Tag Archives: Roughly Chronological Re-read

The Roughly Chronological Re-read Week 10: Romeo & Juliet

Before I begin, a quick apology – I just discovered that there have been comments on these posts that I haven’t replied to. I hadn’t realised that WordPress was no longer sending me notifications for each individual comment, and without notifications I didn’t realise that comments were being posted! I’ll go back and get caught up. Apologies if I appear to have ignored any of you! It was unintentional.


Date:  Circa 1595.


First read:  In a shortened version, around 1993, then the full text in 1996.


Productions seen: Hunners. The Animated Tales in the early 90s, then a production at the Brunton Theatre on a school trip, then over a dozen others over the years.


Productions worked on: Bits and pieces during training, one adaptation, one production (in Kent’s Cavern in Torquay, which remains one of my favourite shows to have worked on).


Edition I’m using:   Penguin Popular Classics.

 (I am pinned under a cat at time of posting and unable to set up the standard photo. This will be added later.)




  • After Love’s Labours Lost, this is such a relief! The pacing and structure are just so much better. It’s not perfect – the wrapping up of the plot after R&J are dead still goes on a bit too long, as do the Capulet domestic scenes (the party planning, for example, and the musicians after Juliet’s death), but it’s a definite improvement.
  • The use of the Chorus in this is strange. There are prologues for the first and second acts, then the device is simply dropped. It puts me in mind of the way the Christopher Sly device in The Taming of the Shrew is similarly started and discarded.
  • Normally I don’t find the comic relief in R&J too tiresome, but I think I’m still burned out from LLL. Samson and Gregory were getting on my nerves this readthrough. And for the first time, so was Mercutio – but only a little, and only during the Queen Mab scene.
  • Act 1, scene 5 – how on earth does Capulet’s servant not recognise Juliet? The Capulet family’s domestic arrangements are a mess.
  • I really don’t understand Friar Laurence and the Nurse’s willingness to facilitate all of this. Yes, there’s the Friar’s vague idea that a marriage between Romeo and Juliet might bring the feud to an end, but that seems… well, unlikely, to say the least. Capulet claims to be prepared to throw Juliet out of the house for refusing to marry Paris, so I’m not convinced that he’d be easily persuaded that her marriage to a Montague was a good thing. I can imagine that getting them married seems like a better idea than saying no to them and risking them going ahead and having sex anyway, because it’s easy to imagine what damage could be done by Romeo ruining Capulet’s daughter and Friar Laurence doesn’t seem to trust Romeo to keep it in his pants. Still not a good plan, though. Intervening with their parents might have been a better idea…
  • Also, that still doesn’t explain the Nurse. She’s got so much to lose if she gets caught in any part of Juliet’s plan, and unlike Friar Laurence she doesn’t have the safety net of the church. In that respect she’s a strong, well-observed depiction of someone who doesn’t think ahead. Bloody frustrating to read though.
  • Every time I read this script I get angry all over again about all the times I’ve seen Juliet played as a drip. She’s really not. Imaginative and romantic, definitely. Insane, possibly. But she is anything but a drip. She’s decisive to the point of madness, she takes control wherever she can, and the girl’s sharp as a tack. Her first exchange with Romeo, her encounter with Paris, her conversation with her mother in the wake of Tybalt’s death – they’re all beautiful exchanges of wits.
  • Speaking of wits, if Richard III was the play where Shakespeare really mastered the concept of dramatic irony, Romeo and Juliet is the one where he decides that opposites are great fun and should be employed at every opportunity. Not a bad thing – certainly less irritating than his craze for relentless couplets in LLL.
  • And speaking of irritating, after all these years I’ve still never warmed to Romeo. A really strong actors with a particular kind of intensity can distract attention from Romeo’s flightiness and stroppiness (and I’ve been fortunate enough to see and work with actors who can), but it’s still there in the text. Even with judicious cuts, it’s hard to get past the childishness of his nature. Which leads me on to my next point…
  • How on earth did people start thinking of this as a romantic play? Fortunately there are plenty of people who argue otherwise now, but I get a little surge of WTF every time I see a production being marketed as a great love story. Does anyone really think that if the plan had worked and Juliet had made it to Mantua, their marriage would have been a happy one? I’d give it a week before she’s back in Friar Laurence’s cell demanding to know whether a marriage is really legal if there are no witnesses.
  • Once again I found myself feeling very sorry for Paris. Poor guy didn’t sign up for any of this. All he wanted was to marry a girl whom he thought might possibly grow to like him and whose family approved, and instead she dies and he gets stabbed. I get the impression he genuinely likes Juliet – his visit to her grave clearly isn’t just posturing, since it’s done in the dead of night and he takes pains not to be seen. I wish we got to know a bit more about him, though that might make his getting the short end of the stick feel even more unjust.
  • Seventeen years after studying it for my Highers, I still think this is an odd choice for a curriculum text. The rationale seems to be that it’s about a couple of teenagers, so give it to teenagers to study and they’ll find it interesting because it’s about people like them. I remember being 16 and finding that mildly insulting, because I damn well knew not to snog a stranger at a party and then mistake it for love and marry them the next day. It took age and experience to see the play for what it is, to realise that it’s commenting on the mad intensity of young love rather than celebrating it. At 16 I found the power struggles of Macbeth far easier to identify with, but perhaps that’s just me…



The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 9: Love’s Labours Lost

Date:  Mid-1590s.


