Saturday, January 14, 2017

Verdi's "Don Carlos" and History - Opera and Biography in Conversation

From time to time someone will ask me to name my favorite opera.  I suppose the assumption is that since I am an opera fan the surely I must have A (one) favorite opera.  I find the question not so easy to answer though.  It depends on my mood and what I can see at any given time.   The fact is that I love a lot of operas – Cenerentola, Cosi, Don Giovanni, Aida, Wagner's Ring - and I am hard pressed to whittle it down to one.  But even so, there is one opera that I would put in the top of any list I would create and that opera is Verdi’s Don Carlos.  This is, in my view, a terrific opera and I never tire of it.  It is always interesting and exciting to see a production.  This is partly because Verdi himself was never pleased with it and he kept tinkering with it.  So there is at least about 5 hours of music that has been composed for this work.  A traditional production of this opera however usually clocks in at around 3 to 3 and a half hours. And then there is the French version, which has even more different music composed for it.  Don Carlo is a great treasure that has so much depth that one will never be able to exhaust the riches of this work.

I have seen it only once live, and that was at the Met with a wonderful cast (Furlanetto as Philip II, also with Lee as Carlos, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Posa, Frittoli as Elizabeth) but I have seen many productions online or on disk. I hope in the years to come to have the opportunity to see this opera live on many more occasions. (La Scala is doing a 5 hour version of the opera next season and Paris is doing BOTH the French and Italian versions of the opera in alteration – wouldn’t I love to see both of those productions!) 

The opera is based on a play of the same name by Schiller, which was based on a novel by César de Saint-Réal, which was based on several tracts written during Philip’s lifetime by men who were his enemies, the most notable is an “Apology” by Prince William of Orange (who led the Dutch rebellion against Philip and was eventually assassinated, on Philip’s orders). The plot of the opera is convoluted, but I will attempt to lay it out simply (note that the play is even more complex). 
The Plot of the Opera:
• PROLOGUE: Carlo has been betrothed to Elizabeth of Valois and he accompanies the guards sent to meet her and escort her to Spain.  He slips away, as does Elizabeth from her train and they meet accidentally and without her knowing who he is at first they fall in love.  Then the message comes that Philip has changed his mind and will marry Elizabeth himself.  After listening to the pleadings of the French peasant women for her to accept and bring peace to their land she accepts the offer of Philip’s hand with a heavy heart.  Carlo is crushed.  This is the famous Fontainebleu scene which in the past was often cut.  It is a great scene and IMHO should never be cut.
• ACT I, SCENE 1 - Several years has passed.  Elizabeth and Philip are married.  They are not happy.  Carlo haunts the monastery where his grandfather Carlo V is buried and often his elaborate tomb is a part of the set.  He meets an old monk (who may be Carlo V himself).  Suddenly Carlo is interrupted by his friend Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa.  Rodrigo is particularly concerned about Spanish oppression in Flanders and asks Carlo to join him in trying to help the people of Flanders.  Carlo hesitates and Rodrigo is able to get Carlo to admit his love for Elizabeth – his step-mother, the Queen!  Rodrigo is horrified, but they sing a famous duet committing themselves to each other as friends. This duet is interrupted by the King and Queen who have come to pray at the tomb.  The scene ends with a reprise of the famous and glorious duet between Posa and Carlo – BFF for ever!
• ACT II - The Queen is attended by her ladies. The Princess of Eboli sings a Spanish song to amuse them. Rodrigo arrives and passes a secret letter to the Queen from Carlo asking for an audience.  Posa is able to distract the nosey Eboli and the Queen meets Carlo with great dignity.  He, however, is a wreck.  He begs her to run away with him.  She finally looses her cool and suggests that what he is suggesting is that he murder his father the King and take his step-mother to bed.  Would that make him happy?  Carlo runs away terrified just as the King enters.  Philip is unhappy that the Queen has been left alone and dismisses one of her ladies for neglect.  This prompts a beautiful aria by Elizabeth, expressing her sorrow, remorse and humiliation.  Posa arrives as the ladies leave and the King asks Posa to ask for a reward, suggesting that his faithful service has deserved a reward from the King.  Posa responds that he wants nothing for himself, but for others…  “Others?” Asks the King.  Yes, the people of Flanders.  The King is uncomfortable with this suggestion and Posa gets so worked up that he forgets himself and suggests that Philip’s legacy will to be remembered as a tyrant, like Nero.  Philip forgives the indiscretion and changes the subject.  Would the Marquis act as a spy for me on Elizabeth and Carlo?  Philip suspects something.  Posa is amused by this but agrees.  “But,” cautions the King, “Beware the Grand Inquisitor!”  Ti guarda!

