Friends for a reason, friends for a season

I have just read the Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning (1908-1980), first published in 1987, based on her experiences in Romania and Greece between 1939 and 1941 (i.e. during the Second World War).  It is a story of war, seen from the point of view of numerous civilians caught up in it.

Native Romanians and Greeks feature in the pages; but most of the characters are British – people who have either chosen to live abroad or have been posted there to work for the British Government.

At the very end of the story, Harriet Pringle (principal character) and Guy (her husband) are obliged to flee from Greece as the Germans invade (1941).  Harriet thinks about the scattering of the people they have got to know:

Harriet thought of Charles left behind with the retreating army, of David taken by the enemy, of Sasha become a stranger, of Clarence lost in Salonika, of Alan who would share the fate of the Greeks, and of Yakimov in his grave. Not one of their friends remained except Ben Phipps; the ‘vainest and the emptiest’.

Note that Harriet is a woman in a man’s world; and the above-named are all men.

One conclusion I draw from my reading is that the people named (and others described in the trilogy) are acquaintances and temporary colleagues rather than genuine friends – friends only for a “reason” (e.g. work) and a “season” (the period 1939-41).  Moreover, there are many squabbles among them – they are not united in the face of adversity.

The British exiles go through various emotions as the war continues and the territories of allies and neutrals are lost to the “Axis” – ranging from hope (which turns out to be ill founded) to ironic humour and to worry (even panic).  Finally they get to grips with the practicalities of getting away (or even staying put).  Their predicament is exacerbated by the fact that, while troops can be evacuated from Dunkirk as France falls in 1940, they find themselves on the “wrong” side of Europe – beyond the easy reach of Allied forces that might keep the enemy at bay or rescue them.

The Brits tend to be unrealistic about the true nature of their plight.  (Make some allowance for hindsight, here.)  One can read signs, between the lines, of the gradual but steady decline of the Britain as a world power.

The air of unreality that hangs over the Brits is reinforced by Guy Pringle’s enthusiastic putting on, in Bucharest, Romania, in 1940, of an amateur production of William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, a play set in the context of the legendary Trojan War.   It is performed to raise the morale of the British residents and to impress the Romanians.  The casting is inspired, and the performances are widely regarded as a success.  But what an incongruous choice!  Shakespeare’s language is difficult in places, especially in this play, even for people whose first language is not English.  Indeed, it is seldom performed.

One characteristic of Troilus and Cressida is the squabbles among the Trojans (whether to keep Helen or to hand her over to the Greeks), balanced with the squabbles among the Greeks (as to how best to restore the authority of Agamemnon while persuading Achilles to return to the front line) – quite apart from the actual war itself.  (See too Homer’s Iliad, while noticing the major differences in plot, characterisation and tone.)

A second feature of Troilus and Cressida is the evidence displayed that both Helen and the eponymous Cressida are women in a man’s world: they can be reduced to the status of bargaining counters – in other words, “articles of trade….weak and oppressed” (see Prof R A Foakes’s  Introduction to the 1987 Penguin edition of the play).  At the same time, none of the male characters can be taken seriously as a hero (with the possible exception of Hector), either in matters of war or in those of love – they are proud and self-serving.  The end of the play is neither tragic nor comic (certainly, it’s not funny).

At the end of Troilus, the war is still going on.  But (outside the framework of the play) Troy will eventually fall.  One Part of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy is itself called ‘The Fall of Troy’ – a clear allusion made to the momentous Fall of France in 1940.

It so happens that, earlier this year, I had re-read Troilus and Cressida, before reading the Balkan Trilogy for the first time.  The reference to the former, within the body of the latter, came as a pleasant surprise.

Returning to the Trilogy: Harriet Pringle has a mind of her own, intelligence, perception and sensitivity.  However, by virtue of her married status (Britain, 20th century style), and the roles that both she as an individual accepts and that societies as a whole ascribe to her, she trails behind her husband Guy, in his wake; and she makes a series of concessions to his wishes and needs, in order to keep him happy – swallowing her pride but feeling resentment.

The 21st century reader may see things differently from Harriet intellectually while sympathising with her predicament emotionally.  (Make up your own mind.)

The Balkan Trilogy is an excellent read.  You feel you’re there, in time and place.

Troilus and Cressida is an excellent read too.  (You may never get the chance to see it performed.)


Games of the English Throne, Shakespeare style

In several of his plays, from the very early ones, Wm Shakespeare addresses issues of power and politics – politics often carried out through war.  See, for example, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, from the history of Ancient RomeSee too the tetralogy Henry VI Parts 1-3 plus King Richard III, and King John, set in the Middle Ages of England and Wales, which were composed in the early 1590s.

The Henry VI plays paint a bleak picture of a country at war with itself, while also losing territory in France, at the hands of the resurgent French.  The powerful wreak vengeance on their enemies, in cycles of violence.  The continual debates, battles and killings are (arguably) rather repetitive for the reader (or the viewer).  After many battles and murders, Edward Duke of York becomes King Edward IV, displacing Henry VI.  His brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, awaits his opportunity to seize the crown for himself.  And in the sequel, Richard III, Richard stays his coup d’état and becomes king himself, till supplanted in turn by Richmond (Henry VII).

Richard III has a long history of success in performance.  Shakespeare’s Richard fascinates because of his ambition and single-mindedness and his ability to deceive and to manipulate.  (“Conscience is but a word that cowards use,/Devised at first to keep the strong in awe” [Act 5 Scene 3].)  Some of his wickedness rubs off on his co-conspirators (some discarded by Richard when they oppose him) but they do not match him in intellect and drive, with the possible exception of King Henry VI’s widow, Margaret.

Richard III then gives us a story in black and white colours.  Richard himself – the main character – is a “baddie”.  He gets, though, his “come-uppance”.

Shakespeare lays more murders at Richard’s door than can be fairly blamed on him: the play is not an accurate reflection of history, but it is fun – a guilty pleasure, perhaps.

Like the Henry VI plays, King John is not a popular play – it is seldom performed.  In my opinion, this is a pity, as I see great merit in it.

In King John, there are (I would argue) many important characters, apart from the King himself.  King John is no match for Richard III, in interest.  He is devious and self-serving; he plots against his nephew, Arthur (a rival claimant to the throne); but he ends up being ineffectual and a follower of his counsellors rather than a leader.  As King John declines, in health and in power, the reins of leadership are taken up by others, including a cardinal, who comes close to matching Richard III for deviousness and specious arguments.  The play could be said to end on an anti-climax, in contrast with the climax of Richard III.

The wider distribution of power and influence, among the characters in King John, is, for me a strength rather than a weakness.  Richard III implies that, with the dethronement of one man, all is well that ends well, whereas John ends on a note of ambiguity (albeit coupled with some hope placed in the young King Henry III).

