Starring Hamilton

When Lin-Manuel Miranda enters as Alexander Hamilton, introducing himself as such in song, he is greeted with rapturous applause. This moment seems written into the music itself– that space to pause between “Alexander Hamilton… my name is Alexander Hamilton,” and to wait for a moment or two (or several more) after.

When Jamael Westman enters as Alexander Hamilton, introduces himself as such, he’s greeted with dead silence. The name hangs in the air, and into that silence he speaks the assurance that suddenly feels electrically charged: “Just you wait.”

Westman is tall and slim as a knife blade, and he always but always stands perfectly erect. With his long, long frame, his hands folded behind his back, even as he towers over absolutely everyone he meets, there is no one who will make him stoop. He is still and controlled. He is going to take up all the damn space he needs. When he smiles (not often– smile more), it’s sharp and often smug.

Whether the London cast of Hamilton should be seen as a kind of replacement or tour cast, or a whole new original, is a vexed question. The glossy souvenir brochures in the lobby feature pictures of the Broadway cast, and everyone here has been mainlining the original soundtrack. In either case, it’s rare– at least in my experience– to see a leading actor transform a role. Javier Muñoz, who I didn’t see, apparently uncovered many of Hamilton’s spikier edges. But Muñoz is a known quantity with Broadway experience and a long association with Miranda. This is Westman’s first musical.

I expected him to be cheered when he announced himself as “Alexander Hamilton” anyway– I assume the touring Hamiltons are, an expression of delight to be meeting the title character, no matter who he’s played by. Like I said, the music itself practically invites it. But that silence was immensely moving– that reminder that this young actor, stepping into the shadow of the beloved Lin-Manuel, would had to prove himself to an expectant audience just as his character is proving himself to a skeptical onstage world.

And it is, as it turns out, a slow unfolding. This makes sense in a role written for the show’s creator and a well-established star, who has no need to win the audience’s loyalty, but it takes a while before Hamilton is really asked to display the full range of his abilities. Like the characters, we have to wait for his talents to unfold: gosh, he’s good with that high-speed rap– oh, he can sing, too– oh, he can act. He has arrogance and menace and charm and relentless drive. It’s so obvious why everyone hates him, but we love him anyway. He and Jefferson, a pair of gaudily-dressed egomaniacs, seem like a newly equal match. Burr (played, fittingly, by the established West End star Giles Terera, who did get entrance applause) and his envy and irritation with Hamilton’s striving makes a whole new kind of sense. It strengthens his opponents as characters when their disdain for Hamilton doesn’t seem to be based only in envy and class prejudice (and possibly weakens Eliza a little bit, but that’s a separate essay). A more flawed Hamilton makes for a stronger overall show.

Most of all, though– in the early scenes especially– the double layers of a relatively untried newcomer, both Hamilton and Westman himself, forcing his way with confidence onto the stage he knows he deserves is captivating and touching and beautiful. Before long, I suspect he’ll be a star, too, greeted with the same rapturous applause as the American Hamiltons. But for now, there’s that silence, that breath of uncertainty: just you wait. 

Back to the Source

I’ve finally started reading some of the older Elizabethan history plays I probably should have read a long time ago. I’ve read some Holinshed and the other chronicle sources that have been identified as Shakespeare’s source material, but it’s instructive to see that some of his strongest influences were really earlier plays.

The case that has intrigued me most– in large part because it’s one I’ve barely seen discussed– is Shakespeare’s King John and its predecessor/maybe-source, The Troublesome Reign of King John. 

I fully recognize that this has almost certainly been discussed at length in scholarly literature I haven’t yet read, but I’m equally interested in the fact that while Shakespeare’s relationship to predecessor plays like The Famous Victories of Henry V and The True Tragedy of Richard III is common knowledge, this one doesn’t seem to be. Which is particularly interesting because some of the most famous features of the play– ones that Shakespeare gets a lot of credit for– actually derive from this earlier play.

Mostly, I’m talking about the Bastard.

He’s frequently correctly credited as Shakespeare’s only wholly fictional main character, but in such a way that also tends to give Shakespeare credit for making him up. But The Troublesome Reign of King John makes it plain that, fictional or not, he was an established aspect of the King John story that Shakespeare was adapting. So is the prominence of Queen Eleanor and Constance, and their sudden disappearance partway through the play, a structural feature I’ve seen frequently puzzled over.

