“The Love that Dare Not Speak its Name”

Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright known for his unmatched wit and, infamously, for his sexuality, defined what it is to be unapologetically proud.

By Serena Ypelaar

There were no Pride parades in his day, but Oscar Wilde’s openness on the streets of London arguably comprises the Victorian equivalent.

Growing up in Merrion Square in Dublin (which I just visited last month), Wilde moved to London and settled there for much of his life. He’s celebrated as a gay icon, but it’s little known that he was once in love with the woman who would become Bram Stoker’s wife, Florence Balcombe. Wilde was devastated when she chose to marry Stoker over him. He proposed to two other women before marrying Constance Lloyd, with whom he had two sons. It’s said that Wilde loved Constance, though of course he’s best known to have engaged in relations with numerous men. Today we’d probably call him bisexual, but Wilde considered himself “Socratic” when it came to love.

Oscar Wilde grew up in this house at 1 Merrion Square, Dublin. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Wilde was proud of his identity – and quite open with his sexuality especially by the standards of the time. Yet even he had to hide who he was to avoid persecution in the form of a criminal trial. In 1895 Wilde was convicted of gross indecency, a homophobic law in the United Kingdom which made same-sex relations illegal for men.

Wilde wasn’t officially out yet when he toured North America for his lecture series on aestheticism in the early 1880s; but as he dressed himself flamboyantly and tended to push the envelope with his sardonic and witty manner, he had cultivated a considerable reputation. The Marquess of Lorne, 9th Duke of Argyll and fourth Governor General of Canada, even declined to meet Oscar Wilde lest ongoing rumours of his own suspected homosexuality be exacerbated. All the while, Wilde had not a care in the world what people thought of his effeminacy.

In 1882 (aged 27), he watched a lacrosse match from the Lieutenant Governor’s box in Toronto, Canada, and was said to have remarked to the Toronto Globe newspaper on his great appreciation for “a tall, well-built defence man”. While Wilde had no qualms about public displays of same-sex interactions, having once kissed a waiter in a restaurant (and possibly Walt Whitman too), such actions were unforgivable in the formal courts back in England.

Oscar Wilde in 1882, by Napoleon Sarony. Photo: Wikimedia

Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s most famous lover, wrote a poem titled “Two Loves” (1894), which ends with the phrase “I am the Love that dare not speak its name.” The line was used against Wilde in his trial when he was charged by Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who suspected the two gentlemen’s romance and abhorred it. Queensberry demanded that Wilde cut ties with Douglas, persisting despite Wilde’s insouciance.

Queensberry: “I do not say that you are [homosexual], but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you.”

Wilde: “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”

An 1894 exchange between The Marquess of Queensberry and Oscar Wilde at Wilde’s residence, 16 Tite Street, London

Unwisely, Wilde pressed charges against Queensberry when the latter left a calling card at Wilde’s club reading “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]”. Incensed by what he took for a public accusation of sodomy, Wilde sued for libel, but it was this legal action which led to Queensberry’s acquittal and counter-suit against Wilde. Having procured evidence of Wilde’s liaisons with male prostitutes alongside letters to Douglas, Queensberry had cornered Wilde. Douglas’ poem was interpreted as a euphemism for sodomy, which Wilde denied, but evidence was stacking up against him. Out in society, his dandyish reputation and conflicts with Queensberry caused him little harm, but taking the feud to the courtroom proved to be Wilde’s undoing. He was convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. His imprisonment from 1895 to 1897 spurred his decline, and in 1900 he died of meningitis in France – but not before being reunited with Douglas for a time.

Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas with Oscar Wilde in 1894. Photo: Wikimedia

In continuing to be himself at all costs, Oscar Wilde was extraordinarily brave in the face of so much discrimination. And yet he had to resort to denying his same-sex encounters in the name of self-preservation. He was incarcerated for his defiance of society’s norms, and he fell from public regard. It wasn’t easy to be queer in the 1890s. Society may have taken strides toward equality and respect since, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy now, either.

