Pritzker Military Museum and Library – Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier

In fall 2016, The Pritzker Military Museum & Library filmed a series of in-depth interviews with scholars, artists, and military veterans entitled Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier. In partnership with Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the four episodes explored the role of soldiers and warfare in Shakespeare’s work and the role of Shakespeare in informing our understanding of soldiers and warfare.

I went to the Museum to watch the live taping of the last episode, and while touring the collection beforehand, I was struck by the fact that the Pritzker is an art museum. Not, of course, only an art museum, but the two major exhibits on display during my visit were both exhibits of Vietnam-era art. One was of photographs taken by the Department of the Army’s Special Photographic Office (DASPO) of the day-to-day lives of American servicemen. The photos are alternately chilling, inspiring, beautiful, awful. They convey a sense of the war that brought home a kind of reality that was unavailable to me through reading books about it. The other exhibit was a collection of Viet Cong propaganda posters. Again, I was given a view of the war from the point of view of the North Vietnamese that any amount of statistical and historical information about “the enemy” could not convey.

For me, the most intriguing through-line in Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier was exactly how reciprocal that relationship between art and history is. The series featured actors, directors, soldiers, and scholars, all working together to bring stories of war to the stage in responsible, evocative, and truthful ways. The knowledge exchanges were surprising in many ways, but one after another, participants claimed that the value of the exchange had been in their favor—that is to say, most seemed to feel that they learned more from their involvement with their collaborators than they contributed.

The four sessions focus on different aspects of the larger topic. The first episode features Chicago Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director and Founder Barbara Gaines alongside Fordham University Professor Stuart Sherman. Sherman collaborated with Gaines on Tug of War, CST’s flagship double production chronicling the foreign and civil wars from Edward III to Richard III. Gaines and Sherman discuss how they went about telling this story of war, using Sherman’s historical knowledge to inform the art. Gaines had many advisors on this project, including a handful of veterans whom she interviewed personally in an attempt to bring onto the stage something like the experience of having been at war. Interestingly, Gaines repeatedly states that it is not possible for a civilian to truly understand what being a soldier in wartime is like. While such a claim responds to the mystique that surrounds war and soldiers, it is an odd claim for a theater artist to make; an important aim of the project of Tug of War is to convey that very experience—to allow audiences who are not veteran’s insight into what war is like. Gaines describes a very powerful image that has stuck with her and which she used in conceptualizing the play. The image is from an adaptation of The Odyssey in which a river speaks of the bodies that have floated down it, the death that it has seen. Sherman—who also at one point claims that veterans have understandings which are unavailable to civilians—responds to Gaines that the theater is that river—the river that “knows the costs, the collective costs of killing.” Such a sentiment is compelling; one hopes that art can, at its best, bring that knowledge to its audience.

For Stephan Wolfert, a veteran-turned-actor who was featured in the second episode, “Shakespeare wrote veterans perfectly.” Wolfert served as an infantry officer for eight years before leaving the Army and eventually becoming an actor and director who works with veterans, using Shakespeare to help veterans re-integrate (or, as he calls it, “decruit”). Not only does Wolfert claim that Shakespeare (who was not a veteran) understands veterans, but that as a consequence, Shakespeare wrote characters who veterans understand easily. Wolfert’s account of his first experience with Richard III’s opening speech is illuminating; for Wolfert, the story of a soldier lamenting his inability to fit into civilian society, and his sense of being deformed by his experiences in war, rang perfectly true. So true that he uses that speech, amongst others, to introduce veterans to Shakespeare, using theater as a kind of therapy.

The third episode features CST actors James Vincent Meredith and Jessie Fisher as well as Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Yandura, chair of Military Science at Loyola University. Meredith and Fisher played Othello and Emilia respectively in CST’s 2016 production of Othello. Yandura worked with the cast to help them better portray soldiers. The production was set in modern day, and Emilia was also a soldier, so the two actors worked closely with the LTC to develop both a sense of soldiering based on both physical and psychological training. Learning actual drill from Yandura (in what he described as an abbreviated “basic training”) was, according to the two actors, incredibly valuable to them and the rest of the cast. Theater ensembles are used to developing a group identity and esprit de corps, but doing that through military drill was both inspiring and educational. Meanwhile, Yandura felt that he learned more than he imparted; his exposure to the stories of the actors and to the play gave him new ways to think about how he might use theater skills to train his own students at Loyola. Yandura said that he found the actors, with their attention to detail and their willingness and their professional training in the ability to submerge their own egos in order to emulate the behavior of others, were amongst the quickest candidates he had ever trained.