• ACT III, SCENE 1 - Carlo thinks he will have a midnight rendezvous with the Queen at which he intends to tell her he is going away.  But the Queen doesn’t show.  It is Eboli who loves Carlo but who Carlo doesn’t recognize in the dark.  After pouring his heart out he realizes his mistake.  It is too late, Eboli has put it together and swears to be revenged on Carlo and the Queen.  Posa arrives and is ready to run Eboli through with his sword but is restrained by Carlo.  After Eboli leaves Posa demands that Carlo turn over any incriminating papers.  “To you, the King’s confidant?” Says Carlo.  Posa is hurt and stunned to be distrusted, but Carlo finally agrees.

• ACT III, SCENE 2 - The day of the great Auto-da-Fé.  The crowds have assembled, the heretics are marched to the stake. The King and Queen arrive with much pomp.  Suddenly Carlo bursts in accompanied by ambassadors from Flanders.  They interrupt the proceedings and plead for justice and mercy.  The King is about the order their arrest when Carlo asks to be made Regent of Flanders.  Philip refuses and Carlo, incensed draws his sword on the King.  Everyone is shocked until finally the Marquis of Posa steps forward and disarms the Prince.  As a reward the King on the spot gives Posa the title of Duke while Carlo is arrested and the fires are lit to burn the heretics.  A voice from heaven floats down promising salvation for the so-called heretics. (It has always been unclear to me if the cast and crowds on stage can actually hear this voice, or if it is just for us the audience.)

• ACT IV, SCENE 1 - Philip is alone in his study.  He has the Queen’s chest of jewelry open in front of him.  Inside he has found a portrait of Carlo.  He is despondent and sings one of the great bass arias in all opera:
Ella giammai m'amo - Met Feruccio Furlanetto
He is interrupted by the entrance of the Grand Inquisitor (and this is my favorite scene in all of opera – this dramatic scene between these two basses is tremendous).  Philip tells the GI that he has arrested his son and feels that Carlo needs to be executed for the sake of the realm.  Would he, the GI, offer him absolution if he condemns his son the death.  He never gets an answer for this question from the GI.  Instead the GI asks the King to give him Posa for his work in support of the Flemish rebels.  No, jamais – No, Never! Shouts the King.  "Don’t think that just because you are King that I can’t pull you before the tribunal," thunders the GI.  Finally, Philip asks that there may be peace between them.  “Perhaps,” says the GI.
No sooner has he left the room than Elizabeth bursts in angry and demanding the King’s justice for the theft of her Jewels.  “Is this what you are looking for?” Asks the King.  Elizabeth is stunned and further embarrassed when the King demands to know why she has a portrait of Carlo.  The Queen tries to explain that there is nothing between them but the King accuses her of being unfaithful at which point she swoons.  Eboli enters as the King leaves with Posa.  Eboli is mortified that he anger has caused all of this heartbreak.  It was she, she tells the Queen, who stole her box and gave it to the King.  And not only that but she is the King’s mistress.  Elizabeth, hurt and betrayed, softly asks for the gift back she had given to Eboli and gives her a choice of exile or life in a convent. As she leaves the Queen tells Eboli she has 24 hours to be gone.  Eboli sings her great area “O Don Fatale” at the close of which she sees the warrant for Carlo’s death on the King’s death.  She resolves to save Carlo before she leaves the court.  (This 4th act is perhaps one of Verdi’s greatest achievements.  It is great music, exceptionally dramatic and brilliantly structured.

