Shakespeare Unchained! The 2022 Colorado Shakespeare Festival has done it, again, delivered, across its entire repertoire, one of its most outstanding set of spectacles, so typical of this amazing company, in its 65th season, the second oldest Shakespeare festival in America. Lauren Gunderson’s featured play, “Book of Will,” says it all: her fact filled, fictionalized Shakespearean-like attempt to reconstruct the 1623 First Folio, the first publication of Shakespeare’s full lineup of plays, seven years after he passed from the scene.
For this First Folio was the product of a strange, unlikely collaboration of Shakespeare’s earliest friends, and fellow actors, Richard Burbage, John Hemminges and Henry Condell, their wives and daughters, sometime miscreant publisher, the now blind, William Jaggard, and his son. A key role was by Ben Jonson, sometime rival/critic of his poet/dramatist benefactor, who helped jump start his career, and Shakespeare’s Jewish convert girlfriend, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, who previously joined him, as Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, in the Merchant of Venice. And if not for them, and a little help from some of Shakespeare’s longtime friends in the aristocracy, and maybe his wide-eyed King, James, traumatized by having to betray his own mother to get the crown, would any of Shakespeare’s plays, we have to ponder, have survived?
Gunderson is one of the top produced playwrights in America of the past several years. Her “Book of Will“ had its World Premiere in the spring of 2017 at the Denver Center following the 2016 First Folio tour, sponsored by the Shakespeare Folger Library, on the 400th year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
She weaves the play into an intriguing story, raising points about the complex of tasks required to publish the plays, and the surrounding personalities and circumstances. The current CSF production illuminates the story and transforms the play into a Shakespearean one, especially in the closing act.
Gunderson’s strong women characters, wives, and daughters of the friends, the cheerleaders for the publication of the Folio, move their cautious husbands into belief, and into action, to move the project to completion, past all its legal and financial complications. This transforms into a dramatic mystery, when we realize, at the beginning of the second act after Intermission, that one of the characters, the wife of one of Shakespeare’s fellow actors and friends, has, all along, been a ghost, mourned, long passed from the scene, calling from the grave.
More than half of Shakespeare’s plays had never been printed, seen the light of day, except as played ‘fore his long-passed audience, before this First Folio. These plays include the three that make up this summer season, the early “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” the late Elizabethan, “All’s Well That Ends Well,” and “Coriolanus,” Shakespeare’s timely epitaph to the fall of the Roman Republic into mob rioting and chaos.
In fact, might we have lost all of Shakespeare, in the bargain? For the Folio form, used for this great project, was of the same quality as that paper and binding used for printing the Bible. Marketed to wealthy patrons, with one third of the 750 originally published first edition copies still surviving, three more Folio editions were to follow of the same quality.
But what might have become of the previously printed versions of the other half of Shakespeare’s plays, in less well-bound Quarto form, only a small number surviving, and some defective? Among these, that of “Henry V,” almost half the pages cut, omitting the ironic choruses, and other material, highly censored, sections critical of Henry’s father in the murder of Richard II, in securing his throne, omitting the abdication scene. And who and where might these dispersed remains have been gathered up?
Shakespeare’s two long poems. “Venus and Adonis“ and “The Rape of Lucrece,” written in the first years of his entry to London, the first works with his name attached, when he was just becoming known, went through 6 and 9 Quarto editions before his death. But, only a dozen survive of each. Yes, they were preserved in university and personal libraries. But what if that First Folio had not gone to press? Would they have disappeared on the shelves without notice?
The first two Comedies this season involve love betrayals of friends and lovers, a common Shakespearean theme, one between two bosom friends, and of and over a love, the second centering on the abandonment of marital intended and vows, and the betrayal of the betrayer by his best servant/buddy.
“Two Gentlemen of Verona,” was likely presented to the Queen, to his Eliza, over the first 1594 Christmas season, after our author had just gotten his first steady job, after four years in London, as chief dramatist of the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Shakespeare was listed as one of the two lead actors that season.
What role might he have played? Was it the servant Launce, a pun on his spear name, whose dog Crab takes the audience in with his doggy wagging tail? Or was it the loyal friend Valentine, who being forced to leave Milan, and his love Sylvia, the Duke’s daughter, after the betrayal of his ‘bosom friend’, the ever shape-shifting Proteus, to the Duke? Proteus betrays his sworn love, Julia, who turns up, in disguise, and must go to work as Proteus’ agent against his friend.
The hilarious second act has Valentine take the lead of a band of Robin Hood outlaws, redeeming them, and healing all the relationships. My wife, not usually a great fan of slapstick, could not keep back her enthusiastic recommendation of this typically wild play, in the typical wild Shakespearean closing second act.
