The following article appeared in the Valley Advocate
on July 15, 1999.
Other Prequel; the Other Woodstock
Valley hosts an American premiere of an early Shakespearean drama
Mark K. Anderson
It's hard to believe
that nearly four centuries after the author's death a work of Shakespeare
would still lie unproduced, unacted and unregarded. But in the anonymous
Elizabethan historical drama Thomas of Woodstock, Hampshire Shakespeare
Company has unearthed one of the most promising contenders for anointment
with the million-dollar tag "Written by William Shakespeare."
The arguments for Woodstock's canonization are
compelling, though they can be touched upon only briefly here. The drama
also provides the missing piece of a historical puzzle famously set out
by Shakespeare. And it proves to be a surprisingly accessible, clever,
fun, tragic, humorous and engaging text -- long overdue for the public's
consideration and entertainment, regardless of author.
Thomas of Woodstock is named after and centers
on one of the infamous seven sons of the 14th-century British monarch Edward
III. King Edward's offspring ultimately led the country through a century-long
soap opera of intrigue, treason, greed, revenge, lust and war. And Thomas
of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector of the Realm played
a crucial role in unfolding the drama at the outset.
By the time of Queen Elizabeth's reign (1558-1603), the
nation had put the War of the Roses into its collective past. But the populace
had certainly not forgotten the battles and generations' worth of strife.
And, as the country endured a long-simmering war against Spain, Shakespeare's
recapitulation and contemporization of the civil tumult was a popular and
widely praised enterprise.
Some even think the Queen hired the author to craft patriotic
propaganda for both the church and state that would arouse public sympathy
for the crown and help the nation stave off the Spanish, Catholic menace.
(See the recent discussion of this topic in the April issue of Harper's
magazine or "Meet the New Bard" in the Advocate's feature archives,
Whether created for his own edification or for the Elizabethan
state's self-interest, Shakespeare's history plays tell a nearly complete
story of the War of the Roses from beginning to end.
It's "nearly complete" in that part of the beginning --
one of the crucial events leading up to the deposition of Richard II in
1399 -- is left untold. The first of Shakespeare's "Lancastrian history
cycle" is Richard II,and opens with a trial whose ostensible purpose
is to discover who killed Thomas of Woodstock.
The background and the eventual enactment of Woodstock's
murder are precisely what Thomas of Woodstock is about. It's the
prequel to Shakespeare's history plays that Shakespeare should have written
-- and, perhaps anonymously, did.
One of the chief problems of staging Thomas of Woodstock
is that the play has no end. The only extant copy of the drama is a manuscript
in The British Museum in London, and the final page or pages are missing.
(The document is a prompt-book script, used for drama troupes of the Elizabethan
period, and does not, unfortunately, appear to be written out by the author
When Hampshire Shakespeare Company decided to take on
Thomas of Woodstock -- a play that, according to every source yet
consulted, appears to have never been staged on these shores -- it cleverly
solved the problem with a contest. The company spread the word earlier
this year that it needed a late-20th-century bard to finish the late-16th-century
Bard's handiwork. If Woodstock had come from a later period in the
artist's development, of course, the contest would have been a cruel taunt.
Since the work is still leagues away from the pinnacle of Shakespeare's
development, though, the task was daunting but certainly not insurmountable.
The winning entry -- written by Frederick Carrigg of Agawam
and chosen by a panel of three local judges -- sews up the drama comfortably
and sets the stage for the political unraveling that begins with Shakespeare's
Richard II and ends with soon-to-be Henry VII's slaying of Richard
III and rout of Richard's forces on the field of Bosworth in 1485.
The other unusual dramatic challenge Woodstock
posed was that the script calls for a courtier to ride onstage on horseback.
And, while the director admits the parts would have been simple enough
to cut, the comic exchange between Woodstock and the horse is so much fun
and so Shakespearean -- à la Launce's harangue to his dog in Two
Gentlemen of Verona -- that director Timothy Holcomb opted instead
to ransom his kingdom for a horse and proceed with the play as written.
The equine role, incidentally, will be handled by a gelding
named Poco. "Has a wonderful temperment. Very agreeable," Holcomb said.
"Nothing phases him. Does what he's told. Never misses a line."
For those who follow the new discoveries surrounding Shakespeare's
life and works, Woodstock represents a small part of a truly monumental
paradigm shift now under way.
Newly rediscovered Shakespeare works have been cropping
up like wildflowers over the past few decades. Some, in the case of the
anonymous Elizabethan plays Edmund Ironside and Edward III,
are slowly being integrated into the officially sanctioned Shakespeare
canon after the publication of comprehensive attribution studies (both,
in this case, undertaken by the British scholar Eric Sams; the former in
1986, the latter in 1996).
We can only hope that others -- such as the imitative,
dry and ineffectual poem A Funeral Elegy for William Peter (an early-17th-century
Shakespeare rip-off that, nevertheless, is included in the current edition
of the industry-standard textbook The Riverside Shakespeare) --
are temporary lapses in the critical judgment of the "experts."