Fisher’s experience was particularly fascinating, as she learned both from Yandura and Yandura’s wife (also a veteran), who came to rehearsal and was willing to discuss what it was like to be the wife of a soldier. Fisher’s Emilia being a soldier created a very interesting reading of the character. As a soldier, her first loyalty lies with her commander, Othello, and her comrades, including her husband Iago. Assigned to “babysit” the civilian Desdemona, she is at first resentful of the woman who has no place in a military zone, and who is keeping her from “more important” duties. It is only as she realizes that the men are behaving poorly, and that Desdemona is demonstrating the pure loyalty which she believes she has a right to expect from Iago and Othello, that she comes to sympathize with her charge. This exciting new reading would have been difficult to create without the help of LTC Yandura.

In thinking more about the way that art and history inform each other, I am reminded of the vital importance of both as the foundation of a free society. According to the staff of the Library, there were protests by American servicemen when the exhibit of North Vietnamese propaganda art opened. These veterans were angry that posters showing our soldiers being killed and our planes being shot down would be displayed. Apparently, those protesters mostly changed their minds after actually seeing the exhibit. I wonder if their minds were changed about more than just the appropriateness of the exhibit; perhaps their perspectives on the war itself might have been shifted slightly, too.

Richard Gilbert is a doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. His research focuses on representations of violence in the theater, as well as adaptations and versionality. He holds an MA in humanities from University of Chicago, and a BA in theater from Brandeis University.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Tug of War: Civil Strife


Tug of War: Civil Strife is the second of Barbara Gaines’ two ambitious Shakespeare trilogies produced for Shakespeare 400 Chicago.  This second set of plays concentrates on the bloody civil wars that resulted when Henry V’s early death led to his infant son Henry VI taking the throne at the age of only nine months old,  provoking a power struggle among the leading nobles, most of them Henry’s kinsmen.  Gaines characterized the first trilogy, about England’s wars with France as “suffused with ghosts,” whereas this trilogy on the English civil wars as “suffused with blood.” She effectively evokes this idea with a backdrop that looks like a large glass window with blood dripping down it more and more as the death toll rises.

As in the first trilogy, Gaines puts her focus on the terrible waste of war and how most of that cost is paid by the common soldiers.  To that end she adds a prologue scene of a young soldier leaving for war and the sweetheart he leaves behind.  As he departs, he sings the first of many evocative songs Gaines has added to the play, “Remember me.” Throughout the trilogy, we follow this young man who appears as a foot soldier, messenger, and finally a reluctant assassin, as he is increasingly implicated in the dirty business of war.  At the end of the play, the soldier returns to his sweetheart, but in a wheelchair, and with both legs missing.  Instead of a tender reunion, he repudiates her affection, and is wheeled off stage by his fellow soldiers.    These silent tableaux underline the special brutality of civil war.  On this point, Shakespeare and Gaines are totally in sync, as in a scene where the helpless Henry VI watches as a father unwittingly kills his own son, and a son his father in battle, only recognizing their victims when they loot the corpses.

In the first part of the trilogy, we watch as several nobles, including Henry’s new Queen Margaret, conspire to get rid of the Lord Protector, known to the people as the good Duke Humphrey, one of the few characters in these plays who actually cares about the welfare of the state.  Henry’s haplessness is apparent in the scene where the conspirators have the Duke arrested and the king, though sure of his innocence, passively lets it happen and hopes for the best.  As the good Duke leaves the stage for the last time he begins to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Alleluia,” which is effectively echoed later in the play by Henry.  After Duke Humphrey’s downfall, the conspiracy falls apart, with the Bishop of Winchester almost immediately dying a horrific death in his bed on the stage, which the pious Henry views as a judgment on him.

