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30 Days of Shakespeare, Day 14

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Day #14: Your favourite fight scene - 1 Henry IV and 3 Henry VI

I'm really drawing a blank on this one, mostly because fight scenes are so completely dependent on performance and most action sequences in Shakespeare can turn out brilliantly, horribly, or anywhere in between. One need only look at the Evil Shakespeare Overlord List.

That being said, it probably comes as no surprise to anybody that my favourite fight scenes come from the histories.

Henry IV, Part I Act V, Scene IV - This scene has everything. Towards the beginning, we get this rather terrifyingly brilliant image, courtesy of Douglas:

Another king! they grow like Hydra's heads:
I am the Douglas, fatal to all those
That wear those colours on them: what art thou,
That counterfeit'st the person of a king?

This moment was particularly magical in the RSC production. The fight was staged such that the royal forces entered in formation, all wearing identical crowns. Considering what an incredibly charged signifier the crown is in these plays, it was startling in the best possible way to see that staging choice.

Then, of course, you've got the fantastic exchange between Hal and Hotspur, the meeting toward which the entire play has been pointing. However you view these characters, whichever one you prefer or even if you hate both of them, it's such a well-crafted scene.

And then there's Falstaff. Who succeeds in completely overturning the gravity of Hal's speech over Hotspur's body the way only Falstaff can do it. And, finally, ruining Hal's moment of glory in front of the one brother who never gives him the benefit of the doubt, the delightfully priggish John of Lancaster.

Henry VI, Part III, Act V, Scene IV and Scene V - The Battle of Tewkesbury, the final pitched battle between York and Lancaster (and, no, I don't count Bosworth since Richmond might as well be from the moon as far as the play's concerned). It starts with this amazing speech from Margaret and, in a way, ends with an equally amazing speech from her, even if the matter is diametrically opposed.

We will not from the helm to sit and weep,
But keep our course, though the rough wind say no,
From shelves and rocks that threaten us with wreck.
As good to chide the waves as speak them fair.
And what is Edward but ruthless sea?
What Clarence but a quicksand of deceit?
And Richard but a ragged fatal rock?
All these the enemies to our poor bark.
Say you can swim; alas, 'tis but a while!
Tread on the sand; why, there you quickly sink:
Bestride the rock; the tide will wash you off,
Or else you famish; that's a threefold death.
This speak I, lords, to let you understand,
If case some one of you would fly from us,
That there's no hoped-for mercy with the brothers
More than with ruthless waves, with sands and rocks.
Why, courage then! what cannot be avoided
'Twere childish weakness to lament or fear.

I don't know about you, but this is a fantastic speech as far as I'm concerned. Margaret is such a brilliant character who gets to work in so many different rhetorical registers -- romantic, conniving, murderous, heroic, and, ultimately, grieving. It's amazing to see her go from the proud, dangerous opponent of Richard of York at the beginning of this play, to the heartbroken mother at the end of Act V, Scene V:

O Ned, sweet Ned! speak to thy mother, boy!
Canst thou not speak? O traitors! murderers!
They that stabb'd Caesar shed no blood at all,
Did not offend, nor were not worthy blame,
If this foul deed were by to equal it:
He was a man; this, in respect, a child:
And men ne'er spend their fury on a child.
What's worse than murderer, that I may name it?
No, no, my heart will burst, and if I speak:
And I will speak, that so my heart may burst.
Butchers and villains! bloody cannibals!
How sweet a plant have you untimely cropp'd!
You have no children, butchers! if you had,
The thought of them would have stirr'd up remorse:
But if you ever chance to have a child,
Look in his youth to have him so cut off
As, deathmen, you have rid this sweet young prince!

Even though we haven't seen her with her son before the beginning of Henry VI, Part III, this speech is such a complete whiplash turn from everything we've seen of her before. Margaret always gives the impression of being bent but not broken, but watching her son get stabbed to death is what breaks her -- at least until her not-quite-earthly reappearance in Richard III.