While it’s not quite an answer just to say “it happens because he was copying his source play,” it does shed some light. We can’t fully understand what Shakespeare is doing in a play if we incorrectly believe he has originated characters and ideas that in fact he has borrowed from others. And it obscures what Shakespeare did innovate– in this case, for example, the deep ambivalence of the Bastard character, or Constance’s effusive mourning. And what he didn’t: the abrupt disappearance of Elinor and Constance.

It highlights the problems with only considering Shakespeare in isolation. Not only can it paint an inaccurate picture of the theatrical scene as a whole, it can create misleading assumptions about the plays themselves.

 

 

Artemisia Gentileschi and Historical Fictions

One of my pet peeve posts is back in circulation– this tumblr thread, which, despite the correct attribution of date and artist in the original post, excitedly seizes onto the idea that an x-ray scan has revealed that 16th century painter Artemisia Gentileschi ‘originally’ painted a much more anguished and angry portrait of the Biblical Susanna than the one patriarchal forces ultimately permitted her to reveal.

Perhaps this did indeed happen, but that image isn’t proof of it: it’s an original work created in 1998 (by Kathleen Gilje— let’s not erase one female artist in favor of another).

If you don’t feel like reading it, the gist of the thread is that this x-ray is important because of course Gentileschi, a rape survivor, would have wanted to portray a more realistic version of Susanna (who, in the Bible story in question, is harassed and assaulted by two elders, who threaten to falsely accuse her of adultery if she won’t have sex with them). That Gentileschi’s original concept was evidently suppressed and forced to be altered is just another example of the ways in which the patriarchy has suppressed the voices of women– especially rape victims– throughout history.

Now, the latter is certainly true, at least in general. Whether or not it’s true of Gentileschi and this painting is a question we can’t answer.

One of the subsequent posters praises the x-ray version for being “real,” and points out that Gentileschi’s paintings are of particular interest today (particularly from a feminist perspective) for generally portraying less sanitized, idealized versions of Biblical heroines than those that were popular at the time. Just not quite as much so as the x-ray.

Annoyingly, there are several posts floating around that attempt to correct this post and identify the actual artist of the x-ray painting, but they never seem to catch on the way the original, incorrect post has.

Working with Shakespeare– especially Shakespeare in performance– means working in a field where these kinds of historical myths proliferate. I’ve always been fascinated in what causes certain historical fictions to take hold rather than others (or rather than the truth), and as annoyed as this post makes me, it does point to a couple assumptions that I think often apply in these cases.

First, that a historical artist’s idea of “real” would look exactly like ours. The x-ray photo is indeed more realistic than Gentileschi’s painting to a contemporary eye– both in the sense that the figure is less idealized than we are used to seeing in Renaissance art, and that (as the poster reinforces) this is what we imagine a woman being assaulted would or should look like.

Next, that Gentileschi would naturally express her understanding of a woman’s place in the world and a woman’s experience of sexual trauma in ways we find immediately recognizable. It’s related to the first idea– this is how a woman who had experienced trauma would express herself. Because it’s how we’d expect a female painter to do so today.

All of these assumptions stem from an ignorance or rejection of Gentileschi’s historical artistic milieu. We can’t seek to interpret the style and content of her work simply by glancing at a few paintings of the same Biblical scenes and declaring hers more “real.” We have to understand the breadth of the movement she was working within– and understand that the ways bodies, emotions, and trauma were depicted within that style may have looked just as “real” to the people seeing them as film and television look to us, because that was their familiar artistic language.

It’s like the way CGI can look perfectly realistic, or at least acceptable, in the moment– but when you return to that movie five years later, you suddenly can see how distractingly bad it looks. We become accustomed to the tropes and techniques that are presented to us– the development of new fashions or technologies makes the old ways look strange.

This also plays into the idea, so common with Shakespeare too, of the solitary artistic genius, who is not working within or expanding upon, but in constant, active defiance of their surrounding artistic landscape. Such people existed, of course, but not every artist we admire is or has to be one of them. (And again, Gentileschi may secretly have been, but this painting is not proof of that.)

