The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The King Must Die

The last of my BBC Shakespeare reviews from 2006. This one is a super-long one so I’ll be splitting it over three blogs/days in order to leave so room for the rest of my life. Note: My opinions on ranking Shakespeare’s plays have changed since, so I should blog an updated list at some point.


Star Trek episode titles coined: The Conscience of a King, The Undiscovered Country, Thine Own Self, Mortal Coil

Frasier episode titles coined: Roz's Krantz and Guildenstein are Dead

Sitcom titles coined: To The Manor Born, The Prince of Denmark

Philip K Dick novel titles coined: Time Out of Joint

Hitchcock movie titles coined: North by North West

Band names coined: The Kings of Infinite Space

Famous quotes: oh, far, far too many to list. I'll pick out the important ones during the synopsis.

And so my Shakespearewatch comes to an end. 37 plays, 100-plus hours, at least 100000 words of Jonny criticism. I've done them all. Every single one. Bring on the pub quiz!

And what have I learned? Well, not a great deal, to be honest. The main surprise has been how easy most of the plays are to understand. The language barrier is not a particularly high hurdle; there are only about 100 words which have significantly changed in meaning, and their meaning in the play can usually be ascertained by the context or by association. The plots are generally easy to follow, the characters distinct and memorable, and the plays are frequently moving, exciting, and genuinely funny. Human nature hasn't changed a great deal since those days, and so their relevance hasn't changed a great deal either. There is very little of the dull incomprehensibility that people associated with the Bard – Love’s Labour’s Lost excepted.

I suppose what is most incredible about the plays is their cultural significance. They are like the songs of The Beatles, or the speeches of Churchill, but embedded deeper into the mass consciousness or woven into the cultural fabric of the national carpet. So deep that they are often taken for granted, or not noticed. Because not only are so many of our words, phrases and idioms taken from Shakespeare, but the works inform our collective concepts of nationhood, leadership, honour, romance, comedy, courage, fate, family, hope, fear, death. These stories and characters have tunnelled deep into our psychological make-up, into how we see ourselves and our place in the world and in history. Plus the language, of course, continues, with people quoting Shakespeare without even realising they are quoting anything at all, because the phrases seem an organic and fluid and obvious part of our everyday speech, and are such tremendously accurate and concise nail-on-the-head expressions of universal concepts that it is often hard to imagine those ideas being expressed as evocatively, economically and precisely in any other way. He had a knack for giving the definitive last word or expression on every possible subject.

As an example of Shakespeare's total cultural prevalence, think of how unquestioningly people accept the idea of Oyster cards. Now, of course, a lot of this is due to people being very unquestioning and being accepting of things being given silly names for the sake of them being given silly names. But, of course, they are called Oyster cards after the expression 'The world is your oyster'*. Which is one of Shakespeare's least effective phrases (if you think about it, it doesn't bear any sort of scrutiny as a metaphor), and is from one of his least accomplished plays. But that's how big an impact he has when he's not even trying very hard. [* 2014 note – this may not actually be true]

So, the main response for me was one of familiarity - the sensation of 'I've heard this before, I didn't know it was from Shakespeare'. My other feelings are hard to summarize. It has occasionally been a slog, but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and more appreciative of the good bits - you need some fibre in your diet. Occasionally it has been very forgettable - I know I watched All's Well That End's Well, but it doesn't seem to have touched the sides on the way down. But on the whole it has been an incredibly rich experience. So much good stuff, such detail, such scope. The sequence of history plays - if taken together, probably Shakespeare's greatest achievement, even bearing in mind that I'm not completely keen on Dicky Two. The comedies, full of romance and stupidity and magic and silliness and rudeness and misbehaving spaniels and dancing fat men but also, every single one, containing moments of heartbreak and anguish. The tragedies - some of them intentionally more comic than the comedies - full of extraordinary characters and unimaginably huge, operatic dramatic dilemmas, the human condition writ large yet never losing its reality or humanity. The romances and problem plays, that fourth stream of experimental, fashion-following projects and half-formed collaborations and doctor-jobs that, if not showing us Shakespeare at his best, give the greatest insight into his working methods and place him in the context of the general standard of playwriting at the time and demonstrate how far above and ahead of the game Shakespeare was.