Shakespeare’s early history plays reflect aristocratic societies, where warrior lords are continually engaged in combat – in civil wars in England or in battles in France.  The loyalty of powerful lords has to be won by a king or claimant to the throne and cannot be taken for granted.  Rhetoric is a powerful tool to persuade people to co-operate or even to compel them.

These societies are patriarchal.  Certain female characters in Henry VI assert themselves, particularly, Joan of Arc, Queen Margaret (wife of Henry VI) and Eleanor Duchess of Gloucester; but Joan is executed and Margaret and Eleanor are exiled.  In King John, Blanche is married to the Dauphin, in order to seal an alliance between England and France – apparently with her consent.  But more typically, the ladies use their allotted speeches to express deep grief at their loss of loved ones.  In King John, Constance laments the capture of her son Arthur by King John’s forces, foreseeing his gruesome end; in Richard III, the Duchess of Gloucester (Richard’s mother), Queen Elizabeth (widow of Edward IV) and Queen Anne (Richard’s wife) mourn the grim fate of Edward IV’s young sons (the ‘Princes in the Tower’).

In both King John and in Richard III, there is a dramatic episode where a major character deploys rhetoric to defend his life (or his eyesight) – George Duke of Clarence in Richard III, Prince Arthur in King John.  The Clarence episode (Act 1 Scene 4) is a bravura piece of writing: its length may not be strictly justifiable, in dramatic terms; and Clarence’s dialogue with his murderers is often cut in performance (as the play as a whole is one of Shakespeare’s longest).

To conclude: Richard III is entertaining, because of the brilliance of the title character and because of the “happy ending”.  The merits of the King Henry VI plays and King John lie in their analysis of the exercise of power and the conduct of politics – in the case of John, a particularly cool and ironical examination.


A poet’s labour lost?

Arguably, it can be said of Love’s Labour’s Lost that, among Shakespeare’s plays, it is relatively seldom performed and therefore less known by those who go to see plays and those who study S’s works.

Kenneth Branagh made a film of LLL in 2000.  He used very little of the original text.  He set the story in the 1930s, with period American songs to match (like a musical).

In recent years, LLL has been put on at The Globe and by the RSC.  Seeing the latter on DVD has prompted me to reconsider my attitude to the play (which remains somewhat mixed).

What is it about?  Why is it less popular?

“Boy meets girl”

Here, we have the matter of four boys chasing the four girls who arrive at their court (ostensibly on an embassy).  The gentlemen (or lords) – The King of Navarre and his coterie – are boyish and immature.  They swear a foolish oath, to abjure the company of women for three years, and swiftly break it in the light of reality (their sexual drive).

The “girls”, on the other hand – the Princess of France and her attendants – are grown-up ladies.  They are impressed, neither by the men’s oath, nor their breaking of it.  The ladies leave to go home, on receipt of the news that the Princess’s father (the King of France) has died.  The coup-de-théâtre – the arrival of the messenger from France, in the middle of an entertainment – dramatically breaks the comical tone, bordering on the farcical, that has characterised the play hitherto.

The male suitors are made to wait for a year (and meanwhile to use their time wisely) before trying to court the ladies again.  As one gentleman (Browne) puts it: “Jack hath not Jill.”  (Compare the ending of Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls.)

Can one identify with any of these characters?  At least, the ladies are more sensible than the gentlemen.

The other characters

Most of these are comedians or caricatures (or both).  The comic ones are: the ladies’ male attendant, a Spanish knight (and braggart), his page, a pedantic schoolmaster, a curate, a constable, and a clown.  The dairymaid and the forester are neutral.  By virtue of his role, the messenger from France is serious.

Arguably, Shakespeare sees some of these men as figures of fun.  They tend (variously) to use puns and plays on words, Latinisms and ornate language.  There are jokes, but many of these are unintelligible nowadays, without notes; and so they are best omitted from the play in performance.  Notably, the knight’s language reveals no Hispanic features.  (The thinking behind this is lost to us.)

One can accuse the male suitors (above) of elaborate, dense language traits too.  The ladies are more straightforward, while still witty.

Aspect One

In a way, nothing much happens in this play.  The men talk, the ladies arrive, the men try to court the ladies (without success), and the ladies leave, leaving sound advice as their parting shot.

One can add that the dairymaid is revealed to be pregnant – either by the clown or the knight.  There is an implication that it is the knight who will care for her.

Aspect Two

The play has much to do about language – its uses and abuses.  (Compare The Merry Wives of Windsor, in this regard.)

Much of the play is written in rhymed verse (spoken by the lords and ladies).  Embedded in the speeches there are six sonnets, by my reckoning.  The four lords compose one love poem (each) to the ladies they profess to love: three of these are sonnets.  (Worth a look.)  (Three of the poems are reproduced in The Passionate Pilgrim.)

The play ends, delightfully, with two songs – (i) the spring song of the cuckoo and (ii) the winter song of the owl.  (Worth a look too.)

Aspect Three

The male characters – both lords and commoners – attempt to entertain the ladies – but with little or no success.

At one point, the lords approach the ladies disguised themselves as Muscovites (why!?); but, as the ladies have been tipped off, they have no difficulty in getting ready for them, by disguising themselves, too, and hence confusing them.

The comic male characters put on a show of the “Nine Worthies” (five attempting to portray nine, between them!); but their acting is disrupted, firstly by the derision of the lords, and secondly, by the arrival of the messenger from France.

Aspect Four

LLL has great displays of witBut how funny is it?

Perhaps the funniest part is to be found in Act 4, Scene 3.  Here the four lords, arrive, in succession, to read their love poems aloud but (as they suppose) in secret. They suffer the indignity of being spied on by their fellows and then being confronted with the breaking of the shared oath.  Each one has to admit that he is in love with one of the ladies.

(The men are fine poets but clumsy lovers.)


LLL is hard to put on; it is hard to make a success of it; it requires the exercise of imagination and a willingness to make cuts, on the part of the production team.  With the aid of explanatory notes, LLL is readable – in places, amusing, in other places, rather tedious.

Many of Shakespeare’s works show a timeless quality (although times and places are evoked).  On examination, LLL comes across as very much product of its period, the 1590s, by virtue of its veiled allusions (i) to the works of certain of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, eg those of Sir Philip Sidney, and (ii) to contemporary events, eg in France – all rather obscure, today.  Hence, there is a distance between the rather artificial world portrayed by LLL and our world today (and the literature and drama that reflect it).

