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One of Shakespeare’s strongest characters is Queen Margaret who, as a consequence of her husband’s bouts with insanity, finds it necessary to lead not only a country, but to stand at the helm of an entire army, leading England’s military into battle and winning. It is an important story in the history of the War of the Roses, and one that Jared Kirby and Hudson Classical Theater decided to take on this year. Jared is a celebrated fight director and took on the challenge of staging entire battle scenes on stage for this production, and he joins us today to talk with us about how Shakespeare would have staged these battle scenes in the 16th century and how it works to stay true to history when staging these plays today.
Jared Kirby has been involved in Western Martial Arts and Combat for Stage & Screen for over 25 years. He teaches in New York City (and the metro area) and has choreographed fights Off-Broadway, Nationally, in London and Sydney. He is currently fight director for Hudson Classical Theater, where he dreamed up the idea for latest production titled Margaret: Shakespeare’s Warrior Queen, an original adaptation and mash-up of Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III (known as the War of the Roses), exploring the story of Queen Margaret, and directed by Nicholas Martin-Smith which opens Off-Broadway on July 27. Find out more about Jared and how you can see this production of Shakespeare’s Henriad plays this summer at the Hudson Classical Theater Company in New York City.
I’ll be asking Jared Kirby about:
- What weapons are used in the production of Henry VI that are true to the weaponry that would have been on stage when Shakespeare performed these plays?
- This section of Shakespeare’s plays deals with the entire War of the Roses. How are you able to stage the combat of entire armies on stage without it looking like a violent mosh pit, and what do we know about how Shakespeare would have staged these same scenes?
- Speaking of historical portrayals—does Shakespeare get it right with his portrayal of Margaret of Anjou? Was the real Margaret as strong and powerful as the one Shakespeare writes about?
- …and more!
Resources Recommended by Our Guest
Staging Shakespeare’s Violence by Kirby and Seth Duerr
Shakespeare’s Violence with Jared Kirby and Seth Duerr
Violence shows up in Shakespeare’s plays in the form of fights, sword play, and even torture (among several others). These powerful scenes are based on physical action that isn’t directly written about in the scripts of his works. Find out how to stage these scenes accurately with our guest, and professional fight choreographer, Jared Kirby, and his co-author, Seth Duerr.
Real Weapons from Shakespeare’s lifetime
When it comes to the weapons that were appearing in Shakespeare’s lifetime on the stage as they performed Henry V for the firs time, the actual weapons themselves would have been very similar to what was used by the Elizabethan military.
“Weaponry didn’t change that much from Henry in real life and Elizabethan times…[they had] pole arms [for example, which were] definitely still in active military weapons. City guards would have had these, and it gave them range.”
The weapons that were still used both time periods also include the backswords, the sword and buckler, and the buckler actually was a prominent art form in the 16th century, which goes back to the earliest European treatise in 1293, it’s a manuscripts that shows sword and buckler techniques.
The biggest weapon that was being used was the longsword. It was still in use in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but it was on the way out. You see some jokes about the longsword being an “old man’s weapon” in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The new kid on the block was definitely the rapier.
…by the time we are performing these [plays] in the 16th century, you see the introduction of the rapier which was more what we consider a side sword, a broader weapon than what we think of as a rapier, and that was on Shakespeare’s stage. When Shakespeare talks about Foils he means a “foiled weapon” which was a blunted weapon, round off the points so they’d do less harm, but still lose a limb. They also had buttons which were the size of a tennis ball to go over the end, and we don’t know what they do on stage.
Jared points out that as trained swordsmen, which anyone performing these scenes in repertoire would have needed to be, the actors probably had a stock set of moves choreographed for a “quick fight scene” where everyone involved knew how to move to create an intense battle that could be repeated in various plays where it was needed.