What does Wilde’s life over 100 years ago tell us about Pride today? Namely that there are still obstacles to freedom, love, and tolerance, but that the LGBTQ2+ community deserves the right to a parade. Not just the organized Pride parades that take place around the world, but the mere act of parading down the street during day-to-day life: open, out, and free, living authentically without retribution. So-called “Straight Pride parades” happen every single day with the simple privilege of going out into the world without discrimination. The LGBTQ2+ Pride parade should happen every day too – because queer individuals have every reason to be proud.

Operation Neptune: Remembering D-Day

75 years after the Normandy landings in 1944, this D-Day commemoration may be the final milestone at which World War II veterans are alive to tell the tale. How does remembrance change when we no longer have firsthand witnesses to uphold our historic memory?

By Serena Ypelaar

Historians, especially those working in public history, know that we have a responsibility to remember and learn from the past, lest past mistakes be repeated. This responsibility will loom larger in the forefront of our duties when the original veterans of World War II, the firsthand memory-keepers, are no longer with us.

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy. On the 6th of June, 1944, British, French, Canadian, and American troops carried out an amphibious assault on the coast of German-occupied France. Codenamed “Operation Neptune”, the Normandy landings constituted the largest seaborne invasion in history. D-Day therefore laid the foundations for Europe’s liberation and the end of the Second World War. Though there are veterans still living to recount their memories, soon that will no longer be the case.

The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade disembarking onto Juno Beach at Normandy. Photo: Wikimedia

At the commemoration ceremonies at Normandy this past Thursday, Prince Charles referenced this sobering reality in his speech. It left me to ponder how quickly time is receding (as always) from our grasp – these changes will transform the historical memory of the Second World War. After all, we no longer have veterans of World War I (or earlier conflicts) to consult about their experiences. Historical interpretation of WWII will likewise rely on physically preserved records, which is going to change how we remember and reinterpret the conflict.

Remembrance in itself is an act – or series of acts – of interpretation. And those interpretations may change depending on contemporary international contexts. For instance, national leaders including outgoing British prime minister Theresa May, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, and French president Emmanuel Macron, came together at the D-Day ceremonies in France yesterday to memorialize those who fought the Nazis at Normandy. Notably absent was German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It’s unclear whether she was not invited or simply didn’t attend; she was present at the British ceremony in Portsmouth the day before. Of course, Germany’s role in World War II is the obvious point of contention in this kind of commemoration, and how the country engages with commemorations today sets the tone for reconciliation and reparation.

Britain was prominent among the Allied forces during World War II, and they likewise had a robust presence in the D-Day commemorations. With the mess that is Brexit, Britain’s current political situation places them at an interesting perspective. D-Day was a mobilization of Allied forces which relied upon the unity of major European nations like Britain and France. Now, however, Britain is stepping back from their long-term trade ties with France (as well as Germany) to leave the European Union. In a similar way, the United States was heavily involved in D-Day, yet diplomacy between the U.S. and European countries is particularly strained thanks to President Donald Trump. Having seen tension between certain political leaders, such as between Trump and Merkel, these commemoration events are like a strange family reunion: they reveal how relationships have changed over time.

“Into the Jaws of Death” by Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard.
Photo: Wikimedia

The main priority of preserving history is remembering and honouring the past. To this end, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, read out the exact words of his great grandfather George VI, from his D-Day Broadcast:

“At this historic moment, surely not one of us is too busy, too young, or too old to play a part in a nationwide, worldwide vigil …”

King George VI, in a D-Day Broadcast aired 6 June 1944
King George VI of England’s D-Day Broadcast,
originally aired on the morning of 6 June 1944.

This touch was particularly notable because it acknowledges the importance of taking the past into account (something the British notoriously excel at!). One day, not only will the veterans be gone, but so will their children, grandchildren, and everyone who knew them. So what does this tell us about commemoration? We need to preserve the stories of those who lived through the experience, and we need to uphold their legacies as if they were our own while paying our respects to the great sacrifices they made for freedom.

