Power, ambition, backstabbing


Hollow CrownPower grabs. Backstabbing. Lust. Ambition. Conniving. Hypocrisy. A weak but well-meaning ruler. A grasping second in command who viciously usurps power. A bureaucrat jealous of the nobles, jockeying for power and trading favours to get his way. Sleazy nobles selling their loyalty for petty trinkets. A cast of despicable, grasping characters all out for themselves, oblivious of the cost of their machinations on the common people, and willing to tread on anyone who gets in their way. Machiavellian plots and secret meetings. The destruction of state institutions and facilities. Heads rolling.

Collingwood Council? No: Shakespeare’s three-part extravaganza, Henry VI. Although you have to admit I had you there, since the resemblance seems so uncanny. A Readers’ Guide to Shakespeare (ed. Joseph Rosenblum) notes of part III:

Hatred ambition and greed are keynotes, while duty, trust, tradition and self-restraint are increasingly rare.

Boy, doesn’t that sound just like Collingwood Council? In Part I, Richard Plantagenet says of the recently deceased Mortimer that he was, “Choked with ambition of the meaner sort.” Sure sounds to me like someone – or ones – we know at the council table. And this description of Henry Beaufort, the Bishop of Winchester (from part I), also has undeniable echoes in a local personality (or maybe personalities…):

Winchester is portrayed as a corrupt, power-hungry bishop who buys his elevation to cardinal and who seeks to overthrow the rightful, secular authority of the Protector.

But of course, it’s not about them. The Protector is the Duke of Gloucester, by the way (okay, you already knew that…).

Henry VI forms two of the three movies in the latest Hollow Crown series, presented by the BBC. Two, you say? I thought there were three parts… well, yes there are, but the directors pruned away some of the slower bits and condensed the whole thing into two parts. Probably a wise move; the latter two parts are considered great plays, but the first (actually written later than the first two) is considered on of the Bard’s weaker efforts. But recent revivals of the trilogy, no matter how long, have drawn praise.

Henry VI in all its parts is followed, as you might expect, by Richard III, the final play in the tetralogy and one of the top plays in the canon by pretty much any standard. The title role played by, no less, Benedict Cumberbatch, of Sherlock fame.

Hollow Crown brings Shakespeare’s English plays to the small screen with seven plays, all beautifully produced and films (to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death…). Truly they are stunning extravaganzas that are a joy to watch. I wrote about the first series here and here. I loved every minute of the first series; it gave life to depth to several plays I had not appreciated much prior to watching. And they all beg second and third viewing.

Series two brings us to the most confusing, complicated, confounding period in English history: the War of the Roses, starting with the challenges the young Henry VI faces early in his reign. And the machinations begin…

I have to admit that, for all the reading I’ve done on the war and the period, on English history and its royalty, it’s still hard to keep track of all the players at this time. Everyone seems connected to everyone else by family or marriage and the number of players who stake a claim on the throne can be bewildering. And it’s harder to read the plays that watch them because Shakespeare assumed his audiences knew the characters, so didn’t bother to annotate them for later readers or even use their full names. It often proves frustrating (this from a guy who loves to read Shakespeare, too…).

The Reader’s Guide notes (part II):

The depiction of a number of nobles who, many of whom are hypocritical, and self-serving, who group and regroup, deceive and dissemble, creates a potentially bewildering situation for the reader…

Just like watching Collingwood Council, with its confusing array of personal agendas and vendettas, secret meetings and jockeying for power… but I digress.

There are a lot of memorable characters and scenes to be had; so many that you need a scorecard to keep track of them all. One of the highlights: Joan of Arc appears, battles, is captured, tried and later burned at the stake. Then the Princes in the Tower are murdered. Meanwhile wars are fought, battles won and lost, families shatter, nations collide…

The Telegraph has an interesting review of the first part, which it titles, “The Henrys meet Game of Thrones…” which pretty much sums up the rich production of the whole series with its emphasis on action and pageantry:

As the action cross-cut from court to battlefield, from moments of shrewd dialogue to moments of adrenalin-fuelled action, the audience-grabbing spirit of Westeros was everywhere to be seen. To borrow tricks from Game of Thrones should not be seen as dumbing down Shakespeare; rather, as wising up.

And in its review of Part 2:

This trilogy has developed into an addictive Shakespearean primer for any amputation addict already hooked on George RR Martin’s tales of medieval nastiness. The difference is in the epithet-rich language. It may offer only skin-deep psychology but the young Shakespeare’s phrase-making has a rough and user-friendly directness that is wonderfully easy on the ear.

It’s not really a spoiler to say the first two are build ups to the rise and fall of Richard III, a character both fascinating and repulsive. As The Telegraph says of the final film in the series:

We were all waiting for Benedict Cumberbatch’s rule. He didn’t disappoint. The shaggy-locked malingerer he’d offered for part two – when there were still several family members between Richard and the throne – was mainly given to literally stabbing people in the back, and looking somewhat wild-eyed and hammy in the process. But Cumberbatch got a haircut for Richard III. He smartened up, sharpened up, and sliced into your head. Speaking his monologues to camera like Frank Underwood from House of Cards (Kevin Spacey indeed modelled his Underwood on Richard), this tyrant made you think like him even as you hated him.

Game of thrones, House of Cards… telling similarities to the works penned more than 400 years ago. But no, it’s not merely cinematic: it’s all based on historical events. As the Telegraph concludes…

…these people and their ilk did squabble over the crown with just this deadly commitment. The princes died in the Tower. The lords died on the battlefield, or in dungeons. It was medieval. The brutality was tantamount to a holocaust…

And today I start watching the second series. I am a-tingle with anticipation. Just as a teaser, you can see the whole thing (in parts) on Youtube. Here’s the start of Richard III (notice the stunning Isle of Man chess set with which Richard is playing just before the opening monologue…). It will raise goosebumps, it’s so good…


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