muslim agent smuggled in to undermine the country? Did Donald Trump work with the Russians to steal the presidency? Can international climate accords legitimately control what America does? Does the press bravely speak truth to power, or is it all just fake news?
The world of Westeros, like the European history on which it’s based, implies that political legitimacy is both real and perceived: it rests on the power to rule, but it also lies in the eyes of the beholders, the everyday citizens who see their leaders as legitimate or not. Appearances, as Shakespeare knew, are everything — all the world’s a stage. Or, as Shakespeare’s ruler Queen Elizabeth I put it, “we princes, I tell you, are set on stages, in the sight and view of all the world.” It’s a lesson that George R.R. Martin’s characters have to learn. Robb Stark, for instance, manages for a while to maintain both the moral high ground and the military successes necessary to make himself a king. But when his underlings think he has acted illegitimately — breaking his betrothal to the Freys and letting his mother get away with freeing Jaime Lannister — they abandon him and kill him. In Game of Thrones, peaceful government depends on a system of political legitimacy — an agreed-upon set of norms about who gets to rule and how — but most of the time, that rule collapses into chaos and bloodshed.
The show ultimately reminds us that the institutions that create political legitimacy — our laws, beliefs, customs, and constitutions, the stories we tell ourselves about why our leaders get to lead — can be as fragile as Ned Stark’s neck, ready to explode when the next tyrant with a fop of yellow hair like Joffrey Baratheon slouches along. Behind the idealistic fantasy battle between good and evil, Westerosi history, much like our own real-world history, implies that if we want good government, we have to fight for the institutions that protect political legitimacy and preserve the rule of law. But neither our history nor Martin’s made-up one promises we’ll win.
I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction. The topic was “Modern Family,” and the moderator posed the question: “What literature influenced you as a young person?” My fellow panelists—the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam—named beloved, important books and authors. My answer—which I think came as a surprise to most—was that I hardly read as a child and youth.
My parents are immigrants—English is not their first language—and neither are they readers or cultural mavens. We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child. I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over—something about soup made from a button. Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically. Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos.
The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This was my junior year of college—relatively late for someone who now writes and reads “professionally.” Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience—I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe—and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn’t put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying). Where had this kind of reading been all my life? I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading. The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I’d call whole-soul reading. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about “mystical susceptibility,” the experience of books and language as “irrational doorways… through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them.” I’m so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment—because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I’ve picked up since then.
It’s true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late. I wrote about this a few years ago—the project of frantically “catching up” with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life. But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation. I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill—in James’s words, “states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect… illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain”—when reading.
In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual. Canonical books I read for the first time—”catchup” reading I’ll call it still—captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a “too late” (in fact, there may be a “too early”) when it comes to the reading life.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler said it best: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley … He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there…He had style, but his audiences didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement.” I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author’s concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern. Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn’t take to it as much as Hammett. I’ve just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler’s recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Of course this is a book I felt like I’d read because I know so much about it. At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder. I was sure I’d identify with Jo—if you’re reading the book at all, you’re Jo!— but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy. It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female—a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. You know, it’s all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here—four score and a decade later—still pretty racy. Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel’s themes—social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness—have room to come forward.
King Lear, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. I wasn’t actually sure if I’d read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way. But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I’d “read” it, I definitely hadn’t read it. Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare’s dramatic and linguistic brilliance. Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better. I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter’s Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn’t ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays—Henry IV is currently on deck.
Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity. But I was struck by Baldwin’s stunning feats of compassion—for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: “Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking…finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world—” (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.) Giovanni’s Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment—Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness—inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions. I’m still asking them.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now. Women still struggle to be “selfish,” which is to say centered around one’s creative and sensual imperatives. Chopin’s/Edna’s attraction to heterogeneous culture—cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility—is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call “gentrification”: affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin’s descriptions of Edna’s nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: “There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested…Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”
Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience—those moments when the inward life questions—that James himself may have appreciated. The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration—collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read—whole-soul read—being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier’s.
Image credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz.
One book blew me away this year: Lucia Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women. But I had a lot of dead Englishmen to revel with first. It must have been sitting through two inferior takes on Wolf Hall this spring that set me off: an awful production on Broadway; a far better but still tedious rendering on PBS. That sent me back to the books, flipping through to find the passages with my most feverish underlines, taking note of how masterfully Hilary Mantel brought the same scenes to life, with imagery, interior dialogue and delicious prose. I reread long stretches of both books in the series — can’t wait for the third.
