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The Collation

Interview and excerpt: Jennie M. Votava, Shakespeare’s Histories On Screen: Adaptation, Race and Intersectionality

Dr. Votava is Associate Professor of English at Allegheny College. She received her AB in English and MD from Harvard University in 1997 and 2001, and her PhD from New York University in 2012. Her work appears in Shakespeare Survey, Shakespeare Bulletin, Renaissance Drama, and Contagion and the Shakespearean Stage, eds. Darryl Chalk and Mary Floyd-Wilson.


When you started this research project, how much clarity did you have about what you were looking for, both in terms of number of examples and specific materials?

My book theorizes a link between adaptation and intersectionality to show how over the past three decades race has become a central and constitutive part of both American and British screen adaptations of the English histories. By engaging contemporary representations of race, gender, sexuality, disability, and class, I argue, these adaptations not only create artifacts that differ from their source texts but also facilitate the conditions in which race and its intersections in the plays become visible.

I began this project in spring 2019 with the intent of examining the role of nontraditional casting in the BBC’s The Hollow Crown (2012, 2016), especially the casting of actors of color in what are generally perceived as historically “white” roles. I planned to situate the series’ two seasons within the broader context of earlier screen versions of the history plays. Given the important role of students as the audiences of these works, I also wanted to engage in some way my own students’ experience and analysis of them. Two of the central questions from which the project sprang – and that eventually became Chapters 1 and 5 – emerged from an undergraduate Shakespeare class I taught in fall 2018. Those questions were as follows. (1) What is the significance of Nigerian-British actor Sophie Okonedo’s role as French princess/English queen Margaret of Anjou in The Hollow Crown’s second season? (2) What is Al Jolson’s “Sitting on Top of the World” doing in the final scene of Loncraine’s Richard III (1995) . . . or, to be more precise, what is a song from a 1920s American “talkie” musical drama sung by a Jewish singer famous for performing in blackface doing at the end of a movie about the downfall of a medieval Shakespearean tyrant updated as an English Hitler? The still below shows Okonedo’s Margaret in the final shot of The Hollow Crown’s concluding episode, which encapsulates her centrality to the series as a whole.

A black woman with scraggly gray hair looks up at the sky with a forlorn expression. Behind her, on the ground, are the bodies of horses and men in armor.
Richard III, directed by Dominic Cooke. © Carnival Film & Television Ltd 2015. All rights reserved. Screen grab.

Once you started working with the Folger collections, did your research questions change? Did your assumptions about what arguments were going to be supported by the evidence change?

The biggest change over the course of my writing was increased attention to American versions of the history plays – especially Harry Lennix, Paul Quinn, and Ayanna Thompson’s underexplored H4, a Black adaptation of the Henry IV plays set in contemporary Los Angeles. H4 debuted at the Shakespeare Association of America’s annual meeting in 2012 and only recently became available on Amazon and other streaming platforms. While Shakespeare’s histories are, understandably, usually thought about in relation to English/British history, they have played a crucial role in constructions of United States history as well, including the history of race from slavery to Black Lives Matter. Since very little scholarship on H4 exists and I have been teaching it since 2020, H4 provided the perfect opportunity to engage the work of my students as an essential part of the critical conversation about the film. In addition, I consider H4’s relationship to an earlier American Henry IV appropriation, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991). Although my argument’s scope primarily involves Anglophone productions, I also briefly discuss a South American film: Eduardo Coutinho’s Faustão (1971), which transposes the story of Hal and Falstaff to early twentieth-century Brazil. Another arena in which my research questions changed was in the realm of digital culture. I became interested in how race and nontraditional casting are historicized in social media conversations about Shakespeare’s role in popular serial television, as exemplified in Twitter conversations about Netflix’s period drama Bridgerton – which I discuss in the book’s conclusion.

My early preparations for this project included a week of research at the Folger, where I examined the longer performance history of Shakespeare’s histories on stage as well as on screen. This research led me to consider in new ways the racialization of figures such as Queen Margaret and Richard III in the context of US history. For instance, below is an 1820s engraving by American artist and political cartoonist David Claypoole Johnston:

A man dressed as Richard the III is pursued by a woman in a large hat and a man in a suit. In the other direction, a man in a suit and a top hat lectures another man carrying a heavy box.
Gebolibus Crackfardi [i.e. David Claypoole Johnston], “The Last Act of Richard Third,” Folger ART File K24.4 no.94 (size L).

Since the image inspired key aspects of my argument but didn’t quite fit into a book on screen adaptations from the past thirty years, I appreciate the opportunity to discuss it in this venue. The left side of the engraving depicts white British actor Edmund Kean in character as a Richard III with a dark complexion and black curly hair, fleeing a pale, red-cheeked Queen Margaret and an equally white Duke of Norfolk. Margaret, grabbing Richard by his cloak with one hand while trailing a bag containing a bottle of make-up labeled “mercury” in the other, utters a litany of curses cobbled together from Act 1, Scene 3. Norfolk holds a paper that proclaims in large print, “1 Cent Reward” before smaller print begins, “Run away. . .”