Love’s Labour’s Won

Such a play may have existed – a sequel to LLL; but if so, it is lost, under this title.  Various hypotheses have been put forward, suggesting that one or other surviving play fits the bill – Love’s Labour’s Won under a different name – for example, Much Ado About Nothing or All’s Well That Ends Well.  I venture to suggest, instead, The Merry Wives of Windsor, where Fenton succeeds in marrying Miss Anne Page (winning out against Dr Caius and Slender).

Editions and versions taken into account

I have read these editions of LLL and the editors’ introductions:

1 Kerrigan, J (1982), Penguin: Harmondsworth (Middlesex)

2 Hibbard, G R (1990), OUP: Oxford

3 Woudhuysen, H R (1998), Arden 3 (Thomas Nelson & Sons): Walton-on-Thames


1 Branagh, K (director) (2000) – cinema film and video

2 Luscombe, C (director) (2015) – DVD of live performance.




King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616, and the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it

The relatively obscure and seldom performed early play, King John, resembles the much better known Richard III (written, perhaps, a little earlier)I value John, and I wish to make some comments in its favour, and to compare it with Richard.

It must be acknowledged that the play is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.

Plot summary

Possession of the English crown is contested.  John has might rather than right on his side.  He maintains his power against the claim of Arthur, his nephew, supported by France and the Pope.  (Arthur dies, in suspicious circumstances: John is blamed.)  John nearly loses his crown, when the Dauphin (the French king’s son’s invades England and the English lords join sides with him.  John’s cause is rescued by Faulconbridge (a fictional bastard son of King Richard I) and Hubert (a commoner).  John dies, not in battle (as Richard III does) but as the result of poisoning by a monk.  He is succeeded by his own son, Henry III.


Both John and Richard portray the rise and fall of a king who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  Richard is single-minded, strong and tyrannous; but John is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge; he is easily outwitted by Pandulph, the papal legate.

There are in theory alternative kings for England.  Arthur is young and weak and over-dependent on his mother.  A victim of John’s machinations, he strikes a very pathetic figure.  Faulconbridge, the (fictional) son of Richard I, has the qualities of wit, strength of character and loyalty, but he is disqualified by his illegitimacy.

On the French side, the king and his son act in their own interest, against that of England; and Pandulph, the papal legate, does likewise.


Both plays feature dynastic marriages: in John, between John’s Niece, Blanche, and the future Louis VIII of France.

Both plays have English lords who have shifting loyalties as between rival claimants to the throne.

Both include battles and an invasion of England: in Richard, the future Henry VII makes good his claim to the crown; in John, the future Louis VIII of France returns home empty-handed.

The tragic fate of Arthur, John’s nephew, parallels that of Richard’s victims, especially that of his own nephews (the “Princes in the Tower”).

Women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.  In King John, major female characters exit early:

  • Blanche, at the end of Act 3 Scene 1
  • Eleanor (John’s mother), at the end of Act 3 Scene 3
  • Constance (Arthur’s mother), in Act 3 Scene 4.

(This feature was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)


The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:


                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…


Pandulph, in particular, is a skilled practitioner of the misuse of rhetoric and specious arguments for his own ends.


Surprisingly, perhaps, Prince Louis of France does strike a note of regret about how events have turned out, in a few remarkable lines (Act 3 Scene 4):

     There’s nothing in this world can make me joy.

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale,

Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man,

And bitter shame hath spoiled the sweet world’s taste,

That it yields naught but shame and bitterness.




As in Richard III, it is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  (Arthur finds the words for fear.)  Blanche talks about her divided loyalties, when her father and her husband are at war with each other.  Constance vents her grief, and her anger, over the capture of Arthur and his betrayal by his French allies.

Those who mourn, in the body of John are the victims of ambitious men (kings, earls and the papal legate) and their single-minded pursuit of power.  (Compare Richard III and his allies.)




The final scene is characterised by the quiet fading away of King John himself and the perfunctory mourning of his passing, followed by Faulconbridge’s putting in a few words acceptance of the present and optimism about the future.  To paraphrase: ‘the King is dead, long live the king!’ and ‘England is strong if we stick together.’




A problem is that John commences somewhat as a comedy but develops into a tragedy.  Well, it would be a tragedy (rather than a history, perhaps), if John himself was a stronger, albeit flawed, character – a hero, or at least a clear anti-hero – and if his death formed a climax to the play rather than an anti-climax.  John lacks Richard III’s wicked humour, cleverness and depth of deceitfulness, which simultaneously attracts and repels the reader or the member of the audience.  (The wit and wisdom are left to Faulconbridge.)


But do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?


In accordance with many of Shakespeare’s early history plays, King John I contains many long rhetorical speeches (as does Richard III).  These require skilled acting on the stage.  In my opinion, several are over-long and repetitive and will benefit from cuts in performance.


On balance, then, King John is worth a look.

[the long version]













King John died 1216, Shakespeare died 1616 – the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it.

It must be acknowledged that King John is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  (Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.)  It portrays the rise and fall of King John, who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  (Compare and contrast Richard III.)  He is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge.

It is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  But the women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.

(This aspect was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)

The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:


                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…


Other characters display their pursuit of “commodity”, to the detriment of others.


Do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?  And dangerous!

[the short version]














Shakespeare’s ‘King Henry VI’


Fairly early in his playwriting career (ie the early 1590s), Shakespeare produced three dramas about the long reign of King Henry VI (and his rival and successor, Edward IV), and one about Richard Duke of Gloucester (later, Richard III).  These are regarded as the first English history ‘tetralogy’.  (It was followed later by the second tetralogy, covering the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, earlier in time.  The popular character of Falstaff contributes to the fame of the Henry IV plays.)

The Henry VI plays are generally not well known and they are seldom performed.  The Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, however, has put on performances of them all, in recent years (2000 and 2006).  The RSC is followed in this by BBC Television, in the Hollow Crown version of the tetralogy, shown in 2016.  (The three Parts of Henry VI have been compressed into two.)

Richard III is much better known and is often performed, in isolation from the rest of the tetralogy.  This presents a challenge, as it is a sequel to the plays that precede it: in other words, it presumes knowledge, on the part of the spectator or the reader, of what has gone before.

Below, I make brief comments on each Part of Henry VI, and follow them with some remarks on the BBC production.

Henry VI, Part 1 (1H6)


This play is set in the context of the ‘Hundred Years War’.  Henry V has died, while fighting in France, leaving a power gap at the centre of government.  The English are still trying to maintain their dominion over great parts of France; but both rivalries among the prominent English nobles, and the weakness of Henry VI (attributed to his naivety and piety), undermine their campaign.  Richard Duke of York commences his personal quest to become king himself.  Helped by these divisions, Joan of Arc leads the French to victories.


