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400-Year-Old Shakespeare Meets U.S. Politics in Ambitious Adaptation

What do the famous playwright’s 400-year-old theater works have to say about our own divided age? Plenty.

Illustration: Bartosz Kosowski

Shakespeare is relevant to you only if you’re a human being,” says Barbara Gaines, the longtime artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Gaines is also the creator and director of Tug of War, which adapts six Shakespearean history plays—Edward III, Henry V, the Henry VI trilogy, and Richard III—into two six-hour epics, the first premiering on May 12. Though these plays chronicle England’s medieval wars with France and the home-turf power struggle known as the War of the Roses, the Bard’s insights remain as trenchant as ever four centuries later. Read on for six examples of Shakespeare’s prescient political plots.

Edward III

Civilian Casualties of War

The Play: For all his emphasis on the chess moves of kings and queens, Shakespeare wrote with equal passion about chaos on the battlefield. “You see all these plays through the eyes of ordinary soldiers,” says Gaines. “We see what war does to ordinary people, especially the ones fighting.”

The Present: Thirteen years after the Iraq War began on shaky evidence (and 15 after the invasion of Afghanistan), the debate rages on about American military entanglements on foreign soil, where soldiers and civilians get the worst of it.

Henry V

Nationalism and the Other

The Play: Shakespeare wasn’t above taking a blatant us-versus-them stance when it came to the ongoing conflict between France and England, a rivalry that climaxes when England wins the bloody French battle at Agincourt.

The Present: With American right-wing firebrands fighting to build walls to keep undocumented immigrants out, Gaines’s interpretation focuses on those displaced by the medieval war. “You have these people terrified for their lives,” she says, “and nobody’s saving them.”

Henry VI, Part 1

Transferring Power

The Play: If there’s one theme that unites Shakespeare’s history plays, it’s a deep anxiety about rightful succession. Henry V proves a valiant king, but his son, Henry VI, turns out to be weak and inept.

The Present: Much to the dismay of Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush, today’s political candidates aren’t chosen by divine birthright but by election. “Henry VI starts with a huge fight between all the nobles,” says Gaines. “It’s exactly like the Republican debate.”

Henry VI, Part 2

Popular Rebellion

The Play: While Henry VI struggles to control his kingdom, the scheming Duke of York (the father of the scheming Richard III) enlists Jack Cade to lead a popular revolt against the king. A demagogue who appeals to the poor and uneducated, Cade promises to do away with money and to execute anybody who can read.

The Present: “He’s a great marketer. He’s someone who rouses everybody and pulls at the lowest common denominator,” says Gaines. Sound familiar? “He’s going to be dressed just like [Donald] Trump.”

Henry VI, Part 3

Playground Bullies

The Play: By the end of Henry VI’s rule, the War of the Roses—a nasty scramble for power between the York and Lancaster clans—is in full swing. Gaines compares it to the longest, bloodiest game of king of the hill ever played. In Gaines’s production, “kings think they’re immortal,” she says. “But they’re merely wearing paper crowns and fighting for a rubber tire.”

The Present: Taunts, tantrums, and name-calling have set the tone of the Republican presidential campaign. Gaines riffs on the political childishness by staging the battle on a contemporary playground.

Richard III

Power of Persuasion

The Play: Richard III, who seized the throne in the vacuum left by the War of the Roses, is one of Shakespeare’s wickedest villains. But the guy has moxie. Who else would woo a woman (Lady Anne) after calling for her father-in-law’s death?

The Present: Hillary Clinton is the candidate most often accused of scheming and opportunism, but spin remains a fixture with all politicians. That leaves the public with a choice, says Gaines: “When someone tells you to do something, whether it’s your priest, president, or king, do you blindly do it? That’s what these plays are about.”

GO: Tug of War: Foreign Fire runs May 12 to June 12 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand. $100. chicagoshakes.com

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