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A Crash Course in Shakespeare's Histories

When I say I'm performing in Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, people recognize that. I generally don't have to provide much follow-up if I'm working on As You Like It or Macbeth or Julius Caesar. But when someone asks what play I'm doing right now, the answer ends up being an unnanticipated microlecture on Shakespearean history: "We're working on Henry IV, which is actually two plays we've conflated into one. It's kind of about Henry IV, who killed the previous king and stole the throne at the start of the 15th century, but it's mostly about his son..." and then people start to look at me like this:

Now, as a life-long geek, I've long since come to terms with the fact the most people aren't going to excited about the weird stuff I get excited about, but at the same time I cannot in good conscience let people miss out on the greatness that is Shakespearean history just because at some point in their school career they became convinced that history is boring. Therefore, I've come up with a few standard "Don't dismiss my history plays!" arguments:

1) The Game of Thrones Strategy

This one is pretty self explainitory, considering George R. R. Martin is openly drawing from actual medieval ENglish history and Shakespeare's interpretation of it. But I'm not saying "If you like medieval people fighting over politics with dragons, just imagine how much fun it is WITHOUT dragons!" (because that would be a ridiculous thing to say). The thing that makes GoT such a huge popular success isn't the plot or the magic, neither of which are especially innovatitve for the genre, but the huge cast of fascinating characters. And a lot of those characters just happen to be remixed from Shakespeare!

Ever wondered what would happen if Stannis Baratheon ever won the Iron Throne? Meet Henry Bolingbrook.

Bolingbrook becomes Henry IV by taking the throne from his cousin Richard II (we did that play last winter). Like Stannis, he is smart and competant, but not especially charismatic. He's committed to doing what he thinks is right and very willing to let the ends justify the means. Like Stannis, Henry frames his reach for the crown as about duty rather than desire for power, and though whether truly believes that or is lying to himself is up for debate, it's clear to the audience that his reasons are much more personal and emotional than he pretends. Stannis's fight for the crown leads him to sanction the murder of his younger brother Renly, a deed which haunts Stannis despite their complicated relationship, just as Henry is haunted by the death of Richard. Both Richard and Henry are difficult to get close to and tend not to inspire widespread love in their followers, but earns the devotion of a few close friends.

Once you start looking for these kind of parallels, they're everywhere. Sir John Falstaff combines Tyrion Lannister's wit and cynical perspective with Robert Baratheon's appetite for life.

The manipulative Lord Wooster, who orchestrates rebellion from the shadows, the colorful outlaws who inhabit the taverns of Eastcheap, the commanding Lady Percy would all fit right in with the denizens of Westeros.

2) The Star Wars Arguement

So you can basically summarize all seven Star Wars movies as the story of how the Skywalker family screws up the entire galaxy over and over. In Shakespeare we call them the Plantagenets but the principle is basically the same. Shakespeare's histories cover rebellion, foreign and civil war, tyranny and other big, sweeping themes but at heart they're also a family drama. These kings and lords are fighting over the personal as much as they are over the political.

Like Star Wars, Shakespeare's histories also gleefully juxtapose "high" and "low". Star Wars features not only jedi knights and imperial officers but droids and ewoks, and scenes dealing with galactic politics are back to back with comic relief and alien gangsters. Henry IV, even more than Shakespeare's other histories, does the same, bouncing back and fourth between King Henry's court and the London tavern (a wretched hive of scum and villany, if you will) where his son Hal spends most of his time. Here's a fun game to play while you watch: Which of the tavern folk would you replace with an alien muppet? (hint: it's probably Bardolph)

3) The Hamilton Hypothesis

A decent amount has already been written about the musical Hamilton and it's similarities to Shakespearean history plays, but in relationship to Henry IV the most striking one is that both plays tell a historical story by focusing on one central character. Henry IV is really the story of Prince Hal, Henry's heir, of his education and coming of age and how he eventually (600 yr old spoiler) grows up to become Henry V, one of England's historical heroes. Like Hamilton in the musical, Hal has a special relationship with the audience, frequently addressing them directly and sharing joking asides.

On a technical level, if you appreciate the way Hamilton uses varying rap and musical styles to denote different characters, locations and situations, you'll find Shakespeare uses language vary similarly, deliberately switching between blank verse and prose to indicate changes in formality, intimacy, emotion.

4) The Explanation of What's Going On

For the person who doesn't care why they should like history plays, they just want to know what's going on:

Previously: Richard II was basically The Emperor's New Groove except instead of getting turned into a llama Richard was imprisoned and murdered, and his cousin Henry took over.

Currently: Henry's king now, but everyone thinks they deserve special treatment for putting him on the throne in the first place. The northern lords (lead by the Percy family) are like "How dare you think you're the boss of us just because we made you the king?" so they decide to start a rebellion.

The rebellion's MVP is Harry "Hotspur" Percy, who's the best ever at fighting (and yelling). He's so good at stabbing people and looking honorable that King Henry wishes he could adopt him. Henry's son Hal (yeah, all these people are actually named Henry, hence all the nicknames) is going through a rebellious phase and spending most of his time drinking with low-lifes.

Want to know more? You'll have to come see the show!

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