Soon we see one of the conspirators, Richard, Duke of York (Larry Yando) emerge as a rival to the throne.  Yando plays him as a canny, amoral politician, a strong alternative to the weak and ineffectual Henry.  In an ahistorical but effective garden scene, Shakespeare had York challenge a group of nobles to take sides, plucking a white rose to support him or a red (Lancastrian) rose if opposed.   In an aside to the audience, York reveals that he has fomented dissent in England by egging on a commoner named Jack Cade to lead a rebellion.  Gaines stages this rebellion as a modern populist revolt.  Actor Kevin Gudahl has a field day portraying Cade as a vain populist  à la Donald Trump, who intends to get rid of intellectuals and “kill all the lawyers.”  After Cade’s rebellion is put down, the Yorks and Lancasters are in open warfare, with scenes of increasing violence and torture, culminating in Margaret tormenting the prisoner York by putting a paper crown on his head and offering to wipe his face with a handkerchief stained in the blood of his young son,  before killing him and putting his head on a spike.

But in the latter half of the trilogy, York’s sons, along with their great ally the Earl of Warwick (Gudahl again) are ascendant, with Richard’s son Edward eventually taking the throne.  In one of the most affecting scenes in the production, Edward’s brother Richard takes it upon himself to personally execute King Henry, now imprisoned in the tower.  But Henry, movingly portrayed by Steven Sutcliffe, finally comes into his own in this scene.  No longer wearing a crown, but rather shabby prison clothes, he finally looks the ascetic holy man he has always been.  He prophecies Richard’s bloody future path to the throne, also recounting his past, until Richard, who seems genuinely affected by Henry’s words, strangles him in a spasm of anger.

In the final part of the trilogy we see the rise of the scheming Richard, who first arranges the murder of his turncoat brother Clarence.  After his other brother King Edward dies (of natural causes), Richard becomes Lord Protector and gradually eliminates every person between himself and the throne, including his young nephews, Edward’s sons.   Here too, Shakespeare’s sensibility and Gaines production are in sync, for both show us a world in which anyone with a sense of honor has long since been eliminated by those who are more ruthless.  Only those like Richard who can lie and betray without remorse survive and thrive.

But at the very end of the trilogy Shakespeare offers some hope, in the form of an army raised by Henry Tudor, the earl of Richmond and grandfather of Shakespeare’s own monarch, Elizabeth I, that defeats the villainous Richard.  In a night scene before the decisive battle, Gaines contrives a great coup de théâtre, when the ghosts of all Richard’s victims return to him in a dream, their faces projected on the screen of blood behind the stage.  The same spirits seem to have blessed Henry Tudor, so that even before the battle takes place it is clear that Fate will be one his side.  In her added epilogue, however, Gaines plays against the Tudor propaganda of this “happy ending” by bringing us back to the young soldier in a wheel chair with his PTSD.  As we leave the theater, we are left with the sickening feeling that nothing has been fixed at all, that those in power will continue their wrangling and the commons will continue to suffer and die for it.

Cynthia Rutz is an instructor and past chair of University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education, a great books discussion program for adults. She also teaches at and is Director of Faculty Development for Valparaiso University. She earned her PhD from the University of Chicago, with her dissertation on Shakespeare’s King Lear and its folktale analogues. She received her BA in mathematics and philosophy from St. John’s College, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Tug of War: Civil Strife


In this election season, what could be better than a marathon march through Shakespeare’s history plays devoted to the Wars of the Roses? Tug of War: Civil Strife romps through parts 2 and 3 of Henry VI and Richard III, with cynical modern dress and raucous song and dance numbers for the court crowd (contrasted with more somber musical interludes for a common soldier and his wife), and a pointed take on our baser tendencies to become enamored of anything that can be made to look good on TV.

The would-be usurper the Duke of York and his son Richard emerge as two peas in a pod in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production. York’s semi-psychotic song and dance routines in which he gleefully anticipates the havoc he will wreak on the Lancastrian court presage the maniacal power-madness of his son, who proves far more bloodthirsty and—perhaps, consequently—far more successful than his father at rebellion and usurpation. When it came his turn to use Pink’s lyrics to demand that we “Get the Party Started,” Timothy Edward Kane as Richard mimicked the hip-shimmying dance of his father, played by Larry Yando. These extra-textual song-and-dance moments forged an interesting connection between them that I have not seen in other instances in which I have seen these plays staged sequentially.

In his own time and place, Shakespeare would have had much direct experience of the kinds of social unrest that is depicted among the commoners in part 2 of Henry VI. Stephen Greenblatt’s introduction to the Norton Shakespeare tallies up thirty-five riots in the last two decades of the sixteenth century, a whopping twelve of them taking place in June 1595 alone. Shakespeare likely wrote the play featuring Cade in the early 1590s, but his history plays about the struggle for the throne during the reign of Henry VI (1422-1461, with a brief reprise from 1470-71) were popular on the London stage throughout the 1590s, when riots by the working classes swept the city outside of the theater.