There have also been all the characters, too many memorable ones to mention, the moments of evocative poetry. But one great thing has been following, in my not-remotely-chronological way, Shakespeare’s development as a writer. He starts out as rather derivative – well, his ‘borrowing’ is at its most heavy during the beginning of his career, reworking plays by Seneca and Robert Greene and basing his comedies on well-known poems, or Italian farces. And then you see the confidence and the artistry building, with Dicky Three combining both history, tragedy and revenge plays, Romeo And Juliet with its masterful shift from romantic comedy to romantic tragedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the first all-original play, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus bookending the great classical tragedies, and Macbeth and Measure For Measure indicating a shift in style as theatre suddenly became very Jacobean and indoorsy overnight. And finally there’s everything after Coriolanus – a bottom drawer collection of experiments, collaborations, court masques, pageants and Welsh people living in the caves of Milford Haven.

The greatest testament I can give to how much I have enjoyed the experience is that I want to watch all the plays again. Yes, even Love’s Labour’s Lost – I might actually understand some of it the second time round, the significance of all those old men in the library talking bollocks was completely lost on me. When I do it again, though, I’ll make sure to watch the history plays in order (i.e. starting from Dicky Two) and the tragedies in composition order, and the comedies, oh, I can watch them in any order I like, it doesn’t matter a great deal anyway.

And, well, on the back of this, I'm now reading plays by Middleton, Webster, Johnson and Marlow. For fun. It's like Doctor Who, a bottomless pit of things-to-find-out.

It’s a hard thing to summarize, but, well, it’s been fun. The BBC adaptations on the most part have been, well, consistent would be the best word I suppose. Okay, so a couple have been awful - Othello springs to mind - and a couple have been magnificent - Macbeth - but on the whole they have done a good job of presenting the plays straight without getting in the way. And it’s Shakespeare as it was supposed to be seen – in a BBC TV studio, with a cast of actors better known for appearing in Doctor Who, I Claudius, Porridge and Allo Allo. I very much recommend the box set, and even though it's extremely expensive it’s still extremely good value for money.

Anyway, before I do my one last run-through with Hamlet, here’s the ranking you’ve been waiting for. Yes, it’s


Least Pukka. For completists only:

37: Henry VIII
36: The Merry Wives of Windsor
35: Pericles
34: All's Well That Ends Well
33: Love's Labour's Lost
32: Troilus and Cressida
31: Richard II

And now the ones in the middle, all well worth checking out:

30: The Taming of the Shrew
29: The Winter's Tale
28: Henry VI Part I
27: Henry VI Part III
26: Titus Andronicus
25: King John
24: Antony and Cleopatra
23: The Two Gentlemen of Verona
22: Henry V
21: Timon of Athens
20: Measure for Measure
19: Cymbeline
18: The Comedy of Errors

And finally the ones that are, to be frank, absolutely essential:

17: Henry VI Part II
16: As You Like It
15: King Lear
14: Henry IV Part II
13: Othello
12: Twelfth Night
11: Henry IV Part I


10: Romeo and Juliet
9: The Merchant of Venice
8: The Tempest
7: Coriolanus
6: Much Ado About Nothing
5: (New entry!) Hamlet
4: Richard III
3: A Midsummer Night's Dream
2: Julius Caesar

and in pole position, no surprises, it's 

1: Macbeth

And now for Hamlet. And because it’s the last one, and because there are so many famous bits, and because it’s so bloody long, I’ll be taking a different approach and combining the ‘synopsis’ and ‘analysis’ and ‘famous quotes’ into one long stream of nonsense. But this time with telesnaps!


You come most carefully upon the hour...
Ooh, it's all gone terribly Philip Hinchcliffe. Mist. Darkness. Castles. Dudley Simpson music. A couple of soldiers are standing guard at Ellsinore castle, Denmark. The Norwegians, led by Fortinbras, have been up to no good recently. And, when the soldiers have finished explaining the back-story to each other, Horatio turns up... and they all have a ghostly encounter. And the ghost looks oddly like the King who has just died, who has been replaced by his brother who has now married his widow and adopted his moody, introspective adolescent son, Hamlet. 

Okay, it's more Trisha than Philip Hinchcliffe.


Cut to the inside of the castle, with the King Claudius, his wife Queen Gertrude, and their grumpy, son, Hamlet. Hamlet's annoyed because it's only a few months since his dad pegged it, in which time his mum has remarried which, quite frankly, seems a bit on the soonish side.

Another young chap of the court, Laertes, is requesting leave to go to France. His dad, a funny, doddery, circumlocutory old man, lobbies the King on his behalf, and the King agrees.

Meanwhile Gertie asks her son's what's up. 'You seem a bit down,' she says.

'Seems', madam? Nay, it is, I know not 'seems'.

