The Hollow Crown

Wikipedia image
Richard II, the first English king of whom we have a real portrait, not just a stylized one.

I’ve watched three of the four productions in the 2012 TV series, The Hollow Crown, this past week, and am greatly impressed by the productions and the acting. Wonderful, rich stuff.

The series consists of the second Shakespeare tetralogy, the Henriad: Richard II; Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, each roughly two hours long.  I expect to see the last remaining one this week. (N.B. A new production of the first tetralogy, The Hollow Crown II, is in the works this year).

There’s a bit of an irony in the tetralogy’s name: Henriad, because Henry doesn’t appear at all in Richard II: he is only mentioned in a offside mention by Henry Bolingbroke, his father and newly-crowned king, at the end of the play. He’s  a major but not the main character in Henry IV P1 and P2 – rather Prince Hal shares the stage with Falstaff, Hotspur,his father, and in Part 2, his brother John of Lancaster. Plus the various rebels have their time on stage. It isn’t until the final play that he comes into his own.

One can never get too much Shakespeare in one’s life, and this series feeds my need for film versions that of late has been sadly lacking.* Of course I read the plays frequently – at least one a year, as well as books about the plays and the Bard – but a good film production can be so much more powerful, more engaging. And who, really, doesn’t love Shakespeare?

Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree, from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by every body; they are in half the books we open and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions.
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814

Every production of the Bard is, by necessity, both an interpretation and a compromise. Few of the plays fit comfortably within the time constraints imposed by TV (and dwindling viewer attention spans), so they are often abbreviated to fit the usual two-hour comfort zone for movies. That means some dialogue, some scenes, some subplots must be cut. Visual effects often replace dialogue or at least embellish a scene so less verbiage is needed, especially in action scenes.

And then there are the many ways a director chooses to portray the characters, the scenery, the secondary characters. Is the lead a villain or misunderstood hero? Was the line said in anger or in jest? Is it irony or ignorance? Is the audience expected to be sympathetic or angry at the character? Is the king strong or infirm? Is he bold or indecisive? Often the characters lend themselves to a range of portrayals.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Each production is in itself a work of art that has a unique relationship to Shakespeare. So it is with The Hollow Crown; the story of the beginning of the War of the Roses when the Plantagenets split into the competing houses of York and Lancaster, which vied for power and the throne.

At least that’s Shakespeare’s view and if modern historians disagree, his version at least makes for great drama. The result, however, is incontestably one of the greatest collections of Shakespeare on film.

If there is any flaw, it lies in the audio, which is sometimes less than clear, especially in crowd scenes (and the often thick accents – likely authentic to Shakespeare’s audience, but ahistorical for the era – may obfuscate some dialogue for the non-native viewer). Still, the stories are rich, the characters deep and well-fleshed, and the sets make the audience feel as if they were there, not in some stylized set pieces.

Ben Wishaw
Ben Wishaw as Richard II in The Hollow Crown series.

Richard II is a complex play – which of Shakespeare’s isn’t? – that combines human drama (and melodrama) with politics and history (not always being historical, however; Shakespeare bends history to meet the demands of his art). It was also a very dangerous play, historically, because it is about the deposition of a king. That opens the debate on the right of kingship – is it granted divinely or by secular authority? Who has the right to challenge or depose a king? In Shakespeare’s times, these were meaningful, but subversive questions.

The questions of authority, of right, of power, of the rule of kings and queens, of the semblance of legality over the substance of tradition and morality are still relevant today.

Shakespeare tends to paint his characters with Holinshed’s pro-Tudor brush: Richard is shown as autocratic, a bad ruler, self-indulgent, foppish and full of hubris. Although some historians consider him adequate, none treat him very kindly; but Richard wasn’t any worse than his predecessors, and actually better than some of them.

In part it was not his fault: he was thrust on the throne at age 10, while an informal regency – influenced by his powerful uncles – ruled until Richard turned 21. It was in the early part of the 100 years’ War, and although England was at war with France, Ireland and Scotland, Richard – despite his father’s insistence on training in arms – was not raised as a soldier. In fact, he preferred to end the war with France rather than continue it, but the nobles opposed him.

In the film (played by Ben Wishaw) he is an aesthete – effete and somewhat effeminate – which is helped by having the most lyrical and introspective lines in the play. His historical piety is mostly ignored, but the real Richard firmly believed in the divine right of kings.

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.
King Richard, Act II, Scene II

I suppose I have a sympathy for Richard because he was a rare patron of the arts, learned and erudite, and Chaucer’s employer – without Richard we would likely have no Canterbury Tales. But as a politician and a ruler, he was stiffly devout with an exaggerated sense of his own royal worth, unwise with his friends, deaf to his advisers, and a spendthrift. You get this somewhat in the film, but it also helps to know the convoluted history and genealogy – the events that open the play and the people in them were likely known to Shakespeare’s audience, but not generally known today. Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare is a great help.

Richard is too self-pitying, too mercurial to be truly sympathetic. He takes on the role of the martyr too easily. Still,it’s hard not to be moved by his fall from the highest to the very lowest in the realm, and his brutal end in the mud.

The manly Bolingbroke – Richard’s cousin, played by Rory Kinnear – can be presented by the director as an honest man simply trying to regain his inheritance (unjustly taken by Richard when Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, dies), or an ambitious traitor; in the film he appears more the former. He has few lines to make his case compared to Richard, so is often reduced to firm-jawed staring. But in arbitrarily executing Richard’s friends, it’s pretty clear he’s in the latter camp. He had been a member of the contentious Lords Appellant, so his contest against Richard was already years old when the play begins, and he and his father, John of Gaunt (played by Patrick Stewart), protested many of Richard’s decisions or policies.