Some of these riots were occasioned by frustration over the consolidation of political power in an aristocratic class seen as woefully out of touch with the life circumstances and needs of the working classes. Some were occasioned by fury at the encroachment of immigrants fleeing religious persecution as Protestants on the Continent into London and its workforce. Sound familiar? Director Barbara Gaines thought that it did, too. Kevin Gudahl does a star turn here as a Jack Cade made over in the image of Donald Trump.

It’s topical, and wicked good fun, but it’s more than that: it’s an insightful read of Cade’s role in part 2 of Henry VI. The crafty Duke of York privately encourages the rebel Jack Cade to foment rebellion against the aristocracy among the commoners. In our present day, these behind-the-scenes political machinations parallel conspiracy theories of early 2016 that Trump—who once lent financial support to the Clintons, who, in turn, attended his wedding to his third, current wife, Melania—had been suborned by the Clinton campaign to run against her as a straw man. The Duke of York, after all, never intends to make Cade king. Cade is a means to York’s own ends. He’s a troublemaker and a distraction from the real threat to the crown, York himself. Paradoxically—and hypocritically—Cade styles himself a man of the people, and a scion of the royal blood. He simultaneously demands that anyone with a whiff of education, good breeding, or wealth about them be summarily executed, but dubs himself “Sir John Mortimer,” heir to the English throne. The riots that he incites in London swell to such a dangerous head that the king and court are forced to flee.

Both York and Richard take turns in the gilded tire that has served as the throne in both halves of Tug of War, which began last spring with Edward IIIHenry V, and part 1 of Henry VI. The tire is a synecdoche for the throne and the power that comes with it, but also a constant reminder of the wars we currently wage over oil. Tires are petroleum products also used, paradoxically, to consume other petroleum products via the vehicles that roll on them. They are also toxic, leeching their poisons into the water table.

Never depicted with the gilded throne, Cade makes his first appearance descending from the fly space on a tire throne of his own devising, painted like a Union Jack. The gilded tire is garish, but the Union Jack tire protests too much; it’s the Fourth of July parade attendee who is wearing a flag t-shirt with flag shorts and baseball cap, while also waving a flag. It telegraphs Cade’s nominal, over-the-top allegiance to the very national entity he intends to disrupt. Cade and his followers sport Union Jack buttons summarily stamped with the single, all-caps word: CADE.

Determined to root out everyone whose pretensions to education mark them out as elite, Cade fulminates against grammar schools, and issues the dismissive assessment of all educated people: “intellectual degenerate.” (A t-shirt slogan that should be made available in the theater lobby immediately). In a grim re-enactment of Trump’s vicious, parodic imitation of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski’s arthrogryposis, Gudahl’s Cade lampoons the shaking of the palsy sufferer Lord Say once his goons have taken him into custody. If the precept that we should learn history in order that we do not repeat its mistakes has merit, we would all do well to consider how comfortably the Cade shoe fits Trump.

Trump became a household word—or, rather, his catchphrase “You’re fired” did—as a result of his stint on the reality TV show The ApprenticeTug of War delves into this terrain, too, not with Cade, but with Richard. Richard and Buckingham’s series of collaborative performances becomes a television program in which Richard first accuses Queen Elizabeth of practicing witchcraft to give him birth defects everyone knows to have been congenital, then kills Lord Hastings for having the temerity to assert that she will be punished in a conditional phrase (“If they had done this deed, my noble lord…”), and, finally, persuades the Lord Mayor of London that he killed Hastings in self-defense before being begged by Buckingham to take the very throne he has been attempting to steal from his own nephew. A green screen descends, as Buckingham (James Newcomb) reads from a clipboard like a television producer while Richard’s henchmen drape the red capes worn over bishops’ cassocks over their military garb for the camera. In a gesture of true cynicism, Richard reads from the Bible he took from the hands of Henry VI when he killed him, as the camera offers—on video monitors flown in for the audience’s benefit—a tight shot of his contemplative face framed by the faux devout ministrations of his bodyguards. While in her 2012 production of Richard III Barbara Gaines gave the Scrivener pride of place in an isolation spot, the Scrivener is entirely cut from Tug of War, perhaps because we need no one to ask, “Who’s so gross that sees not this palpable device?” (3.6.10-11).