• ACT IV, SCENE 2 -  In the prison cell where Carlo is being held Posa comes to visit and tells Carlo that he has implicated himself for Carlo’s sake and is expecting to be arrested that day.  He has come to say goodbye.  Suddenly a shot rings out.  The Inquisition has assassinated Posa.  As he dies he begs Carlo to “Save Flanders!”  The King enters and tells Carlo he is pardoned and free, but Carlo turns on his father and accuses him of Posa’s death.  Philip denies it but at that moment there is a commotion.  A band of peasants is besieging the castle.  The GI appears and orders them to kneel before their King.
• In the monastary again.  Elizabeth has come to say goodbye to Carlo who is leaving to help the people of Flanders. She sings an aria and they sing a duet.  They are then interrupted by the King and GI who orders their arrest.  Suddenly the voice of Carlo V rings out proclaiming the innocence of his grandson and Elizabeth as both of them disappear inside the tomb. 
(Frankly the weakest act of the opera dramatically is the very last scene.  In my opinion it is very unsatisfying after everything that went before.  And this is a scene that no two stage directors do the same.  The live production at the Met I saw had Carlo fighting with the guards and being killed.  I have never seen a production that I thought made sense of the last scene.  And frankly, the Schiller is not much better.  I should get the novel and see how he ends the story).

So how does the opera stack up to the history of Spain and King Philip II?  I recently finished reading The Imprudent King – A New Life of Philip II  by Geoffrey Bush.  It is an excellent and detailed account of the life of this great monarch who’s legacy continues to be felt in our world.  Reading this book it is clear that the Schiller/Verdi version of the story is fiction for the most part.  There are some basic historical truths represented but for the most part the basic plot is completely fiction, beginning with the cast list.  

Elizabeth of Valois was Philip’s third wife (Mary Tudor - "Bloody Mary" was the second), she was never betrothed to Carlo who would have been too young at any rate.  It was discussed for a while that Carlo would marry Anne of Austria, his cousin (the Hapsburgs all married sisters and cousins and aunts!)  Ultimately Carlo’s behavior and incompetency led Philip to break off negotiations and he did eventually marry her himself (she was quite a bit younger so the age difference fits the opera).  However, it is debatable whether Anne ever met Carlo.  He was imprisoned and in solitary confinement by the time Philip married her.  And why was he imprisoned?  It became clear to Carlo that his father was having second thoughts about Carlo’s marriage to Anne.  (It is important to bear in mind that royals at that time contracted marriages as political moves, love and compatibility were irrelevant!) But Carlo had become fixated on her.  He had her portrait and devised a secret plan to escape Spain, travel to Austria and sweep her off her feet.  It was a wholly impractical plan.  But nevertheless he decided he would do it, but needed the help of his Uncle, Don John, the Admiral of the Spanish Navy to assist in the travel part of the plan.  Carlo confided his plan to John who promptly reported it to the King.  Carlo was so incensed that he asked to see his uncle again and this time had planned to murder him.  His astute servants managed to thwart the murder plan and John was bigger, stronger and quicker by far than Carlo and he was easily able to protect himself.  But this was the last straw.  The King had had enough.  Carlo was arrested and confined in solitary until he died.  It seems harsh.  And it is clear that Carlo suffered from some kind of psychological disorder, exacerbated by years of parental neglect and a bad head wound he had sustained.  At any rate, it is highly doubtful that Anne of Austria would have ever even considered accepting a proposal from the Prince, much less carry on a secret love affair with him.  She eventually gave birth (died in childbirth actually) to Philip III.

Everyone’s favorite baritone Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa is a fictional character.  There was a treasury official who corresponded with the King near the end of Philip's life who was the Marquis of Poza, but this man and the baritone character have nothing in common at all.  In the opera, Posa is a heroic man, who sacrifices himself for his friend Carlo and for Flanders.  The only historical character who even comes close is William of Orange.  But he was never a friend of Carlo.  

