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Shakespeare & Beyond

'Our humble author will continue the story': Shakespearean prequels and sequels

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Claudius (Craig Wallace, center), Rosencrantz (Romell Witherspoon, right), and Guildenstern (Adam Wesley Brown). Gertrude (Kimberly Schraf) pictured in background. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Folger Theatre, 2015. Photo by Jeff Malet.

Maybe ’twas ever thus, but the current crop of cultural programming in the theatre and on film and television is awash with prequels and sequels to existing stories and characters, providing audiences with comforting continuations of familiar narratives and critics with opportunities to decry the dearth of original ideas. So it seems only right to place the credit (and possibly the blame) for this trend right where it belongs — on William Shakespeare.

Almost half of Shakespeare’s first seven or eight plays (the exact order and chronology of which we can only guess at) were prequels or sequels. His saga of Henry VI — the play so nice he wrote it thrice — begins in the middle with Part 2 and is followed by Shakespeare’s first sequel (Part 3). But rather than immediately writing a second sequel in Richard III (which he would write a play or two later), Shakespeare decided instead to first write a prequel and create Part 1 to what became an epic three-part saga focusing on the Wars of the Roses.

There may have been artistic storytelling reasons for this — did Shakespeare know there would be three plays when he began? Did he know he was starting in the middle or did he figure it out as he went? — but, then as now, there was almost undoubtedly a commercial imperative. Henry VI was successful enough to justify continuing the saga, and the subsequent sequel and prequel helped establish the young playwright’s reputation. Combined with Richard III, the three parts of Henry VI form a tetralogy, a structure Shakespeare repeated with Richard II and its three sequels: Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V. Together (and sometimes separately) these two four-part cycles constitute the Henriad, and one can easily imagine them causing the same sort of box office excitement as the record-breaking Marvel superhero movies do now.


(i) I’ve written a prequel, ‘Hamlet at Wittenberg’, including a scene involving a young Polonius rehearsing (as he tells in Shakespeare’s play) Julius Caesar with a troupe visiting Wittenberg; and Epilogue/2nd Act post-Hamlet (With optional ‘Talkin’ Blues Hamlet’ interlude; substantially Horatio’s experience back at Wittenberg, post-‘Hamlet’…..(This, incidentally, explains happy, theatre-mad Hamlet’s knowledge of theatre: he was a fan at Uni). (ii) I’ve also sketched out an ‘improvised’ ‘Hamlet’ in which Horatio, with others, tells Hamlet’s story on a high place, as the Prince has requested. (iii) BBC Radio 4 recently broadcast ‘Elsinore’ by a (Polish?) writer, setting the events back to pre-Ophelia’s etc., birth (her mother is named Beatrice); but all translated to 1930s Europe.

Frederick Robinson — November 27, 2019