Follow the money to ferret out political corruption, All the President’s Men admonished us. In Tug of War, one can follow the props. I have already noted Richard’s cynical recycling of Henry VI’s Bible for his own godless agendas. Margaret (Karen Aldridge) rises from an adulterous sexual tryst with Suffolk (John Tufts) in Lancastrian red bra and slip. As she prepares to put her game face back on, she pulls a stylish silver rosary bracelet from her bosom, wrapping it around her hand like brass knuckles. The tiny silver cross that dangles delicately across the back of her hand matches the simple silver cross worn in religious sincerity by her husband, the King (Steven Sutcliffe), but hers is merely decorative, while his is a genuine mark of devotion.

The props in Scott Davis’s austere scenic design are minimal; thus, when they do appear, they are noteworthy. Despite its documentation of violent civil conflict over, and over, and over again, Tug of War uses no weapons of any kind in battle scenes. The glaring exception to this no-weapons rule is Richard. Moreover, his weapon—a knife—paradoxically appears in the context of his amorous pursuits. Richard courts Lady Anne, widow of the Lancastrian Prince Edward, while she is engaged in a lament over the corpse of King Henry VI (whom Richard killed) at the beginning of Richard III. In a twisted marital proposal, Richard asks Lady Anne to kill him if she will not marry him. In Civil Strife, he presents her with an actual knife as he makes this proposition.

In a sickening foreshadowing of the way their short-lived relationship will end, he then offers her the ring that signifies their betrothal on the blade of this same knife. Catesby (Kevin Gudahl) silently communicates to Richard that Anne has been killed once it has ceased to be politically expedient for him to be married to her by offering their marital ring back to Richard on the blade of Richard’s knife. The knife drops out of the equation, but Richard gives the same betrothal ring to Queen Elizabeth when he sends her to court her daughter—his niece, and sister to the royal nephews Richard has had killed—on his behalf.

The media circus, the rock music soundtrack, the forced patriotism and the faux religious devotion—it all seems uncomfortably familiar. Shakespeare wrote these plays with the descendant of the king ascendant in the final act—Henry VII, grandfather to Queen Elizabeth I—on the throne. Bush, Clinton, Bush, Bush, Obama, Obama…Clinton? And Trump ran in the primaries against another Bush? Plays about a medieval, family political dynasty are of greater relevance to America’s twenty-first-century democracy than the Founding Fathers might ever have imagined that they could be.

Regina Buccola is a professor and the chair of the Department of Literature and Languages at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she also serves as core faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies. She has published several books on early modern British drama and culture, most recently as editor of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Critical Guide and co-editor, with Peter Kanelos, of Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Suiting the Action to the Word. Recent journal publications have appeared in Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England and Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation. She serves as the scholar-in-residence at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and is one of the Midwest Ameri­can reviewers for the online journal, Reviewing Shakespeare.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Tug of War: Foreign Fire


If there is one word everyone uses to describe Tug of War, it is “epical.” Six hours, over sixty characters (plus “Soldiers,” “Band,” and “Chorus”), covering a century of events—and that’s just Part 1: Foreign Fire.

Few directors can manage anything this massive. Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Rose Rage more than a decade ago was memora­ble,  monumental and still only half as long as Tug of War will be by the time it wraps up this autumn with Part 2: Civil Strife. In the wrong hands, the result would be chaos. But the right directorial decisions instead can make it deeply tragic, leavened with pathos and comedy, so that the lessons of history come home. And that, in the end is what makes it epic.

Barbara Gaines has made critical and daring decisions in assembling Tug of War out of Shakespeare’s history plays. The top-level decision was to separate out the wars between England and France from those among the English themselves, giving us the two-part structure. The second was to open with the play Edward III, now generally recognized as a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd, treating it as a prequel to the very familiar Henry V and the less-known Henry VI Part 1.

As we would expect from Gaines and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the production is deeply respectful of the Shakespearean texts. There is no presumptuous re-writing and no awkward attempts to interweave the three plays. Allowing for merciful cuts, they are strung together like beads on a rosary of national prayer.