The problem is basically a lack of historical context (though in this specific instance, also a failure to actually read the original poster’s caption). The assumption that artists would work exactly as we do today, in styles and shorthands that are identical to ours– and that we, from our own context, can look at a historical work and read it as clearly and easily as we do contemporary art. The historical myths that catch on seem to be the ones that reinforce these ideas.

The appeal is obvious: it says that your personal response to and understanding of a work is not only valid (which it is) but also objectively true (probably not). I don’t think it’s elitist or gatekeeping to say that all art is borne of its historical moment, and you need to have some understanding of that historical moment to attempt to interpret what a work was trying to do and say in its own time, rather than what it seems to say now.

That’s what makes historical art so fascinating to me: the reminder that, while some things do seem to come down to human nature, so much of what we take as objective truth about humanity and the way we see the world– both good and bad– is really just a product of our time and place. Fundamentally different perspectives have existed, and can and will.

Caroline, or Change & Nice White People

I’ve been wondering for a few months now why Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s amazing musical Caroline, or Change hasn’t been a go-to for theatre companies this season given its intense relevance to some of our most urgent social issues (the recently-discussed subplot involving the defacing of a Confederate statue not least among them).

Because Kushner and Tesori are amazing, the piece resonates on so many levels. One that I think is particularly urgent, and a bit subtler than the Confederate statue subplot, is its treatment of the role of well-intentioned white people in questions of racial equality. In Caroline, or Change, the family the titular Caroline works for are not your average middle-class white Southerners: they’re also Jewish, raising the still-timely question of how white people who have their own claims to oppression can still be complicit in white supremacy.

The achingly awkward Rose, Northern transplant to New Orleans, unhappily married stepmother to a resentful ten-year-old, and Caroline’s boss, clings to an all-too-recognizable attempt at friendliness in order to overcome her discomfort with the power relationship between herself and Caroline. Rose insists that her scheme to give Caroline the unofficial raise they otherwise can’t afford– letting her keep any change her stepson Noah leaves in his pockets when Caroline does the laundry– is her “trying to be friendly… just trying to be a friend.” But she doesn’t see any contradiction between her protestations of friendship and her frantic asides wondering why Caroline isn’t as nice as other people’s maids.

Rose is not one of the virulently racist housewives of something like The Help: after Caroline quits unannounced, her bewilderment seems sincere when she says that, “It’s just no way to treat a friend.”

The recurring word friend becomes a mask behind which white characters hide their discomfort and insincerity. While eulogizing President Kennedy, Rose’s mother and father-in-law describe him as “friend to the colored, friend to the Jew”– while the two black characters who comment are far less sure of that.

“JFK/Swore to help black folks someday/sure he was a little slow/getting round to doing so/but he swore it and I know/he was set to help our cause,” Caroline’s friend Dotty says. But the best she can conclude is: “Our almost-friend has gone away.”

Caroline’s daughter Emmie is blunter: “I ain’t got no tears to shed/for no dead white guy.”

Dotty and Emmie recognize that friendship is an action, not a title; something that is earned through behavior that demonstrates one’s commitment, not just something one can decide to say they are. Rose may claim to be Caroline’s friend, but as long as she’s Caroline’s boss (not to mention so painfully uncomfortable around her), she can’t be.

In a gesture that feels particularly radical these days, Kushner gives no extra credit for good intentions. Rose is held responsible for her ignorant bumbling, even though it’s well-meant, even though she’s far from home and sad and sincerely wishes she could help Caroline more. He holds Noah, her ten-year-old stepson, responsible for his racism, too. The show’s emotional climax is triggered when Caroline decides to keep a $20 bill Noah accidentally leaves in his pocket and Noah, enraged at the ‘theft,’ responds by furiously parroting racist threats he’s obviously overheard, or at least made up based on things he’s heard.

When Caroline does decide to return to work anyway, Noah hides from her. But in one of the play’s dreamy nighttime dialogues that take place between physically distant characters, Caroline reassures him that the rupture is not permanent. Noah asks, “Will we be friends then?”

Caroline’s melody is gentle and her words blunt: “Weren’t never friends.”

It’s the culmination of a recurring thread of her denying their friendship while Noah insists upon it, but it’s also clearer than ever in that moment that it’s true. But it leaves open the possibility that it could become true, if Noah ceases to hide behind that meaningless word and grows up to confront the deep cultural and systemic issues that keep him and Caroline apart.

