Breath of Kings at the Stratford Festival
Tom Rooney, left and Graham Abbey, in Breath of Kings: Rebellion. Photography by Don Dixon/Stratford Festival

Visiting England years ago, Prof. Mark Fortier planned to take in a few Shakespeare performances in Stratford-upon-Avon. Only when he got to the Bard’s birthplace did he realize the productions were all three parts of Henry VI, not the most popular of Shakespeare’s works for contemporary audiences.

“It was like getting tickets to the Beatles and it turns out to be Ringo,” says Fortier, a professor in U of G’s School of English and Theatre Studies (SETS).

He attended the first part of Shakespeare’s trilogy about the loss of England’s territories to France and the lead-up to the Wars of the Roses. The stage action and excitement lured him back for Part 2.

After that, he had to see the finale. But tickets were sold out and he had to join the waiting list. He snagged tickets at the eleventh hour.

The drama was worth it, says Fortier. “In my lifetime that experience was one of the great theatrical experiences I’ve had. I saw plays I didn’t want to see.”

He says there’s a lesson for theatregoers. “Things that are not Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet can be exciting and interesting,” he says.

Introducing Guelph-area patrons to the Bard’s works — both audience favourites and lesser-known plays — is the purpose of a series of lectures given this month by Fortier and other SETS scholars at the Guelph Public Library.

The annual Stratford Shakespeare Lecture Series gives audiences a springtime preview of works being staged at the Stratford Festival. The lecture series runs in various locations in southern Ontario and draws upon local Shakespeare scholars.

The Guelph sessions also involved SETS graduate Andrew Bretz discussing Macbeth and U of G professor emeritus Paul Mulholland on As You Like It.

Earlier in March, Fortier discussed Richard II and the first part of Henry IV, which will be combined at the Stratford Festival this summer in a single production called Breath of Kings: Rebellion. That production will be bookended by a combined staging of Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V in a play called Breath of Kings: Redemption.

Mark Kaethler, a U of G PhD graduate and sessional lecturer, will continue the lecture on Breath of Kings March 31 at 7 p.m. at the Guelph Public Library.

If many theatregoers have seen Macbeth or As You Like It, fewer will have seen all of Shakespeare’s Henriad tetralogy, says Fortier.

Speaking of audience members at his lecture he says, “I hope to pique their interest, encourage them to think about something they’ve not thought about before.”

Fortier talked about the restoration of societal order in the tetralogy, including kingly ideals contrasted with the intermingling of commoners and royalty in Henry IV. He also focused on Falstaff, a larger-than-life character whose female parallel might be found in Rosalind from As You Like It.

The series has attracted more people each year, with about 40 people attending each of this year’s talks, says host Susan Ratcliffe, a part-time staff member at the library. She says she’s looking forward to the Stratford Festival’s production of As You Like It following this month’s talk about Rosalind by U of G’s Mulholland.

Ratcliffe says the lecture series “gives the audience a chance to think about what they might see, the way it might be produced.”

Fortier says it’s gratifying to speak to an engaged audience about one of his research strengths. A former SETS director, Fortier has studied Canadian adaptations of Shakespeare, theatre theory, equity in literary works, and the “lost and found” trope in works ranging from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Homer’s Odyssey to classic films including Vertigo and Casablanca.

“It’s very enjoyable,” he says of the annual library lecture series. “It marks the arrival of spring for me.”