“Only those who threw themselves against the walls of the fortress of Europe in Normandy know the full extent of what unfolded here 75 years ago. But it is the responsibility of all Canadians to ensure that their story and their sacrifice will never be forgotten.”

Justin Trudeau, in a speech at Juno Beach on 6 June 2019
Juno Beach is the site where Canadian forces landed during the D-Day invasion. Photo: Joe de Sousa

Nationalism of course comes into play at these commemorations, as it always does. But if we think of commemoration on a purely human level – irrespective of politics – we can preserve history with greater integrity. Sure, we can argue about international relations and the current state of affairs worldwide, but that’s not what commemoration is about. When loss of life is concerned, politicizing memorials trivializes and distracts from the sacrifices of human beings. As shown by the world’s diplomatic leaders, public memory is a collaborative form of historical interpretation. There are many things we may differ on as people and as countries, but the human cost of war is universally significant to us.

D-Day teaches us the importance of balancing past interpretations with present-day ones in order to remember responsibly. In the end, preserving historical memory isn’t the sole responsibility of those who lived through an event in history – it’s our responsibility, as the ones who will carry their stories forward in years to come.

To learn more about the 75th anniversary D-Day commemorations, click here.

So, Tell Me Something About Yourself

To celebrate The Mindful Rambler‘s 1st birthday, we examine storytelling as a way to get to know people.

By Serena Ypelaar

Think of the last funny story you told. 

How did you make it compelling? Which parts did you include, and which parts did you omit? And what about timing? (It’s supposed to be everything, isn’t it?) I’m guessing you were definitely hoping for the best punchline and the best response to your story.

Storytelling is an inherently creative process. And I think that the reception of a story depends heavily on the storyteller. What perspective are they coming from? Who are they trying to reach? Audience – and knowing your audience – is just as integral to the success of a story. 

Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Personal storytelling is something of a curatorial process, trying to synthesize one’s own experience and present it coherently to others so they can share in it.

For instance, I just got back from a month in Scotland, and I have a plethora of stories to tell my family and friends. Since there are so many, they’ll likely unravel slowly over time as I’m reminded of things I did or saw (or, let’s be honest, ate). Naturally I’ll be looking to impart the essence of my experience – how enlightening it was, how beautiful the landscapes were, how friendly people are … the list of stories it’s possible to share goes on.

Yours truly on a ramble through the woods. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about personal storytelling and what it means for us as humans. We’ve mostly been discussing public storytelling here on The Mindful Rambler, on a large scale; but as we’re today celebrating the blog’s 1st birthday, I want to reframe things a bit so we also consider storytelling on a more personal level. 

What is the significance of our own stories? And how do literary masters, artists, and creators pour themselves into their own storytelling to share a piece of their lives – their struggles, their triumphs, their losses, their love? The art reflects the artist; not only can we learn something about the world when we consume and interpret stories, we also get to know another person, sometimes without ever having met them. Humanity needs stories.

We’ll be rambling more on these themes soon. Thank you all for reading The Mindful Rambler in its first year – I hope you’ve enjoyed it! My fellow ramblers and I – Adriana, Sadie, Lilia, Jenny, and Bretton – look forward to telling even more stories over the next year.

A Life and Death Matter

Historically, death masks were used to remember those who had passed away, or to create likenesses in portraits. Life masks are their slightly less macabre twin, and they both close an interpretive gap in physical memory.

By Serena Ypelaar

When I first set foot in Keats House in Hampstead, London almost exactly a year ago, I had long been fascinated by death masks – but life masks would prove to bring a whole other thrill.

Posthumous portrait of the poet John Keats by William Hilton. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

You might wonder why the distinction between the two holds any significance whatsoever. One type of mask is taken from a deceased subject’s face, while the other involves the living individual. What’s the big difference?

From an interpretive standpoint, the fact that historical figures posed for life masks while living and breathing – that they perhaps might have made a remark just before the cast was taken – is staggering. The result, while it may seem trifling at the time, becomes an unrivaled connection to the subject after they have died. A life mask of a historical figure preserves their face in its tangible and living form beyond a photograph or painting, allowing us to interact with it.