Margaret of Anjou in the War of the Roses
This section of Shakespeare’s plays deals with the entire War of the Roses, which is quite a feat to recreate not only entire battles, but to present the feeling of the presence of the entire English military on stage. It was not easy to do for modern actors, and it was an impressive accomplishment in Shakespeare’s day as well. Jared explains how it is accomplished:
The basic answer is proportion. It doesn’t matter if there’s an accurate number of troops, we just need to convey that feeling of a battle. So we set an appropriate number of fights to the space it is being performed in. One of his favorites that he got to do is Henry V, it was a 99 seat theater, but it was pretty large and so what they were able to do was bring those battles in from everywhere. It’s important that the audience feels like they are in the battle, which means breaking the 4th wall. In Henry V there was a raised platform and archers picked off soldiers at the top of the battle and that was lot of fun, and there was one side flooding in from the house and the other side flooding in from the stage, or stage left and right, but the idea is to have enough bodies moving through the space to convey [volume].
One stark anachronism in Shakespeare’s Henry VI is when he mentions Machiavelli, not once, but twice, when Machiavelli wasn’t even born until 4 years after the death of Joan of Arc. When you come across historical inaccuracies like this one that Shakespeare commits in these plays, Jared explains that it’s basically director’s choice about which history you’re going to include–Shakespeare’s, or the actual history we know about today:
Shakespeare was the Disney of his time. The purpose is to perform a piece of theater for the audience, and his prime objective is to be entertaining that audience. (It’s not about doing justice to Shakespeare, it’s about fulfilling their responsibility to the audience, we are first entertainers). Screw the history, it doesn’t matter in the context of this play. If they came to these plays to learn history, they’ve already messed up, so they aren’t going to try and correct that, but if there are places confusion would be caused for the audience, then we might cut that.
Learn about the real Eleanor of Aquitaine and the story that Shakespeare would have known about when he wrote her story into his plays, with our guest and expert on Eleanor of Aquitaine, Alison Weir.
Jared points out that in Shakespeare’s lifetime, the story of Eleanor, for example, was something people would have known about and they would have been much closer to the Greek and Roman mythology references, as well. That means that when this same play was done in the 16-17th centuries, most of what modern directors might cut due to it being “boring” or “not recognizable” would have been much more important pieces for Shakespeare’s original version.
Margaret of Anjou Historically Speaking
Margaret in these plays is one of my favorite characters of all of Shakespeare’s plays. She is portrayed as strong, powerful, and a really great woman. The question about historical accuracy, however, is that the perspective on women today is not the same as it was for Shakespeare’s lifetime, so it makes you wonder whether Shakespeare gets it right with his portrayal of Margaret of Anjou. Jared shares that for their version, they opted to tell her story because she is so powerful and they weren’t really concerned with whether or not Shakespeare was true to her historical narrative.
In a modern world where women are seen as strong figures, entirely capable of running a country as well as leading armies, communicating the significance of what Margaret accomplished as a woman in her time period takes on a different tone. However, Jared shares that the powerful figure of Elizabeth I that was on the throne in Shakespeare’s actual lifetime made the presentation of a woman who leads armies much more contemporary than we might expect.
Part of having such strong female characters in Shakespeare is generated by Elizabeth’s reign. There’s a freedom to go there and maybe even an homage to her, in fact, in Saviolo’s book, the Gentlemen’s Guide to Duelling, finishes that work with a list of amazing women throughout history, so there’s definitely something happening in Elizabethan England here that’s a subject of interest to a literate populace. It’s not as strange an idea s we are sometimes led to believe because we are raised on a white male history. In the actual time period, it wasn’t as revolutionary or out of place as we think it might should have been. They are living in the time period of an amazing woman as well.
Where to See the Performance Live
Hudson Classical Theater Company performs on the Upper West Side, in New York City, USA, at the Soldiers and Sailor’s Monument near 90th and Riverside Drive. They’ll perform at 630pm, so get there closer to 6, because it’s a beautiful outdoor theater space and you’ll need to get seats early.
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Documentary Short Film, The Art of the Sword
Inside our Patron’s library we have special bonuses, like our award winning documentary short film, The Art of the Sword, that explores the story of the Italian immigrants who came to England in Shakespeare’s lifetime to establish the business of training swordsmen (like Shakespeare’s actors), including some of the manuals you heard mentioned in today’s episode (Salviolo’s fencing manual, and more!) You can watch the entire documentary, along with other documentary films and animated short versions of Shakespeare’s plays, inside the members only film library.
That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!