First read: Circa 1998, before I felt equipped to take issue with Shakespeare’s work.


Productions seen: One student production some time in the late 90s and the rather odd film adaptation with Alicia Silverstone.


Productions worked on:  None. Long may that continue.


Edition I’m using:  An elderly Arden.





  • What the fuck did I just read?
  • I think everyone reading this has already figured out that these observations are personal and immediate, and I’m not making any claims to any kind of dispassionate or academic response. That said, brace yourselves. My feelings towards this play are strong.
  • Love’s Labours Lost is the kind of play that makes people hate Shakespeare. It’s overblown, overlong, long on wordplay and short on wit.
  • In terms of structure, this is a mess. Three very short acts followed by two incredibly long ones. A fifth act that contains an entire masque. A boring, boring masque, that doesn’t end until after the plot (such as it is) has already concluded.
  • The deft timing that makes some of his other comedy palatable is absent here. Every joke is made at least two or three times in a row just to make sure you get it, and also to pad out a play otherwise lacking in any kind of substance. There’s cumulative effect, and there’s DEAR GOD SHAKESPEARE MAKE IT STOP PLEASE PLEASE.
  • The characters are almost all uninteresting and interchangeable. Berowne stands out by dint of being given marginally wittier lines than his comrades, and by having a speech that marks him out as a sort of proto-Benedick (because everything and I mean everything in this abysmal play will be recycled in Much Ado and As You Like It, both of which are pretty weak). The Princess of France is distinguished from her ladies only by the fact that she tends to be the one talking. The comic relief (never has that phrase been more ironically used) is an indistinct lineup of idiots whose verbosity is, I think, meant to be amusing… but isn’t. And the whole thing ends with the sad and sudden death of a characters whose existence we were only vaguely aware of.
  • There’s absolutely nothing at stake for the characters in this play. The men have made an oath which they break immediately and feel no genuine anguish over. If their situation is meant to wound their pride, it would have been better to give them some. The women are motivated by that strongest of driving forces, namely being slightly miffed because the men are being weird. Seriously, the King of Navarre tells the Princess of France that he’ll put her up in a field and she’s merely a little bit put out? These are the wettest women in the canon thus far! I can think of another French princess of Shakespeare’s who would cheerfully start a blood feud for less…
  • I had planned to quote a particular line so that I could mock the play with its own text, but I honestly can’t bring myself to open the script to look it up. I can’t stand the sight of couplets any more. Think I’m just going to leave this one here and be grateful that the next play on the list is R&J.
  • To whoever managed to lose the text of Love’s Labours Won, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for sparing me from it.



NEXT TIME: Romeo & Juliet

The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 8: Henry VI, Part I

Date:  Probably 1592.


First read: Circa 2005.


Productions seen: None, other than the bits and pieces I worked on. I’ll get round to seeing the 2016 Hollow Crowns at some point.


Productions worked on:  A couple of scenes at drama school.


Edition I’m using:   Same as for the other parts of Henry VI! Signet Classics.

Cheating by having one book for all three plays. Don't tell anyone.