The Duke of Lerma does not appear as a historical character until Philip III begins to prepare to take over the throne from his father.  Lerma was the best friend of Philip III, who made him a Duke.

Princess of Eboli.  There is a long, sad story involving her.  She gets caught up the murder of Philip’s secretary de Esconbedo, who was her cousin.  She was married to one of Philip’s closest advisors – Ruy Gomez – until his death.  After that she started an affair with another secretary Antonio Perez who is the one who arranges the murder of his friend and colleague de Esconbedo. Despite the fact that Philip himself ordered and approved this assassination Perez is eventually arrested and tried and Eboli is also arrested.  Initially she is confined to her home, but eventually she is moved to a windowless cell where she is kept in solitary confinement until she dies.  She was never the King’s mistress.  She was never in love with Carlo.  She did have the eye patch, but that is about all the similarity there is.

The Grand Inquisitor – there is absolutely no evidence that any Inquisitor of Spain had the kind of power and commanded the kind of fear in Philip that the operatic character does.  The character created by Verdi has more to do with Verdi’s own conflicted and difficult relationship with the church.  If there is a wholly evil character in the opera it is the Grand Inquisitor, but there is no one like that at Philip’s court.  In fact several of the Inquisitor Generals of Spain also served Philip as counselors, often very trusted counselors.  They certainly had influence, but their influence was not to be found in direct confrontation.  But rather indirect subtle “spiritual blackmail” as Parker puts it.

Carlo V did in fact resign and retire to a monastery.  However he only lived there a few years before his death and he died before Carlo was born.

            What a day, what a day for an Auto-da-Fé  - Yes Philip attended several of these during his reign.  They were always festival occasions and often would bring his children to watch (how horrid!)  If you can say anything about Philip and his reign it is this: he saw himself in Messianic terms and he took his role as defender of the faith very, very seriously.  His entire foreign policy was based primarily on this foundation.  His wars with the Turks were basically religious; his subjugation of Flanders was prompted by the growth of Protestantism; his attempts to dethrone Elizabeth I, the debacle of the defeat of the Spanish Armada all were an attempt to reestablish Catholicism in England; the wars in France were also prompted by an effort to undermine Protestantism.  Under Philip literally thousands were executed, many by being burned alive at the stake. He was quite proud of this and saw it as an accomplishment.  I think it is disgusting, but I am not living in the 16th century.  He also celebrated the massacre of the French Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s day!  The circumstance of this scene is historical, however, that anyone (especially the Crown Prince) would threaten or challenge the King in public is not historical.

Flanders was a constant problem for Philip for his entire reign.  The issue was primarily Religious freedom, but there were economic issues as well.  Philip had three different taxes imposed that were designed to help pay for the occupation.  Not surprisingly the Dutch were not enthusiastic and many rebellions flared up as a result.  The most serious one was led by Prince William of Orange.  Philip sent the Duke of Alba (who is a character in the Schiller and bears no resemblance whatsoever to the historical Alba) whose philosophy of putting down rebellions was a scorched earth policy.  He was (in Philip’s name) brutal and exacting. The Flemish problem was never resolved in the 40 years of Philip’s reign.

The personality of Philip II is captured pretty well by Verdi and certain singers – like Feruccio Furlanetto – do an excellent job of bringing certain personality quirks out which are in fact historical.  Philip was a micromanager.  He had to do everything himself.  He really did not trust others.  His biggest failure was probably the defeat of the Spanish Armada and this came about because he devised the strategy in his study and would not allow his field commanders either input or deviation from the plan.  Neither of them for their parts thought it would work, and they were right.  Philip was always reading and writing letters.  (Furlanetto incorporates this into his portrayal of the King.)  He preferred to be alone and to deliberate alone. He was an absolute ruler and he ruled absolutely. He could be mistrustful.  But he could also be ruthless and cruel.  He was never noted for his mercy and many times preferred to exact harsh punishment on those who opposed him.  He was not above using deception and lying to accomplish his goals or to entrap someone.  And he did this on several notable occasions.  He was not cowed by anyone, even the Pope.  He was very devout, but while he was always respectful he still never allowed the church to push him around.  He was a complex man.

