The funniest Shakespeare scene you will never see

“He is the bluntest wooer in Christendom.”

Shakespeare wrote eight history plays about the Wars of the Roses. Richard III, Henry V and Part 1 of Henry IV get plenty of showings, still. The others languish in varying degrees of obscurity.

The tragedy of these histories is that there is so much good stuff that audiences never get to see. These are lengthy, dense texts full of battles and politics and lords with interchangeable names. They don’t make an easy pitch to a theatre company trying to fill a room. Even when they are staged, it is usually by amalgamating several into one compressed performance, and even then some of the best bits seem to get cut simply because directors find the material too perplexing, or at any rate, fear the audience will.

My favourite case study for this is Act 3 scene 2 of 3 Henry VI. This scene is one that hardly anyone is aware exists, because Henry VI is performed so rarely, and even when it is, it is usually heavily cut to combine it with the other Henry VI plays. Even in the grand, televised cycle-series The Hollow Crown it was still reduced beyond recognition, with George and Richard excised and the remaining two actors playing entirely ‘straight’. And it’s such a shame, because it’s such fun!

Thou art a widow and thou hast some children,
And, by God’s mother, I, being but a bachelor,
Have other some.

Fortunately, I am able to offer you a taste of what this scene should look like. To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, in 2016, I directed a rehearsed reading of Margaret of Anjou: a new play by Shakespeare. Prof. Elizabeth Schafer of Royal Holloway University made a wonderful new play by combining the bits of Shakespeare’s history plays, four in all, that include Queen Margaret, to tell her story. You can read more about The Margaret Project HERE, HERE and HERE.

This is not one of Queen Margaret’s scenes, but has a knock-on effect for her story arc, because it is Edward IV’s marriage to the widowed Lady Grey which prompts Warwick the Kingmaker to switch sides from York to Lancaster. It is an early point in the story to feature Richard Duke of Gloucester, later to become Richard III, and concludes with his soliloquy that includes the famous, “I can smile, and murder whiles I smile” (more on this HERE).

What is really brilliant about this scene is the ensemble comedy, and modern directors just don’t know what to do with such a hilarious scene, positioned bang in the middle of a string of murders and bloody conflicts. As Edward does his best to seduce a virtuous widow who resolutely refuses to understand what he is hinting at, his brothers, George and Richard, run a snarky commentary from up the back.

GEORGE, aside to Richard
I think he means to beg a child of her.
RICHARD, aside to George
Nay, then, whip me; he’ll rather give her two.

One of Shakespeare’s hallmarks was giving ‘serious’ characters comic moments, and this may be the very best example of that, as all four actors zip along a string of different emotions and attitudes, reacting to each other, and to the rapidly changing circumstances.

The Margaret Project, Io Myers Theatre 2016

You’d think it strange if I should marry her?
To who, my lord?

This video was recorded for archive purposes and so, alas, doesn’t show the actors at their effervescent best (single-fixed-camera setups can never truly capture the energy of a live room). They were an absolute joy to watch on the night, the banter fizzing and the audience roaring. But I’m sure you will forgive the technology and imagine how this scene plays in a live show.

3 thoughts on “The funniest Shakespeare scene you will never see

  1. It always surprises me how much knowledge Shakespeare could assume his audiences had about the different characters — so they would know not only that the banter is funny, but why in particular circumstances. S. does a great job of poking the audience to remember things without giving them political history lectures — but still, they are remembering them.

    I toyed with the idea of having my students see “Vice” in the last cycle of the history in film class and discarded it. There’s so much insider baseball. I tested it on a friend who isn’t that interested in politics, and she had a hard time following it (and she had no idea why Cheney was speaking in iambic pentameter). There’s been a fair amount of film criticism that addresses McKay’s conscious emulation of Shakespeare (he does it in The Big Short, too), and I think it’s really smart on one level, but on another, he doesn’t manage to make the same kind of connection with (most of) his audience that Shakespeare apparently could. In a century, will anyone understand “Vice” at all, let alone, four centuries from now?

    • What a fascinating choice. It would pair well with ‘Hamilton’ and the Australian musical ‘Keating’, about a Prime Minister we had in the 90s, but only if the topic was specifically on creative ways to tell political stories. I did once pitch a class on writing political musicals, I wish I’d got to teach it. Shakespeare was, to some extent, inventing his nation’s history for his audience. It’s a kind of reciprocal loop: the stories the audience knows become the play, which turn into the stories.

      • True about Shakespeare inventing history for his audience (particularly true in the case of Richard III and his transmission of More, among others). That’s a real divergence from Mackay, who is asking people who already know the history to laugh cynically. He doesn’t make a lot of concessions to people who don’t know it already. But maybe that’s a general structural problem with satire.

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