Johnston’s inspiration for this cartoon was an incident that took place during Kean’s American tour of 1820-21, when the actor abandoned a planned Boston performance of Richard III due to what he believed would be an only half-full house. When a large crowd ended up materializing anyhow, public outrage resulted. A mock runaway slave advertisement appeared in local newspapers, headlined “One Cent Reward” and signed “Peter Public.” It advised readers to be “on their guard” against “a stage-player calling himself Kean” who “may be easily recognized by his misshapen trunk,” among other features.1 Johnston further references this ad through a caricature of a Black male servant on the right side of the engraving, who together with another servant carries a trunk labeled “E.K.” In counterpoint to the foregrounded dark-skinned, costumed Kean, a contemporarily dressed, light-skinned version of the actor addresses the pair in a reworking of Richard’s lines to the servants bearing the coffin of Henry VI: “Villains set down the trunk, by St Paul, I’ll make his trunk headless who disobeys.”

In this drawing, Richard III, as personated by Edmund Kean, is simultaneously a white English master/monarch and a runaway African American slave. Richard’s disability, his “misshapen trunk,” is further projected onto Kean’s travel trunk – the object of his Black servants’ labor – as well as the threatened bodies of the servants themselves. Richard’s simultaneously literal and figurative blackness is highlighted both by Margaret’s performative, painted whiteness and the play’s quoted rhetoric of slavery, animality, deformity, and hell. Such rhetoric, my book argues, permeates the text of the first tetralogy and is rendered particularly visible by both nontraditional casting choices in The Hollow Crown and allusions to blackface performance in Loncraine’s Richard III. Similarly, by displacing Shakespeare’s text into its own temporal and geographic moment, Johnston’s engraving exposes the racial constructions at work in both Richard III and American culture.

What couldn’t you find that you expected to find? Can you give us examples?

An important aspect of my research involved investigating when and where actors of color first performed in major roles in the history plays in both the United Kingdom and the United States. In this way my work dovetails with that being done by Jami Rogers and others at Warwick University’s Multicultural Shakespeare Project, which has developed a wonderful database on British Black and Asian performers in Shakespeare’s plays from the 1930s through the present. Using that database as well as other sources, most notably the Folger Library and Texas A&M University’s World Shakespeare Bibliography, which covers the years 1960 onward, I have to this day been unable to find a Falstaff of color in a UK performance. On the contrary, in the United States, Black actors began taking on this role in the 1990s and early 2000s. Meanwhile, Coutinho’s Brazilian Faustão features a Black Falstaff figure as early as 1971. The strikingly different performance histories of this role on either side of the Atlantic becomes the starting point for my discussion in Chapter 3 of the relationship between Falstaff and constructions of white British nationhood. The almost all-Black H4, I argue, takes advantage of this relationship by casting white, British actor Angus Macfadyen as Falstaff. As the following still from Henry V’s coronation scene suggests, Macfadyen’s Falstaff has a complex relationship with both American and British culture.

A white man with sunglasses, a beret, and a beard, with a serious expression leans over a balcony holding an american flag. A cheering group of Black men and women surround him.
H4, directed by Paul Quinn. © Triumvirate Pictures 2015. All rights reserved. Screen grab.

In what ways did the Folger scholarly community advance your work?

My work on this project not only began at the Folger Library but also ended there, albeit in a very different space and set of circumstances – post-Covid, while the library itself was under construction. At the very moment when I needed it, when I was faced with the task of extensively revising my manuscript for publication over the summer of 2022, the Folger offered the rare and wonderful opportunity of a virtual research fellowship that included support for childcare. I used the funds to send my twin daughters, then seven years old, to day camp; I can quite honestly say that I cannot imagine how I would have completed my book without that assistance. In addition to time and money, the virtual fellowship provided the invaluable resource of scholarly community in a digital venue – from Zoom meetups where we were able to chat with other fellows about our various research projects, to online writing groups where we gave and received feedback about our works in progress.

What advice do you have for early career scholars working at the Folger or peer collections?

I’d like to urge early career scholars, especially those whose baseline research experiences have been shaped by the pandemic and our increasingly digital world – and even those who, like myself, primarily work with digital media – to take advantage of the brick-and-mortar library and its paper and parchment archives once they are available again. As my example of the Johnston cartoon illustrates, and as my book emphasizes, intersections across media, through time and among multiple facets of identity are essential components to understanding the ever-expanding entity known as Shakespeare. My other, related piece of advice is never to hesitate to break down the walls of whatever proverbial box or boxes in which you find yourself. I came to my current profession in the field of literary studies from a prior career as a pediatrician – and came to write a book on race in Shakespeare’s screen histories from a prior research focus on the history of medicine and the early modern body. The intersections among these varied experiences have provided ways of approaching knowledge and the human condition that I would never have imagined at earlier points in my life.

Do you have other illuminating questions that we should be asking? (Feel free to pose and answer them.)

I’ll take this space to express my gratitude for the many ways the Folger has benefited my research, including the opportunity to contribute to this blog, and to underscore my excitement for and appreciation of the Folger’s ongoing efforts to break down barriers of access to resources and engage an ever-expanding community of scholars.