The English lose the war but win certain battles: Joan of Arc is captured by the English and executed; the Earl (later, Duke) of Suffolk captures Margaret of Anjou (daughter of an ally of the French).  Suffolk proposes her as a bride for King Henry, hoping to increase his influence at court.


Different styles appear in this play.  Certain scenes (only) are attributed, by some commentators, to Shakespeare: Act 2, Scene 4 and Act 4, Scenes 2-6 and Scene 7, lines 1-32.


In Act 2 Scene 4, the supporters of rival claimants to the English throne meet up in a garden: those who favour Henry VI (of the House of Lancaster) pick a red rose, those adhering to the House of York, a white one.  The first hint is given of the forthcoming ‘Wars of the Roses’, which will occupy Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3.


Henry VI Part 2 (2H6)


This play is so full of noteworthy incidents that I choose to mention only a few, below.  It begins with the arrival of Margaret of Anjou as the Queen of England.   It ends with the outbreak of civil war.


Rival nobles put aside their disputes to unite against Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and ‘Protector of England’.  Several scenes project him as a statesman, concerned for the common weal.  But several of his peers plot against both him and his wife: found guilty of witchcraft, the Duchess is publicly humiliated and then sent into exile, while the Duke is assassinated, before he can be brought to trial on trumped up charges.


Secretly encouraged by Richard Duke of York, the commoner Jack Cade leads an underclass rebellion: he invades London with his followers and orders the execution of higher class men who stand in his way.  Levity is combined with brutality; the turmoil that is taking over England is laid bare.  A semblance of order is restored, but with difficulty.


Finally, Richard Duke of York makes an open bid for the crown, supported by his sons and Warwick the “kingmaker”; and the nobles divide, according to their previously declared loyalties.  The first Battle of St Albans takes place (1455); it is won by the Yorkists.


This play has been praised by scholars who have studied it.  On page 1 of his Introduction to the Cambridge edition (1991), Michael Hattaway writes: “Henry VI Part 2 is a fine, important, and undervalued play.”  And on page 2 of the Arden 3 edition (1999), Ronald Knowles goes so far as to say:


This Introduction contributes to an edition which has been prepared in the conviction that, had a barely known young Warwickshire playwright been carried off by the plague of 1592, 2 Henry VI would remain as the greatest history play in early modern drama and one of the most exciting and dynamic plays of the English Renaissance theatre.


I agree with these judgements.  Read it and enjoy!


Henry VI Part 3 (3H6)


As Dr Samuel Johnson pointed out, 3H6 is a direct continuation of 2H6.


This play paints a bleak picture of a country at war.  The powerful wreak vengeance on their enemies, in cycles of violence.  Major characters, including both Richard Duke of York and Henry VI – and Edward, his son and heir – are put to death, in cold blood.  Thousands of ordinary soldiers are slaughtered, notably, at Towton in Yorkshire (1461), and at Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire (1471).


Confined to the role of spectator, King Henry witnesses the Battle of Towton. (Act 2 Scene 5).  He sees (as we see) fathers and sons fighting on opposite sides.  There appear: first, a son who has killed his father, not recognising him until it is too late, and then, a father who, unknowingly, has killed his own son.  The divisions of the kingdom are reflected in these men’s fates.  Henry is powerless to help; he shares their grief.


After much bloodshed, the Yorkists are victorious.  York’s eldest son is crowned as King Edward IV.  But his younger brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, awaits his opportunity to seize the crown for himself!


The partisan debates at the beginning of the play are effective; but the continual debates, battles and killings are (arguably) rather tiring for the reader (or the viewer).


On pages 21-2 of his Introduction to the Penguin edition (1981), Norman Sanders comments on the civil war and its consequences, as follows:


Like every human value in the play, majesty is debased, stripped of its sacramental dignity or ritual splendour.  Here it is merely a prize to be fought over by warring animals.


The BBC’s Hollow Crown, 2016, Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2


The first episode covers major events from 1H6 and 2H6, and allocates a little under an hour to each.  The number of major roles is reduced; many lines and indeed whole scenes are cut; several interesting parts of 2H6, notably the Jack Cade rebellion (Act 4), are left out.  Cinematic action often takes the place of long speeches.


In the allocation of parts, Somerset largely displaces Suffolk.  The longstanding personal enmity between York and Somerset is vividly depicted, by the actors, Ben Miles and Adrian Dunbar.  Duke Humphrey, acted by Hugh Bonneville, comes across as a tragic figure – perhaps the true hero of the story.


In a dramatic touch, at the end of the first episode, York goes from the Tower of London to his own castle, and summons his four sons to join him: the last one to appear on the screen, albeit in shadow, is the half-lame Richard (Benedict Cumberbatch).


The second episode allots about two hours to 3H6, so its reproduction on screen is pretty full.  Again, some scenes, lines and roles are transposed or cut.  For example, the tv account of Somerset’s death recalls, in its wording, the one that Shakespeare allocates to Suffolk (in 2H6, 4.1).


The acting is very good.  Tom Sturridge (King Henry) has a Lear-like experience, alone and nearly naked, out in the countryside, but accepting of his fate.


Sophie Okonedo (Queen Margaret) is effective as a warrior, a leader and a mother, more effectual than her husband, Henry.  Her thirst for vengeance on her foes is frightening, as it is meant to be.  Benedict Cumberbatch’s role, as Duke of Gloucester, mirrors hers: he conveys the part’s ruthlessness and cunning.


It is good to see these plays reaching a wide audience.


David Harries

June 2016










The Red and the White: Shakespeare’s use of colour in his early works


Early in his career, Shakespeare wrote two long narrative poems – probably while the London theatres were closed, because of the return of the plague. Here, Shakespeare deploys a variety of rhetorical devices to evoke eroticism, passion and pathos.

Venus and Adonis was first published in 1593.  It was very popular: it was republished fifteen times, up to 1675.  The Rape of Lucrece was first published in 1594: it was republished eight times up to 1655.

The anonymous play, the Reign of King Edward III, was first published in 1596, and republished in 1599.  Interest in it has grown in recent years.  Some scholars have proposed, plausibly, that Shakespeare wrote parts of it, in particular Act 1 Scene, Act 2, and, perhaps, Act 4 Scene 4.  These scenes appear Shakespearean as regards both style and matter.  (See, for example: Melchior, G (ed) (1998), The New Cambridge Shakespeare: King Edward III, Cambridge: CUP.)


Venus and Adonis

The story concerns Venus’s love (or lust) for the beautiful young Adonis and his rejection of her advances.  It enlarges considerably on Ovid’s account in Book X of the Metamorphoses.

