The Plays We Overlook – Introduction

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There are the plays everybody knows and loves: the big four tragedies, the cross-dressing comedies, the Henry IVs, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra. There are the plays we may feel we have to pretend we know, even if we don’t: Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, The Winter’s Tale, and Coriolanus (at least before the movie). And then there are what we might call the Neglected Plays — those that many, including ardent Shakespeareans, have never even read or seen on stage: the Henry VIs, King John, Timon, Pericles, All is True (Henry VIII), The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Some might say those plays are neglected for a reason. Take the Henry VI cycle, with lines like:

‘Come on, brave soldiers: doubt not of the day,
And, that once gotten, doubt not of large pay.’
(3 Henry VI, 4.7.87-88).

And just a little later:

‘The sun shines hot; and if we use delay,
Cold biting winter mars our hop’d-for hay.’
(3 Henry VI, 4.8.60-61).

Both these couplets are given to Edward IV, so possibly Shakespeare is characterizing him as an inept versifier with an inexplicable fixation on ‘–ay’ sounds. The fact remains that they are the sort of thing the Beyond the Fringe troupe must have had in mind in their brilliant parody “So That’s the Way You Like It”:

‘I most royally shall now to bed
To sleep off all the nonsense I’ve just said.’

But even if the Neglected Plays do contain a disproportionately high number of the thousand lines Ben Jonson wished Shakespeare had “blotted,” they still offer much to appreciate. For example, just recently Randall Martin reported on this site on John Blondell’s Santa Barbara production of 3 Henry VI, a run-up to what promises to be one of the highlights of this spring’s Globe to Globe festival at Shakespeare’s Globe. And if you’ve ever wondered what Karl Marx saw in Timon of Athens, look no further than Nick Walton’s extraordinary interview with Jonathan Bate (second in the clip) posted here last year.

For those who can get there, Globe to Globe and the World Shakespeare Festival (including, for example, Simon Russell Beale playing Timon in July) are great occasions to experience the Neglected Plays in 2012. Whether you can attend any of these performances or not, in future posts I’ll delve into the plays to show why they ought to be a little less neglected—beginning at the beginning with the Henry VI plays.

Stay in touch with the World Shakespeare Festival as it unfolds through logging on to Year of Shakespeare.

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Author:James Cappio

James Cappio has taught philosophy in the Ivy League, practiced law on Wall Street, and now works as an independent writer and editor. Inspired by P.G. Wodehouse’s example to read all of Shakespeare's works within one year (2009–2010), he has been blogging about his passion ever since at
  • Erin Sullivan

    Oh no, a shame you can’t go! Fingers crossed they post these plays on – I’ve just been watching the Russian Measure here! Pete Orford is responding to all three Henry VIs for our Year of Shakespeare project – he did the triple header yesterday and has just posted his response to part 1. Would love to hear your thoughts too.

    And yes, I was interested to hear Gordon McMullan’s thoughts on HVIII on TV last week. Must reread that play!

  • ShakespeareInstitute

    Thanks for a great post James! Several of our MAs have been talking about how they’ve discovered the joys of the history plays over the course of the year.

  • James Cappio

    Randall, thanks so much for this generous and illuminating comment. It’s very gratifying to learn from one who’s engaged as deeply with these plays as you have. Please continue as we proceed–but do leave something for me to do! (A pleasantry, of course; there’s so much to discover in the plays it would take many posts to exhaust them.)

    And thanks Erin, though I seem to have created the misimpression that I’m actually at G2G. If only! I’m just cheering along with the reports here. I’ll certainly talk about Henry VIII/All Is True, though. I’ve only seen it once, in the production the RSC brought to Brooklyn in 1998, which I only vaguely remember as rather heavy on the pageantry. It’ll be interesting to see whether it kindles the enthusiasm Gordon McMullan expresses in his Arden Third introduction and his appearance on James Shapiro’s series.

  • Erin Sullivan

    Henry VIII is my most neglected play – read it once very quickly and have never seen it performed. Like many people the RSC’s revivial of Michael Boyd’s History Cycle in 2006/7 completely opened my eyes to the power and vitality of the Henry VI plays. Will be very interested to read your thoughts on the G2G interpretations!

  • Rmartin

    There’s no doubt, James, that the lines of Edward’s in 3HenryVI you cite are pretty workmanlike. But they would have meant a little more to audiences in 1591 when the first version of the play was being staged and when England was fighting wars in France and Ireland, and still officially at war with Spain. The line about ‘large pay’ would have resonated with Rose spectators aware of soldiers *not* being paid because of endemic army corruption of the kind we see associated with Falstaff in the later Henry IV plays. Edward’s other line about making hay is typical of his fondness for agricultural metaphors in 3H6. As elsewhere in Sh (e.g. Richmond’s speeches at the end of R3, and Burgundy’s in H5), they code desires for peace, as opposed to war. But the dramatic context often makes such speeches ironic too, as here with Edward.

    None of this makes the lines any better as dramatic poetry. But they might not have sounded quite so banal in their Elizabethan context.

    I’m writing this on a shuttle to the airport for tonight’s flight to London and the first of my Globe productions, the Bangla Tempest tomorrow evening. See you at H6.

    Randall Martin

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