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When we were planning the season last year, it really interested me to deal with an issue that was on everyone’s mind before the presidential election (and still is today): what are the qualities we look for in a leader in a time of crisis? So we decided to find two plays that would contrast ideas of leadership, and who better to go to than Shakespeare, who really understood politics and power? We picked two contrasting plays: Richard II, about a leader who is born with power and misuses it, but then as that power is stripped from him learns what it means to be a human being; and Henry V, about a flawed human being who learns what it means to be a great leader. We hope that this repertory of plays will add to the discussion of what a person needs to do to lead a nation.
Richard is mercurial and moody, he goes from one extreme of emotion to another very quickly, and he has very grandiose ideas about himself. Now, many of those qualities might arise if you were told from birth that you were put on earth by God to run the country, but in addition to his belief in the divine right of kings, his personality seems to fit into a modern understanding of a classic narcissist. That insight has opened up for me a way of looking at him as a person who is more than just careless. As always, one is continually amazed by Shakespeare’s understanding of what we now know as modern psychology.
We’ve done this play several times at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and I’ve always been aware of how mystified the audience is for the first four scenes. There’s been a murder before the play begins, but as an audience we don’t know the importance of the person who has been killed, or how much maneuvering is going on behind the scenes. The audience loves the poetry and the pageantry of those first scenes, but they usually don’t know what is going on until the fifth scene. That concerned me, and so I found a wonderful unfinished Elizabethan play (the author is unknown, but some scholars attribute all or part of it to Shakespeare) called Thomas of Woodstock, which tells the story of the events that lead up to Richard II. Thomas is Richard’s powerful uncle, and he is the one who dies under mysterious circumstances. So we’re going to start Richard II with scenes from that other play, which will help us to understand the duplicity that goes on in those early moments, when almost everybody is lying and trying to make sure that nobody else tells the truth.
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