Let’s give these abstract notions some context. I first came across the poet John Keats (1795-1821) and his work while studying British literature in undergrad. I quickly came to love Romantic poetry, in which nature, emotion, and the metaphysical take centre stage, and Keats’ 1820 Ode on a Grecian Urn (in which the speaker marvels at the beauty of an artifact in the British Museum) captures everything I love about museums and literature.

Keats House in Hampstead Heath, London, where the poet lived from 1818-1820. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

So there I stood in Keats House, ready to connect with my favourite poet in a long awaited moment of fulfillment. I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. For one thing, the house’s interpretation was excellent – I had expected a rather dated presentation of the Romantic poet’s life, but the displays are new, appealing, and most importantly, emotionally evocative. Sensory elements are manifold as we’re given opportunities to visualize Keats’ presence and listen to audio of a first-person interpreter reading his poems and personal writings. And most strikingly, there are masks.

On the ground floor is Keats’ life mask. As a forever fangirl of the poet who lived there from 1818 to 1820, I was instantly drawn to it. (I can’t believe I’m telling you this, because it sounds irredeemably creepy.) My strange urge to interact with the mask was validated (thank God, I’m not crazy after all!) when I read the label next to it: please touch.

John Keats’ life mask on display at Keats House, next to a label encouraging visitors to touch.
Photo: Serena Ypelaar

And that was how I ended up in Keats’ house touching his face. To further justify my museum nerdiness + mild infatuation, I can only describe the experience as unique and surreal.

With a life mask, you can engage with those who’ve predeceased you, whether you feel the contours of their face or just look. It’s so rare to find this kind of connection with individuals who died before photography gathered steam. Maybe Keats House really knew their audience, but it truly surpassed trying to picture someone’s face based on portraits: here was the unembellished truth of what Keats really looked like. Since no photographs of him exist, the mask is an invaluable instrument of truth.

Upstairs was a much more sobering reality, but affecting all the same. The lighthearted yet poignant discovery of the life mask was replaced by a sombre shift: here, behind glass, was Keats’ death mask. Keats died of tuberculosis aged 25. The difference in his face was noticeable. His once robust features were gaunt and thinner, a mark of the illness that claimed his life; and like the life mask, coming face to face with Keats was unparalleled in significance. It’s appropriate that this iteration was inaccessible by touch, for obvious ethical reasons. No one needs to touch a death mask, unless they’re a collections manager! Regardless, I was glad for the rare privilege of seeing both a life and death mask of the same person, however grim the comparison.

Keats’ death mask (behind glass, as seen in my reflection).
Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Life and death masks offer an indisputable connection to the subject of both. The concept is like a goldmine as far as historical and biographical interpretation goes. In front of us is the objective image of a person’s likeness, almost as if they were before our eyes. One thing’s for sure: when looking at Keats’ life mask, I felt as mesmerized as the speaker looking at the Grecian urn in the British Museum. I hope to see more life (and death) masks of public figures in the future, because their immersive value is inimitable.

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

John Keats, from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820)

You Can’t Repeat the Past

Why, of course you can! Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) demonstrates that while it may seem unorthodox to decide against a by-the-book 1920s soundtrack, the choice to incorporate contemporary artists worked.

By Serena Ypelaar

When a new adaptation of The Great Gatsby got the green light (pun intended), I was over the moon. High School Me was obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, despite never being assigned to read it (or perhaps that’s why I actually liked it: it wasn’t just schoolwork).

Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Photo: The Gentleman’s Journal

Leonardo DiCaprio was cast as Jay Gatsby, Tobey Maguire was to play narrator Nick Carraway, and Carey Mulligan was Daisy; matches made in heaven, basically. But one thing I just wasn’t sure about was the soundtrack. When I saw a couple of early trailers for the film, I was mildly indignant. Eager as I was, I was a purist and had expected authentic 1920s music to furnish the lavish Baz Luhrmann film. But that’s the understanding I lacked: I hadn’t seen Moulin Rouge or any of Luhrmann’s other films at that time, so his style was unknown to me. What do you mean, they’re using modern music in such a sacred film, one rooted so inextricably in the Jazz Age? I was positively affronted. How would that ever work?