  • Part of the way through this readthrough my husband flippantly referred to this as the “Star Wars prequels” of the War of the Roses plays. I think he hit the nail on the head. Calmer than the sequel/originals, more focused on the politics and less on the dismembering each other’s relatives and avenging dismembered relatives. But also less fun, a couple of decent action sequences notwithstanding.
  • Remember when I was writing about Richard III and I commented on Shakespeare’s passion for dramatic irony? Well, here we go again… So many hopes, wishes and promises concerning the peaceful future of England. LOL, Shakespeare. I see what you did there. I really hope you had friends who took the piss out of you for the devices you overused the way mine do.
  • Compared to the other Henry VIs, this one is much better paced. A reasonable amount happens in each act, it’s not a relentless flurry of events. I didn’t find it particularly interesting in terms of language, though. No big stand-out speeches that I’m still thinking about the following day, and only a small handful of individual lines. “Hung be the heavens with black” is a great turn of phrase, though.
  • We all remember how I feel about excessive couplets, right? OH. MY. GOD. Why must everything RHYME? I don’t appreciate it, Shakespeare or Nashe or whoever’s responsible, I really don’t. Especially outside of the comedies.
  • I barely get a sense of Henry VI himself as a character. Once again the chronology is strange – Part II opens with Margaret being handed over to Henry (having presumably had quite a time with Suffolk on the voyage), but he doesn’t come across as the same boy king non-character he is in Part I. The signs of his piety are there, I suppose, but it seems odd to see him less well-developed in the later play.
  • So Joan de la Pucelle, right… There’s a lady who deserved her own play. Shakespeare’s treatment of her is one of the things I find most interesting about this piece. Nowadays the only narrative we get regarding Joan of Arc is that she was a young woman who thought herself called by God to cross-dress and fight on France’s behalf. She was either a saint (in the colloquial rather than technical sense until 1910) wronged by those who failed to believe in her divine mission or a mentally ill girl wronged by a society that didn’t know how to help someone with hallucinations. The decision to reframe her religious extremism as witchcraft… I find it fascinating and would like to revisit this and give the matter its own post some time in the future. I’m not entirely convinced that it works, I think it’s a less sophisticated use of the supernatural than in Richard III and comes across as kind of a rehash of the Margery Jourdain material from Part II.
  • In addition, the need to tear down a French heroine says a great deal about the political relationship between England and France. God has to be on England’s side, which means he can’t be speaking directly to girls in drag on the French side, can he? And not only is she not touched by God, she’s an actual witch. And she denies her own father, crudely-drawn yet rather sympathetic bumpkin that he is, and she has the Dauphin dancing on the end of her seductress’ string, and she’s willing to sully her own reputation for the sake of a cowardly escape from her rightful execution. As character assassinations go, it’s a very thorough one.
  • Note to young female actors looking for audition speeches that aren’t woefully overdone – dear Joanie is your friend. Read this play.
  • Not having read the Histories for a long time and struggling to keep my IVs, Vs and VIs straight, I had a moment of confusion when “Sir John Falstaff” appeared. I’d forgotten about the existence of Fastolfe, as the historical figure in question was called and as his name appears in some other editions. A strange editorial choice on the part of Signet Classics, I think. The First Folio has a lot to answer for.
  • Well done to the Dauphin for being the only person in the entire War of the Roses who has any common sense in relation to corpse mutilation. Pro tip: if you’ve just slain some enemies and your friends want to chop them up as part of a power play, just say no. It’s not big and it’s not clever. And keep your handkerchief firmly in your pocket.
  • Suffolk and Margaret OTP ❤ ❤ <3. Someday I’ll figure out why I love these too so much, even though their relationship is woefully underdeveloped, there’s nothing right about either of them and he eventually dies a very silly death. It might have something to do with their first encounter featuring one of my favourite metatheatrical moments ever, where Margaret gets fed up with him talking in asides the whole time so she starts doing it too just to make a point.
  • Honestly, I don’t have much more to say about this one. It fills in some gaps that I’m not entirely sure needed to be filled in. It has occasional moments of interesting, ear-catching language but all too few. I’d like to see it on stage at some point, since I suspect it would come to life on stage – but given that it’s so heavy on couplets I will be very selective where ticket purchases are concerned.


NEXT TIME: Love’s Labours Lost

BONUS CONTENT: Our cat decided he’d come and listen to us read this one. He appeared to be properly into it. This is my husband reading it to him.

Mark reads Henry VI Part I to the Bobs


The Roughly Chronological Reread, Week 7: The Taming of the Shrew

Date:  1592 – 4.


First read: Leon Garfield’s abridged version around 1992. I tried the full version about a year later and got horribly bored with the Lucentio plotline. Read the whole thing without skipping bits when I was in third or fourth year at secondary school, so 1997/8?


Productions seen: Shakespeare: The Animated Tales in the 90s, more student and Fringe productions than I care to remember, plus a handful of adaptations ranging from very loose ones like Kiss Me Kate to faithful updates like Sally Wainright’s very clever version for the BBC’s Shakespeare Retold.


Productions worked on:  None, which surprises no-one more than me. Plans are being made for an adaptation, though, so that might change in a year or two if the programming and funding gods smile on me.


Edition I’m using:   A very old Signet Classic with someone else’s cuts marked up in it.





