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Playing Shakespeare’s Monarchs and Madmen

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Edited By Louis Fantasia

Playing Shakespeare’s Monarchs and Madmen is the third volume in the Peter Lang series, Playing Shakespeare’s Characters. As in the previous volumes, a broad range of contributors (actors, directors, scholars, educators, etc.) analyze the concepts of monarchy, leadership, melancholy and madness with not only references to Elizabethan and Jacobean studies, but also to Trump, Brexit, cross-gender and multi-cultural casting. What does it mean to “play the king” in the 21st century? What is the role of an “all-licensed” Fool in the age of spin? Who gets to represent the power dynamics in Shakespeare’s plays? This volume looks at the Henrys, Richards, Hamlets, Lears and various other dukes and monarchs and explores the ways in which men—and women—approach these portrayals of power and the lessons they hold for us today.

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Introduction: A Mad World, My Masters! (Louis Fantasia)

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Louis Fantasia

Americans have mixed feelings about monarchs and monarchies. We revolted against one, yet, in our periodic yearnings for the trappings of the occasional “imperial presidency” we sometimes wish we had a king. We embrace, unknowingly perhaps, the medieval concept of “the king’s two bodies,” often equating the health and stability of the man (almost always men in Shakespeare) who rules, with the “body politic” of the country itself, whether it is the Life magazine-style glamour of Kennedy’s “Camelot” or the Twitter-fed tribalism of Trump’s “American carnage.”

Americans, speaking again very broadly, tend to view Shakespeare’s histories through the first of these two bodies. We look to the plays for a study of the man, not the monarchy: Hal’s growing up, Hamlet’s angst, Richard III’s seductive villainy, Lear’s madness, etc. Then we pause and look kindly, if not condescendingly, on the political bits, cutting them where we can (“maybe the Brits get this stuff, I don’t”) or trying to make them relevant (setting the Henriads in the American Civil War, for example). All of which tends to imbue the plays with an over-coating of rugged American individualism that I am not sure Shakespeare had in mind (as if one could ever know).

One of the ways recent productions have tried to counter this, as several of our contributors point out, is to have women play the kings (not that women can’t be rugged individualists, let me hasten to add). It seems...

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