But then came May, and I saw the movie. And it worked; by God, did it ever work. I don’t know how, but I finally understood the vision and appreciated the 1920s flair added to each track, as produced by Jay-Z. Joining him were Kanye West, Beyoncé and André 3000, Lana Del Rey, will.i.am, Fergie, Gotye, Sia, Florence + the Machine,
Emeli Sandé, Bryan Ferry, The xx, and Jack White. In other words, a gilded lineup if I ever saw (or heard) one.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio) in New York. Photo: Pinterest

Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” is achingly wistful; The xx’s “Together” is languid and romantic. On the flip side, Fergie and will.i.am’s tracks brought the party to life, and Jay-Z, Kanye, and Beyoncé capture the enigmatic allure of both Gatsby and New York City. Jay-Z and Kanye’s “No Church in the Wild” overlaid a city montage so memorably that I picture the scene whenever I hear the track.

The soundtrack is used (in conjunction with original novel quotes) to great effect at Gatsby’s party, seen here.

As seen through Nick’s eyes, Gatsby’s party is a perfect example of the soundtrack at play. In my reading of the novel, Fitzgerald knew exactly the right balance to strike between well-placed pithiness and sprawlingly eloquent description. The film soundtrack is the perfect complement: opulence, combined with Fitzgerald’s judicious prose, creates a picture of how the party might look and sound.

The Buchanans, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and Tom (Joel Edgerton). Photo: Pinterest

Surrendering my preconceived notions was easy once swept up by the film in its totality. I appreciate how the soundtrack was able to unseat my stubborn misgivings, and I think creatively, it was a phenomenal success. When I imagine the alternative, my originally preferred 1920s jazz, I can admit that the film might then have come across as static compared to this adaptation, which lies fluidly between Fitzgerald’s era and ours. It’s a bridge to audiences, who can relate to these familiar musicians in a setting that may be largely unfamiliar. In less capable hands, it could have been a disaster. But elements of each song nod to the novel, from Florence’s “green light” in “Over the Love” to Gatsby’s ultimate fate, tacitly referenced in will.i.am’s “Bang Bang”. Interspersed with Craig Armstrong’s alternately bubbly and haunting score, the soundtrack represents all the warring interests and desires of the film, looping backstory into the ominous plot progression.

Some people didn’t even like this film. But Luhrmann’s Gatsby is staunchly faithful to the source material as far as the screenplay goes. The characters spoke many lines verbatim from the book, which warmed my purist heart; the costumes were wonderfully executed. Any liberality had to be assigned elsewhere, and I’m actually glad it was the music. This soundtrack might not have thrived with a direct repeat of past music. Instead, it acknowledges history and moves forward with it to inform something new, which the misguided Gatsby failed to do as he tried to reconstruct the past.

Gatsby (DiCaprio) reaches for the green light across the bay, obsessed with getting back to Daisy as if nothing had changed. Photo: Odyssey

This soundtrack will always be relevant to me as a reminder that our fixation on what things should be isn’t always what’s best – there are so many new and daring possibilities out there.

Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits

During WWII, Allied secret agents were tested to their limits. The best way to foster empathy for the hardships they faced is to undergo them yourself – just ask the contestants on Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits.

By Serena Ypelaar

The only people who know what World War II was really like are the ones who lived through it. Army, navy, air force, nurses, medical corps, civilians … and spies. Everyone living between 1939 and 1945 had a diverse experience of one of the largest global conflicts in history, and for someone like myself, that experience is nearly unfathomable.

Nearly.

We have historical records and witness testimony to illustrate the war to those of us who hadn’t yet been born or were too young to remember anything. The mass genocide of Jewish people and the horrors suffered at the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis have left lasting scars. But the Allies defeated the Axis powers in 1945, restoring peace.