Venus may have been influenced by Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander:

Venus in her naked glory strove

To please the careless and disdainful eyes

Of proud Adonis that before her lies.  [I.12-14]


Shakespeare provides his own pithy summaries, already at the outset (lines 1-6) and later, in line 610:

Even as the sun with purple-coloured face

Had tane [taken] his last leave of the weeping morn,

Rose-cheeked  Adonis hied him to the chase;

Hunting he loved, but love he laughed to scorn.

Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain to him,

And like a bold-faced suitor gins to woo him.

She’s love, she loves, and yet she is not loved.


Both long poems are replete with the use of colours, especially red and white, to reflect feelings revealed in the human face: red for embarrassment, white for fear or anger.


Adonis’s resistance to Venus is portrayed in lines 74-77:


Still is he sullen, still he lowers and frets,

‘Twixt crimson shame and anger ashy pale.

Being red, she loves him best, and being white,

Her best is bettered with a more delight.


There is plenty of variety in the poem – passages that are beautiful in themselves (like stand-alones).  The most vivid describe animals:

  • The stallion and the mare (259-324)
  • The boar (613-636 and 661-666), which Adonis wishes to hunt, despite the danger
  • The hare, which Venus encourages Adonis to hunt instead (673-674 and 679-708).

See also the description of the second dawn (lines 853-858):

Lo, here the gentle lark, weary of rest,

From his moist cabinet mounts up on high,

And wakes the morning, from whose silver breast

The sun ariseth in his majesty;

Who doth the world so gloriously behold,

That cedar tops and hills seem burnished gold.


A note on the Passionate Pilgrim


This collection of poems, first published in 1599, is included in complete editions of Shakespeare’s works.   Only five of the poems are considered to be by Shakespeare (namely, 1, 2, 3, 5 and 16).  Four other poems (4, 6, 9 and 11) take up the Venus and Adonis theme, perhaps under Shakespeare’s influence.


The Rape of Lucrece


This work is longer than Venus. It is more demanding on the reader, as the subject matter is, in essence, repellent.  As the editor John Roe puts it: “To treat of rape was always going to be difficult.”  (Roe, J (ed) (2006), The New Cambridge Shakespeare: The Poems, updated edition, Cambridge: CUP, page 33.)


The sources are classical – Livy and Ovid.  The influence of Seneca can be detected in lines 764-777; and that of Virgil’s Aeneid (Books I and II) in lines 1366-1568 (see below).  Note too that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his version of the story in his Legend of Good Women (V).


The earlier poem moves towards the death of Adonis (and Venus’s reaction); the later poem has two climaxes (or, perhaps, anti-climaxes) – the rape and the consequential suicide.


At the beginning, Tarquin is incited to rape by the enthusiastic description of Lucrece by her husband, Collatine, when he praises her “clear unmatched red and white/Which triumphed in that sky of his delight” (11-12).


Later, the sleeping Lucrece is portrayed in a variety of colours, as she is gazed upon by the rapacious Tarquin (386-420).  The final reference is to:


Her azure veins, her alabaster skin,

Her coral lips, her snow white dimpled chin.  [419-420]


A few lines sum up the effects of the subsequent rape, both on the victim and the offender, respectively:


Pure Chastity is rifled of her store,

And Lust the thief far poorer than before.  [692f]


She bears the load of lust he left behind,

And he the burden of a guilty mind.  [734f]


Lucrece includes several passages where the heroine rails against both Tarquin as a person and the circumstances that allowed him to commit the rape, personified in these terms:

  • Night (764-812)
  • Opportunity (873-924)
  • Time (925-1001).


Lucrece concludes, however, that she is wasting her breath:


In vain I rail at Opportunity,

At Time, at Tarquin, and uncheerful Night;

In vain I cavil with mine infamy,

In vain I spurn at my confirmed despite;

This helpless smoke of words doth me no right.  [1023-1027]


Convinced that she is irreversibly contaminated, Lucrece comes to a grim determination (which in due course she carries out):


The remedy indeed to do me good

Is to let forth my foul defilèd blood.  [1028f]


The ‘excursus’ or ‘ecphrasis’


This term refers to a remarkable long passage (1366-1568) – an effective, moving piece of writing – where Lucrece contemplates a painting of the Trojan War.  She applies the treachery and cruelty of the Greeks, and the suffering of the Trojans, to her own situation.


Shakespeare again uses colour to great effect.  Here, for example, is a picture of Sinon – the man who persuaded the Trojans to accept the notorious Horse inside their walls:


In him the painter laboured with his skill

To hide deceit, and give the harmless show

An humble gait, calm looks, eyes wailing still,

A brow unbent that seemed to welcome woe,

Cheeks neither red nor pale, but mingled so

That blushing red no guilty instance gave,

Nor ashy pale the fear that false hearts have.  [1506-1512]


King Edward III


This play is largely a history play: it stages the participation of Edward III and the Black Prince, his son, (a) in battles in France, in support of Edward’s claim to the French crown, and (b) in the repulse of an invasion by the Scots (in 14th century).  But I wish to pay attention here to the early scenes that are devoted to Edward’s pursuit of the Countess of Salisbury and her rejection of him.  It is not clear whether the story’s basis lies in history, legend or myth.  What has come down to us is a moral tale.


The sources are François Froissart’s historical chronicles (1513) and William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1575).


In Act 2, then, King Edward attempts to force the Countess of Salisbury (whose husband is away at war), to have sex with him (an abuse of his power).   In another echo of Hero and Leander, he threatens her that:


I will through a Hellespont of blood

To arrive at Sestos, where my Hero lies.  [Act 2, Scene 2, 154f]


In the event, the countess vigorously and successfully defends her virtue.  The king admits his shame (2.2.189).  He compares the countess with Lucrece (2.2.192-195), ignoring the latter’s unhappy end.  He repents of his “folly’s siege against a faithful lover” (2.2.207).


Earlier, in Act 2, Scene 1, the king’s secretary, Lodowick, has expounded his reading of the facial expressions of the countess and the king, respectively, noting the ebb and flow of red and white:


Lo, when she blushed, even then did he look pale,

As if her cheeks by some enchanted power

Attracted had the cherry blood from his;

Anon, with reverent fear when she grew pale,

His cheeks put on their scarlet ornaments,

But no more like her oriental red

Than brick to coral, or live things to dead.

Why did he then thus counterfeit her looks?

If she did blush, ‘twas tender modest shame,

Being in the sacred presence of a king.

If he did blush, ‘twas red immodest shame,

To vail his eyes amiss, being a king.

If she looked pale, ‘twas silly [weak] woman’s fear,

To bear herself in presence of a king.

