An American in King Henry's Court: Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight

Open access


Orson Welles, a boy from Kenosha, Wisconsin, was one of the most audacious Shakespearians who ever lived. He recited soliloquies as a child, wrote a book on the plays as a teenager, and at age 17 roamed across Ireland before brazenly (and successfully) presenting himself at the Abbey Theatre as a distinguished American actor. Welles also created three of the most ambitious Shakespeare films. As an American pretender, a colonial presuming to re-interpret the greatest British writer, Welles approached Shakespeare with a mix of bravado and insecurity. This paper explores how Welles' American nature informs these roles and, especially, his final Shakespeare film, Chimes at Midnight (1965). In this production, Welles plays Falstaff and is understandably identified with the role, but it could be argued that he speaks more directly through Prince Hal, whose anxiety about inheriting the throne might be reflected in the way an American Shakespearian seeks to be accepted by the British keepers of the text. The words of Hal's father, Henry IV- Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown -might apply to Welles' American-inflected depictions of kings and princes who do not entirely believe in their own royal agency. The tension between Welles‘ brashness and his fretfulness created some of the most memorable Shakespeare in the cinema.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • Anderegg Michael A. Orson Welles Shakespeare and Popular Culture. New York: Columbia University Press 1999. Print.

  • Callow Simon. Orson Welles Volume One: Road to Xanadu. New York: Penguin Books 1997. Print.

  • Callow Simon. Orson Welles Volume 2: Hello Americans. New York: Viking 2006. Print.

  • Callow Simon. Orson Welles Volume 3: One-Man Band. New York: Viking 2015. Print.

  • Chimes at Midnight. Dir. Orson Welles. Perf. Orson Welles Keith Baxter John Gielgud. Peppercorn-Wormser Film Enterprises 1965. DVD.

  • Dunn Esther Cloudman. Shakespeare in America. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1939. Print.

  • McBride Joseph. Orson Welles. New York: Da Capo Press 1996. Print.

  • Naremore James. The Magic World of Orson Welles. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press 1989. Print.

  • Shapiro James ed. Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now. New York: Library of America 2016. Print.

  • Thoreau Henry David. The Portable Thoreau. New York: Penguin Books; Revised Edition 1964. Print.

  • Tynan Kenneth. He That Plays the King: A View of the Theatre. London: Longmans Green 1950. Print.

  • Welles Orson. Orson Welles on Shakespeare: The W.P.A. and Mercury Theatre Playscripts. New York: Routledge 2001. Print.

  • Welles Orson. "Orson Welles Writes the Introduction to Everybody's Shakespeare in the North Atlantic" Wellesnet N.P.September 23 2007 Web accessed October 15 2016

  • Welles Orson and Peter Bogdanovich. This Is Orson Welles. New York: Da Capo Press 1998. Print.

Journal information
All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 229 176 5
PDF Downloads 118 101 2