A few of the contestants on Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits. From left: instructor Nicky Moffat, Samy Ali, Debbey Clitheroe, Alastair Stanley, and Magda Thomas. Photo: Polygon

At the heart of the war effort was Britain, who dispatched secret agents from Allied countries throughout occupied Europe to bring down enemy forces and top-ranking Nazi officials. In 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton created the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an espionage organization. SOE agents faced countless tests and challenges both in training and in the field, challenges we can scarce imagine – until last year, when the Netflix/BBC miniseries Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits premiered.

A unique reality show, Churchill’s Secret Agents focuses not on interpersonal drama, backstabbing, or creative skill, but rather, on suitability to become an SOE operative as per the 1940s standards. Supervised by Nicky Moffat, the British army’s highest ranking woman before her resignation in 2012, Lt. Col. Adrian Weale, commanding officer, and Mike Rennie, military psychologist, the show is essentially a training simulation for the 14 recruits hoping to be selected as SOE agents. As an exercise in empathy, it’s incredibly effective – it offers not only the recruits, but the audience, with fascinating (and sometimes shocking) insights into the life of an SOE spy. I’ve watched the five-episode series three times already; I loved seeing how each recruit navigates each test, and who excels at what.

SOE Historian Rod Bailey consults on the show.
Photo: Popsugar

The show is diversely cast, which in this case is historically authentic. The SOE recruited both men and women from various walks of life to blend in behind enemy lines. Their main concerns were talent and aptitude. On the show, the new recruits include Rohini Bajaj, a doctor; 21-year-old maths graduate Alastair Stanley; Polish-born translator Madga Thomas; ex-military Rob Copsey, who lost his leg serving in Rwanda, grandmother and drama teacher Debbey Clitheroe; paralegal Will Beresford-Davies, and research scientist Lizzie Jeffreys, among others of varying professions, cultural backgrounds, and ages.

Recruits Rohini Bajaj, Rob Copsey, Lizzie Jeffreys, and Will Beresford-Davies. Photo: The Guardian

The series seems to offer the best of both worlds, too – each training exercise is contextualized with documentary-style footage including narration about the SOE’s impact on the war effort, specific missions that succeeded and failed, and prominent agents who were later recognized for their service.

Reality shows can be an invaluable method of historical interpretation; what better way to understand history than to see it recreated, and even more importantly, to interact with it? As a spectator, I fortunately don’t have to scale a mountainside in the pouring rain, but I can still appreciate the emotional and physical strength needed as I watch the recruits attempt it. For the contestants themselves, their understanding is even more immersive, as they literally have to participate in the testing process and challenges.

Recruits receive training (and are later tested) on hand to hand combat, firearms and explosives, stealth, disguise, interrogation, lockpicking, physical tasks such as scaling walls/cliffs and crawling under barbed wire, and Morse code/transmission.

The first of five episodes is shown here. You can stream the show on Netflix or watch the entire series on YouTube.

It’s hard to pin down the best part of the show, as I’ve already outlined its benefits for historical appreciation. However, I think Churchill’s Secret Agents‘ biggest strength lies in its emotional impact. If you’ve read The Mindful Rambler enough, you’ll know that I’m a big crier, but suffice it to say that this overview of the Resistance and the efforts of those who fought against injustice had me welling up. Not only that, but the fact that these modern-day people of varying backgrounds could complete the rigorous training pretty much floored me. It made me realize that we can exceed our limits if we resolve to, and we can do what’s necessary to fight for good, even if it’s difficult.

I don’t know if I could really navigate such difficult training on such a short timeline – but I like to think that if it was needed, I would try my hardest.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

Though Shakespeare has been dead for over 400 years, modern renditions of his plays are still alive and well. BBC’s The Hollow Crown adapts Shakespeare’s history plays, which prompt us to examine the Bard as not only playwright, but historical interpreter.

By Serena Ypelaar

As we approach William Shakespeare’s 455th birthday – thought to be April 23, the same day as his death – one can’t deny his unparalleled legacy. Shakespeare is still studied in schools worldwide. His words and idioms still pervade the English language. And people are still adapting his works on stage and screen.

