CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 10. . . .November 5, 2010.
Plantagenet Plots: Shakespeare’s Stories of the Middle Ages.
K.L. Green, reteller.
Victoria, BC: Rubeus Books, 2010.
292 pp., pbk., $19.99.
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616-Adaptations.
Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
A couple of years ago I met a group of young people who were about to begin a workshop on William Shakespeare’s history play Henry V. I listened as a boy tried to shed light on Henry’s place in British history for his companions. After he explained that both King Richard II and his cousin, King Henry IV, father of Henry V, were grandsons of Edward III, his friend exclaimed, “What I don’t understand is why Shakespeare wanted to write about this stuff anyway.”
Certainly, Shakespeare’s history plays are less well known to high school audiences than are many of his other works. Students often start their study of Shakespeare with either Julius Caesar or Romeo and Juliet, might then move on to a comedy such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then, conclude with one of the tragedies (Macbeth, Hamlet, or King Lear). The first half of my teaching career was spent as a teacher of high school English and the second half as a teacher-librarian, and from the vantage points offered by both experiences, I was curious to see what this collection of stories, re-telling the history of the dynasty prior to the Tudors, could offer to a high school student audience.
At various times, and at various theatres, I had attended dramatic presentations of the four plays presented in Plantagenet Plots: Shakespeare’s Stories of the Middle Ages (Richard II, both parts of Henry IV, and Henry V), had studied three of the plays as an undergraduate student in an Honours English program, and remembered struggling with understanding Henry V, when I was a young high school student. I found that the history plays “played” better than they read, and on many levels, I could well sympathize with the question posed by the young man in the pull quote above. As a high school English teacher, I found that even the most capable of my students struggled with Shakespeare’s language “on the page,” and, although I put considerable effort into providing both historical and literary context, all students understood so much more when they saw either a motion picture or dramatic version of Hamlet, Macbeth, or Julius Caesar. Later, as a teacher-librarian, I encountered innumerable students who wanted to know if the library stocked a “translation” of Hamlet, Macbeth, or Romeo and Juliet. The beauty of Shakespeare’s language was lost in the students’ struggle to understand.
K. L. Green has put a huge amount of time into this effort. Plantagenet Plots is a collection of re-tellings of Shakespeare’s first four history plays, although it will be possible to purchase single-volume versions of each story. Each of the re-tellings of the plays is prefaced by a listing of characters and details of family, political, or other relationships. And each concludes with a discussion of historical facts which Shakespeare changed, added, adapted, or omitted in his dramatic revisioning of each story. Additionally, the book is enhanced with illustrations, maps, a Plantagenet family genealogical tree, and a comprehensive bibliography of works consulted, recommendations for further reading, as well as suggestions for audio and motion picture versions of the plays. Having studied history and European languages at Yale, Indiana, and Baylor universities, Green’s strong academic background and a personal passion for both Shakespeare and history are clearly evident in the detailed historical content she provides.
However, it appears that Green’s love of Shakespeare’s language has made it difficult to sacrifice much of the plays’ dialogue in “re-telling” the stories. As a result, each of the four stories is largely a prose version of the play’s dramatic content, retaining expressions, phrasing and allusions which high school students find less-than-accessible reading. And while there may be some students who will find it is interesting to see how Shakespeare reshaped the facts behind the histories, just trying to keep straight who are all the Edwards, Henrys, and Thomases is typically challenging enough for the average (and even, the above-average) high school reader. In maintaining the integrity of so much of the plays’ original language and content, the interesting and fascinating human aspects of these stories, which Green so wants students to experience, fail to emerge.
It is said that a writer should “show, don’t tell.” Plantagenet Plots re-tells, but the writing fails to “show” why the history of the Plantagenets the stories of rival branches of a family which schemed, connived, and did anything (including murder) to get and keep power has maintained its dramatic interest for centuries.
I think that this collection might be accessible to senior high students who are strong readers, have an historical bent, and who don’t find Shakespeare to be challenging reading. Adults who haven’t seen the first four history plays, and whose knowledge of British history is limited, might find the stories to be useful reading prior to attending one of the plays. However, given that the early history plays are not a typical choice in most high school English programs, I would recommend acquisition of this volume only for high school libraries where the plays are taught.
Recommended with reservations.
Joanne Peters recently retired from her position as teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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