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About this book

Focusing on stage directions, implied stage action in the dialogue, and on production choices available at key moments, this Handbook treats the script like a rehearsal in progress and encourages the imagining of a physical narrative where the play's meanings and our responses are shaped by staged actions.

Table of Contents

1. The Texts and Early Performances

Abstract
Before any modern editors can give you Henry V, they have to decide what to do about two other plays: The Chronicle History of Henry the Fifth, with his battle fought at Agincourt in France. Together with Ancient Pistol published in 1600, and The Life of Henry the Fifth published in 1623. The first is a single volume, without ‘By William Shakespeare’ anywhere on it, but with a line about its playhouse life with Shakespeare’s company: ‘As it hath been sundry times played by the Right honorable the Lord Chamberlain his servants.’ The second appears in a larger volume entitled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, the collected works assembled after Shakespeare’s death by members of his company. No handwritten manuscript with Shakespeare’s signature at the bottom exists, only two texts printed at different times, for different reasons. The Quarto and Folio, as these two texts are called, are not the same. In many striking ways, they aren’t even close.
Kevin Ewert

2. The Play’s Sources and Cultural Context

Abstract
Because Shakespeare wrote for the theatre, his creations were not birthed, Athena-like, from his balding pate into this world to stand alone as singular, finished and fully-formed edifices; neither playwright nor play existed or ‘worked’ autonomously. The plays were created in and for a collaborative medium, socially informed and engaged, and in various ways both reflecting and creating the cultural moment in which they operated as popular entertainment. We would do well here to think of entertainment in terms of its root, tenere, to hold. These plays were designed to hold their audiences’ attention, sometimes by giving them what they already knew and sometimes by confounding their expectations, supplying both recognizable and rich characters, anticipated and surprising action, and ideas both taken for granted and highly debatable. But they were also, as popular entertainment, repositories of how the culture dreamed itself, where fantasies of how to live played out across real if not quite accessible bodies in a communal space; the plays held and ‘rehearsed’ their audiences’ ideologies, anxieties and desires, their place in the world, in an appropriately named wooden Globe.
Kevin Ewert

3. Commentary

Abstract
A man walks into the playing space. We watch him, he looks at us, and then he asks us for something: if we want to get the most out of the play, we will have to use our imaginations and actively assist our presenters. We probably wouldn’t be going to the theatre if we weren’t interested in using our imaginations, so these terms may strike us as quite reasonable. We can’t have the things themselves, but we know we’re going to get a representation of kingdoms, princes, monarchs, warlike Harry and the battle of Agincourt in this history-as-play. The stage is set. We’re ready to begin.
Kevin Ewert

4. Key Productions and Performances

Abstract
We can look at so many moments in Henry V and say, ‘Well, there are a couple of ways things can go here.’ Of course, if there were only one way things could go, one inherent and recoverable meaning, one clear and definitive authorial intention and hence only one way of performing any particular line or action, then it wouldn’t be much of a play, and it wouldn’t have much of a life in the theatre. Performance is not a derivative action, or just the echo and shadow of meaning that is textually immanent. In fact, what is textually immanent is performance. A playscript remembers past performances — the material and social context the playwright has experienced leading to this piece of writing — and anticipates (and incites) future performance — the material and social life of this piece of writing when it comes to be performed. A text of a play is the site of possibilities, not the seat of final arbitration. Performance is the place where decisions are made that make the present meaning of the play.
Kevin Ewert

5. The Play on Screen

Abstract
Shakespeare on screen is much more efficiently and ubiquitously transmitted than Shakespeare on stage; it is also, of course, not the same thing. Watching a film in a cinema can be a social experience, but our reactions make no difference to the production and the performances, so the experience lacks the more complex complicity involved in attending a theatrical presentation. When making a film it is easier to control the information the audience receives; with camera placement, shot choices and editing, a film director can tell us exactly what to look at, how to look at it, and for how long, in a way that any theatre director would envy. But that control also negates parts of the story. In the theatre, our eyes maintain a sense of the whole ensemble, even when we are drawn to a specific action or speaker at a specifically inflected moment. Since no film is made with a still camera locked off in a long shot, there will always be life outside the frame that goes unregarded as select moments are privileged and intensified. One could argue, though, that film’s ability (through editing) to move swiftly from secne to scene is closer to the episodic structuring and rapid shifts in location that Shakespeare called for than is the tradition of pictorial staging with detaild sets but often interminable scene changes.
Kevin Ewert

6. Critical Assessments

Abstract
Like stage productions and screen adaptations, acts of critical engagement are a matter of making choices — of what seems most important, of what will serve as the inflected moments and/or elements for analysis, and so of what becomes foregrounded in an argument about what a play does. Like productions, critical works are also historically and culturally contingent, and no line of argument ever has the last word.
Kevin Ewert
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