If he looked pale, it was with guilty fear,

To dote amiss, being a mighty king.  [6-21]


Words shared with Sonnets


It has long been noted by editors that Edward III shares a line, 2.2.452, with Sonnet 94, line 14, namely: “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”


Moreover, “scarlet ornaments”, for red lips, appears in Sonnet 142 (line 6), where the poet accuses the woman (subject of Sonnets 127-154) of profaning them, through her adultery.




These works are less well known than the sonnets and the popular plays, but they are well worth getting to know.



David Harries


April 2016
















Thoughts on Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’


You may never have the chance to see a production – stage or film – of Shakespeare’s early comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for reasons that I’ll touch upon below.  However, if you like reading the plays, you may enjoy this one, as I do.

I’ve been prompted to make some comments by seeing a production by a South Wales company (Fluellen), which capitalised on the light, comic parts offered by the parts of the witty servants (Lucetta, Speed, and Launce, with his dog), as well as the ridiculous “outlaws” and Thurio.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is centred on the rival claims of (i) male friendship and (ii) heterosexual love.

This conflict is to be found in the literary works cited by editors as sources for the play.  (Norman Sanders refers to these in his 1968 New Penguin edition, pages 8-12).

Other features of the play are:

  1. two (or more) pairs of lovers (compare, for example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  2. domineering fathers (compare, for example, the Dream)
  3. flight from the city and taking refuge in the countryside (compare, for example, the Dream and As You Like It)
  4. women disguising themselves as men (cf Portia, Nerissa, Rosalind, Viola and Imogen)
  5. the overhearing by one character (or group) of another, who does not know he or she is being observed (of many examples, one is to be found in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 4 Scene 3).

The plot

The principal gentlemen are Proteus and Valentine, who are close friends.  The principal ladies are Julia and Silvia.  From the outset, Julia and Proteus are in love.

Next, Valentine leaves home for the court of Milan.  There, he falls in love with Silvia, and she with him.  Proteus is himself sent to Milan by his father, and Julia and he say their fond farewells.  But, arrived in Milan, Proteus transfers his affections to Silvia and (behind Valentine’s back) attempts to woo her (despite being rebuffed).

Julia misses Proteus: she dresses as a man and makes her way to Milan to find him.

(Julia, indeed, is a particularly strong character.  Norman Sanders describes her as: “the first of those comic heroines of Shakespeare who….impress the audience by their combination of good sense and healthy sensuality” [page 23]).

One at a time, Silvia, Julia and (finally) Valentine discover Proteus’s fickleness and disloyalty to his friend.  There is a climax and a crisis – and a resolution, of sorts.

I’d now like to look at two scenes.

Act 5 Scene 4

This is the final scene.  The trouble with it is this: Valentine not only forgives Proteus his treachery but also offers to give up his own claim to Silvia (without consulting the ladies): “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee,” he declares (New Penguin, line 83).

Julia asserts herself and makes good her claim on Valentine; and the pairings required by the happy ending are restored.  But Proteus looks unpleasant and selfish; and Valentine looks naïve and misguided.

The construction of this scene is faulty: while Julia, Proteus and Valentine are negotiating a settlement, Silvia remains silent, from line 59 to line 174 (the end).

The play ends, then, with a plan for a double marriage – a rather forced happy ending.

Act 4 Scene 2

This scene is touching and effective – perhaps the best in the whole play.

Here, Julia (still in disguise) witnesses Proteus’s serenading of Silvia (ostensibly on behalf of Thurio, but really for himself).

The scene is enhanced by the inclusion of one of Shakespeare’s most famous songs, set to music by many composers (eg Franz Schubert), namely, “Who is Silvia?” [lines 38-52].

In the ensuing dialogue, with the host of the inn where she is staying, Julia vividly conveys her feelings:

HOST How now?  Are you sadder than you were before?

           How do you, man?  The music likes you not.

JULIA You mistake; the musician likes me not.

HOST Why, my pretty youth?

JULIA He plays false, father.  [lines 53-57]

(And the dialogue, with its double meanings, continues.)


The play has not the poise and polish of (say) A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It has defects in its construction and the credibility of certain of its characters, so it poses a challenge to companies that wish to stage it.  However, it contains poetic verse and witty prose, and it is a pleasure to read.  The reader might like to imagine how a good production might deal with its weaknesses and make the most of its strengths.

David R Harries

May 2015






Comparing Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ and ‘Boito and Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’


In his book, The Pursuit of Italy (published by Allen Lane and Penguin, in 2011 and 2012 respectively), David Gilmour mentions the collaboration between Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito, on Otello (first performed in 1887) and Falstaff (first performed in 1893); and, concerning the latter, he comments (pages 273f):

‘Boito was so skilful in condensing Shakespeare and conflating several minor characters that he made the opera a far finer and funnier work than the original, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

But can this be true?  Is Falstaff  “finer and funnier”, indeed, than The Merry Wives of Windsor?


The Merry Wives has several plots and sub-plots.  Most of it is in prose.  Verse predominates, however, in Act 3 Scene 4, 4.4, 4.6 and 5.5.  Whereas the prose is very lively (as in other comedies, eg Much Ado About Nothing), and allows the distinctive personalities of the characters to emerge, some of the verse passages (those involving Fenton) are rather stiff and formal.  (One hypothesis is that the verse passages were “salvaged” from an earlier masque and antimasque.)

As the editor G R Hibbard writes (in his Introduction to the 1973 Penguin edition, page 36):

‘Ignoring the various underplots, one can discern two main strands in the play: the Wives’ revenge on Falstaff, carrying the business of Ford in disguise with it, and the matter of Anne Page and her three wooers, Slender, Caius, and Fenton.  In terms of the action, these two plots are kept carefully separate from one another right up to the very last scene, where they come together with a complex reciprocal effect on each other.’


The libretto is based, more or less, on certain scenes in The Merry Wives, namely, 1.1, 1.3, 2.1, 2.2, 3.3, 4.4 and 5.5.  There are also borrowings from Henry IV Parts One and Two, notably Falstaff’s speech on honour from 1H4 Act 5 Sc 1 (placed in Act 1 Sc 1 of the opera).  The libretto is punctuated by translations and paraphrases of the Shakespearean texts.  Boito’s own text has many short sentences and many rhymes.

The libretto is (unsurprisingly) much shorter than the text of the play: it has six scenes whereas the play has twenty-three.   The action is streamlined: the second humiliation of Falstaff is omitted; the subplots are omitted too.  There are changes: Anne is the daughter (Nannetta) of the Fords rather than the Pages (and Master Page is left out); Anne rather than Mistress Quickly acts as the Queen of the Fairies, in the event; she has only two wooers – Fenton and Dr Cajus.  Whereas Anne and Fenton hardly appear together in the play – but succeed in getting married (in secret), in the last scene, the opera shows us them conducting a continual love affair.

