Tuesday, December 06, 2016


Beautiful, fascinating, even if Shakespeare's magic is not always there


The first "volume” covers Richard II, Henry IV, Part I and Part II, and Henry V. The second “volume” covers Henry VI, Part I and Part II and Richard III. These plays by Shakespeare have been adapted, the most concerned being Henry VI reduced from three parts to two.

I will not enter the historic content since I have already covered that with the BBC collection of the Complete Shakespeare, play after play. What is important is to see what this new production – and adaptation – brings us, and I must say it brings a lot.

First the language is still Shakespeare’s but the pronunciation has been modernized so that we can follow the text a lot better. By modernized I mean some archaic pronunciations have been dropped and the rhythmic pattern does not dictate the tempo and balance of the language. Instead of the traditional at times forced iambic diction this new production uses a more fluent and common linguistic flow that is closer to what we know and hear everyday. Of course when the poetic or archaic syntax is respected that produces strange sentences but since it flows more naturally we can deal with that. For those who are not conversant in Shakespearean English, post middle and pre modern English, the subtitles are there to help even if at times they are too abundant when the speech is particularly fast. But I am sure that a second watching would make that English perfectly clear, and for those who have some practice they should be up to it in about fifteen minutes at the most. Then I would suggest you use that language in everyday life for fun or entertainment.

The second improvement is the fact the whole series is shot in real settings, both natural and built. Hence we are really feeling – with our eyes – the coarse and rough stone castles, including the Tower of London. The insides are not always authentic since some palaces like Westminster Palace is no longer what it used to be, especially because of Big Ben. Same remark about Westminster Abbey which is nowadays overloaded inside with artifacts and all kinds of accumulated tombs, plates and other memorials. But the inside scenes are shot in real settings even if they are not authentic. I guess you see the difference. We definitely left plywood fake ramparts and battlements behind. That makes the series believable. We do not have to suspend our disbelief as for the setting itself.

The third improvement is that the actors are modern actors who are used to work for cinema productions. They are very flexible, expressive and emotional. Some may regret they don’t cry that much but crying is not necessarily the best way to express grief. Facial language and body language are pretty nice too along that line and probably more realistic. We do not cry that much in real life. They are also dressed with costumes that must be lighter and that are definitely easier to wear. That also helps the production and makes it light, effective and even impressive.

The last improvement is that it is a cinema production done for High Definition TV and what’s more color. So the series can use the full palette of colors when necessary though in the popular scenes with Falstaff, for example, and battles the dominant colors are brown and grey, sometimes black. But they can easily use red for spilling blood for instance and the red rose can really be red instead of dark grey or black. This production can also work on small details since modern flat TV plasma screen can include small details due to the size and the definition of the screen. That really improves the pleasure you way get with the very active scenes and with pageants or inside scenes that provides a lot of detail.

But at the same time this production is an adaptation and special effects permit to have a “real” burning stake for Joan of Arc and enable the action to be realistic and fast. You will not always notice the scenes that are cut in the original, though you should see the battle of Orleans has been entirely cut off at the beginning of Henry VI Part One. But most of the time you will not really see the difference except if you know the original plays very well. I am just going to give one example at the end of Richard III, the famous ghost scene or nightmare that is in the original doubled with the positive dreams of the future Henry VII. This scene is essential because it testifies of Shakespeare’s great art that invest some symbolical forms in his plays. The last battle is in 1485 at Bosworth. The numerical symbols are 1+8 = 9, 4+5 = 9, 1+4+8+5 = 18 = 9x2. The numerical symbol or key of Richard III is NINE, the devilish number of them all: Jesus’ time of death, the ninth hour, the Beast in the Apocalypse, and many other diabolical and deadly values.

In the nightmare NINE is necessary to complete the prophecy, the prediction, by identifying the beast, in this case Richard the Third before the battle. And sure enough the ghosts are going to curse Richard III with a simple formula: “despair and die.” And in that ghost scene this mantra is repeated NINE times. You can note too the characters who are haunting Richard III and alternately lauding Henry of Richmond.

1- Prince Edward, son to Henry the Sixth: “despair, therefore, and die”;
2 & 3- King Henry the Sixth: “despair and die” “despair and die”;
4- Clarence: “despair and die”;
5 & 6- Rivers, Grey and Vaughan: “despair and die” “despair and die”;
7- Hastings: “despair and die”;
8- the two young princes, sons of Edward IV: “despair and die”;
9- Queen Anne: “despair and die”;
Ø- Buckingham: Ø.

In this adaptation the number of ghosts is reduced and the number of repetitions of the mantra is also reduced though the presence of Henry VI’s wife Margaret (who is not a ghost) holding a mirror in which Richard III sees the ghosts is a brilliant idea, though of course it prevents the parallel lauding apparitions to Henry of Richmond who has nothing to do with Margaret. I guess the research teams did not read my study of Richard III published at the end of the 1990s in France but in English where I pushed that element a lot farther than what I just said. We must understand that in Elizabethan times, after the Reformation and in the ascending phase of chapels and Puritanism, such biblical references were unavoidable elements that everyone understood and appreciated. What’s more it is very effective in the “propaganda” (rather self-justification) of the Tudors: the killing of the crucifixion with 4 (in this case of the evil character, hence an anti-Passion) is prophesied; the Second Coming is announced with 8 (this time Henry of Richmond, the savior of England); and the Beast is identified with 9 (Richard III), all contained in the date of the battle itself. And 5 is no better as for the diabolical value it carries. We are in the midst of medieval numerical symbolism directly inherited from Romanesque culture and alchemy.

This final battle is Bosworth which is supposedly in Old English a proper name Bosa + worth. I am not entirely satisfied by this meaning and I recognize in /bos-/ the root of Anglo-Saxon ‘bosm’, Middle English ‘bosom’, an old Germanic root:

bosom (n.)  Old English bosm "breast; womb; surface; ship's hold," from West Germanic *bosm- (source also of Old Frisian bosm, Old Saxon bosom, Middle Dutchboesem, Dutch boezem, Old High German buosam, German Busen "bosom, breast"), perhaps from PIE root *bhou- "to grow, swell," or *bhaghus "arm" (in which case the primary notion would be "enclosure formed by the breast and the arms"). Narrowed meaning "a woman's breasts" is from 1959; but bosomy"big-breasted" is from 1928. Bosom-friend is attested 1580s; bosom buddy from 1920s. (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=bosom, accessed December 6, 2016)

The name Bosworth must have been meaningful for Shakespeare, especially with “bosom-friend” appearing in his period. We then can understand this battle is worth a lot to the heart of anyone who believes the Tudors have brought peace and prosperity to England, since the heart is directly in the breast, the bosom on which my bosom friend can rest his head in my hugging arms, note the space between my hugging arms and my breast or chest is the bosom.

Of course this is elaborate and subtle. It was probably well understood by the greater part of the audience of the Globe Theater but it is lost today, and that’s probably why this production has modified the end of the play Richard III, but I regret it because it turns the Shakespearean magic into some plain action film, even if it is a good one.


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