As Hampshire Shakespeare Company's production bravely
sets forth, Thomas of Woodstock belongs with Edmund and Edward
as an example of the bard's early dramatic output. The troupe's promotional
material for the show does not attribute Woodstock to anyone --
save, in the play's program, where it's attributed to "Anonymous." Nonetheless,
following a literary manhunt that stretches back into the 19th century,
the program notes encourage what promises to be an exciting line of inquiry.
Although no definitive study advancing a Bard-authored
Woodstock has yet been done, the program's introduction to Woodstock
quotes Shakespeare scholar Ian Robinson's 1988 study of the play: "Who
else but Shakespeare writes like this?" he asks. Essayist Roger Stritmatter
of UMass' comparative literature department, who also first brought Woodstock
to Hampshire Shakespeare's attention, replies, "The question is rhetorical:
the only answer -- with exception taken for the anonymous composition --
To those familiar with Shakespeare's hallmark style, the
play resounds with language, characters, rhetoric, scenes and allusions
that sound suspiciously like our man, albeit in a youthful outpouring of
his raw talent. If you go to this Woodstock expecting Hamlet,
Richard III or even one of the comparatively unrefined Henry VI
trilogy, you will be disappointed. No question.
But if you go to the show with a curious, skeptical mind,
expecting a sampling of the Bard's juvenilia, you may walk out at the end
of the night saying, "So that's how Shakespeare started out ..."
The play, in short, is pockmarked with the rough pavement
and potholes that young writers inevitably leave behind when first developing
their art. It also contains moments of genius, transcendent wit and youthful
exuberance that would recommend this production to any lover of historical
-- and literary -- mysteries.
As Holcomb put it, "Here's something that's sat on the
shelves, and the damned thing plays. It's good theater."
Just as Shakespeare's Richard II presents the titular
monarch as an early draft of Hamlet -- pensive poet-like royalty whose
thoughts prove a truer kingdom than anything the real world presents --
Woodstock casts through plot lines and character sketches that prefigure
King Lear. Here King Richard II displays a Lear-like penchant for
indulging sycophants and banishing the voices of truth. In that sense,
Woodstock becomes a figure like Lear's Kent -- a man almost tragically
predisposed to call everything for what it is.
When I pointed this out to Holcomb, he added, "It's got
this static-ness that finally breaks in Act Five. There's the suggestion
of a paring away that our playwright picks up -- and the last actors on
stage are York and Lancaster. It's the same kind of 'what are we going
to do now?' question that gets posed at the end of Lear."
Still, Woodstock chooses a Hamlet-like course of inaction
-- and loses his life as a result. Ultimately, the line that best summarizes
the play (spoken by Woodstock) resonates with one of the great overriding
themes that pervades the Shakespeare canon: "When kingdoms change, the
very heavens are troubled."
When Richard's queen dies, in the words of Woodstock's
servingman, "The lights of heaven are shut in pitchy clouds/And flakes
of fire run tilting through the sky/Like dim ostents to some great tragedy."
Woodstock's multi-hued use of language also reveals
a Shakespearean love of words, setting forth the same kind of idiosyncratic
wordplay that define Shakespeare's style -- in more elemental form than
what can be found in his mature works. The Shakespearean trick of antithesis
and verb-noun inversions, for instance, dot the dialogue ("this chain doth,
as it were, so toeify the knee and so kneeify the toe, that between both
it makes a most methodical coherence, or coherent method").
And one of Shakespeare's favorite rhetorical forms --
two complementary or even near-synonymous words joined by "and," such as
"slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" -- is so prevalent in Woodstock
that I lost count by Act Two. ("tax and pill," "remiss and inconsiderate,"
"mickle care and woe").
Some scholars now argue that Woodstock is a 19th-century
forgery, that the work indeed has many Shakespearean characteristics but
is both too immature and perhaps too Shakespearean to be believed.
To that accusation, Holcomb asks why a hypothetical forger would have created
a drama that never appears to have been staged and never even states who
the author is. History has seen several Shakespeare forgeries -- but the
forger has always derived some personal, professional or economic gain
"I think there's way too much stuff in here for someone
to put the energy and time into this and then not do anything with it,"
Holcomb said. "If it was a hoax, why didn't it play? Why didn't somebody
make money off it?"
Put such questions of authorship and authenticity to the
play itself -- or at least to the version that includes Carrigg's elegant
two-page ending -- and you find yourself concluding with the closing couplet:
"Only through plainness and truth dare we lay / The fate
of the Crown on this field this day."
Hampshire Shakespeare Company presents "Thomas of Woodstock"
at Amherst's Lord Jeffery Inn (July 15, 20, 22, 27, 29), Northampton's
Look Park (July 16-18 and 23-25) and Hadley's Hartsbrook School (July 30-31).
For more information call 548-8118.