Telling Histories with Shakespeare

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Moncada's 'A Soldier in Every Son'

A Soldier in Every Son, playing at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon appropriates, albeit loosely, Shakespeare’s history plays through a complex re-telling of Mexican history.

In these blogs I have been thinking about Victorian Shakespeare and, particularly, stage spectacles. While it is difficult to imagine the approval of Shakespeare’s ‘bardolising’ Victorian audiences, the appropriation of select episodes or characters into contemporary nineteenth-century literature has been well documented.

But what about the theatre? Was Shakespeare used to re-tell another history on the Victorian stage?

One late-Victorian scene always strikes me as eminently Shakespearean, though the playwright never made any allusion to Shakespeare in his discussions  about his work. The playwright was Wilson Barrett, one of the leading actors of the 1880s and 1890s. Barrett shot into the public consciousness by becoming a legitimate and entirely justifiable rival Hamlet to that of Henry Irving.

Wilson Barrett (1846-1904)

But Barrett’s lasting legacy was to be his melodramatic, sensational historical drama The Sign of the Cross (1895), which tells the story of Christianity emerging at the fall of the Roman Empire. The beautiful, appropriately (but not too independently) intelligent Christian girl Mercia is captured by the orgy-loving, decadent Roman solider Marcus who is, of course, madly in love with her.

Marcus calls forth Mercia from his prison to offer her a choice between death and life on the condition that she submit to his sexual desires:

MARCUS                   I am your master –

MERCIA                    No –

MARCUS                   You are my slave

MERCIA                    No – no –

(She runs to the window and attempts to throw herself from it)

MARCUS                   There is no escape. You are mine body and soul –

(He falls to the floor and clutches at her robes)

Your master is your slave – love me.

(Seizes her and covers her with kisses)

MERCIA                    Ah, mercy – mercy – have mercy –

MARCUS                   Have thou mercy – yield to me – yield – I love thee – love thou me – love me.

(She breaks from him and runs to the door, beating on its brazen panels).

Marcus and Mercia

It can be difficult to overlook the melodramatic outbursts and sensational stage directions, but this episode always reminds me of Angelo’s indecent proposal in Measure for Measure:

ANGELO                  Plainly conceive, I love you.

ISABELLA               My brother did love Juliet,

And you tell me that he shall die for it.

ANGELO                   He shall not, Isabel, if you give me love.

ISABELLA                I know your virtue hath a licence in‘t,

Which seems a little fouler than it is,

To pluck on others.

ANGELO                   Believe me, on mine honour,

My words express my purpose.


Angelo and Isabella


Another vulnerable woman propositioned by a conflicted man in exchange for a life.

Curiously, in Barrett’s play, when Mercia demands to know why she has been summoned by Marcus, he replies, ‘to feast upon thy beauty – to hear the music of thy voice – to watch the light that beams from those bright eyes’. Again, this is not unlike Angelo:

What, do I love her

That I desire to hear speak again,

And feast upon her eyes?

It is, of course, possible that this is a co-incidence, and I wonder what Barrett would think of this overlap between his piece of melodrama and Shakespeare’s problem play. Whether or not we can say that Barrett used Shakespeare to re-tell a different history is perhaps not clear. Certainly, Barrett’s own familiarity with Shakespeare’s plays is unquestionable, having performed in and directed several productions throughout his career. But the evocation of Shakespeare’s characters and their interactions and experiences in The Sign of the Cross is palpable.

In many ways the jarring unfamiliar names and events in Luis Mario Moncada’s A Solider in Every Son are softened by the familiarity of experiences; and perhaps these experiences are familiar, as in Barrett’s historical pagan setting, because they are Shakespeare’s.

How and where is Shakespeare used to tell history? Do leave your thoughts below.


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Author:Anjna Chouhan

Anjna is Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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