  • Right, so, let’s acknowledge that this is a crazy problematic play straight off. I find it endlessly fascinating for that reason and love to argue over it. Whatever position you want to take I’ll happily oppose it – the beauty of this play is that you can defend nearly any point of view you care to hold. Before I began this re-read I’d have said that my own position was that a writer empathetic enough to create the kind of rounded, sensitively-drawn characters as are found in his later work would be unlikely to write a straightforward piece of misogyny (even allowing for changing social mores)… now I’m not so sure. The re-read has been opening my eyes to the brutality of Shakespeare’s early work and making me realise that I’ve been projecting the depth and nuance of his best work onto his lesser pieces. For someone who considered herself immune to bardolatry and romanticising Shakespeare’s work, that was quite a surprising thing to notice.
  • So, proceeding on the understanding that I don’t have a damn clue what I think about this play, let’s talk about the framing device. Why is it there? Why do we have Christopher Sly being pranked by some nameless Lord? The implication is that Sly and his “lady” are watching throughout, so why is there no reaction from him at the end? Does he ever go back to his old life? Does he test the lessons the play has taught him on the Hostess we saw at the start, and if so how does he take it? That would answer so many questions about what the play was intended to be. I’d also like to know whether the Sly stuff was part of the original play or was added later on.
  • This isn’t a particularly long play, yet I realised as I was reading it that I’ve never once seen it unabridged. This is because the Lucentio/Vincentio parts are boring as all hell (my considered academic opinion) so everyone cuts them.
  • So much commedia influence on this play, particularly the Arlecchino-esque hijinks with Lucentio and Tranio swapping places and wooing incognito to thwart the amorous intentions of a pantaloon character. I suspect the reason I find the entire Lucentio storyline tedious is twofold. In the first place, commedia thrives on the stage and not the page, and while I have plenty of experience of imagining the things I read, nothing compares to actually seeing it done. (I have never seen this play tackled by a company skilled in commedia.) In the second place, I harbour a suspicion that commedia is one of those art forms that is quite culturally specific and that there’s a lightness of touch needed that I just don’t see in these early plays. (I may be wrong. I know a little about commedia but don’t claim any kind of expertise.)
  • I have a note here that simply reads “Fuck off Biondello.” I can’t remember why I wrote it, but I feel inclined to include it here. Judging by the emphatic pen strokes, I meant it wholeheartedly.
  • Reading this aloud within a few days of Richard III was illuminating. We noticed that more of RIII flowed beautifully and felt easy to speak. Much of the dialogue in Shrew, however, is harder work. It’s much more colloquial and we found ourselves looking up slang terms far more frequently, but it wasn’t just that. It’s also the rhythms and sentence structure.
  • So, Katherine. Not an easy character to understand, in no small part because she never really gets to speak for herself. She has no direct address to the audience, no soliloquy, and without that insight into her mind all her decisions can be interpreted in different ways. Was she born a shrew or has she become this way? Does Petruchio break her spirit or win her round? Does she make that speech at the end because it’s what she now believes or because she’s smart enough to realise what’s going on and wants to help her husband win? She reminds me a bit of Coriolanus in this respect – her lack of a relationship with the audience makes sense, but it also makes her a mystery.
  • The other character Kate resembles, and this is perhaps a far more obvious comparison, is Beatrice. They’re both intelligent, sharp-tongued women, and I’ve been thinking recently that the major difference between them lies in how they’re treated. Beatrice gives everyone backchat and the people around her find it endearing. Kate does it and the people around her cower and condemn her. How would they have fared in each other’s environments? Kate is more violent than Beatrice, it’s true, but I wonder whether that would remain true if their situations were reversed.
  • And Petruchio… I’d love more back story on this character. We know he has recently inherited his father’s estate and is determined to marry rich, and that’s about all we do know about him. Why is he so money-hungry? Is it just avarice, or is he land-rich but cash-poor? Would he really have married anyone as long as she was rich – why not reach for the nearest rich widow, then, as Hortensio does post-Bianca?
  • Something struck me about Petruchio laying out his tactics in 2.1. He’s very clear about his game of opposites – if Kate gives him hell, he’ll praise her for all the characteristics she doesn’t show – and then he lays it on thick. Does he continue with these tactics throughout? It’s certainly one way of reading it, and it would change the meaning of his speech in 3.2 considerably if his declaration that his new wife is his goods and chattel is all part of this game of opposites. Is this the lesson that Kate learns from him and demonstrates at the end?
  • All in all, I came away from Shrew with the feeling that it’s a very uneven play. If the dialogue between Katherine and Petruchio weren’t as sparkling as it is, I suspect it would languish in obscurity. But it does, and it’s that feeling of crazy chemistry between them that keeps me feeling that this is a play about two misfits finding each other and uniting against the world, not about a woman having her spirit broken. But perhaps I just really, really want it to be that way. What a bloody frustrating piece this is.


NEXT TIME: Henry VI, Part 1

The Roughly Chronological Reread Week 6: Richard III

Date:  1592 – 1594. I’ve seen suggestions that it pre-dates Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors, but I find it hard to believe that a writer could experience such a pronounced backslide.

First read: Leon Garfield’s abridged version around 1992, then the full version in the early 2000s.


Productions seen: Shakespeare: The Animated Tales in the 90s, two or three student productions at the Fringe, Brite Theatre’s excellent Richard III: A One-Woman Show (which is coming back to the Scottish Storytelling Centre next month and you should absolutely go and see it), and most recently the Almeida’s production starring Ralph Fiennes.


Productions worked on: None. Which sucks. I’d love to get my teeth into this one.


Edition I’m using:  The Oxford Shakespeare.





