Second Rate Shakespeare
By Wes Clark
Back in the 1980's I was channel surfing one night when I came across an excellent 1973 Vincent Price film, produced in Great Britain: "Theatre of Blood" (a far better film that the title would suggest). In it, a hammy Shakespearian actor (Price) comes back from his apparent death to wreak revenge on a circle of critics who snubbed him. He prepares gruesome deaths for each critic based on the cycle of Shakespeare plays he performed in his last season. The film is a comic horror film or a dark comedy - whatever it is, it's a lot of fun! It has since become a favorite.
Knowing something about The Bard's works, during my first viewing I looked forward to each death, expecting to be familiar with them all. Surprise! One murder was accomplished by the tying of a critic to a horse, who ran all over London - that was from Troilus and Cressida. "What? Never heard of it," I thought. (Later on I would learn that Shakespeare derived this from Greek myth.) In another, a critic's pet poodles were ground up and fed to him - as in Titus Andronicus. Another unknown. Not enjoying the experience of not getting cultural references, I determined to someday become familiar with these lesser-known works of William Shakespeare.
Using a Shakespeare reference I made a list of his plays of which I had never heard. As it turned out, there's a good reason for that as they aren't performed as often as what we might call his first-rate plays (Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, etc.).
The nearby public library has the entire set of the BBC/Time-Life complete plays of Shakespeare, produced in the late 70's and early 80's, so I set about selecting and watching them - this took years. But here they are, what I call Second Rate Shakespeare, the plays you probably haven't seen performed, with my notes:
The Winter's Tale - A decided oddity. It starts out as an effective tragedy and ends up as a comedy, almost as if Shakespeare decided to change horses in midstream. It also contains some real goofiness, including the most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare: "Exit, pursued by a bear." (In the production I watched, this was an actor in a bad bear costume.) A main character, who is described as dead, is miraculously preserved as a magic statue for sixteen years - or is secreted away to be revealed at the right time, it's not really clear. But she emerges at the last act to provide a happy ending. And then there's the title... given the action of the play, "The Winter's Tale" makes no sense. The phrase apparently refers to a traditional wintertime spooky story, the first line of which is uttered by a child before he's interrupted. But why name the play this? It's not clear. All in all I liked this one, and the action sustained my interest - despite the fact that I was perplexed with the complete change of mood halfway through.
Cymbeline - Not bad, not bad. The worst thing about it for me was one of Shakespeare's credulity-straining woman-poses-as-a-boy plot devices; I hate those. The First Folio lists it as a tragedy, but it clearly isn't one as the ending is happy - it's more of a romance. (That is, if one can call a play with a feature like a woman buried alive with a headless corpse romantic.) Not a world-beater like Macbeth, but I never felt like I was wasting my time. I'm glad I viewed it and considered myself entertained.
Coriolanus - The worst Shakespeare play I have ever seen! Utterly boring and talky. It's a tragedy, but there's only one death. There's also a whole lot of pleading from females. This one was very hard to sit through and caused me to wonder at my determination to view Shakespeare's less celebrated works when I could have been, say, watching Dukes of Hazzard reruns.
King John - The second worst Shakespeare play I have ever seen. Even the fact that I enjoy reading about the Plantagenets and knew who the characters were didn't redeem it. The BBC/Time-Life production starred Leonard Rossiter in the title role; he mostly sneered through the entire production. I suppose that's appropriate for the role of John, the least of Henry II's sons. To this day I cannot for the life of me remember one effective or noteworthy scene in this play, just the sneering. A shabby start to the Bard's chronicles of the Kings of England and the Wars of the Roses (Richard II, Henry IV 1 & 2, Henry V, Henry VI 1, 2 & 3) , which is one of the glories of English literature.
Henry VIII - Boring and talky. I suppose it doesn't help that Henry VIII is probably my least favorite English king. I am also suspicious of Shakespeare (or his collaborator - this one is generally believed to be a joint effort) sucking up to the Tudor dynasty with that dreadful final scene, where the princess Elizabeth (later Good Queen Bess) is prophesied over in terms of (retroactively noted) greatness. Still, this play is better than King John in that the trial scene with Katherine of Aragon is engrossing, with sharp dialogue. And the BBC/Time-Life production was interestingly filmed in various English castles. Otherwise, yawn.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre - A bizarre play, very unlike Shakespeare. John Gower (John Gower?) occasionally acts as a narrator. The play gets underway with an odd incest plotline that gets the title character to do some tiresome roaming. Wikipedia says, "The first two acts detailing the many voyages of Pericles are thought to have been written by a relatively untalented reviser or collaborator, possibly George Wilkins." Untalented is right. Still, I didn't feel like I had wasted my time at the end of it, and it is not the worst Shakespeare play I have seen. On the other hand, I won't be watching it again.
Troilus and Cressida - Sort of like Romeo and Juliet without the well-defined characterizations, compelling dialogue, fascinating warring families premise or deathless love scenes. In other words, an also-ran. About the only good thing I can say about this one is that Shakespeare characterizes Achilles as a real rotter, which I found novel and entertaining. He clearly did not think much of Homer's great hero.
Timon of Athens - Wikipedia says it's "...generally regarded as one of his most obscure and difficult works." Also, "It is oddly constructed, with several lacunae (gaps) and for this reason is often described as unfinished, multi-authored, and/or experimental." I agree! For the life of me, I cannot remember what went on in this one at all! So it's one of the Bard's "Problem Plays."
Titus Andronicus - The best of the least. This one is gratuitously violent in a way that none of Shakespeare's other plays are. The utter over-the-top nature of this revenge story ensures interest. For instance, in the play Titus' daughter is raped with her tongue cut out so that she cannot name her attacker, and her hands cut off so that she cannot write his name, either. She therefore spends a good deal of the play with a tortured look on her face, gesturing pathetically with her stumps. But there's more! Later, Titus has his hand lopped off and his sons's heads are presented to him. Titus' revenge is up to the measure of this nastiness, however: He feeds the rapists to their mother baked in a meat pie. Well! When I first saw this one I wondered, "This was written by Shakespeare?" I guess it was a play for the Groundlings. But it's a rip-snorter of a revenge epic, awash with blood. There's even a first class villain, Aaron the Moor, to boot. Actually, Titus Andronicus has become one of my favorite Shakespeare plays!
So what have I learned? Well, I've gained some obscure knowledge. "Oh, yeah, Shakespeare's bear," I can say, knowingly, thinking of the one who exited the stage in The Winter's Tale. I also learned that genius is subject to the same peaks and valleys of accomplishment that affects everyone else. Not every canvas is a Starry Night, not every play is a Hamlet. Having said that, however, it is hardly an original observation that Shakespeare's output was astonishingly good - and that's why they call him The Bard.