Caroline’s friend Dotty says near the end of the play, “I know it hurt to change./It actually hurts, learning something new.” Dotty reminds Caroline of what Rose and Noah’s contrasting examples prove: not just that change can hurt, but that it must hurt. That’s the only way it can take place. Caroline has personal change to work through over the course of the play, but the weight of the painful personal changes that can lead to broader social transformation is placed firmly on the backs of the white characters. Politeness and protestations of friendship are meaningless without the courage to confront the prejudices, personal and social, that they’re attempting to paper over.

 

 

Justice for Ellen (and the women of Will)

(this post contains spoilers)

We’re four episodes into TNT’s new Shakespeare drama Will before we learn Ellen Burbage’s first name.

Between the boy players and Shakespeare’s absent wife and, you know, the general sexism of 16th century England, it’s easy to create stories about the early days of English drama that include no women at all. So Will deserves credit for its inclusion of James Burbage’s wife Ellen as a clearly integral part of the day-to-day running of the Theatre. But she’s Mistress Burbage, and Richard and Alice’s mum, and it’s not until four episodes in that anyone actually bothers to identify her by her first name.

It’s a little thing, but emblematic of Will’s not-quite-there treatment of its female characters. The show comes so close to finding a space for women in the tale of the early modern English theatre that it’s all the more frustrating that it falls short. The desire for interesting, important female characters is obvious, but the show stumbles in the execution, falling back on tired and disempowering period drama tropes.

Take Ellen Burbage. One of the best episodes gives her props as the power behind the throne, the real manager of her husband’s playhouse– but we never really see her doing this, and the idea is never quite mentioned again. Her real role is to alternately nag and support her family– and, in classic period drama mama fashion, push her daughter towards a sensible but loveless marriage and become furious when she refuses it.

It’s not nearly as bad as poor Anne Shakespeare, who of course Shakespeare does not love, and spends most of the series cheating on. Her role is only to realize that she is a fool for wishing her husband would be sensible and make money and help their three children, and instead must recognize his genius and– in her own words– “leave [him] free to succeed.” That is literally what she says. Literally. We’ll return to this idea.

Will gets points for including Emilia Bassano (and for casting her with a black actress), and loses them again for how she is used. There are a few striking scenes– and parallel scenes earlier, with Alice– in which Emilia makes key suggestions about the shape of Shakespeare’s works-in-progress. It might be an exciting example of someone finally depicting the collaborative nature of early modern playwriting– but it’s not. Shakespeare happily absorbs Emilia and Alice’s ideas without expectation of credit or acknowledgement on either side. He’s the writer, of course they have no use for their words or ideas (though Emilia’s own poetry is referenced, once) except to give them to him.

Obviously this is a slightly uncharitable reading– any writer knows that friends offer ideas and you duly steal them all the time. But it’s the positioning of both these women, both of whom claim to be artistic and ambitious in their own right, as having no real function except to serve Shakespeare. One suspects the writers think they are paying the women their due by having them make major contributions to famous works like Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and lines that will eventually go into Romeo and Juliet, but it only highlights their inferior position: they may make contributions, but the plays and the genius are still firmly Shakespeare’s.

Which brings us to Alice Burbage, Richard Burbage’s sister, Shakespeare’s love interest. To define her in any other terms is almost impossible, though there is a funny scene wherein she’s asked what she does at the playhouse, and she replies, “Not much,” before rattling off an endless list of scrivening, prop sorting, prompting, costume mending…

Like Ellen, the show fully accepts Alice’s role in the family business, though unlike Ellen, there are always hints that perhaps it’s inappropriate, perhaps she needs to marry. When Shakespeare firmly rejects her (at Ellen’s command), Alice turns to another idol, represented by another handsome young man: she converts to Catholicism under the guidance of Shakespeare’s cousin, the underground priest Robert Southwell. His luring of Alice smacks of nothing so much as the way cultists prey on the vulnerable, but by the end, the show tries to insist that we view this choice as Alice finally exercising her free will, that it has nothing to do with Shakespeare– though, of course, it has everything to do with him, as every single episode of the show has demonstrated. Even her departure has to do with him: she writes that she cannot be “part of [his] world”– even though it was her world first.