  • It should go without saying that this is a cracker of an opening speech, but I’m going to say it anyway. It’s just so beautiful. Well-constructed, a delight to speak, and it does a fantastic job of setting up the character – not just in terms of introducing the situation and setting up the takes, but in making the audience immediately party to Richard’s schemes and victim to his charisma. It’s hard not to be taken in by the character’s sheer audacity.
  • I love Lady Anne’s line “Poor key-cold figure of a holy king”. Something about the term “key-cold” really appeals to me. The first time I really noticed it was in a sonnet by Alexander Montgomerie, where the speaker describes losing his spirit to his lover during a kiss which “left my cors als cold as ony key”. Apparently keys were used to stop minor bleeding, since pressing a substantial chunk of metal against a cut will encourage the blood vessels to constrict a little. (I don’t know if this is true. I am a creature of the 21st century, I have access to sticking plasters, but next time I get a papercut I’ll do it for science.)
  • MARGARET. Oh, Margaret. She’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite characters in the whole canon. Never having read the plays in order before, I hadn’t given much thought to the chronology of the War of the Roses plays. Having seen Richard III first, I had mentally inserted a gap of years, maybe decades, between the start of this play and the end of Henry VI Part 3 to account for Margaret’s becoming the “foul wrinkled witch” who doles out the curses so liberally here. I’d never actually paid attention to the amount of time that actually passes – a matter of months. Perhaps rapid ageing is the price she paid for considerably tighter writing, because she’s as vicious as ever but without teetering on the brink of being overwritten.
  • In addition to being the play where Shakespeare got hold of the concept of dramatic irony and wrestled it the ground, this also seems to be the one where he really lets rip with the entertainingly banterful lowlives. There are shades of Aaron the Moor in the dialogue given to the various executioners and murderers, none of whom are as obedient as those hired by, say, Macbeth – these guys can’t resist a bit of chat before they kill. I enjoy their cynical humour immensely. The moments of comic relief are helpful in terms of pacing, being worked in at intervals rather than dumped in large, unwieldy chunks, and their casual approach to death serves to illustrate the effects of such a long period of turmoil.
  • “Enter Queen Elizabeth with her hair about her ears.” It’s the first time I’ve seen this stage direction during this readthrough, and I thought it merited a mention. Hair in disarray, allowed to fall freely over the ears, seems to have been a very common signifier of extreme grief or madness in Elizabethan theatre. Every time I stumble across this stage direction, I wonder what an Elizabethan audience member would think if they were to see how common it is for women today to wear their hair loose (let’s just imagine for a moment that they’ve already got over their shock at literally everything else about 2017).
  • Having found some of the earliest plays to be somewhat repetitive, I think that Richard III shows the playwright starting to come into his own. In particular the scenes with Lady Anne and later Queen Elizabeth, which have similar structures and in which Richard employs similar tactics – the latter scene could have been a tedious rehash of the first, yet the tone and stakes are very different. In theory the stakes ought to be higher in the scene with Lady Anne, since Richard has little leverage and takes quite a risk when he admits to killing her husband. By the time of his scene with Elizabeth all the power is his. He’s king, his manipulative powers have been proven again and again, and it seems unlikely that he’s going to walk out of that scene without her agreeing to marry her daughter to him. Yet the situation has intensified, and what he’s asking is so much more unwholesome even than professing love for Anne over her husband’s corpse. His line about burying Elizabeth’s children in her daughter’s womb makes me physically squirm every time I hear or read it.
  • The use of the ghosts is particularly unusual in this play. I’ll be keeping an eye out for this as the readthrough progresses, but as I recall all the ghosts in his later plays are very much in the world of their beholder, rather than appearing to occupy their own realm in which they can bridge the gap between two physical locations at once. The assembled spectres in this play switch between telling Richard to despair and die and assuring Richmond that they think he’s just the best thing ever, and I don’t remember seeing that device elsewhere. Perhaps my memory fails me. Either way, it’s an intriguing way to treat the ghosts – more of an indication of objective existence than being a figment of a character’s imagination.
  • As to Richard himself, what a character. I often wonder whether he actually believes himself in his opening speech, when he appears to blame his villainy on his deformity. If he does, it’s quite a journey to reach his declaration that he feels no pity for himself the night before he dies. If he doesn’t, then keeping the audience on board throughout is even more of an achievement. I can see why this is a role actors salivate over.
  • Finally, a word to anyone who might be considering a comment about how Shakespeare’s Richard is historically inaccurate and that’s a terrible thing – I don’t much care. It’s not billed as a documentary. Want to talk about the reasons behind this particular representation? Great, fire away, I’m always up for learning more about Plantagenet/Tudor spats across the generations, and very happy to consider plays in their historical context. Just no hit and run “it’s not 100% accurate therefore it is teh suck” comments, please.


NEXT TIME: The Taming of the Shrew

The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 5: Titus Andronicus

Date:  Some time between 1588 and 1593.


First read: 2007? Though I wonder whether I skipped this one, because it was mostly unfamiliar.


Productions seen: None at all. But I know the RSC are broadcasting this season’s production in August, so that will probably change shortly.


Productions worked on: As above.


Edition I’m using: Dover Thrift. Loving this cover.


Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him?




  • Reading this while working on a script in which Franck’s Panis Angelicus is mentioned leads to some odd mental mashups.
  • Well, I can see why this play was so popular in the craziness that was the 17th century. Blood and guts flying everywhere, more revenge than you can shake a stick at. The level of violence feels like it ought to be cathartic, a purgative theatrical experience… but actually it felt kind of pornographic instead. I can see why it provoked a considerable amount of scorn and censure over the years…
  • I have to agree with those critics who have noted that it’s a mess, structurally. An interesting mess, yes, but a mess nonetheless. There’s enough material in the first act for an entire play, but it’s rattled through at breakneck pace. There are several big, big plotlines, each of which could be a play in itself, which leaves the text feeling overstuffed – yet Shakespeare’s still not quite hit his stride in terms of characterisation, so the play manages to be overstuffed without feeling particularly satisfying.
  • Lavinia could have had the whole play to herself. I was sorry that she wasn’t built up a bit more as a character before losing her tongue and hands. Like Silvia in Two Gents she was very much the model heroine, but with interesting flashes of strength… but it’s Lucrece-style strength, the kind of martyred fortitude of Lady Macduff, but Lady Macduff had better last words.
  • Tamora is likewise intriguing. She’s got some cracking speeches, and I salivate at the idea of a play entirely about her, preferably written by mature rather than early Shakespeare. A Tamora less cartoonishly villainous, with more of the Volumnia about her, would be incredible.
  • And then there’s Aaron. I’ve spent years arguing against the accusations of racism and anti-Semitism levelled at Shakespeare for Othello and Shylock. We spend an entire play watching Othello being driven to violence, and Shylock is given one of the greatest humanising moments in literary history. And then… there’s Aaron. Again, I’d love to see a mature play in which his story is central, exploring the audacity of his affair with Tamora and his relationship with his newborn son. Again, I’d like to see a less straightforward villainy, more in line with the complexity I’m accustomed to encountering in later Shakespeare. However, Aaron does provide my favourite quote in the whole piece – “If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.”
  • I really don’t have a huge amount to say about this one. I have no trouble believing that it’s co-written. I can see its legacy in pieces like The Spanish Tragedy, The Revengers’ Tragedy and The Duchess of Malfi. I am intrigued by Julie Taymor’s belief that it’s a play for our times, though I’ve yet to decide whether or not I agree. I would imagine I’ll have a clearer idea about that after I’ve seen it, so… bring on August.