I literally couldn’t wait. I found myself gobbling up books connected to that era, or connected to the connections. Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors was illuminating, but frustrating — especially for his penchant for lathering praise on the most dickish of kings. I was far more satisfied with Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets. I’ve OD’d on the period a bit for now, but when I return to the histories, it will be to his series. Foundation was best at its prehistoric and pre-Norman passages, which finally removed a festering burr from my intellect. If the Saxons were the dominant half of Anglo-Saxons, how did the Angles get custody of the name? It’s always perplexed me. The short answer: proximity to their conquerors. The Angles controlled much of the east coast, so it was their kingdoms the Danes wiped out when they crossed the North Sea. So the island was AngleLand (or something like that) to the Danes. They didn’t rename the place when they discovered even more Saxons much further in. (The Jutes got left out completely, along with lots of lesser tribes.)
It was also Foundation that led me to Beowulf, at the same time I was discovering how much J.R.R. Tolkien had riffed on it from the prologue of The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. That was enough to entice me to a bookstore to thumb through the supposed literary abomination I had escaped in high school. “Never take a class that forces you to read Beowulf,” an older friend had sagely advised on his first trip home from college. I’m reconsidering everything I ever learned from him. Of course he was too young to enjoy the melodious Seamus Heaney translation. What a delight that turned out to be!
Sure it got repetitive, and heavy-handed, but that was half the joy of it — the window into the psyche of 8th- to 11th-century English aristocracy: the ideas they cherished, how they sought to (over) communicate them, and what they considered a great yarn. It was also eye-opening to discover how liberally Tolkien helped himself to the material. Shelob, in particular, was concocted by imaginations 1,000 years earlier, and I felt rumblings of Middle Earth nearly every page. Yet Tolkien made it all his own. Well done, J.R.R.
My first attempt at Anglo-Saxon also made it apparent how absurd the alternate label of Old English is. I planned to approach Beowulf the way I do William Shakespeare: attempt to cold read chunks of the original on the left, jumping over to explanations — or translation — when I got really frustrated. Not happening. The “Old English” on the left was not just old or archaic, it was a completely different language. Not a recognizable word, anywhere. All of which I should have understood already perhaps from the Plantagenet histories, or high school, but there’s nothing like confronting the actual text to see how far we’ve come in 1,000 years.
And then I dove into the Henrys. I intend to get to all of them, but jumped ahead to start with Henry IV, Part 1. Good call. I can’t wait to start stealing from this! Shakespeare at the top of his form, in language, plot, and character. In spite of Falstaff. God, do I hate that guy. Never funny, always heavy-handed (a holdover from Beowulf?). Ugh. There’s a lot of the dufus in there, but the bursts surrounding him are brilliant enough to wipe out most of him from my memory.
Part 1 was so intoxicating, I plunged right into Part 2. Despite the naming convention, they are completely separate, self-contained plays. In fact, they’re more or less the same play: a complete rehash, replaying the same plot, ideas, and (mostly) cast — including His Vileness, Falstaff. With none of the inspiration or vitality. Half-hearted remake masquerading as sequel. So this is where Hollywood got it.
And then I got my hands on A Manual for Cleaning Women. Wow. No kings or dukes or ladies in waiting losing their heads or fighting for the crown. No grand sweeping anything. And no boisterous narrator, showing off, nor boring MFA stories, full of pretty sentences about nothing. These characters remind me of Denis Johnson. They could fit snugly into Jesus’ Son, though Lucia Berlin wrote most of these stories earlier.
Lucia gives us gripping tales about switchboard operators, cleaning ladies, and shy little Protestant girls trying to fit in at Catholic school. In the mission school in “El Tim,” the children tremble their morning prayers, the Latina girls flirting quietly, like muted birds, the boys cocking their plumed heads, decked out in brilliant yellows and turquoise, with V-neck sweaters and no shirts, exposing the crucifixes gleaming against their smooth brown chests. Berlin can sure set a scene. And bring it alive with boys trying hard to be hoods, “flipping a switchblade into a desk, blushing when it flipped and fell.”