Below find an excerpt from Chapter 4 of Dr. Votava’s book Shakespeare’s Histories On Screen: Adaptation, Race and Intersectionality (Bloomsbury, 2023), pp. 131-4.


When I taught H4 for the first time in the fall of 2020, my class’s viewing of the film happened to coincide with the tumult surrounding that year’s presidential election – decided in so many places by razor-thin margins where the Black vote was often a critical factor. Never had the internal political divisions represented in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays seemed so immediate and pressing. That semester one of my students, Devin Gaffney, wrote her final essay on what she saw as parallels between the conclusion of H4 and the election of Kamala Harris as the first Black as well as the first female American Vice President. Gaffney’s focus was the Chief Justice as played by biracial actress Victoria Platt, whose circumscribed yet symbolically momentous power she compared to that of the newly elected VP. ‘On her own, Kamala Harris wasn’t able to win the Democratic Presidential nomination, but running behind Joe Biden, she was able to become the next Vice President of the United States’, Gaffney observed. Similarly, in the first half of H4, Prince Hal is dismissive of Platt’s Chief Justice. However, ‘The relationship between Hal and Chief Justice pivots from Part One to Part Two. Once Hal is given the title of King, he seems to gain a different level of respect for the female Chief Justice. He chooses to entrust her to “bear the balance of the sword (2 Henry IV VI.ii.102)”’.2. Indeed, the scene of the new Henry V bowing to Platt’s Chief Justice is, for Harry Lennix, the film’s ‘most significant moment’.3

In front of three witnesses, a man kneels holding the hands of a woman in a white outfit and headdress.

Henry V kneels to the Chief Justice. H4, directed by Paul Quinn. © Triumvirate Pictures 2015. All rights reserved. Screen grab.

Gaffney’s link between Kamala Harris and H4’s brown female Chief Justice aptly underscores not only both how far America has come and how far we still have to go in terms of placing women of color in positions of national power, but also how crucial representation is. My two biracial daughters, then five years old, stayed up the night of 7 November 2020 to watch the first televised speech of a vice president who looked like them. H4 is a film I plan to show them one day in part for similar reasons.

Both the limitations and possibilities of an empowered Black future in H4 are encapsulated in slight but significant alterations of two key lines in Hal’s last speech, as he addresses an unspecified audience that includes the film’s viewership on the other side of the camera’s lens. The lines

Now call we our high court of parliament
And let us choose such limbs of noble counsel,
That the great body of our state may go
In equal rank with the best-governed nation
(5.2.133-6, ITALICS MINE)


Now call we our high court of advisors
And let us choose such limbs of noble counsel,
That our great body of the state may go
In equal rank with the best-governed nation.

More significant even than the change from ‘parliament’ to ‘advisors’ is the pronoun/article switch, which encapsulates the tension between two distinct models of the body politic. In Shakespeare’s 2 Henry IV, Hal deploys the royal ‘we’ – here, the royal ‘our’ – to describe his ownership of the state, while the definite article modifies, and thereby further aggrandizes, ‘the great body’ of which he is head. The transposition of ‘our’ and ‘the’ in Amad Jackson’s version of the speech renders ‘our’, instead, an inclusive pronoun that numbers Hal among the people of the state he now leads.

One of my fall 2020 students, Kyle DiPofi, identified an additional significance in the king’s use of pronouns. A ‘shift in the connotation of the word “our”’ from the royal, singular ‘our’ of ‘our high court of advisors’ to the inclusive, plural ‘our’ of ‘our great body of the state’, DiPofi noted, ‘marks the separation between the values of Shakespeare’s England and H4’s America, and helps to further the idea of the American nation as a place that has a role for everyone in equal measure’.4 In numbering the king as merely one of many members of the body politic, this use of ‘our’ adumbrates a distinction between republican and monarchical understandings of nation. Whether by design or by a slip of the tongue, this moment of the text in flux encapsulates on a micro scale what Thompson has described as the productive ‘instability’ of Shakespeare in contemporary America.5 Instead of postulating any static universal or timeless values, H4 reveals both space and time in Shakespeare’s histories to be dynamic and therefore mutable – ripe, in other words, for ‘an infinite variety of appropriations’.6

  1. Jeffrey Kahan, The Cult of Kean (Ashgate, 2006), 98-99.
  2. Devin Gaffney, ‘235 Final’, essay written for English 235: Shakespearean Literatures, Allegheny College (7 Dec. 2020). Cited with permission from the author.
  3. ‘Filmmakers’ Commentary’ in H4, Directed by Paul Quinn, Zelko Films, 2015. DVD.
  4. Kyle DiPofi, ‘H4: Adapting a History and Building an Identity’, essay written for English 235: Shakespearean Literatures, Allegheny College (5 Dec. 2020). Cited with permission from the author.
  5. Ayanna Thompson, Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 17.
  6. Elisabeth Bronfen, Serial Shakespeare: An Infinite Variety of Appropriations in American TV Drama (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2020).