This in turn creates challenges. The three plays are written at different times and stylistically very different. Edward III features the highly rhetorical blank verse that Kyd learned from Christopher Marlowe, interspersed with fits of early-Shakespearean rhyming. It is followed by the mature language of Henry V, one moment royal oratory, the next moment the plain speech of common soldiers or the comically rendered accents of various ethnic groups. Then with Henry VI Part 1, it’s back to an early rhetorical style, with occasional glimpses of Shakespearean magic.

The second challenge is the sheer number of characters. Sixty named characters in five hours running time means introducing a new character every five minutes, if they were strung out evenly. Which they are not.

If the shifty language and multiple characters create two challenges, then scene construction creates a third. Sometimes the action rattles along in nearly indistinguishable short scenes of French and English shouting at each other, followed by incoherent battles. Alternately, there are long, almost slow-motion scenes, as when King Edward III tries to seduce—and then to rape—the Countess of Salisbury, or the famous scene of “Harry in the night” before the Battle of Agincourt. The Shakespeare-Kyd script is like a series of short stories interspersed with the odd novella.

There are a lot of ways to mess this up, but one big way to make it work: Trust the material. I’ve seen too many contemporary productions that turn to farce, or rewriting, or forced messages, to cover up their lack of faith in the plays. Too bad, especially when Shakespeare shows them the solutions.

First, let the language be. Skilled actors adjust their delivery to the varied contours and pacing of the language, and the audience adjusts too, and quickly. It’s when actors are fighting the language that audiences get restless.

Second, double up the characters and give the trusted actors a long leash. The doubling of parts was an economic necessity of the Elizabethan theater, and Shakespeare has constructed his plays to allow for the doubling. When it’s done right, it becomes part of the fun. Where will Kevin Gudahl or Larry Yando or Karen Aldridge show up next? Which lead actor is under the hat of the Blue Cap Soldier? And Gaines has indeed given Gudahl and Yando and Aldridge and others their long leashes to be histrionic or solemn or clownish or whatever it takes to move things along.

Finally, let the short scenes be short and the long scenes be long. Abrupt transitions among the short scenes are covered with music or foolery or stylized stage movement. As for the long scenes—they are at the heart of Shakespeare’s earliest theatrical innovations. They have a specific contour to them, which he uses with increasing mastery throughout his career. Two characters confront each other. One is in a very fixed position emotionally, but gradually, as the confrontation unfolds, the fixed character begins to give away, and ends up in the diametrically opposite emotional position from where he or she began. Think of the “willow cabin” scene in Twelfth Night, when Viola/Cesario comes to woo Olivia, who begins in absolute refusal and ends head-over heels infatuated. Or Much Ado, where Benedick goes from resolved bachelor to “horribly in love.” In the tragedies, the “closet scene” is a perfect example, where Gertrude begins accusing Hamlet of having “much offended your father” (meaning Claudius) and ends with her heart cleft in twain. Or King Lear beginning as a regal bully confronting Regan and Cornwall, and ending shut out of doors, mad, and weeping.

The Henry V scene of “Harry in the night,” walking among his soldiers, meditating on his own responsibility for the deaths that will follow, and begging the God of Battles to “think not upon my father’s fault” shows the art of the long scene in its mature form. The scene in which Edward III attempts to seduce and then rape the Countess of Salisbury—the very scene that leads to the attribution of the play to Shakespeare—has to be one of his earliest experiments with the technique. It is, as has often been observed, a first draft for his narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece. But here Lucrece lives, persuading and shaming the king into conquering his lust.

As the scene (okay—technically two consecutive scenes that play as one) unfolds from its beginning to its long middle, I found myself wondering at first why it was there—what was it doing in the midst of a play-cycle about war? But as the scene evolved, its point became clear, and it was the first iteration of the underlying point of the whole epic. How do we overcome those savage emotional impulses that drive humans—not just them, but us—to do physical harm to others?

Once upon a time we were told in school that the Shakespearean history plays represented some sort of moral tale about the value of stable, conservative, divinely sanctioned government, but it’s hard to give that much credit after the complete savagery of the twentieth century. Instead, Gaines gently de-historicizes the action, partly through the costuming, which I would call grunge-chic, and partly through the stage design. She pulls the action first toward all wars, and then toward our wars.