Lucia Berlin was my mentor. She’s suddenly a sensation, but died 11 years ago, a virtual unknown. I’d read most of these stories, so I planned to skim a little and dip back into my favorites. I’m not much of a re-reader — I bore easily. But I’m transfixed, again, even deeper this time. I wasn’t a good enough writer to fully appreciate them the first pass. Half of what I do I learned from these stories, but I see now how much more there is to mine.
I read them mostly to enjoy. So much to savor. The flitting nuns and thuggish pachuco crucifixes in “El Tim” felt so vivid, but were all set-up for the emergence of the title character, who takes down Sister Lourdes, looking down at her with “his eyelashes creating jagged shadows down his gaunt cheeks. His black hair was long and straight. He smoothed it back with long slender fingers, quick, like a bird.” The girls were awed. “The pretty young girls who whispered in the restroom not of dates or love but of marriage and abortion. They were tensed, watching him, flushed and alive.”
How I feel every time I crack open this book.
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William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is upon us, and at The Millions we wanted to celebrate it in 21st century American style, by debating which of his 38 plays is the best. (Actually, we might have been even more of our time and place if we’d tried to denote his worst.) This exercise comes with the usual caveats about how every play is special and to each his own when it comes to art. But waffling didn’t serve Hamlet well and it’s no fun in this situation, either! We asked five Shakespeare experts to name their favorite play and defend it as the Bard’s best, and they certainly made good on that request. Below you’ll find five persuasively argued cases for five different plays. These contributions may not settle the matter once and for all (though I was happy to see a very strong case made for my personal favorite play), but you’ll certainly learn a lot from them and likely be inspired to dust off your Shakespeare reader or take to the theater next time a production of [insert name of best play here] comes to town. And, really, what better birthday present could we give ole William than that?
Ros Barber is author of The Marlowe Papers.
I would like to be more daring, but when pressed to name Shakespeare’s best work, I can only argue for Hamlet. You could have asked me which play I consider his most underrated (Cymbeline) or which one I feel most personally attached to (As You Like It). But best? Hamlet is iconic.
From the first report of his father’s ghost to the final corpse-strewn scene, Hamlet epitomizes the word “drama.” Shakespeare’s wit, playfulness, and linguistic skills are at their most honed. Everything Shakespeare does well in other plays he does brilliantly here. His characters are at their most human, his language is at its wittiest and most inventive. The heights he has been reaching for in every play before 1599, he achieves fully in Hamlet. The play contains a line of poetry so famous I don’t even need to quote it. Then there’s “Oh that this too, too solid flesh…” — the finest soliloquy in the canon. The memorable images that arise from Hamlet have soaked into Western culture so thoroughly that even someone who has never seen the play is liable, when presented with a human skull, to lift it before them and start intoning “Alas, poor Yorick…”
The role of Hamlet is the role that every actor wants to play. Supporting roles such as Ophelia and even incidental roles such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have spawned major works of art. And – “the play’s the thing” – the play within a play is called The Mousetrap, and by the influence of its title alone appears to have spawned the longest-running show of any kind in the world. There is some kind of radical energy in Hamlet, and it has been feeding artists, writers, and actors for over four hundred years.
When I wrote The Marlowe Papers, whose premise is that William Shakespeare was a playbroker who agreed to “front” for Christopher Marlowe after he faked his death to escape execution, I knew from the outset that I had to elevate this already genius writer to the point where he was capable of writing Hamlet. Not Othello, not King Lear, but Hamlet. It’s the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s artistic achievement. Hands down.
Rev Dr Paul Edmondson is Head of Research for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. His current projects include www.shakespeareontheroad.com, a big road trip of Shakespeare festivals across the United States and North America in Summer 2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @paul_edmondson.
For emotional high-points, it doesn’t come much better than The Winter’s Tale: the evocation of the loving friendship between the two kings; the sudden and expressionistic jealousy of King Leontes and his cruel treatment of Queen Hermione; her tender moments with her son, the young Prince Mamillius; her trial and condemnation; her death quickly followed by the death of Mamillius; the banishment of her baby, the new princess; the bear that chases Antigonus off the stage. And then the passage of time.
I love the way that, every time I see it, this play manages to convince me I’ve entered a whole new world in its second half, a pastoral romance, and that I’ve left behind the tragedy of the earlier acts. And then it all comes magically back to where we started from, with new people who have a different stake in the future. We are sixteen years on but when we return it’s as if we know the place for the first time.
