Renaissance Drama: Individual Plays

Figure 1.--

We are compiling a of Renaissance plays with boy characters. They seem particularly common in English drama, notably in Shakespeare's plays. Several of Shakespeare's historical plays include boy characters. A wide range of drawings and paintings provide us images of those characters. We are less familiar with the other great Renaissance drama tradition--Spanish plays. We do not yet know of boy characters in Spanish or other European plays, but we will add them here if we learn of any.

Coriolanus (Shakespaere, 1607-08)

An image illustrates a climactic scene in Shakespeare's Roman tragedy of "Coriolanus". It is an engraving from a painting by William Hamilton (1751-1801). Outraged by the ingratitude of his own people, the Roman soldier Coriolanus joins forces with their enemy Aufidius and marches with an army against Rome. As he enters the city with his troops, intent on destroying it, he is greeted by his wife Virgilia, his mother Volumnia, and his little son Marcius who together plead with him to spare Rome and his own family from destruction. At first Coriolanus is deaf to their entreaties but ultimately he yields to the emotional appeal of his mother Volumnia, thus destroying himself in his own image and of course betraying his confederate Aufidius. Hamilton's painting shows Coriolanus's family pleading with him to spare their city. Volumnia stands at the right pleading while Coriolanus looks down upon his wife and young son. Hamilton's costuming of the scene shows the figures in Roman dress although in Shakespeare's original theatre, the Globe on London's bankside, Roman characters, based on history (in this case Plutarch), usually wore mainly Elizabethan costumes with only some symbolic indication of the classical setting--a sash, a garland, or some suggestion of a toga, for instance, over their doublets and hose.

Edward II (Marlowe, 1592-93)

Christopher Marlowe's "Edward II" is one of his best-known plays and the subject of considerable study. There is one boy part--the young Prince Edusard. Prince Edward is about 12-14 years old and still attacjed to his mother. King Edward sends his wife to France with the Prince. There he breaks with his mother, "The King of England nor the court of France Shall have me from my gracious mother's side Till I be strong enough to break a staff And then have at the proudest Spencer's head!" (IV.ii.22-5) Of course he becomes Edward III in the final scene.

Henry IV (Shakespeare, 1597-98)

An image portrays a humorous scene in Part II of Shakespeare's "Henry IV"--the third play in the so-called second tetralogy, which consists of "Richard II", the two parts of "Henry IV", and "Henry V". In the second play on Henry IV, Falstaff has acquired a little page, a reward for his services in battle in the preceding play. Much of the comedy here is visual--a contrast of the obsesity and huge hulk of Falstaff with the smallness of the boy page. Falstaff addresses him ironically as "you giant" and compares himself in the presence of his boy attendant as "a sow that hath overwhelmed all her litter but one." The illustration is a drawing by J.M. Wright (1776-1866). Note that the boy page carries Falstaff's shield (target) and sword. This detail, too, is ironic and part of the comedy because Falstaff is portrayed in both plays as a notorious coward in battle.

Henry V (Shakespeare, 1598-99)

Henry V was one of the great English warrior kings. He began his military campaigns when he was only 14 years old by engaging the Welsh comanded by Owen ap Glendower. He comanded his father's (Henry IV) forces in the battle of Shrewsbury when he was only 16 years old. After succeeding his father, he supressed the Lollard uprising and an attempt to assasinate him by a group of nobles loyal to Richard II. Henry is best known for his adventures in France. He attempted to marry the Frnch Princess Catherine in 1415 and insisted on the former Plantagenet provinces of Normandy and Anjou as a dowry. French king Charles VI rejected the war. Henry declared war, in fact a continuation of the Hundred Years' War. The war for Henry offered two prospects. Henry could gain land that had ben lost to the French. It also helped to deflect his cousins' royal ambitions. Henry achieved one of the great English victories over the French at Agincourt (October 1415). Henry's small English army defeated and killed a vastly superior French force. The cream of the French airistocracy was killed at Agincourt, many after the battle. Shakespeare's play should be viewed in a sense as Tudor propaganda. The Tudors were one of England's most important dynasties. Playrights who wanted their plays performed had to be careful to adhere to the Tudor view of history. This was true especially of "Richard III". But Shakespeare had to be carefull in all of his plays to not offend the reigning Tudor monarch. Much as moden movies create images (often eronious) about battles, Shakespeare's "Henry V " has created the image of Henry in the popular mind. Many are familiar with the "band of brothers" speech. We do not have information on stage productions. We do have some information on the Olivier film production. The first of Olivier's great Shakespearian films was Henry V (1944).