Alice, whose only wish has been to find a place for herself in the playhouse, is forced out to make room for Will, surrendering her piece of the Burbage family legacy in an act the writing attempts to frame as self-actualization, but just reads– ship voyage and all– exactly the same as Viola at the end of Shakespeare in Love, removing herself as a real, full person in order to become something more important: a character of Shakespeare’s, a piece of his mythology. Viola becomes Viola of Twelfth Night; Alice, associated throughout with lines from Romeo and Juliet, signs her final letter as Shakespeare’s “bright angel,” suggesting Shakespeare will use her as inspiration for Juliet. What better fate for a woman, these endings seem to say, than to be subsumed into a man’s legacy as a fictionalized, idealized version of yourself?

Joking discomfort with the fact of boy players means that, as Shakespeare conceives of and we see snippets of the plays performed, female characters are consistently erased or marginalized. The example I continually find most galling is Richard III. Even though Shakespeare and Alice earnestly discussed the character of Queen Margaret in previous episodes, no mention of her is made in that play, nor of the fact that Shakespeare’s only wholly original scenes, with antecedents in none of his sources, are those featuring the female characters.

The other female characters consist of a prostitute older sister who dies trying to flee with her younger brother; Richard’s friend/maybe-love-interest Moll, who gives him shit but ultimately believes in him; a love interest for Richard’s best friend, who is introduced and dies in a single episode; a tavern hostess/landlady; and a host of peripheral wives and children who are often, in traditional period drama fashion, used as the living emblem of the cost of whatever conflict their male relatives have become embroiled in.

The existence of Ellen, Alice, and Emilia alone put Will a step ahead of almost any other Shakespeare-related show or movie I can think of. But though it tries to make room for women, and deserves credit for the effort, it still can’t conceive of them as anything but satellites to men’s stories, defined primarily by their ability to advance or impede a man’s ambitions.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Isabella?

Measure for Measure might be my least favorite Shakespeare play. Actually, I’m surprised it’s not being performed more often these days: it’s so perfectly in keeping with the black-and-grey, sexually obsessed moral flavor of so many popular prestige television shows.

One of the show’s key difficulties in my experience lies with the ostensible protagonist, the novice Isabella. Isabella goes to Angelo, standing in as leader while the Duke of Vienna is mysteriously absent, to plead for her brother’s life. Claudio has been sentenced to death for fornication under Angelo’s draconian new morality laws, and Isabella hopes to convince him that Claudio should be spared. Angelo, fastidiously morally upright, makes a shocking offer: he’ll free Claudio if Isabella will sleep with him. For Isabella, this is a no-brainer. But Claudio is shocked that she would choose her chastity over her brother’s life– and in my experience, modern audiences and readers tend to agree.

The fact that we don’t generally see this potential encounter as rape points to the shortcomings of popular understandings of consent. But it’s also a great example of a place where the gap between Shakespeare’s culture and ours tips the moral scales of his writing out of balance. We cannot conceive of weighting a woman’s virginity– even a nun’s– in equal balance with a man’s life. In the play itself, Claudio also represents this point of view, but it seems clear we’re meant to view Isabella’s dilemma as far more difficult than Claudio is right and Isabella is being a prude. I’ve read so many reviews that eagerly describe the chemistry between Angelo and Isabella– or condemn the lack thereof, as if the play clearly requires that Isabella share some form of Angelo’s attraction.

Randy Reinholz’s Off the Rails, an adaptation of Measure for Measure making its world premier at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, comes close to resolving this dilemma for a modern audience. Reinholz sets the action in late 19th century Nebraska, in a tiny wild west town that lies at the end of the railroad line, with one saloon, one jail cell, and an Indian boarding school. The ‘kill the Indian, save the man’ philosophy that formed the heart of the era’s forced assimilation policy for Native Americans becomes a central moral conflict of the play. Isabella (now Isabel) has converted to Christianity, graduated from her boarding school and is studying to become a teacher there. Her younger brother Momaday (the Claudio role) is rebellious and unwilling to renounce their Pawnee culture. When he impregnates an Irish servant in town, Angelo’s anger is as much racial as moral.

