There are the plays everybody knows and loves: the big four tragedies, the cross-dressing comedies, the Henry IVs, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra. There are the plays we may feel we have to pretend we know, even if we don’t: Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, The Winter’s Tale, and Coriolanus (at least before the movie). And then there are what we might call the Neglected Plays — those that many, including ardent Shakespeareans, have never even read or seen on stage: the Henry VIs, King John, Timon, Pericles, All is True (Henry VIII), The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Some might say those plays are neglected for a reason. Take the Henry VI cycle, with lines like:
‘Come on, brave soldiers: doubt not of the day,
And, that once gotten, doubt not of large pay.’
(3 Henry VI, 4.7.87-88).
And just a little later:
‘The sun shines hot; and if we use delay,
Cold biting winter mars our hop’d-for hay.’
(3 Henry VI, 4.8.60-61).
Both these couplets are given to Edward IV, so possibly Shakespeare is characterizing him as an inept versifier with an inexplicable fixation on ‘–ay’ sounds. The fact remains that they are the sort of thing the Beyond the Fringe troupe must have had in mind in their brilliant parody “So That’s the Way You Like It”:
‘I most royally shall now to bed
To sleep off all the nonsense I’ve just said.’
But even if the Neglected Plays do contain a disproportionately high number of the thousand lines Ben Jonson wished Shakespeare had “blotted,” they still offer much to appreciate. For example, just recently Randall Martin reported on this site on John Blondell’s Santa Barbara production of 3 Henry VI, a run-up to what promises to be one of the highlights of this spring’s Globe to Globe festival at Shakespeare’s Globe. And if you’ve ever wondered what Karl Marx saw in Timon of Athens, look no further than Nick Walton’s extraordinary interview with Jonathan Bate (second in the clip) posted here last year.
For those who can get there, Globe to Globe and the World Shakespeare Festival (including, for example, Simon Russell Beale playing Timon in July) are great occasions to experience the Neglected Plays in 2012. Whether you can attend any of these performances or not, in future posts I’ll delve into the plays to show why they ought to be a little less neglected—beginning at the beginning with the Henry VI plays.
Stay in touch with the World Shakespeare Festival as it unfolds through logging on to Year of Shakespeare.