The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 4: Henry VI, Part 3

Date:  1591-ish.


First read: 2005-ish.


Productions seen: No full productions, just scenes at drama school.


Productions worked on: As above.


Edition I’m using: Signet Classics. Same book, different week.

Cheating by having one book for all three plays. Don't tell anyone.




  • I will not get over-excited and make this all about Richard III. I will not get over-excited and make this all about Richard III. I will not get over-excited and make this all about Richard III.
  • Earlier on today I was replying to comments on the last post and something that Bee Dice said prompted me to start thinking about where this play comes not only in the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, but also of Elizabeth I’s reign. By the time this play was written Elizabeth was well into her 50s and it would have been very clear that she wasn’t going to produce an heir. She also hadn’t named one, nor would she. The sense of trepidation must have been considerable, given the turbulence that had preceded Elizabeth’s rule. I wonder how that coloured the play for the original audiences?
  • I like that things start to get a bit more personal in this play. It’s not all about power for power’s sake, the grievances aren’t just professional, there are some serious personal wrongs to be avenged! Margaret in particular takes Henry’s capitulation very badly because it disinherits and disempowers her son, something that might be a bit of a sensitive issue for the daughter of Rene of Anjou.  I absolutely love her speech to York in 1.4. Such a terrible idea, such bad politics… such a beautiful theatrical moment. I’d also say it’s the most neatly-written of the speeches so far. She talks a little too much, but it’s in Margaret’s nature to shoot her mouth off and it’s just enough to make Edward IV’s revenge against her inevitable.
  • Speaking of Edward IV, fuck that guy. I am really not Team York. I don’t think I’m on Team Lancaster either, to be honest, but I find myself with a certain amount of sympathy for Henry VI at least. He’s a terrible king, it’s true, but this is the trouble with monarchy – you get whoever you get, whether they want to be there or not. It’s why it’s such a deeply unethical system. But at least if Henry had been allowed to go off and join a monastery he’d have made a good monk. Edward IV, wherever you put him, would still be a gadgie. (NB: I am not talking about the historical Edward IV here, only the Shakespearean one. I believe that historically he was a competent king who liked books, but Shakespeare’s Edward deserved to have most of the other characters in the play line up and slap him. If this play is anti-Yorkist propaganda, it seems fairly effective.)
  • Structurally, this piece seemed a bit better balanced than its predecessor. It’s still on the crazy side, with a disproportionate quantity of alarums and excursions, but there are more subtle shifts in tone, more moments of (admittedly pitch black) humour mixed into the death, devastation and dethronings. It’s perhaps a bit heavy on the action in the first act, but I suppose that makes sense since it’s a sequel and we do start in media res. Then again, the first act of Part 2 was also insane, so it’s quite possible that it’s just an early career writer not having found his groove yet.
  • Once again, Mark had the Arden and I had the Signet, and we noticed quite a few differences between the two. My copy was missing lines in the first act (I’ll check exactly where later), and the Arden had Clifford making his final speech with an arrow through his neck while mine just indicated that he was wounded. It is quite a lot of talking for someone with an arrow through his neck. Just saying.
  • Richard. RICHARD. This is where I start getting excited. There are theories about the possible existence of an earlier version of Hamlet and you could argue that there are shades of the Prince of Denmark in the hesitant Henry, and there are lots of moments in this and Part 2 that seem to reappear in more developed form in Macbeth, but in Richard we have a definite example of a character who must have stuck around in Shakespeare’s imagination for a while. And what a character! The first of the great villains and we actually get to see him take shape. His acerbic wit is chiefly responsible for correcting the drama/humour balance in this play (in as much as it is corrected), and it’s fascinating to see Shakespeare take what looks like his first crack at the opening monologue from Richard III in Act 3 Scene 2.
  • I’m going to stop myself there. I don’t want to go off on one about Richard when his own play is coming up in a few weeks, and I need to keep this brief because there are applications to be done, money to be earned and forms to fill in. So this post ends here, perhaps to be lengthened when I don’t have a million pressing deadlines.