The fact is that Philip ruled over a Kingdom that extended from the New World to Spain, Portugal, Flanders, parts of Italy and out to the Philippines (named in his honor). It was a huge job and his micromanaging style where he had to do everything himself was too overwhelming.  He was simply not capable of managing it all.  No one could.  But he refused to accept this and would never take no for an answer.  Before the Armada sailed the Admiral he had appointed came down very ill and had to be replaced.  The man tapped to replace him tried for months to get out of this job, but in the end was unable to and despite his recognition that the plan would never succeed had no choice but to do it as best as he could.

The opera is based solely on propaganda devised by Philip's enemies and has little basis in historical fact.  Even so the opera is a brilliant work – one of the greatest works in all of opera.  Several scenes are simply iconic and magnificent, not only musically but also dramatically.  That the historical details don’t match up is really not important in the long run, one should not look to the theater for historical information anyway.  Verdi (and Schiller) capture the basic setting and personality of the King in particular and give us a magnificent study on the issues of power and love and betrayal and loyalty.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

ROH Cosi Fan Tutte - Another Attempt to Redeem a Work That Doesn't Need Redeeming!

For some reason it turns out that I have found a particular focus on the opera “Cosi fan tutte.”  I have probably read more about that one opera than about any others.  Perhaps it is because I love it so much and it is often unfairly maligned that I have sought to understand what Da Ponte and Mozart were attempting to accomplish.  So, I won’t repeat everything again.  Instead please read these other essays that I have written on this opera:

In essence I argue that the original point of this work was to criticize current 18th century social conventions that placed women on a pedestal with such high expectations that no mortal woman could ever possibly measure up.  The title says it all – “Cosi fan tutte – Women are like that”  - like what?  They are human beings, just like men!

     That said, the point of this article is to reflect briefly on the current Cosi that was recently performed and broadcast to cinemas of the Royal Opera House’s new production.  This production is slated to come to the Met in a season or two, which I have to say, is unfortunate.  But let me give the spoiler alert warning.  I am going to reveal some things that you might want to save until you see it yourself.

            The foundational issue of this production seems to be an attempt to redeem an opera that this director has determined is simply no longer acceptable for 21st century audiences.  It is too silly, sexist, mean-spirited, etc. – I suppose.  How else do you account for the altering of the title of the work in large lighted letters at the end of the opera as Cosi fan tutti ?  We all are like that!  Yes, that is what da Ponte was getting at in the first place.  But just within the context of his own society.  After all, that is the culture in which he lived, and all it takes is a little study to understand the issues of gender roles, enlightenment, religion, social standing and so forth that all have an impact on this libretto.

            Back to the ROH production: in my opinion the best singer on stage was Johannes-Martin Kraenzle who sang Don Alfonso.  He was even dressed traditionally in 18th century garb with a sword at his side.  The rest of the very youngish cast was adequate but I didn’t feel were all that strong, with the exception of Corrine Winters as Fiordiligi.  The rest of the cast, by the way, (and the chorus) were all dressed in 21st century attire.  They emerged from the audience at the end of the curtain calls, which took place during the overture – at the beginning of the opera!  Yes, you read that right!  Don’t ask. It was all rather perplexing, though I think the point was something along the lines that these young modern kids were going to participate in a theater event, as representatives of all the other hip and modern young people.  It was all rather odd.  But the bottom line is that there was no deception in this production.  Everyone recognized everyone else.  In fact, the fake mustaches were removed by the middle of the 2nd act so there was no surprise at all. 