The program is laced with quotes from participants in America’s wars, from 1776 to 1918. None is more central to Tug of War than Lincoln’s First Inaugural:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The evolution of the long scene in Edward III drives us to this stark truth—that the better angels can prevail, though too often, too late. Edward’s shame overcomes his lust. At Calais, he again remembers to “master our affections,” and pardons the burghers who have offered their lives to ransom the city. At the gates of Harfleur, Henry V restrains the “dogs of war” that would wreak murder and rapine upon the hapless city. Each time, though, the restraint is temporary, and more violence breaks out, just as a long and horrible war ensued before America’s better angels restored Lincoln’s union.

Gaines has made it her project to show the wars through the eyes of the common soldier. Who better to supply her the material than the wise and eloquent child of a glove-maker, armed with a high-school education, who, legend tells us, poached deer before running off to join the theater? What more to learn from our own long scenes of bitterness than how the better angels of our nature might touch our own heartstrings in this time of violent passions?

Clark Hulse is a professor emeritus of English and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chair of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and visual culture. Hulse is a Guggenheim and NEH Fellow and curator of the award-winning exhibition Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend at the Newberry Library.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Tug of War: Foreign fire


In this year marked by all manner of celebrations of the 400-year history of Shakespeare’s legacy, Chicago Shakespeare Theater has prepared an entry for the history books of its own with Tug of War. With the inclusion of the apocryphal Edward III as the opening salvo in this pair of mini-marathons through Shakespeare’ history plays, Director Barbara Gaines has made history with these histories, as the play is rarely staged, and certainly has not been included in other recent marathon or redux versions of the two tetralogies, such as Rose Rage (Edward Hall 2004), The Glorious Moment (Michael Boyd 2008), and Breath of Kings (Mitchell Cushman and Weyni Mengesha 2016).

The first half of a two-part journey through the histories, Tug of War: Foreign Fire juxtaposes Edward III with Henry V, a play with which
Edward III has sufficient affinities to serve as one of the bases for the claim that Shakespeare had a hand in writing it. Long regarded as apocrypha, related to the canon but not definitively part of it, Edward III has increasingly come to be considered a play that includes Shakespeare’s hand. Descriptions of it are now routinely included in collected works (such as the Oxford and the Norton), but productions of the play are still quite rare. Seeing it in performance is a treat in and of itself; seeing it set off against its near contemporary both in composition and content is revelatory.

Both Edward III and Henry V feature romance elements superfluous to their respective plots’ narratives of English military success in France. In Edward III, the movement is from the king’s romantic distraction with a subject—the wife of one of his loyal soldiers, the Countess of Salisbury—to a focus on foreign conquest, aided and abetted by his (pregnant) queen. In Henry V, the movement is from England to foreign wars in France, which conclude with thoughts of romance with the French princess, Katherine.

At the first day of rehearsal for Tug of War, Stuart Sherman, the scholar in residence on this production, talked about the echo chamber that reverberates through these plays. To some extent that is created by the Sisyphean struggles, over and over, to conquer the same territory, which is then lost, and conquered once more by a subsequent, successor king. The echo chamber is rendered literal on the linguistic plane, however, as successor kings verbally echo their predecessors. Barbara Gaines adds a visual element to these verbal echoes, by placing the predecessor kings back onstage as ghostly participants in the scenes in which they are invoked. So, for example, in the end of part 1 of Henry VI, when Exeter fumes over Winchester’s promotion to Cardinal, invoking Henry V’s prophecy about the false prelate and his power mongering, John Tufts, who portrays Henry V, returns to the stage to recite the prophecy along with Exeter: “‘If once he come to be a cardinal, / He’ll make his cap co-equal with the crown” (5.1.33-34).

In addition to underscoring such verbal echoes between the plays by placing the predecessor king onstage for events traceable to their reigns, Barbara Gaines also uses double casting to draw highlight connections across generations. In the first half of Tug of War: Foreign Fire, Karen Aldridge plays both the Countess of Salisbury and Margaret of Anjou (among several other roles). As the Countess, she teaches Edward III a powerful lesson about loyalty when he attempts to seduce her, and she rebuffs him, offering to die rather than betray her marriage vows. As Margaret, she inverts this dynamic, marrying King Henry VI in order to gain a level of political power to which her birth alone would never have promoted her, and as cover for her illicit relationship with a married lover among the English nobility, Suffolk. Her refusal to accept the terms of peace that Henry makes with the Duke of York, promising the crown to him, rather than to Henry and Margaret’s son, Edward, keeps the civil broils raging between the Houses of Lancaster and York, straight through all three parts of Henry VI, and into Richard III.