Verdi’s music complements and enhances the libretto marvellously: it is rich, varied and dramatic.  The fugue finale is a master-stroke.

So the opera has a lot going for it.


How can the play stand up to a comparison with the opera, then?  The answer lies in the words that Shakespeare puts in the mouths of his characters (all of them), which have a music of their own.  Giorgio Melchiori, editor of the Arden 3rd edition of The Merry Wives writes in his Introduction (pages 4f) as follows:

‘Its uniqueness, ie the fact of being Shakespeare’s one and only ‘English comedy’ – though large sections of the plot and action derive from obvious Italian models – as well as his only ‘comedy of humours’, is achieved through a subtle gradation of linguistic distinctions in a play where ….individual nuances of social rank are established by the grammatical and syntactical usages of each speaker….In fact Merry Wives is not so much an ‘English comedy’ as ‘the Comedy of English’, or rather ‘the Comedy of Language’….The manipulation of language places Merry Wives side by side with Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Inevitably, some of the “nuances” are lost in translation or adaptation into another language.  The transposition of a passage from the play to the opera works is examined (briefly) below.


Significantly, the opera’s version of the scene that leads to Falstaff’s ducking (Act 2 Scene 2 – compare the play’s 3.3) ends with a climax – Falstaff is unceremoniously dumped out of the linen basket, out of the window and into the water.  Ford, moreover, is let into the wives’ plot against Falstaff at this point.  In the play, by contrast, Falstaff is disposed of, off-stage, and the arguments of the characters carry on without him.  Ford is left in ignorance – but he has to apologise to his wife for his behaviour and his suspicion of her.  (He only finds out the truth in 4.4.)  The scene ends quietly, with Ford inviting his friends to dinner.  Shakespeare’s climax – or rather dénouement – is left until the final scene.

The fun of the operatic scene is enhanced by four factors in the libretto, quite apart from Verdi’s music: the hurly-burly of the action, with lots of entrances and exits; in the middle of this, the on-stage courting and flirting of Anne and Fenton; the anti-climax provided by Ford discovering the young lovers, in hiding, rather than his wife and Falstaff; and (as already said) the dumping of Falstaff in the water, in full view of Ford and everybody.

Falstaff’s language constantly shows wit and invention, in The Merry Wives as in the Henry IV plays. There is a flavour of what he is capable of at the beginning of his dialogue with Meg Ford, in Act 3 Scene 3, and Boito borrows extensively from it, here as elsewhere.  Hence:

Falstaff: Have I caught thee, my heavenly jewel? (1) Why, now let me die, for I have lived long enough. (2) This is the period of my ambition. (3) O this blessed hour! (4)

Mistress Ford: O sweet Sir John! (5)

Falstaff: Mistress Ford, I cannot cog, I cannot prate, Mistress Ford. (6) Now I shall sin in my wish (7): I would thy husband were dead. (8) I’ll speak it before the best lord, I would make thee my lady. (9)

Mistress Ford: I your lady, Sir John?  Alas, I should be a pitiful lady. (10)

Falstaff: Let the court of France show me such another. (11) I see how thine eye would emulate the diamond. (12) Thou hast the right arched beauty of the brow that becomes the ship-tire, the tire-valiant, or any tire of Venetian admittance.

Mistress Ford: A plain kerchief, Sir John. (13) My brows become nothing else, nor that well neither.

Falstaff: Thou art a tyrant to do so.  Thou wouldst make an absolute courtier, and the firm fixture of thy foot would give an excellent motion to thy gait in a semi-circled farthingale. (14) I see what thou wert if Fortune, thy foe, were – not Nature – thy friend.  Come, thou canst not hide it.

Mistress Ford: Believe me, there’s no such thing in me.

The corresponding dialogue in the libretto closely follows the above (compare the numbers in brackets):


Alfin t’ho colto, raggiante fior, t’ho colto! (1)

(catches her round the waist; Alice stops playing the lute, gets up, and places it on the table)

Ed or potrò morir felice. (2)

Avrò vissuto molto, (3)

Dopo quest’ora di beato amor. (4)

Alice Ford:

O soave Sir John! (5)


Mia bella Alice!

Non so far lo svenevole,

Né lusingar, né usar frase fiorita, (6)

Ma dirò tosto un mio pensier colpevole. (7)

Alice Ford:



Cioè: Vorrei che Mastro Ford passasse a miglior vita1… (8)

Alice Ford:



Perchè?  Lo chiedi?

Saresti la mia Lady (9)

E Falstaff il tuo Lord!

Alice Ford:

Povera Lady inver! (10)


Degna d’un Re. (11)

T’immagino fregiata del mio stemma2,

Mostrar fra gemma e gemma

La pompa del tuo sen3

Nell’iri ardente a mobile dei rai dell’adamante4. (12)

Col picciol pie’ nel nobile cerchio d’un guardinfante5 (14)

Risplenderai più fulgida d’un ampio arcobalen6.

Alice Ford:

Ogni più bel gioiel7 mi nuoce

E spregio il finto idolo d’or.

Mi basta un vel8 (13) legato in croce,

Un fregio al cinto e in testa un fior.

(places a flower in her hair)



While I do not intend to try to translate all the Italian, I shall comment on a few words and phrases.

1 ‘passasse a miglior vita’ = ‘would pass on to a better life’ = ‘die’ (as in the English).

2 ‘stemma’ = ‘coat of arms’: Falstaff imagines Alice Ford adorned with his arms.

3 ‘sen(o): Falstaff talks of the splendour of her bosom.

4 ‘adamante’ = diamond.

5 ‘guardinfante’ = ‘farthingale’ (skirt with hoops of whalebone).

6 ‘arcobalen(o)’ = ‘rainbow’: Falstaff tells Alice that she will shine more brightly than a rainbow.

7 ‘goiel(lo)’ = ‘jewel’, picking up on Falstaff’s use of the word in the first line above.

8 ‘vel(o)’ – ‘veil’: the opera’s Alice says that a veil suffices for her, while the play’s Alice says that she is satisfied with a ‘plain kerchief’.


The opera has the advantages conferred by Boito’s clever use of Shakespearean passages and invention of snappy, lively dialogue of his own, combined with Verdi’s dramatic and varied music, which suits all occasions.  Boito preserves the two main plots and the happy endings, discarding the minor matters.  Moreover, he conveys the delight Anne and Fenton share when in one another’s company, shedding the darker tones of the original.

The play, on the other hand displays Shakespeare’s wit, at length, and his ability to bring out character through speech.

In a comparison between the two media (drama and opera), we can only say that it is a close-run thing.