            Well, that is all fine.  It might even work except for one major problem.  The libretto doesn’t support it.  The denouement in the 2nd act finale has the girls terrified and Despina hiding and then the boys reveal the ruse.  Except in this production everyone knew from the start, so there was nothing to reveal.  So, it was just a romp – I guess.  (And what in the world was with signing the marriage contracts in blood!  I felt like we had jumped into a production of “Faust” for a moment! Or maybe “Siegfried” – blutbrudderschaft and all that!). 

            In short, I felt that the production essentially negated the entire point of the opera.  It was just a romp, a diversion, a play in the course of relationship.  That the couples at the end were obviously now smitten with the opposite partner seemed to me to lead to the conclusion that perhaps they’ll just have an open relationship from now on and share and share alike.  Ultimately it all doesn’t matter in the end – Cosi fan tutti!  So what?  It is really a darn shame to unravel such a wonderful work.  Da Ponte was making a statement about equality and humanity – this production simply turns everything into a generic, playful romp where nothing really matters. 

            Well, except it does matter that we treat each other with respect and that we recognize the humanity in each other.  Especially in this era of politically sanctioned misogyny and the tacet permission given to “grab them by the ***” – It matters!  It matters that we see and respect each other as human beings; that women are treated with respect and equality.  And that women are allowed to make their own choices and have their health care needs met in the way they choose, not the way that men choose for them!  It all matters! A lot!  And da Ponte would agree with me!

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Hollow Crown II

     I finally got to see the last installment of the BBC "Hollow Crown" series.  The first series appeared several years ago and included the plays: Richard II, Henry IV I & II and Henry V.  It is reviewed here - Hollow Crown I!  Now the last set has been released and it includes Henry VI 1, 2 and 3 and Richard III.  But quickly I must add that there are only two installments of Henry VI as they are condensed from 3 plays to two. In a way it is too bad.  It might have been nice to have done the plays in their entirety.  But on the other hand they are a long and epic in their attempt to tell the detailed (albeit filtered through Elizabethan eyes) story of the long and painful reign of Henry VI. Almost all of the French scenes are cut.  Joan Pucelle (Joan of Arc) appears but she is not developed but the objectionable scene where she looses her nerve and tries to escape execution by claiming to be pregnant is cut.  Joan of Arc at least has more dignity in this production than is usually the case. I won't go into any more about the cuts as I think for the most part they worked and for screen the way the scripts were assembled worked very well in maintaining what was really a riveting set of performances.

     The casting of the series is simply amazing.  Certainly the leading characters were magnificent. Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, Hugh Bonneville as the Duke of Glouchester and Lord Protector, Adrian Dunbar as Richard, Duke of York, Phoebe Fox as Anne Neville, Dame Judy Dench was simply spellbinding as Cecily, Duchess of York and for me the two members of the cast whose performances I found overwhelmingly outstanding were Tom Sturridge as Henry VI and Sopie Okonedo as Queen Margaret.  Those two were the only two to appear in all three plays (films) - though Henry VI comes back as only briefly as a ghost in Richard III. Queen Margaret of Anjou was given a central role in the series - she was the glue.  Her journey I found the most compelling and this actress was able to take us through from the shy girl who is discovered by Somerset to the incredible force behind Henry VI to the living phantom who haunts Richard the III until the end!  Never have I seen this character take such a central part, but frankly since Richard III is the play that is done most often I am not sure this approach would work with only that play.  You have to experience her from the beginning.

     The other thing I want to say about the casting is that I am not sure I have every seen a performance where all of the supporting roles were so brilliantly cast. Everyone was outstanding, including the children - in fact there was a scene that I don't remember having seen before included where the little Richard, Duke of York (one of the two princes in the tower) mocks his misshapen Uncle Richard and it was a chilling scene.  Other amazing performances would include Anton Lesser as the Duke of Exeter, Sally Hawkins as the Duchess of Glouchester, Stanley Townsend as the Earl of Warwick, Samuel West as the Bishop of Winchester, Ben Miles as the Duke of Somerset, Keeley Hawes as Elizabeth Woodville, Ben Daniels as the Duke of Buckingham, James Fleet as Hastings and the actor who played Catesby was really outstanding (why does Wikipedia not list the entire cast - they don't even list the actor who played the Earl of Richmond who ends the entire series by defeating Richard III and being crowned Henry VII, this is the character that gives the very Tudor inspired speech at the end about uniting the houses of York and Lancaster in perfect unity.  He was excellent, by the way and should be listed!

