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The Hollow Crown: Masterpiece or Not?

christopher-marlowe

Christopher Marlowe, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

On Sunday, 11 December 2016, PBS, as a “Great Performance,” broadcast the First Part of King Henry VI on Masterpiece Theatre.  The publicity for this production, overseen by Rebecca Eaton for PBS, described it as a work by William Shakespeare.  Indeed, “the scope, the daring and the savage headlong rush of the poet’s imagination” were praised again and again.

Oxford University Press, with its “New Oxford Shakespeare,” a landmark project that was published by the OUP in October 2016, has definitively established that Christopher Marlowe was co-author with William Shakespeare of King Henry VI in its multiple parts.  Using old-fashioned scholarship and 21st-century computerized tools to analyze texts, the edition’s international scholars have contended that Shakespeare’s collaboration with other playwrights was far more extensive than has been realized until now.

Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three are among as many as 17 plays that they now believe contain writing by other people, sometimes several hands. It more than doubles the figure in the previous “New Oxford Shakespeare,” published 30 years ago.  Marlowe’s hand in parts of the Henry VI plays has been suspected since the 18th century but this marks the first prominent billing in an edition of Shakespeare’s collected works.

The “New Oxford Shakespeare” is to Shakespeare what the “Oxford English Dictionary” is to the English language itself:  definitive.

The broadcast last Sunday over PBS included a number of “famous” actors, including Hugh Bonneville, Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Keeley Hawes, Sophie Okonedo, and Tom Sturridge.  However, they were ill-prepared despite their fame.  Their performances were stilted and clichéd.  They “walked through” their parts, without inspiration, without sparkle, without thought.  Their movements and rituals alone were nothing but mindless mumbo-jumbo.  How would it be possible for young people today to experience this work as a masterpiece since the actors themselves had no understanding of it as such?

Not long ago I attended a performance of “Ophelia” in the theater of Saint Michael’s College at Colchester, Vermont.  This play, derived from Shakespeare, was a collaborative production by a number of theater students at Saint Michael’s.  (Real theater has always been collaborative!)  This production was alive, riveting, spontaneous, thoughtful.

When will PBS abandon clichés and conventionalities from Britain and present living theater in America today?  Or, when will PBS present the living theater of Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand, Australia and India, etc.  Not the fakery of “commercial” pastiche from England but authentic and truly imaginative theater!

I do agree that this “Three Part” work of King Henry VI is a masterpiece, but it is a masterpiece by Marlowe as well as Shakespeare.  Was there not a moral and a cultural responsibility for Rebecca Eaton to acknowledge that the OUP for the first time in centuries has credited Christopher Marlowe as fully the co-author of King Henry VI in its several parts?  Is authenticity of creativity not an issue?  Is artistic credit, then and now, now and then, not an issue?  Has Eaton drifted so far into the swamp of romanticism of ordinary English TV fare passed off as “classics” that she cannot tell the difference between them?

Séamas Cain is a playwright, performance-artist, and poet.  Over the course of 50 years he has directed many productions of Shakespeare plays, in the U.S. as well as in other countries.  He is currently living in Jericho, Vermont.

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