David R Harries

‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ – love versus friendship


The Two Noble Kinsmen is a Jacobean1 drama of a medieval English tale2 based on an Italian romance version3 of a Latin epic4 about one of the oldest and most tragic of Greek legends5; it has two authors6 and two heroes7.”  [L Potter, Introduction, page 1]

Notes on the above:

1 Written and first performed circa 1613; first published in 1634.

2 Geoffrey Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale (in the Canterbury Tales)

3 Giovanni Boccaccio’s Teseida

4 Statius’s Thebaid

5 The rivalry between the sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices over the right to rule Thebes; the siege of Thebes by seven warriors; and the eventual take-over of power by Oedipus’s brother, Creon

6 John Fletcher and William Shakespeare

7 Palamon and Arcite (cousins), who are rivals in love for Emilia, sister to Hippolyta, the bride of Theseus

Theseus, Duke of Athens, may be regarded as a hero too – or, in this play, rather, a judge.  There are, moreover, two heroines – Emilia and the unnamed  Daughter of the Jailer.


The main plot

Palamon and Arcite (Thebans) fight in the war and are heavily wounded.  Theseus orders (a) that they be treated and (b) that, once healed, they should be imprisoned.  Their rivalry commences when they espy Emilia from their shared cell. (The Jailer’s Daughter notices them.)  Later, they are both released, in turn.  They seize their first opportunity to arm and fight over Emilia (on stage).  Theseus interrupts their first fight and substitutes a deferred tournament (which takes place, offstage, in Act V).  The loser of the fight is to be executed, so that the rivalry will be ended, once and for all.

2 Notes on the above:

A Emilia sees merit in both her admirers but cannot, or will not, choose between them.

B Emilia is content with the single life.

C Emilia is not consulted about her choice, either by Theseus or her suitors.

D Compare the love rivalry of Valentine and Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and that of Lysander and Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


1 In Act I, three widowed queens, forbidden by Creon to bury their husbands, killed in the Theban war, approach Theseus, interrupt his wedding procession, and beg him to “be advocate/For us and our distresses” (Scene 1, lines 31-2).  Theseus proceeds to wage war on Creon on their behalf (offstage); and the queens thank him when he returns victorious (Scene 4).  (This action is contained within Act I.)

2 The Jailer’s Daughter falls hopelessly and madly in love with Palamon: she releases him (offstage).  She is given four soliloquys, and also speeches reminiscent of Ophelia’s in Hamlet.  Her father arranges for her marriage to a ‘Wooer’, who pretends to be Palamon.

3 The Schoolmaster trains a party of country people to perform an entertainment for the nobles.  (Compare (a) Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and (b) Francis Beaumont’s Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn: the latter can be found in Appendix 3 of L Potter’s edition of Kinsmen (pages 340-9).)


In respect of its outcomes, Kinsmen is not a comedy: love is characterised by “turmoil and suffering” (Bawcutt, page 41); the Jailer’s Daughter loves Palamon but her love is not returned (is he aware of it?); Emilia does not return the love both Arcite and Palamon profess for her; the Daughter is diverted towards the ‘Wooer’; Arcite “wins” the hand of Emilia in the tournament but is killed in an accident (offstage) before he can wed her.

Many of the actions are interrupted, eg the first combat between Palamon and Arcite.

People are not in control of their destiny: people are subject to inscrutable Fate.


Editors apportion the play between John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, with a large measure of agreement.  (The two also collaborated on King Henry VIII and the lost Cardenio.)  In the Introduction to her edition of Kinsmen, L Potter points to several inconsistencies between the two contributions, as if sometimes the one playright had not seen the work of the other before he put pen to paper.

In his edition of Kinsmen, N W Bawcutt contrasts the styles of the two dramatists in this play.  Shakespeare, he says, offers us “ceremony and ritual”; Fletcher gives us “drama and excitement”, with the stress falling on “human psychology and mental conflict” and “the quarrel between Palamon and Arcite and the turmoil of the lovesick Jailer’s Daughter” (Introduction, page 28).


In Act V, Scene 1 – in lines attributed to Shakespeare – Arcite and Palamon pray to their respective gods, Mars and Venus, for victory in the tournament to come.   For her part, Emilia prays to Diana, asking that she be married to: “He of the two pretenders that best loves me/And has the truest title in’t” (lines 158-9).

As N W Bawcutt observes: “This is the high point of ritual in the play…The speeches are magnificently done” (Introduction, page 39).

In his prayer, Palamon attributes to Venus powers over mortals (curative or intoxicating? beneficial or dangerous?) that are greater than those of other gods:

  1. She has “the might /Even with an eye-glance to choke Mars’s drum/And turn th’alarm to whispers” (lines 79-81).
  2. She can “make/a cripple flourish with his crutch, and cure him/Before Apollo” (lines 81-3).
  3. “the huntress/moist and cold, some say, began to throw/Her bow away and sigh” (lines 92-4) [a reference to Diana’s falling in love with Endymion].

Bawcutt sees here a “clear indication that love will triumph over chastity,” (Introduction, page 41): ultimately, Palamon, the protégé of Venus, will succeed and Arcite, the soldier of Mars, will fail.


Kinsmen makes for an interesting read, especially the scenes where the Jailer’s Daughter appears, and the prayers of Arcite, Palamon and Emilia in Act V, Scene 1.


L Potter states that “The Two Noble Kinsmen used to have no performance history at all” (page 78 of the Introduction to her Arden 3 edition, 1997).  But she goes on to discuss several late 20th century productions.  Referring to a 1994 staging in Oregon, she writes, “As in many productions, Act 1 had difficulty holding the audience” (page 87).


The main plot has a sudden and surprising end: Arcite is killed in an accident (offstage), when his horse is startled; and the other one is given permission to wed her in his place.  (In the source, Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, the gods are responsible for the startling of Arcite’s horse – and Venus’s hero, Palamon, wins the bride if not the fight.  In the play, what happens to Arcite is an accident.)   Before Arcite he dies, he consents to Palamon’s wedding to Emilia, and they are reconciled.  Theseus declares that what Fate has determined must be accepted.  Do WE readily go along with this?


David R Harries


My wife and I have just seen the Royal Shakespeare Company production in Stratford-on-Avon.  This is partly successful.  Certain aspects come out clearly.  TNK  remains a curious mixture of comedy and tragedy that does not gel.  The writings of the two playwrights do not fully blend together.  There are hints of homo-erotic relationships in the text: these are made much of in this production.  The play probably needs editing (cutting).  A shorter version might give the actors to speak a bit more slowly and therefore more intelligibly.  I spoke to other members of the audience and I conclude that the beginning (the legacy of Oedipus and Creon and Antigone) is barely comprehensible.  Perhaps a new prologue could be devised, perhaps based on John Dryden’s translation of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.