When I was in junior high school in 1964 I can remember sitting in English class and being informed that, in addition to reading one of Shakespeare's plays, we would also be celebrating the 400th anniversary of his birth. It didn't seem like such a big deal at the time, but I was a 15-year-old kid, and 400 years was a long time ago. This year, we again commemorate Shakespeare, this time remembering the anniversary of his death on April 23, 1616, or 400 years ago this coming Saturday. (Or, possibly, 400 years ago last Monday, depending on whether my source is using new style or old style dates, which at that time differed by 10 days.)
Naturally enough, being a writer and actor, I'm going to commemorate this event by plugging one of my own plays. I think it an apt choice. The play I'm plugging is To Kill a King, a prequel to Shakespeare's Hamlet, which doesn't so much turn things on their heads as offer an alternative explanation of how things came to happen. If anything, it somewhat deepens the tragic aspects of Shakespeare's play.
I think it safe to say that Hamlet will be staged quite a few times this year. Even if it were not a significant Shakespearean anniversary, Hamlet would still have been staged quite a few times this year. It's staged every year. I played Claudius in Dublin, Ohio last year. Shakespeareances.com (a very neat site, if you like Shakespeare) lists ten productions, including tours, scheduled for 2016. I know of at least one more, in Indianapolis, they don't list, and no doubt there are quite a few others as well.
I can't say the same thing about To Kill a King. As of now, I'm not aware of any planned physical productions. I'd like to do one, but being retired now it's become a bit harder to come up with the budget to put on a decent show. Even more so when the show runs a few minutes under an hour, and so, logically, needs to be accompanied by at least one other one-act play to fill out a full evening of theatre.
The other alternative, significantly less expensive, was to produce it as an audiobook. After all, it was published as part of a one-act collection, and recently I've become rather fond of audiobooks. One of my novels has appeared in that format, and I've myself been the narrator for, so far, six audiobooks, with two more currently being recorded. Seven, if you count this one, where I was just one of multiple voice actors involved, and not the sole narrator.
I'll point out right here that the poster may be a little misleading, as it primarily emphasizes To Kill a King. Not all of the actors listed were involved with that play, though they all contributed to the book by taking part in one or more of the others in the collection. They're listed in appearance order within the book, by the way. As for To Kill a King itself, Harold Yarborough voices Polonius and the Chief Counsellor; J.T. McDaniel (me) provides the voices of King Hamlet, Claudius, and a Guard; Mic O'Halloran voices the English Ambassador, a Priest, and the Assassin; Colton Weiss is Hamlet, Osric, Horatio, and Laertes; Judy Parker voices Gertrude; and LeVana Wu provides the voice of Ophelia.
Of the others listed on the poster, Ashton Brammer and Mic O'Halloran voice Dina and The Man in the Jack the Ripper story, The Sixth Victim, and Ashton also plays my sister in Burying Dad. Jack Shultz solos as Rod in It's the Computer's Fault, a monologue piece in which a psychotic murderer explains to his victim why an online personality test requires him to kill and cannibalize her. And Ann O'Halloran joins Judy Parker and I in Sunday Afternoon, playing our characters' daughter, who has to help her mother cope with her father's apparent senility.
But, back to To Kill a King. In Hamlet, the audience first meets the Ghost of Hamlet's father in scene 1 (or, often, scene 4 with a mention in scene 2, as scene 1 is perhaps the most frequently cut scene in the Shakespearean canon). Everything we know about the death of Hamlet's father comes from the Ghost, who describes his own murder in most moving terms. Claudius eventually expresses his guilt about the crime, though not within Hamlet's hearing, so right up to the final scene Hamlet's only assurance his uncle is a murderer comes from the Ghost's tale.
Of course, Claudius would no doubt feel guilty about murdering his brother even if he had a perfectly good, even altruistic reason to do so. Fratricide is, in western culture, quite literally the most ancient form of murder, going back to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. To Kill a King suggests that he did, in fact, have a pretty good reason for what he did. My play suggests that the marriage of King Hamlet and Queen Gertrude was not, perhaps, quite as idyllic as their son presumed. Frankly, it suggests they both heartily hated each other, and their happy marriage had long been nothing more than a public performance whose audience included their son. Gertrude had been in love with Claudius from the first time she saw him, which happened to be the day she became betrothed to the then Prince Hamlet, and Claudius had always been in love with her.
King Hamlet's only love appears to be war, though he does seem inordinately fond of Osric as well. Of itself, that may explain a great deal. It also brings into question just who young Hamlet's father really is. Gertrude's opinion seems to be that he's really Claudius' son. The king seems to share that opinion, and has included a sealed codicil with his will stating it as fact, though he also says he planned to destroy it unopened when he became old and a successor was needed. The codicil seems to be insurance, though singularly ineffective insurance when you consider that no one who might be deterred by the knowledge of its existence is aware of it until it's too late to do any good.
In Hamlet, Claudius mentions three things that are involved in his guilt, "My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen." At least as I played him, the third is the most important, and it retains that sense in To Kill a King. Arguably, the first two don't enter into the murder at all. Claudius, after all, procures the poison by taking it from a professional assassin King Hamlet had sent to murder his wife, so he's just "returning" it when he pours it into his brother's ear. So far as he knows, killing King Hamlet means that young Hamlet will become king. It's only the king's jealousy and plotting against his son that gives the throne to his brother.
Even there, Claudius exhibits a degree of altruism. He conspires with the Council to provide a legitimate sounding reason why Hamlet didn't become king. Rather than his father's declaration of bastardy, the Council will take the position that current affairs require that someone immediately become king, and that it can't be Hamlet because it would take nearly a month for him to be notified of his father's death and return from Wittenberg. The Council "knows" that Hamlet is a bastard—maybe, though there's no proof, only suspicion linked to a single indiscretion nearly 30 years in the past—and, in any event, once Claudius marries Gertrude, even if Hamlet was a bastard, he won't be after that and can still take the throne once Claudius passes.
He also swears the Council to secrecy. He has to, really. If young Hamlet, or even Gertrude, was aware of the actual circumstances, Hamlet couldn't have happened. Honestly, how do you think Hamlet would have reacted to the Ghost's accusations if he already knew that old Hamlet wasn't really his father, and had been killed because he tried to murder Hamlet's mother? Get as Freudian as you like, there's no play if Hamlet knows this, so, naturally, it's deliberately kept from him.
In a setup for Hamlet, the dying king threatens to return and take his vengeance, even if it means coming back from the grave. When he does so in Hamlet, it's possible he's getting his revenge on more than one person. His brother, obviously, but perhaps also on his widow, and on the son he believes to be his brother's. His admonition to leave the queen unharmed can be construed as an altruistic recognition of her innocence in his murder, but it can equally be construed as assuring that she won't escape being tortured by sorrow over her true love's death at the hands of her son. Perhaps, indeed, the ghost, as Hamlet fears, "Abuses me to damn me."
Stylistically, To Kill a King fits neatly into its Shakespearean origins. Except for the scene between Claudius and the Assassin, the entire play is written in blank verse. I went through several drafts, some in verse, some not, but ultimately decided it needed to be in verse. The exception, the Claudius/Assassin scene, equally follows an established Shakespearean pattern wherein "common" characters speak in prose. (For example, The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is almost entirely a prose play.) Claudius also uses the formal "you" when speaking to the Assassin, rather than the intimate "thou" normally employed within the family.