When Momaday criticizes Isabel for her refusal to sleep with Angelo to save his life, he turns the argument into a condemnation of her assimilation: she has chosen Christian morality, and the value it places on chastity, over her brother– and, by extension, their family and their culture.

Off the Rails does provide a more explicit outside defense of Isabel’s decision than Shakespeare, in the form of Madame Overdone, transformed from a bawdy, comic-relief bit part into the formidable proprietor who takes over the Duke’s role as orchestrator of the play’s resolution. To her, Isabel explains that she can’t bear the thought of bearing Angelo’s bastard, a position Madame Overdone sympathizes with, and one the program, if not quite the production, hammers home with its detailing of the characters’ mixed parentage: Lakota and French, Choctaw and Scottish.

But this grounds Isabel’s emotional and moral objection in practical reality, thus suggesting that these reasons– to not want to be coerced into sex, to think that chastity is important, to genuinely believe in her adopted Christian faith– are not enough. The racial politics of the situation (not to mention the utterly reprehensible Angelo of this production, who, despite hiding his violent religious fervor beneath a genial demeanor that’s honestly sort of charming, is established as a brutal hypocrite from the moment he’s introduced as the superintendent of the boarding school) helps weight the scales in Isabel’s favor, but Momaday’s castigation of her decision as a cowardly surrender to white, Christian morality swiftly unbalances them again. The physical practicality (one that you’d think a madame like Overdone would know how to avoid) is what allows Isabel to carry the day, not any respect for her ideological standpoint.

It’s enough for the purposes of the play. But it points to our enduring difficulty with granting a woman true autonomy over her body, with recognizing that violation can take place without violence. In Shakespeare’s day and Shakespeare’s play, there are troubling patriarchal mores that lend weight to Isabella’s obsessive defense of her virginity, and those are best lost. But even without them, there’s power in her refusal. I don’t know that we’re meant to think Isabella is wholly right– but nor should we think that Claudio is.

It’s ironic that we find Isabella’s lack of lines to accept or reject the Duke’s ending proposal so troubling, but often argue that her staunch unwillingness to take up Angelo’s offer is slightly absurd, or proof of her flawed character. Reinholz finds a workable dramatic solution, but not one that truly respects the simple fact of Isabella’s right to choose.

 

Trumpius Caesar

So people are really mad about the Shakespeare in the Park Julius Caesar that dresses Caesar up as Trump. And lefty theatre people are sort of gleeful at the rightwing anger, because look! Theatre causes controversy! We’re important!

But one thing that’s jumped out at me in the furor is the implication– suggested by my Twitter timeline’s, “It’s Shakespeare, stupid,” response to a Fox news article attacking the “New York City play” in terms that made it seem like they thought it was a new anti-Trump play– is that there is inherent Trumpiness in Shakespeare’s play. That Oskar Eustis didn’t add anything except an orange wig and some pussyhats to what was already there.

But as always, Shakespeare is way slipperier and more equivocal than directors seem to expect, and the supposedly self-evident commentary on dictatorship that Julius Caesar offers is no exception. Today I keep thinking about a production I saw several years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where the Vilma Silva played Caesar. Suddenly, the conspirators’ accusations of tyranny took on a more suspicious cast. Why were they so threatened by her? Should we believe their accusations of actions we never get to see? Why is Cassius so obsessed with her physical weakness, with feeling degraded by being subordinate to her?

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival didn’t change the text either– Caesar still had a distinctly self-aggrandizing air, still less-than-secretly craved a crown. Was still a war hero, and beloved by the people. There was good and bad. But her gender added an additional wrinkle, forced a reexamination of the conspirators’ virulent hatred. That wrinkle went some way towards standing in for an Elizabethan audience’s acceptance of the self-evident good of monarchy, a counterbalance to the conspirators’ language about tyranny and freedom that tends to ring completely convincingly to contemporary audiences.

I can’t see the Public’s production, so it’s very possible that they offer much more complication than the reviews and responses have suggested so far. But it seems to me that they have unbalanced the play’s morality by depicting Caesar as Trump– especially given their New York City (read: probably liberal) audiences, who are coming in with a certain set of biases (to say the least). Caesar is not just a cardboard tyrant, and Shakespeare’s central question is more complicated than just “is assassination of an objectively horrible leader right or wrong.” I don’t think it would have been any better to put Caesar in a pantsuit and make Calpurnia her white-haired southern husband, but it might have left more room for the text’s uncertainty about Caesar’s dangerousness.