Then the final moments when the statue of Hermione comes to life. It’s a magical story and a miracle of a moment, not least because of the physical challenges it places on the actress to stand as still as she needs to. For these reasons it is the Shakespeare play above all that I find to be genuinely the most moving. The director Adrian Noble, when asked which was his favorite Shakespeare play used to reply, “You mean after The Winter’s Tale?” When this play is performed I see audience members reaching for their handkerchiefs and walking out of the theatre with tears in their eyes. “You can keep your Hamlets, you can keep your Othellos,” a friend of mine once said to me at the end of one performance, “give me The Winter’s Tale any day.” And I agree with him.
Laura Estill is Assistant Professor of English, Texas A&M University, and editor of the World Shakespeare Bibliography.
Of course there is no single best Shakespeare play: there is only the play that speaks best to a reader, scholar, theatre practitioner, or audience member at a given moment. Today, the play that speaks most to me is Henry V. Henry V is not just a great history play — it is a play about how we create and encounter history and how we mythologize greatness. Throughout the play, a chorus comments on the difficulties of (re)presenting history. The prologue’s opening lines capture the play’s energy:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Henry V is part of a series of four Shakespeare plays, the Henriad, named for Henry V. The Henriad traces Henry’s claim to the throne and his calculated move from a carousing youth to a powerful leader. Henry V brings together threads from the earlier plays in the tetralogy (Richard II, 1 & 2 Henry IV) and is haunted by the ghost of Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most endearing characters. The play has meaning not just as a standalone piece, but as part of a network of texts, including other contemporary history plays and the historical accounts that Shakespeare used as his sources (notably, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland).
Shakespeare’s plays reflect the preoccupations of their readers and audiences; it is the multiple interpretations (both by scholars and performers) that make these works valuable. The counterpoints that Shakespeare presents in Henry V invite the audience to consider how we think of ourselves and what it means to be a strong leader. Shakespeare contrasts Henry’s moving and eloquent speeches (“we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) with the toll of war on common people (“few die well that die in a battle”). Some people see Henry as the greatest English king; others point to Henry’s threat to impale infants on pikes. The epilogue raises Henry as “the star of England” yet also reminds audiences that his son will lose everything Henry has fought to gain.
Although all of Shakespeare’s plays can be approached from multiple angles, not all have remained perennially popular like Henry V. Whether it stars Kenneth Branagh (1989), Tom Hiddleston (2012, The Hollow Crown) or Jude Law (2013, Noel Coward Theatre), Henry V is a great play because it raises more questions than it answers.
Doug Lanier is Professor of English and Director of the London Program at the University of New Hampshire. He’s written Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture (2002) and is working on a book on Othello on-screen.
King Lear is the Mount Everest of Shakespeare – often forbiddingly bleak and challenging, but for those who scale it, it offers an unparalleled vista on man’s condition and its own form of rough beauty. More than any other Shakespeare play, Lear exemplifies what Immanuel Kant labeled the “sublime,” by which he meant those objects that inspire an awe that simply dwarves us rather than charms.
King Lear explores human identity stripped of the trappings of power, civilization, comfort, and reason, what Lear calls “unaccommodated man,” the self radically vulnerable to the vagaries of an indifferent universe and the cruelties of others. That Shakespeare’s protagonist is a king and patriarch, for early modern society the very pinnacle of society, makes his precipitous fall all the more terrifying. The image of Lear huddled with a beggar and a fool in a hovel on a moor while a storm rages outside is one of the most resonant – and desolate – literary representations of the human condition. Equally bracing is Gloucester’s reward for loyalty to his fellow patriarch: in one of Shakespeare’s most daring onstage moments, Gloucester is blinded before our eyes, an instance of cruelty which even today has the power to shock.
How to live on with knowledge of our fundamental condition is the play’s central preoccupation. Paradoxically, it is precisely the world’s bleakness and our own vulnerability that makes the ephemeral glimmers of love within it all the more valuable. Lear opens the play by asking his daughters to display their love, and his painful recognition of who truly loves him drives the action of the play. Love is so ineffable in Lear that it is typically expressed in minimal language, as if almost beyond words. Cordelia says “nothing” to Lear’s demand for love, and later when her father asks her forgiveness, she replies with understated poignancy, “no cause, no cause.” At play’s end Lear’s anguished love for the dead Cordelia is expressed in a single, excruciatingly repeated final word – “never, never, never, never, never” – in a line which captures at once his guilt, his need for love, his protest against the cruel circumstances of existence, his irremediable pain.