As a self-professed Shakespeare devotee, I’ve seen several productions, personal highlights being Hamlet at the Globe Theatre in London; Colm Feore in Macbeth at the Stratford Festival in Ontario; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare in High Park. I have yet to see King Lear and Richard III (my favourites) on stage, but thanks to Shakespeare’s robust canon, we’re also blessed with film and television adaptations – like The Hollow Crown.

Tom Hiddleston as Henry V in The Hollow Crown. Photo: BBC

Most of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays are his comedies and tragedies. When I first heard about The Hollow Crown, which adapts Shakespeare’s tetralogies, I knew I had to see it. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Irons, Tom Sturridge, Sophie Okonedo, and Dame Judi Dench, The Hollow Crown covers Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V in the first cycle; and Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, and Richard III in the second cycle.

Shakespeare’s history plays don’t receive as much appreciation, but they’re fascinating because they demonstrate the playwright in action as a historical interpreter. Taking historical events and condensing them into dramatic plays is a sensitive act of storytelling, albeit heavily influenced by reigning powers at the time. Shakespeare composed his plays during the Tudor and Stuart eras, and his work thus appealed to Tudor and then Stuart sensibilities. Under Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare furthered the Tudor Myth, which essentially comprises propaganda that glorified the Tudors and sought to legitimize their claim to the throne – which meant historical figures like Richard III, the Plantagenet king slain by Henry Tudor (Henry VII) were heavily vilified. Shakespeare’s contribution is Richard III, a play depicting Richard as deformed and mercilessly evil.* 

The Bishop of Winchester (Samuel West), Henry VI (Tom Sturridge), Queen Margaret (Sophie Okonedo), and the Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) in The Hollow Crown’s adaptation of Henry VI. Photo: Robert Viglasky

Since Shakespeare’s history plays were political tools used to flatter and curry favour with kings and queens, their content is open to discussion. However, to those unfamiliar with early English monarchs, the plays can also familiarize audiences with important histories. I admittedly never could get Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI straight (so many Henrys!), but after watching The Hollow Crown, I’ve grasped enough of an overview to launch further research (of the Wikipedia variety for casual learning). Much of my medieval history knowledge has therefore been shaped by Shakespeare, for better or for worse.

Like any historical adaptation, it’s important to understand the changes Shakespeare made for the sake of drama (and political appeasement). A completely accurate account may not make for the best entertainment, especially on an Elizabethan or Jacobean stage. All the same, I admire how Shakespeare’s tetralogies are all interwoven. In The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, for instance, we see the future King Richard III witnessing his father Richard of York’s death at the hands of the Lancastrians; revenge is a major theme in the plays, which The Hollow Crown illustrates well. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses.
Photo: Robert Viglasky

As a screen adaptation, the delivery differs from stage productions, but the performances are so excellent that the production is still effective. Most notably, Benedict Cumberbatch’s monologues as the dastardly Richard III gave me chills. In typical Shakespearean asides which break the fourth wall, Richard’s eye contact with the viewer fosters an unsettling connection, even through a television screen. Likewise, Tom Sturridge’s depiction of both compassion and weakness as Henry VI demonstrated complexity in a sympathetic way, and so I felt – from the comfort of my sofa – swept up into the dramatic interpretation of dynastic conflicts from centuries past.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s plays transcend entertainment because they are prominent accounts of history. Like any historian’s account of events, the Bard’s plays continue to inform our remembrance of English political history. The Hollow Crown is a reminder of this phenomenon and the weight that the legendary playwright’s voice carries. That leaves Shakespeare as not only a dramatist, but a historical interpreter shaping contemporary perceptions of history – both in the late 16th and early 17th century, but also as long as his plays continue to be performed and read.

*During the Book History and Print Culture part of my master’s degree I specialized in Richard III and how Shakespeare’s portrayal influences public memory of the Yorkist king, and I’ll be writing about him in detail in the future.