In short, while Oskar Eustis may not have added anything to turn Caesar into Trump, it’s reductive to suggest that he was just tapping into was was already obvious and explicit in Shakespeare’s words.

1 Henry IV (with the death of Lady Henry Hotspur)

My full review of this production will appear in The Shakespeare Newsletter

She’s too much. She’s too blunt and too loud and she never stops talking. She knows what she’s worth, and she’s worked hard to prove it, but these days that isn’t enough anymore. Now everyone says she needs to be quieter, needs to be gentler, needs to not be the things– aggressive, impulsive, passionate, utterly wholly constantly sincere– that have helped her claw her way to where she is.

Which Shakespeare heroine? Why, Harry Percy.

Alejandra Escalante’s Hotspur has no patience for arrogance (though she can be arrogant) or incompetence (though she is not, perhaps, an expert in her present profession of secret armed rebellion) or being thought of in any way as one of the girls. She’s a soldier, and in her chosen field, she commands the respect and open admiration even of her enemies: of the Douglas, of King Henry, of Sir Walter Blunt. But people who ask her to do things that fall outside her area of expertise– her aunt Worcester and brother-in-law’s hopes she’ll be politic, her father’s longing for her to be polite, her wife’s pleas that she be open and confiding– will be disappointed, and she mostly seems incredulous that anyone would bother to ask her to be anything but who she is. Don’t you know her? Don’t you know what to expect by now?

It seems inevitable such a Hotspur would have come to chafe against the confines of her society, a world where even as a nobleman’s daughter, she would always have to answer to someone else, to lead someone else’s soldiers. This is a Hotspur who would never really have believed in her King Henry V’s reformation– witness her incredulity in the moment of her death, the weight Escalante gives to the second lines of Hotspur’s final speech: dying isn’t as bad as being killed by you. 

And she has not played the game as wisely as the other women of her circle; she has made herself into something too violent, too angry for a woman to be permitted to remain: not smooth and silver-tongued like her aunt Worcester, not undercutting her self-assurance with cheerful eccentricity like Glendower, not thoughtful and pliable like Vernon. Once he throws Worcester out, there are no women in King Henry’s court.

There is a little something extra in King Henry and Prince Hal’s shock and envy. This Mars in swaddling clothes, this infant warrior– what right does she have? How does she do it?

So it seems inevitable: she cannot only be defeated, she must be disgraced. She must lose to a party boy who’s barely wiped the coke off his face. She must be mutilated and dragged around like luggage by Shakespeare’s most famous clown, and he must have the credit for her killing. Her death, as is sometimes the case, is not choreographed to be attributable to her honor against Hal’s pragmatism, her arrogant confidence against his desperation, his luck against her skill. It just happens. They grapple, and he wins. She fumbles with her armor, with her coat, unwilling to believe what has happened until she reaches in and sees her own blood.

She’s betrayed, too, of course, though she never knows it. Harry will be forgiven, her aunt argues. There’s a ready-made excuse: A hare-brained Hotspur, governed by a spleen. Silly girl, she just got so upset, she didn’t know what she was doing.

The pendulum between the two Harrys of Henry IV, the two stars in one sphere, has swung back to a preference for leading men to play Prince Hal, the politician and the pragmatist, the one with the heaps of juicy textual ambiguity and the daddy issues. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has used it as a traditional stepping stone for its brightest young actors: start as Romeo, then tackle the Henry cycle, then Hamlet, then Richard III. These days, we prefer to frame the play as reckless idealism colliding with the harsh necessities of performative politics, and this makes Hal the star, Hotspur his tragic foil.

But the preference was once for Hotspur, and surely will be again. Maybe this is how. Or maybe just for me. To feel how hard-won her place of esteem was, to watch her battering herself against the confines of every expectation– even those of gentility and grace– in her stark inability to be anything but herself. The willingness of those around her to use her for her good qualities and reject her for her bad.

OSF hasn’t rewritten the play, this is the function Hotspur has always played. The lines are the same. But that’s the power of creative casting. Their Hotspur’s a Shakespeare heroine, and just the one I needed.