Ooh, get him. The King tells him to try and bloody cheer up and stop slouching about the place. Hamlet sighs, and begins the first of many soliloquies about how hard done-by he is.

O! That this too solid flesh would melt

And how his mum has let him down by shacking up with a new bloke who he doesn't like.

Frailty, thy name is woman!

But how he will keep it to himself for the moment.

I must hold my tongue!

Even though he misses his dead dad.

I shall not look upon his like again!

But - as we shall soon see - he could not be more mistaken! Because no sooner have those words left his lips than in rushes Horatio, pale and with his hair all standing on end.

'What's the matter with you,' says Hamlet. 'You look like you have seen a ghost.'

'I have,' says Horatio. 'And not only that - but, never guess -  it's the ghost of your dad!'

'No way,' says Hamlet. ‘Surely you are shitting me?'

'I shit you not,' says Horatio. 'He had a countenance more in sorrow than anger.'

'Ooh, that sounds just like him,' says Hamlet. 'When does he appear, this ghost?'

'At night, I would say, mainly,' says Horatio. 'Because he's a ghost.'

And so, with a cry of 'I ain't afraid of no ghost' in a sort of Scooby-Doo voice, Hamlet leaves.


Later that day, Laertes is preparing to leave for France. Not quite sure why he's going there but if it was anything like my school trips he will return with several illegal and dangerous fire crackers or 'bangers' as they were known down our way.

Ophelia turns up to wish her brother a fond farewell. F*ck a duck - it's LALLA WARD!!!

Ooh, isn't she lovely. She filmed this some time between Shada and The Leisure Hive, at around the same time that Tom Baker was REDACTED on Dean Street, Soho. She's very good in this. I mean, she's very good in Doctor Who - but she is lovely.

In fact, this Hamlet is a bit of a Nightmare Of Eden reunion. There's Lalla Ward. Music by Dudley Simpson. Later on Geoffrey 'Dymond' Bateman turns up as Guildenstern. Plus there's also, from the following series, Emrys 'Aukon' James and Geoffrey 'Master' Beevers. Quality!

Anyway, Laertes makes some fond and quite lengthy farewells - and then his dad, Polonius, turns up to give him some father-to-son advice. It's a lovely speech, and indeed it's so incongruously lovely and so entirely non-situation-specific I would almost suspect that it was originally prepared for some other occasion and copy and pasted into this play.

I mean, does any of this sound oddly familiar to you?

POLONIUS: Neither a borrower nor a lender be. For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. This, above all - to thine own self be true. I was once like you are now, and I know that it's not easy, to be calm, when you've found something going on. But take your time, think a lot, why think of everything you've got - for you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.

Oh, we learn that Ophelia has a new boyfriend - Hamlet. Apparently he's been tendering his affections towards her left, right and centre - and she's a bit keen on him too. Polonius is a doubtful - teenage boys will say anything if there's a chance of them getting a shag.


Hamlet's joined Horatio for Denmark's Most Haunted, and while they are standing around waiting for the ghost to turn up, Hamlet moans about his step-dad once more. Apparently he's not behaving like a proper King, but spends his time partying and getting pissed.

But to my mind - though I am native here, and to the manner born - it is a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.

After Hamlet's had a good long moan, the ghost finally turns up - and Hamlet recognises it! It is the supernatural doppelganger of his deceased pa. It beckons to him to follow it into the mist. Horatio is nervous - it might be a demon, leading Hamlet to his doom. He tries to stop Hamlet following it, but Hamlet is too strong and runs after it, disappearing into the darkness. 

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark!


We cut to Hamlet and the ghost. The ghost informs his 'son' that he was murdered. Hamlet is appalled. And not only that - but he was murdered by the bloke who is now king - Claudius!

O my prophetic soul! My uncle!

The ghost tells Hamlet that, if he ever loved his father, he should take revenge on his murderer. But the ghost also tells Hamlet not to blame his mother for remarrying, as it probably wasn't her idea. And then, with a spooky cry of 'Remember me!', the ghost fades away to nothing.

Seconds later Horatio runs in. Hamlet doesn't tell Horatio about the ghost's message, but orders Horatio to swear an oath to never tell anybody about what ‘s been going on.

Horatio remains doubtful - to him, this whole thing is almost as implausible as a bloke who has turned into a tree using a branch to prevent an American girl from stepping on a landmine.

'Tch,' says Hamlet...

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy!

With the help of a ghostly cry of 'Swear, you bugger!' from the ghost, Horatio agrees to keep his silence. They head back to the castle - Hamlet observing that things are really f*cked up.

The time is out of joint!

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