“All’s Well That Ends Well,” begins in France with the funeral of a beloved Count, and with the wasting sickness of the king. The distraught Countess taking comfort in the deep love of her gentlewoman, Helen, for her now orphaned son Bertram, favors the match, but the latter, seems oblivious of both Helen’s love, and the untrustworthiness of his braggart servant/buddy, (all words, no action) Paroles. But this changes when Helen, daughter of her recently deceased father, the most renowned curative physician in France, cures the king and receives Bertram’s hand in marriage as reward. The story continues with Bertram’s refusal to consummate the match, fleeing to war in far off Florence, betraying his marriage oath a second time, by attempting to seduce Diana, a daughter of the city. Paroles is tricked into a cowardly betrayal of the French/Florentine cause to an assumed enemy, and all this takes center stage in another wild Shakespearean closing. All’s Well ends Well, as Helen, with Diana, maintaining steadfastly her maidenhood, has substituted for Helen in the seduction, and now bearing Bertram’s child, wins the day with the French court and Bertram. And even Paroles, now in rags, is redeemed somewhat, and redeems himself in testifying for Diana.
Both these Comedies exhibit incredibly strong, and upstanding women, as in so many women’s roles in the Bard. The men are a mixed bag of betrayers, and heroes, seeking forgiveness. And as the French King, suggestively questions “All yet seems well, and if it end, so meet, the bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.”
Like in so many of Shakespeare’s Comedies and plays, in general, diverging from his source stories, as Dramaturg Amanda Giguere notes in her free Shakespeare 101 presentations, the end remains somewhat in question: “Our wooing doth not end like an old play; Jack hath not Jill” (“Love’s Labour’s Lost“).
The third Shakespeare, “Coriolanus,” yet to be seen, I cannot yet vouch for. But Anthony Powell, and I have a history, ever since I visited him, and we talked about his upcoming 2004 “Merchant of Venice” production at the Denver Center. His 2017 CSF “Julius Caesar” was riveting, especially, the assassination scene of J.C. on the Capitoline mount. Having the same initials as Jesus, taking place parallel in time to the life of the latter, coinciding with the events leading to the fall of the Republic, on the verge of Empire, “Julius Caesar“ has been called Shakespeare’s first Mystery Play. The assassination on the mount of the Capitol in Rome brings forth, that fateful day on Calvary Hill. Looking forward to seeing the Powell’s latest.
The final play of the 2022 season is the one-night Original Practices production of Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist.” Considering Ben’s role in the First Folio, and in Lauren Gunderson’s amazing play, Anthony Gurr’s suggestion (in “Who is Lovewit”) is fits in with this Folio-centered season. Gurr suggests that Lovewit, that the absent owner of the house wherein the play takes place, is William Shakespeare, returning to his, until then unoccupied venue, the indoor Blackfriars playing space. Although the Briackfriars had been the property of Shakespeare’s company since 1596, they were not allowed to play there, by petition of the neighbors until 1608.
In closing, there is one piece of insight Gunderson brings out that deserves much more notice in future studies of the First Folio, Ben Jonson’s role, and especially, his long poem: “To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare.”
In this poem, the best most inspiring poem Ben Jonson ever wrote, above all his plays, Jonson raises his mentor, the one who gave him his early start, and even acted in his earliest play, above all the poets and playwrights of his own England, and back to the ancient Greeks.
“Soul of the age! … I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie .. thou art a monument without a tomb, … And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine, Or sporting Kyd or Marlowe’s mighty line”
“From thence to honour thee, I would not seek for names; but call forth Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles to us.. Leave the alone for comparison of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome sent forth … He was not of an age but for all time!”
“Nature herself was proud of his designs … which were so richly spun, and woven so to fit, as such she will vouchsafe no other wit … a good poet’s made, as well as born, and such wert thou.”
“Look how the father’s face lives in his issue, even so his race, of Shakespeare’s mind and manners brightly shines in his well-turned, and true-filed lines;
In each of which he seems to shake a lance, as brandish’d at the eyes of ignorance.”
“Sweet Swan of Avon! To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights of upon the banks of Thames,
That so did take Eliza, and our James!”
What’s that, you say, Ben, Sweet Swan of Avon, of Stratford-upon-Avon born?
“to shake a lance at the eyes of ignorance” that so charmed our Eliz, and our James?
Where did this come from, but a humble admission of his deep influence over his Queen and King?
And how did the University wit, with deep reading in Latin, and Greek, portray his friends’ surpassing of not just his own generation, but the master story teller, Chaucer, and all the Greek and Roman playwrights in Comedy and Tragedy? The clue in Gunderson, and others, must have been that for the first time Ben had the chance to experience every one of his plays, in print, not just on stage, or in the half in Quarto.
To read them in depth all together, Jonson could not help realize the depth of his Shakespeare’s reading in the Classics, and in the histories, and their deep political contexts, both ancient and English. And so Gunderson’s epilogue calls on the acting company in closing ‘to explode the stage into the sound of forthcoming speeches, and spectacle’ funneling them into Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway’s living room, as she hears his friends act out the newly bound Folio before her.
And so, with such incredible spectacle, in all its sound and fiery music, did our own CSF “Book of Will” players close their play, as the audience broke out into resounding applause.