NEXT WEEK: Titus Andronicus

The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 3: Henry VI (Part 2)

Date: Probably 1591.


First read: 2005-ish.


Productions seen: No full productions, just scenes at drama school.


Productions worked on: As above.


Edition I’m using: Signet Classics. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Signet before.


Cheating by having one book for all three plays. Don't tell anyone.




  • There are people who believe that this is Shakespeare’s very first play. While it’s clearly an early work, I find it hard to believe that it could be the first. The language and characterisation are much better developed than Comedy of Errors or Two Gents.
  • It was suggested to me when I started this project that the Henry VIs should be read in story order, but in light of the argument mentioned above I preferred to go 2-3-1. I’ve tried to put Part 1 out of my mind for the purposes of the Re-read.
  • Back when I first started reading Shakespeare I assumed that as I grew more familiar with his work I would be able to keep track of which geographically-titled nobleman was which without any problems. Twelve years later and much more familiar with his works, I still get mixed up and have to go back and remind myself which Poles and post-Plantagenets are which.  I am seriously considering pressing all my ornaments into service for Part 3.
  • Bloody hell Shakespeare, we’re not hanging about, are we? By the end of Act 1, Scene 1 we’ve got the meeting of the royal spouses, Suffolk going from marquess to duke, strops thrown about the king’s marriage and the loss of Anjou and Maine, the Cardinal throwing shade at Gloucester, Somerset throwing shade at the Cardinal, Buckingham and Somerset plotting for one of them to be Protector, Warwick plotting to get Maine back, and York soliloquising at great length about how he’s going to be king. That’s one scene.
  • This pattern of characters bitching about each other and plotting everyone else’s downfall continues for the rest of the play (with an odd diversion in Act 4, of which more in a moment). Some absolutely beautiful smack is talked, which was a breath of fresh air after Comedy of Errors. But it’s somewhat hard going, with very little breathing space between events and length speeches. Shakespeare still isn’t on top of his pacing at this point.
  • Speaking of which, can we talk about Act 4? Imagine if Game of Thrones had decided to show nothing but the Faith Militant causing trouble in King’s Landing for a season, with only a couple of brief appearances from the characters in whom you’ve already become interested. It’s not without merit, it’s still entertaining stuff and piqued my interest in historical terms, it’s just… couldn’t we have built up to this? Structurally, I feel the lack of an introductory scene for Cade. We’re told in Act 3, Scene 1 that York has Cade on his side, and I find myself wishing that this had been shown.
  • Characterisation is starting to get interesting. Not universally so, but to a greater extent than in the last two plays. I found myself quite attached to Gloucester, and the scene where he parts with his wife was surprisingly touching, especially in view of their proto-Macbeth first scene together. I also thought that the writing of Henry struck a delicate balance between capturing his weakness as a monarch and his strength as a man of faith. I’m fond of characters who may be hopeless cases within their worlds but who clearly could have thrived in a different environment.
  • I tried hard to forget having read Part 1 before. I’m convinced that if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have picked up on the relationship between Margaret and Suffolk until quite late on. Their affair has always appealed to the teen-goth-in-search-of-heartache in me, and I think I’d mentally filled in more romantic/lustful intrigue than they actually have. Nevertheless, the scene where they part gave me a little pang of sadness, even though they’re both pretty terrible people. (I don’t care how terrible she is. I will love Queen Margaret in all her incarnations until I die. But I will save my remarks on her until we’re done with the Henry VIs and I’m free to comment on her entire arc.)
  • While I knew that there was witchcraft/necromancy in this play, I’d never really taken note of the date before – if it was first performed in 1591, that puts it smack in the middle of the North Berwick witch trials. I don’t know how aware a London audience would have been of the trials, but since Newes from Scotland, the contemporary account of the “witches”, was printed in London it doesn’t seem terribly unlikely that they were. I wonder whether it might have added a certain immediacy, more than a century after the real Margery Jourdemayne’s death.
  • Lots of differences between the editions on this one – I had the Signet, Mark had the Arden, and we found quite a few inverted lines, different attributions and a couple of characters with slightly altered names.
  • To sum up, this is far from a perfect play but I’m certainly happy to have moved on to the sometimes unnecessarily loquacious and unambiguously stabby. Since next week is Part 3 and we’ve got Titus Andronicus coming up after that, I should be kept happy for a little while.

The Roughly Chronological Re-read Week 2: The Comedy of Errors

Date: Around 1594.


First read: In 2007. I don’t think I ever re-read it.


Productions seen: One at the Edinburgh Fringe, some time around 2003/4 (I think). I’m fairly sure it was a student production.


Productions worked on: None.


Edition I’m using: An elderly Arden.






Couplets. COUPLETS. Good god, Shakespeare, what are you doing to me? Why must everything rhyme? (All right, not everything. Not quite. Just most of the first three acts.) Why do you hate me, Shakespeare?


I’m not inherently anti-couplet. Used sparingly and judiciously they can be effective. Great at the end of sonnets, for instance. Useful for comic purposes, in their right place. But there’s such a thing as excess, and I think we hit that point about three pages into The Comedy of Errors.