     If you have any interest in Shakespeare, and in the history plays I strongly recommend this series - both parts.  I think of the 7 plays included in the entire series I think my favorite would still have to be the Henry IV series, probably because I particularly love those plays, but also because they are so well acted and well filmed.  Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale and Jeremy Irons all put in magnificent performances. After that I think I would vote for the Richard III, but this 2nd set is designed to be watched as a set and to skip the Henry VI parts means you would miss out on a lot. This is not necessarily true of the first set of this series.  Those performances stand on their own much more.  And the reason for this is probably because in the first series a different director was engaged for each of the different plays (this is especially unfortunate in the case of Henry V which is in my view the weakest of the entire set).  For Hollow Crown II one director - Dominic Cooke - directed and he created a unified vision that really makes these plays work together.  This is a treasure! Highly recommended!

     One last comment in general.  I have made the comment before that one should never look to the theater for historical accuracy and indeed Shakespeare's history plays are rife with Elizabethan fantasy and legend.  The two major legends being 1. That Hal - later Henry V - led a dissolute life with low life friends like Sir John Falstaff and did so in order to truly understand the mind of the people, but eventually casting them off - not true!  2. Richard III was a murderous, evil twisted man who murdered his way to the throne, including the two children in the tower - not true!  Still the plays have so much depth and can teach us so much about being human; about what is it that causes people to lust after power, to engage in such bloody conflicts and what are the consequences!  The Henry IV plays for me are an exploration of the issue of fatherhood - Sir John and Hal's real father, the King Henry IV are both deeply flawed men and neither is much of a father - but both for different reasons. Hal rejects one initially and ultimately rejects the other.  The final scene between Hal and Henry IV is for me one of the most moving scenes in all of Shakespeare.

     And Richard III for its rather unfair treatment of that last white rose Yorkish king who by all accounts was a pretty good king - certainly better than his brother Edward IV and (sorry Tudor fans) a whole lot better than Henry VII (who is the Messiah figure Richmond in the play - of course, he was, after all, Queen Elizabeth I's grandfather!)  Henry VII was withdrawn, brooding and highly insecure to the point of paranoia.  It was he who created the beginnings of the Tudor police state which eventually was so brilliantly managed and looked over by Elizabeth's spymaster Francis Walsingham and and her Secretary of State William Cecil.  But none of that matters, because Richard the III is ultimately not history, it is a study of the nature of evil.  And Cumberbatch's performance gives us a brilliant portrayal of a vulnerable Richard who is driven to evil and murder, but who also suffers from his obsessions and insecurity.  The play is brilliant but this performance is virtuostic! Shakespeare uses a technique in this play that he will utilize later, especially in Hamlet, and that is the use of the soliloquy.  Richard talks to us, confides in us, the audience, and looks to us as he is slowly weaving his plans.  It makes this play stand out and is different than all of the other history plays. But it has the effect of making us complicit in the evil that is buried deep in this tyrants heart.  We become a part and a player in the evolution of this evil monster and it should call for us to look deep into our own hearts to see the evil that Richard appeals to in all of us.  The death of Richard at Bosworth Field, and the final shot of the field in this film should give us all pause as we go plunging forward ignoring the lessons of history and the dangers of hate and lust for power and desire for revenge.  Do you see Richard III lying dead in the mud - that is where revenge and hate and selfishness and violence lead.  It led Richard and so many of the Yorks and Lancasters there in the 14th through the 15th centuries and it is going to lead us to the very same place today - except that technology has made the stakes higher and more dangerous. But it is the same story.

     So, get it and watch it.  You can stream it on the PBS site.  You can buy it on Amazon.  Take the lessons to heart.  For as bloody as it is remember they are only using swords and spears!