Henry VI (Shakespere, 1590-91)

"Henry VI, Part 1" is the first play in the FIRST tetralogy. The first tetralogy includes three "Henry VI" plays (Parts 1, 2, and 3). If you combine the three parts of "Henry VI" with "Richard III" you have the four plays of the first tetralogy. It's a bit confusing because the FIRST TETRALOGY treats the later kings in the sequence (beginning with Henry VI) whereas the SECOND TETRALOGY treats the earlier kings (beginning with Richard the Second). Another character is Joan of Arc as well as Charles. Here of course Shakespeare was under no political constraints. He depicts La Pucelle very unfavorably from an anti-French perspective. Dauphin) In "Henry VI, Part 3" (Edward IV at the end of the play crowned his young son, the future Edward V, present at the ceremony--image by Northcote). But we don't yet have any image for "Henry VI, Part II". We also have several images for "Richard III" (also by Northcote).

King John (Shakespeare, 1595-96)

King John (reigned 1199-1216). The drawing illustrates a moving scene in which Prince Arthur, the rightful claimant to the throne, pleads with Hubert de Burgh, an agent of King John, to spare him from being blinded with a red hot poker. King John succeeded his older brother, Richard I (Coeur de Lion), as King of England. But the rightful heir was Arthur, Duke of Brittany (the son of Geoffrey Plantagenet and Constance of Brittany), a boy 7 years old. Geoffrey, also brother to Richard I, was older than John; therefore his son Arthur rightly came before John in the order of succession. John obviously considers Arthur a threat to his power and orders Hubert de Burgh to get rid of the boy by violence. When Hubert goes to the castle where Arthur is imprisoned to blind the boy, which would make him unfit to be king, Prince Arthur pleads with such eloquence with Hubert that he is spared. Later, however, in an attempt to escape, Arthur leaps from the castle wall and kills himself in the fall. The first image is a 19th-century engraving from a painting by L.J. Pott (1837-98) (figure 1). The illustration of Arthur's pleading with Hubert to spare him from blinding is a good example of Victorian sentimentality in art. Arthur flings his arms around Hubert's neck in order to move the man to refrain from carrying out the terrible mission ordered by Arthur's uncle, King John. Notice the brazier in the right foreground by which the poker has been heated for the blinding. In Shakespeare and therefore in the illustration Arthur is portrayed as a bit older than seven. Here he looks about 9 or 10. The second image portrays the same episode. Here we have a painting by George Harlow (1787-1819), a British artist from the romantic period. Prince Arthur kneels in supplication before Hubert, who holds a flaming branding fork in his right hand. To make the moral symbolism more graphic the painter costumes the boy in almost white clothing while Hubert, the would-be villain, is dressed in black. But Hubert is not really an evil man--only a basically good man who has been sent against his will upon a dreadful errand. Harlow conveys Hubert's basically humane nature in the softness and lowered eyes of his countenance.

Macbeth (Shakespeare, 1605-06)

An image shows Lady Macduff and her son just as they are about to be slaughted by order of the tyrant Macbeth. The image is a drawing by Henry Singleton (1766-1839). In the war against Macbeth Macduff has fled from his castle at Fife, leaving his wife and children vulnerable to attack. Lady Macduff, upset at having been temporarily abandoned by her husband, says of the boy, "Father'd he is, and yet he's fatherless." A little later the murderers enter and kill Lady Macduff and all her children. Singleton's drawing depicts the worried Lady Macduff looking over her shoulder as a messenger enters to tell her of approaching danger, but of course the warning comes too late. She holds the boy to her knee in apprehension. A second image comes from Shakespeare's source for "Macbeth," namely Raphael Holinshed's "Chronicles" (1577 edition). The woodcut, by an unknown artist, shows the murdered corpses of Lady Macduff and her children.

Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare, 1595-96)

Shakespeare is best known fior his historical tragedieds and romances. 'Mid-Summer Night's Dream' stands out as an almost surealistic play. The chief low comic character, Bottom, wakes up to find that he has been transformed through magic while asleep into a part-donkey. The Queen of the Fairies, Titania, also as a result of magic, falls in love with him, and there is a wonderful scene where we seen Titania stroking his face and ears to her delight, his delight, and everyone else's delight. It is the sort of play that might well have appealed to children. The point of the scene involving Bottom and Titania in Shakespeare, of course, is the strange combination of grossness (there is a pun on Bottom's name of course) with delicacy (the fairy queen). The tradition behind these irrational, dream-like transformations goes back to Ovid, the classical poet of "The Metamorphoses", a work in which all sorts of transformations occur--i.e., human beings being turned into animals, trees, flowers, and the like.There are many small parts for children in "asyou like it". The most important is Puck (Robin Goodfellow) who is usually played as an elf-like character. The most famous Puck was Mickey Rooney in a 1930s movie production.