Of course, that heartwrenching speech is bookended by these positively priceless bits of dialogue:

GLOUCESTER: Why should she live, to fill the world with words?
KING EDWARD IV: What, doth she swoon? use means for her recovery.
GLOUCESTER: Clarence, excuse me to the king my brother;
I'll hence to London on a serious matter:
Ere ye come there, be sure to hear some news.
CLARENCE: What? what?
GLOUCESTER: The Tower, the Tower.


KING EDWARD IV: Where's Richard gone?
CLARENCE: To London, all in post; and, as I guess,
To make a bloody supper in the Tower.
KING EDWARD IV: He's sudden, if a thing comes in his head.
Now march we hence...

Edward's reaction, to me, is what sells this scene. He doesn't ask why Richard has gone to the Tower. He just sort of shrugs and moves on to more important things. Like he doesn't know that Richard has gone off to murder the defenceless Henry VI. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the Yorkists in a nutshell. It probably says horrible things about me that I love them as much as I do.

Act V, Scenes III and IV and Act V, Scenes IV and V, performed by the English Shakespeare Company and directed by Michael Bogdanov. These are just excellently performed all round -- June Watson's Margaret in particular, but also the utter awfulness of my dear York boys.

Day #1: Your favourite play - Othello and Richard III
Day #2: Your favourite character - Lady Elizabeth Grey in 3 Henry VI and Richard III
Day #3: Your favourite hero - Othello
Day #4: Your favourite heroine - Juliet from Romeo and Juliet and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing
Day #5: Your favorite villain - Richard of Gloucester
Day #6: Your favourite villainess female villain - Joan la Pucelle
Day #7: Your favourite clown - Feste from Twelfth Night
Day #8: Your favourite comedy - Much Ado About Nothing
Day #9: Your favourite tragedy - King Lear
Day #10: Your favourite history - The Henry VI trilogy
Day #11: Your least favourite play - The Taming of the Shrew
Day #12: Your favourite scene - selections from Richard III, Othello, Much Ado, and 3 Henry VI
Day #13: Your favourite romantic scene - As You Like It, Act IV, Scene I
Day #14: Your favourite fight scene - 1 Henry IV and 3 Henry VI
Day #15: The first play you read
Day #16: Your first play you saw
Day #17: Your favourite speech
Day #18: Your favourite dialogue
Day #19: Your favourite movie version of a play
Day #20: Your favourite movie adaptation of a play
Day #21: An overrated play
Day #22: An underrated play
Day #23: A role you've never played but would love to play
Day #24: An actor or actress you would love to see in a particular role
Day #25: Sooner or later, everyone has to choose: Hal or Falstaff?
Day #26: Your favourite couple
Day #27: Your favourite couplet
Day #28: Your favourite joke
Day #29: Your favourite sonnet
Day #30: Your favourite single line
Current Location:
Current Mood:
drunk tipsy
Current Music:
Hot Chip - I Feel Better
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On 3rd August 2010 13:29 (UTC), allochthonous commented:
fight scenes are so completely dependent on performance and most action sequences in Shakespeare can turn out brilliantly, horribly, or anywhere in between

Agreed. I love Shrewsbury, but the fight choreography at the production I saw at the Globe a couple of days ago was pretty awful and the scene lost a lot of its power. The trouble with the brilliance of the RSC version is that it spoils everything that comes after!

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On 3rd August 2010 14:05 (UTC), lareinenoire replied:
Yes, that is exactly the trouble with the RSC version. Especially since, with the exception of the Awful Student Production of Richard III, it was the first time I'd seen any of them performed onstage.

I have to say, though, fight choreography is hard. When I directed Romeo and Juliet, we were lucky enough to have someone with stage combat experience in charge of all the fight scenes -- if I'd had to do it, they would have turned out horribly, I guarantee.
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On 3rd August 2010 20:11 (UTC), fallingtowers commented:
I'm sorry for ignoring for comments on Welsh borderlands battles, but I was just so distracted by the Evil Shakespeare Overlord List. It's a work of staggering genius.
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