I remember not being mad keen on this play when I first saw it back in 200…3, perhaps? When I read it a couple of years later I struggled to finish it. Back then, with less developed critical faculties and a lot less confidence in myself, I assumed the failing was mine. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, right? Every word is golden, each play’s structure exquisite, right? Right?


Realising that it was permissible to critique Shakespeare (and that I had developed the necessary skills to do so) was an important part of my development both as a reader and as a writer. So let me apply my learning and state my considered opinion – The Comedy of Errors is not a very good play.


I can imagine that a really well-done production could be really funny. Given a handful of highly-skilled physical comedians with exquisite timing, the weaknesses of the script could be obscured. Perhaps with a handful of careful cuts, the opening scene could be made to feel like less of an info-dump. As it stands, it’s not exactly elegant.


The heavy reliance on dramatic irony irked me, too. As with the couplets, it’s a device I enjoy in moderation but found overwhelming here. I found myself longing for something more than just yet another mistaken identity – give me some depth in the characters, or even some wordplay on a par with what was on offer in Two Gents!


Actually, I found myself missing Two Gentlemen while I was reading this one. While I wasn’t exactly bowled over, at least there were some hints at the complexity of characterisation that’s to come in Proteus’ soliloquies, and although the structure was messy and the narrative rushed it was less repetitive than this. Again, I wonder whether that repetition could be made to look like cumulative effect by particularly adept performers, but as a director and dramaturg I still find my fingers itching to cut, restructure and ask for greater depth.


As with Two Gents, it’s interesting to see the clear Commedia influences on Shakespeare’s work and I’m glad to have revisited it, but I doubt this play will ever be particularly dear to my heart. I’d close with some favourite lines, but three days after reading the script I’m struggling to call any to mind, so… not this week. Onward to the Henriad. In the meantime, please do share your thoughts and I’ll get on with answering comments from the last week.

Roughly Chronological Re-read Week 1: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Date: Between 1589 and 1592.


First read: In 200…5, I think? At some point in my early 20s I read my Arden Complete Works cover to cover. Then I re-read it in 2011 when I worked on a couple of scenes from it at Mountview.


Productions seen: None – just that couple of scenes at drama school.


Productions worked on: As above.


Edition I’m using: Good old Dover Thrift.

She's just not that into you, Pro




  • I read the play aloud with Mark and Flavia. We noticed that the locations weren’t consistent across the editions – sometimes one of us had Milano and another Verona, sometimes one had Mantua and another Padua. I wish we’d actually noted the differences, but we didn’t… What I can tell you is that I was using the Dover Thrift pictured above, Mark had the Arden Complete Works and Flavia was using the text from shakespeare.mit.edu. Who knows where we were? All we know is that you’re unlikely to miss the tide in any of them. In your face, Oxfordians.
  • While this may or may not be Shakespeare’s first play, it definitely feels early. Not just because of the structural oddities and somewhat underdone characterisation, but because it’s packed with ideas and lines that turn up again in fuller form elsewhere in the canon – the business with the rings, the girl disguised as a boy, the fleeing lovers pursued into the forest, rope ladders a-go-go, even some shady friar with a familiar name doing penance for unspecified sins wandering the woods.
  • Between this and Romeo & Juliet, I get the impression that Elizabethan Mantua was quite the hive of scum and villainy.
  • Holy excessive wordplay, Batman! I’d forgotten how crazy the first few scenes are. It’s a much funnier play than I remembered, but the comedy sits oddly alongside the darkness of Proteus’ journey – to my mind, at least. I know that time changes the way we receive things and that humour changes over the years (the treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, for example, strikes my 21st century sensibilities as ridiculously harsh). However, I struggle to believe that Proteus and Valentine’s reconciliation after the attempted (or at least considered) rape of Silvia is anything other than a rushed ending. It’s an extremely swift wrap-up, and a bit frustrating – Proteus comes across as a budding villain, and a very interesting one at that, yet the moment he’s challenged he does a swift volt-face, apologises and is forgiven. There’s the quality of mercy not only is not strained, it seems to gush from both Valentine and Julia in an unstoppable, ill-advised torrent. Then again, I suppose the same swiftness turns up in things like Measure for Measure, so perhaps it’s more a question of my expectations concerning ambiguous endings.
  • Having recently worked on Coriolanus, I found my attention caught by Proteus’ line in Act II Scene IV, “Even as one heat another heat expels/Or as one nail by strength drives out another/So the remembrance of my former love/Is by a newer object quite forgotten”. Check out one of my favourite lines of Aufidius’ from Act IV Scene VII – “One fire drives out one fire: one nail, one nail/Rights by rights falter: strengths by strengths do fail./Come, let’s away. When, Caius, Rome is thine/Thou art the poor’st of all: then shortly art thou mine.”


I’m trying not to get too wrapped up in comparing the plays at this stage, since the point is to see what observations are prompted by reading them in this order, so this isn’t a particularly long post. Expect them to increase in length and depth as we continue, and also as I get a sense of what kind of conversations might come up here.


Did you read along? Is there anything you’d like to say about this play? Any point I’ve made that you disagree with? Comments are open (they’re moderated, which is sadly necessary for personal reasons, but I’ve no plans to do anything other than approve all contributions to the discussion).