The True Tragedy of Richard III

We went to Toronto last night on a bit of a whim to see The True Tragedie of Richard III (“wherein is showne the death of Edward the fourth, with the smothering of the two yoong princes in the Tower: with a lamentable ende of Shores wife, an example for all wicked women. And lastly, the coniunction and ioyning of the two noble houses, Lancaster and Yorke. As it was playd by the Queenes Maiesties Players”–as good a summary as any).

This is not to be confused (too much) with Shakespeare’s Richard III. This is the play Shakespeare based his play off of.

I haven’t actually seen Shakespeare’s Richard III. (There’s a Doctor Who audio that messes with it–The Kingmaker–but I don’t think that counts). I know enough about it, though, that it was all pretty familiar.

The play was put on by the U of T Medieval and Renaissance Players. It’s a bit of a research project, as well as a theatrical performance. They tried to stick to Elizabethan acting tradition as much as possible. Which means they didn’t have a director and the performance we saw was the first full run-through. And while you might think that that sort of experimentation would maybe get in the way of the performance, I think they pulled it off rather well, much to everyone’s surprise (including and especially the actors’).

There was a Q&A session at the end which actually ran both ways. They were asking us (the audience) as many questions as we were asking them. I had unpleasant flash-backs of university arts courses.

Thinking if I had a question to ask, though, I kept coming back to the copyfight argument. Much of what Shakespeare did in his time–“borrowing” and modifying whole works–would be outright illegal today. While a writer is able to ask permission to do things like that, unless they have a dump truck full of money, that permission is rarely forthcoming. If Shakespeare was doing his thing today, he’d be sued to oblivion. Or, to put it another way, if today’s copyright regime existed in Elizabethan times, what is considered the greatest body of work in the English language would not exist.

I think that should probably give people pause for thought. And it’s that sort of thing that the Creative Commons was created to address.

I couldn’t think of a way to bring it up that didn’t come off in a “Did you think of this?!” sort of nerdily confrontational way.

Thinking about it, though, I actually started to wonder how the Elizabethans thought about this sort of thing. Today, we get all huffy about piracy!, plagiarism! and our! intellectual property, like culture is a physical thing that we can hold onto and keep from other people. I’m pretty certain they didn’t see it that way.

Which isn’t to say that is was a rosy utopia. The reason that they didn’t do a full run-through until the first performance was the same reason that none of the actors got to see a full script. If the script got out before the performance, somebody else might swipe it and perform it first and, I don’t know, take credit or something.

Kinda like zero day movie torrents, I guess.

To be honest, I don’t know how Elizabethans thought about these things, or even if they did. I grew up with the Berne convention and WIPO treaties. I don’t have much of a concept about how these things were thought of before those existed.