In Foreign Fire, the cast is costumed in simple tunics accented with red and blue to demarcate the English and the French, and to identify the various monarchs. The monarchs wear capes emblazoned with their own faces and names, like living, breathing trading cards. These identifying marks are helpful for audiences trying to keep the various monarchs fighting with one another straight, but they also visually signify the extreme self-absorption and narcissism of these kings. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that Henry V, who aligns himself with his troops as all “but warriors for the working day” (4.3.110), is seldom depicted wearing his royal robe, but is most often seen in the modest military garb of all of the members of his army. He does not simply give lip service to the idea of being one of them, he is visually identified as one of them by virtue of his attire.

With the exception of the color-coded capes and paper crowns worn by the monarchs, the palette for the production consists of somber hues of gray, and olive drab. The set is stark and plain, gray mud oozing up from the theater floor to meet the wooden slats of the stage, spaced far enough apart to allow for a variety of smoke and lighting effects. Two tires rest one atop the other downstage, and the entire upstage space is bare scaffolding, with two platform levels. Frequently throughout the production, monarchs are depicted watching battle scenes from this elevated position, remote from the main action on the stage, visually suggesting that monarchs create messes with which they do not sully themselves.

A pile of tires is mounded under the left side of the platform as you are facing the stage. A single, gilded tire is suspended from the fly space over the thrust, glowing eerily as the audience assembles, and lowered in to serve as a throne for various monarchs over the course of the production, while other tires drop in during Henry V to serve as chivalric steeds. As the visual signifier of what these many kings are fighting for, the gilded tire lacks even the appeal of a gilded lily; it’s more like a gilded turd, and the struggle to attain it clearly emerges as a pointless waste of the many lives sacrificed.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of Barbara Gaines’s staging of these history plays so full of combat is the utter absence of weapons or stage blood. A simple bit of stage choreography and physical marking is used to indicate the death of a character. As I mentioned earlier, most of the monarchs remain quite detached from the combat that kills so many of their soldiers during the performance. The “death gesture” in performance highlights the fact that Edward III, his son the Black Prince, and Henry V all die of natural causes.

Unlike most performances that have been staged in the Courtyard Theater, this production uses small microphones on all of the actors, so that one can clearly hear their lines through the many explosions that signify battle scenes, and through the music that underscores or accompanies much of the show, which is performed onstage, by a live band. Their full kit is placed under the scaffolding upstage left. Some of this music already has associations with specific wars, such as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” which dates to the American Civil War. Some of the lyrics come from contemporary popular music, turned to haunting, elegiac effect here, such as Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them…”:

Us, and them
And after all we’re only ordinary men
Me, and you
God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do.
Forward he cried from the rear
and the front rank died.
And the general sat, as the lines on the map
moved from side to side.
Black and blue
And who knows which is which and who is who.
Up and down
But in the end it’s only round and round and round.

The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973

I have seen several “marathon” or redux productions of Shakespeare’s history plays at this point, and the effect generated by moving through history in this way is to produce the dizzying sense that the cycle of violence and bloodshed is a perpetual one: “in the end it’s only round and round and round.”

Despite the fatalism in the Pink Floyd lyrics, one of the saving graces in Tug of War is the music. Much war music (like “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) is actually quite jaunty, and the cast and onstage band give spirited renditions of it. Another element of Gaines’s production that makes the experience rather more enjoyable than it might seem to watch six hours of warfare (and the unpleasant lead-up and aftermath of it) is her focus on ordinary people. Scenes of French women fleeing the onslaught of the English in Edward III, for example, are retained here, when such moments that do not actually advance the aristocratic plot are often sacrificed in even stand-alone productions of the histories, to produce suitable running times.

In the end, it’s more than round and round and round. It’s an emotional roller coaster that, even after six hours, left at least this theatergoer eager for Part 2, Civil Strife.


Regina Buccola is a professor and the chair of the Department of Literature and Languages at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she also serves as core faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies. She has published several books on early modern British drama and culture, most recently as editor of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Critical Guide and co-editor, with Peter Kanelos, of Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Suiting the Action to the Word. Recent journal publications have appeared in Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England and Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation. She serves as the scholar-in-residence at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and is one of the Midwest Ameri­can reviewers for the online journal, Reviewing Shakespeare.