What makes King Lear difficult is its virtue: Shakespeare’s willingness to look a comfortless cosmos directly in the eye and not to turn toward easy consolation. Lear’s world is recognizably our own, our own terrestrial hovel in the dark cosmic storm. And the play’s exceptional power remains its capacity to remind us that hope and love, however fleeting, remain that world’s most precious resource.
Elisa Oh is Assistant Professor of English at Howard University. She has published articles on King Lear, The Tragedy of Mariam, and Wroth’s Urania, and her current book project explores representations of race and gender in early modern dance.
Choosing my favorite Shakespeare play is like choosing my favorite child. However, for the sake of the argument, I throw down the gauntlet in favor of Othello. This is why it’s great: First, Othello shows us how language and stories create reality; second, the play reveals both heroic loyalty and the vengeful, perverse underbelly of same-sex friendship; and finally, it challenges us to realize how easy and harmful it is to racialize and essentialize others’ identities.
Language itself manipulates reality with powerful effects throughout Othello. Language causes characters to fall in love and to fall in hate with each other. Desdemona falls in love with Othello’s stories of wartime adventures, and Othello falls into an obsessive jealous hatred through Iago’s stories of Desdemona’s imagined liaison with Cassio and others. Othello wants “ocular proof” of her infidelity, but he ultimately accepts Iago’s words in place of seeing an actual illicit sex act, and then Othello begins misreading outward signs of innocence as evidence of inner corruption, because he already “knows” the truth. Iago’s diabolical success and sinister final silence demonstrate the ultimate incomprehensibility of evil, which may exceed the bounds of linguistic articulation.
Desdemona’s loyalty to Othello, even when he mistreats and kills her, and Emilia’s loyalty to Desdemona, even when speaking in her defense results in Emilia’s death, cause us to admire their transcendent steadfastness and to question the proper limits of self-sacrifice. Though “race” had less stable meaning for Shakespeare than it does for us today, the play continues to generate important conversations about how we “racialize” others or define them as possessing certain essential inner qualities based on exterior features, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Even the venomous serpent of internalized racism uncoils itself in Othello’s self-recriminations following his murder of Desdemona.
Witnessing the dis-integration of Othello’s love and trust in Desdemona is not a pleasant experience; if the criteria for “greatness” included audience pleasure, then one of the festive comedies would certainly come before this tragedy. However, taking each step down that sickening descent into murderous jealousy with Othello has the painful but useful result of making us question why and how this was possible with a passionate intensity bred out of a sense of injustice. The play serves as a magnifying glass that focuses conflicts about belief and disbelief; language and silence; loyalty and revenge; love and lust; blackness and whiteness with a growing intensity that becomes excruciatingly brilliant, unbearably burning, and finally cathartically destructive and revelatory.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
We need more literary holidays. Right now we have Bloomsday, and that’s about it. As great as Ulysses may be, we’re missing out on plenty of other books that lend themselves to an annual celebration. For what it’s worth, I want to claim today (October 25) for readers. A lot of people don’t know it, but today is already a holiday — St. Crispin’s Day. In theory, it’s meant to honor a Christian martyr named Crispin, but for me the day belongs to William Shakespeare and his play Henry V. The drama’s most memorable scene is the title character’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech, in which he rallies the British army to face off against a larger French force on the Feast of St. Crispin.
And there are lots of ways we can celebrate it. After all, the St. Crispin’s Day Speech is one of the best inspirational speeches in literature, and it was written by the most famous dramatist in the history of the English language. It practically demands to be read aloud. People could even perform it at home and post it on You Tube. As for myself, I am celebrating by simply reading the play — and thinking about the king at the center of it.
The St. Crispin’s Speech is not only great theater, it is Henry’s defining moment as a character. In it, he brushes aside concerns that his troops are outnumbered by declaring, “The fewer men, the greater share of honor” and insisting that anyone afraid to fight should leave because “We would not die in that man’s company/That fears his fellowship to die with us.” He slowly works these two threads — glory and fellowship — together throughout the address:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.