Richard II (Shakespeare, 1595)

Shakespeare's play "Richard II" does not deal with the brave boy king who conronted the Peasant Rebellion. Rather it picks up his life much later as an adult. Richard was well known for his lavish court and spendthrift ways, traits depicted in "Richard II," Shakespeare's famous tragedy of the king's fall (1595). The play depicts Richard as a devout believer in the divine right of kings, and although weak politically, gifted with great powers of rhetoric that ballance sophisticated wit against heart-rending pathos. He was a patron of the arts. The most famous poet at his court was Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of "The Canterbury Tales." There is an arresting image of Richard II as a boy. It's called the Wilton Diptych. "Richard II" during the Elizabethan era was Shakespeare's most controversial play. This was because it delt with the deposition of a rightful king. Elizabeth identified very strongly with Richard II. When the play was published, the deposition scene was cut out of it.

Richard III (Shakespeare, 1592-93)

Olivier production of the Shakespeare drama chronicling Richard's rise to power--including the murder of the little princes in the Tower of London. "Richard III" was released in 1955, the third of Olivier's famous films of Shakespeare's plays, the other two being "Henry V" and "Hamlet". In all these Olivier not only directed but played the title roles. "Richard III" has two prominent parts for boys. They are the sons of Edward IV (Richard III's brother)--Edward, Prince of Wales (who becomes Edward V on the death of his father) and Richard, Duke of York (Princ Edward's younger brother). The older boy was played by Paul Huson and the younger boy by Andy Shine. In one scene, we see the two princes, the older of whom has just become king, with his younger brother, Duke of York. The scene is rather touching because the boys have been playmates up until this point, but now that the older boy has become king and therefore his playmate's sovereign, the free relationship is suddenly changed to one of greater formality. In another scene the two boys in bed in the Tower of London just before they are smothered to death by order of their wicked uncle, Richard III. This film has a brilliant cast of adults in addition to the children. Richard III of course is played by Laurence Olivier. The Duke of Clarence, another of Richard's victims, is played by John Gielgud. The part of Edward IV is taken by Cedric Hardwick and the role of Richard III's ambitious accomplice in evil (the Duke of Buckingham) by Ralph Richardson. Lady Anne, whom Richard seduces, is played by Claire Bloom. "Richard III" is one of the most important of the numerous Shakespeare films. The costuming is typical late 15th century. The boys are dressed like young adults, wearing tights under rich doublets (upper garments). The play should not be confused with history. It seems likely that the boys were killed by their uncle, Richard III. The play is very much, however, a piece of Tudor propaganda. Richard III was of course the last Platagenant that Henry Tudor dethroned. Shakespeare being no fool, he carefully adhered to the Tudor line.

Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare, 1594-95)

'Romeo and Juliet' has to be Shakespeare's and the Renaissance best-loved play. More than four centuries later many modern high schools continue to stage the play. And well produced movie versions prove to be blockbusters. No other play has that kind of longevity. Of course romance is a sure-fire seller across the ages. Shakespeare wrote it relatively early in his career, probably some time around 1594-95. Shakespeare scholars for a long time disparaged the play, considering it a light piece of work in comparison to his four great tragedies (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello) that he wrote as a more mature playwrite. "Romeo and Juliet' however nerver lost its alure with the general public. While students might be assigned to study Hamlet, Mcbeth, and Merchant of Venice in class, it was Romeo and Juliet thast they wanted to actually produce as a school play. Perhaps responding to public opinion, contemporary scholars have begun to revise assessments of 'Romeo asnd Juliet'. One aspect of the play that is commonly incorectly presented, larfely because of changing social attitudes. Sharespeare's Juliet is a very young teenager. Romeo is a somewhat older teenager. But in the iconography that has developed around the two, they are both depicted as much older. The same is true for film versions of the play.

Alphabetical Listings

The alphabestical listing here is somewhat complicated by the use of "King" in the title of "King John". Actually if you look at the original quartos and the First Folio (1623) all the English history plays of Shakespeare have the word "King" in their titles. So, formally speaking, the title of "Richard II" is "King Richard the Second" although it is usually referred to by the shorter form ("Richard II"). "King" is always used for the title of "King John" because there is no number following his name (there was only one "King John"). If there had been a second king of England with the name John and if Shakespeare had written a play about him, the short title would be "John II". The same principle holds for "King Lear" because there is no other king with that name.


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Created: 3:37 AM 12/5/2006
Last updated: 12:22 AM 7/20/2010