Henry is playing on his men’s desire for acclaim, telling them that they will be seen as heroes back home, “Familiar in his mouth as household words.” He doesn’t stop there, however. The speech culminates not only with Henry’s most famous line, but also with his boldest promise:
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…
Though it is a remarkable piece of rhetoric, inspiring his men to an unexpected victory at the Battle of Agincourt, the attentive reader or playgoer will notice that it is transparently untrue. After all, the play is called Henry V for a reason — because it is Henry, and Henry alone, who is remembered for the victory at Agincourt. The men that make up his “band of brothers” are almost all unnamed in the play and have been forgotten by history. They are fighting for Henry’s glory, not their own. Henry readily admits, “if it be a sin to covet honour,/I am the most offending soul alive.” His speech is a means to that end — he is rallying his troops because he needs them to make himself famous. He is lying to them even as he asks them to give up their lives on his behalf.
As W.B. Yeats observes, “(Henry) is as remorseless and undistinguished as some natural force, and the finest thing in his play is the way his old companions fall out of it broken-hearted or on their way to the gallows.” Yeats is referring especially to the fate of Bardolph, Henry’s erstwhile friend who is executed by a British officer — with the king’s approval — over a petty theft. What’s most striking about the scene is his coldness about giving the order, saying, “We would have all such offenders so cut off.”
Henry’s treatment of his friends is revealing. Bardolph dies because Henry wants to maintain total discipline in his ranks. Friendship and mercy do not produce victories, so Henry discards them. In the two parts of Henry IV — a pair of earlier plays focused on Henry’s youth — Prince Hal (as he was then known) is a friendly, jovial man, often playing pranks on Bardolph and their mutual friend John Falstaff. Now he is calculating and cruel. In Henry V’s first act, we learn that Falstaff has died of grief after being cast aside by Henry as a political liability. This is especially poignant because in Henry IV, Part One, Falstaff sets himself up as Henry’s one connection to humanity, warning the prince, “banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”
What the execution of Bardolph illustrates is that Henry has indeed “banished all the world,” and done so willingly. He does not have a single conversation in the entire play that doesn’t further his ambitions; he has no friends, no emotional attachments of any kind. All this is done in the service of becoming a “great” man. By some measures, it works. His willingness to say anything to his subjects makes him a great manipulator of emotions, which in turn makes him an effective public speaker. His single-minded pursuit of glory makes him a brave soldier, willing to throw himself into battle alongside his troops if that’s what it takes to impress them. Most importantly, from Henry’s point of view, he is successful — not only conquering France but also seducing the nation’s princess, Katherine, which should ensure that his offspring would inherit the French throne. Henry is a winner, and as he points out in his battlefield address, history remembers winners.
But it is one thing to remember a man; it is another to honor him. The play subtly makes the case that winners aren’t necessarily worth honoring — that greatness is a paltry thing. The poet W. H. Auden says it best: “Hal has no self.” He is incapable of reflection; he wants and he acts and that is all. If to lodge himself in people’s memory, he needs to invade another country on flimsy pretexts, then he does it without a second thought. He will also execute a friend for a relatively minor offense to set an example. He will even promise a woman he has never seen before that he is in love with her in the hopes of adding another title to his own. By showing us the emptiness and selfishness underlying Henry’s noble words and brave deeds, the play warns us to be leery of great speeches, great men, and even great victories.
Henry’s triumph at Agincourt brings no benefit to the English nation. The whole reason his force is so small is because most of his troops are needed back home to prevent a split among the English nobles from turning into a full-fledged rebellion — a split that Henry makes no effort to heal. His friends either end up dead, like Falstaff and Bardolph, or disillusioned. And students of British history know that Henry’s son, Henry VI, will not be able to hold his father’s empire together, and that Henry’s heirs will never truly rule France. Though Henry is acclaimed as a hero at the play’s end, it’s clear the only beneficiary of his heroism is himself. He is a walking statue — emotionless, rigid, and of no practical value to anyone.
In Henry V, Shakespeare offers us an opportunity to see the horror that results from pursuing winning only for its own sake. This is why St. Crispin’s Day ought to belong to Shakespeare’s play, and not the historical Henry’s battle. Because by reading, rereading, or simply thinking about the play, we are reminded that there is often a difference between the achievements that usually get remembered and the achievements that actually make people’s lives better. In a sense, the best counterpoint to Henry is Shakespeare himself, who has managed to take a shallow, dishonest man and turn him into the subject of a profound, candid work of art. That’s the kind of accomplishment I want to celebrate.
Who’s with me?