Gaunt dies early in the play and has one of the great speeches from his deathbed:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…
Richard II: Act II, Sc. I

This part is oft quoted, less often repeated is the second half, in which Gaunt damns the land and its rulers:

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

To which an angry and sarcastic Richard replies, showing the caustic edge to his nature:

A lunatic lean-witted fool,
Presuming on an ague’s privilege,
Darest with thy frozen admonition
Make pale our cheek, chasing the royal blood
With fury from his native residence.
Now, by my seat’s right royal majesty,
Wert thou not brother to great Edward’s son,
This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head
Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders.

With his son, Bolingbroke, in exile, Gaunt’s death gives Richard the opportunity to grab his lands and wealth to help finance his war in Ireland. That spurs Bolingbroke to return to England to reclaim his inheritance. The Duke of York warns the king this arbitrary act will lead to trouble, but Richard ignores him.

The main plot involves the conflict between Bolingbroke and Richard, but it’s mostly a war of words, of shifting allegiances and introspection, not battles. If the winner is the one with the best speeches, Richard would triumph. But of course, he doesn’t, and is deposed. There is little action in the play; no great battles. We are told about the armies, told about the marches, but we don’t see them. The most active scene is the murder of Richard, in the dungeon of Pomfret castle, near the end.

The movie version of the play is exquisitely photographed: great, crisp scenery and bright colours abound. It’s summer and England is green under a crystal blue sky. Richard’s love of ostentatious show comes through in all its glory. It’s simply beautiful to watch. The scene with the queen and the gardeners in the topiary is stunning.

However, it’s a bit like watching Titanic: you know the end, you can see the iceberg ahead,  glittering and shiny, but all the parties seem oblivious to it.

Less beautifully shot are the two parts of Henry IV (the king played Jeremy Ironsides), although they too are excruciatingly well filmed and gorgeous in their own way. The first part, in particular, is shot in browns, russets and greys. Interior shots are dark and shadowed, with candles and yellowed lighting, or the grey light of dawn. It’s winter and the ground is white with snow, and leafless trees are brown and grey.

Characters in Henry IV wear simple, mostly unadorned plain clothing of grey, black and brown. Colours are subdued and muted, although in P2, Falstaff has scenes where he wears a red coat, in contrast to everyone around him. Even in the coronation scene, where Henry V also wears red, it remains muted. There is more mud and dirt in Henry IV than in Richard II.

The main stories in Henry IV are the two plots against the king that become a civil war: in P1 the rebellion of Hotspur (along with the Percys and Mortimer), in P2 the rebellion includes the Archbishop of York, Lord Mowbray, and Lord Hastings, the last of the plotters from P1. Part 1 culminates in a pitched battle between the royal and rebel forces in which Hal kills Hotspur in single combat.

During the battle Falstaff is attacked by Douglas, the Scots ruler, and feigns death to survive (although this scene is not shown in the film; Douglas is later captured). Thought dead by Hal, Falstaff revives when he is alone, and carrying the body back to the camp, claims he killed Hotspur himself. Henry IV orders the execution of Percy, the rebel leader (in the play, Hal lets Douglas go without ransom – a contrast between his father’s justice and his own mercy).

In P2, it is not battle, but duplicity that wins the day: Hal’s brother, Prince John (John of Lancaster), meets the remaining rebel leaders and promises to “redress” their grievances. He convinces them to disarm, send their army home and then has his men arrest them and march them off for execution. The rebellion fizzles out as a result of John’s treachery. There are no grand acts here: no bravery, no expressions of mercy. For John, justice and the rule of law are all: mercy is a fool’s game. John proves a most adept Machiavellian (although that reference would not come into Shakespeare’s works until later).

The other thread is the conflict between father and son; king and prince, the age-old father-son struggle. Henry is deeply disappointed in Hal and wishes Hotspur has been his son, not Hal:

Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!

Although Hal redeems himself in the battle, and matures somewhat by the end of P1, he returns to his old ways – drinking, whoring, gambling – not long afterwards, in P2. An early soliloquy in P1 suggests he is carousing as a ruse to make his redemption from sin that much more emotive, but he doesn’t really seem to be faking it. He enjoys the rough life too much. His coming of age takes a long while.

If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

So he carouses and cavorts through most of the two plays, often with malicious intent to embarrass or trick Falstaff. There’s more than just a hint of the bully in Hal here.

As P2 draws to and end, King Henry knows his time is due. He’d been ailing throughout the two parts, and sickens seriously at the end of P2. He seems to die, but is merely asleep. Hal comes in and sees his father, presumed dead, and grabs the crown from his pillow.  He has a moment of private contemplation:

Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,
Being so troublesome a bedfellow?
O polish’d perturbation! golden care!
That keep’st the ports of slumber open wide
To many a watchful night! sleep with it now!
Yet not so sound and half so deeply sweet
As he whose brow with homely biggen bound
Snores out the watch of night. O majesty!
When thou dost pinch thy bearer, thou dost sit
Like a rich armour worn in heat of day,
That scalds with safety. By his gates of breath
There lies a downy feather which stirs not:
Did he suspire, that light and weightless down
Perforce must move. My gracious lord! my father!
This sleep is sound indeed, this is a sleep
That from this golden rigol hath divorced
So many English kings. Thy due from me
Is tears and heavy sorrows of the blood,
Which nature, love, and filial tenderness,
Shall, O dear father, pay thee plenteously:
My due from thee is this imperial crown,
Which, as immediate as thy place and blood,
Derives itself to me. Lo, here it sits,
Which God shall guard: and put the world’s whole strength
Into one giant arm, it shall not force
This lineal honour from me: this from thee
Will I to mine leave, as ’tis left to me.
Henry IV, part 2 | Act 4, Scene 5

King Henry rises one last time, and is devastated by Hal’s apparent callousness and raw ambition. Hal returns, and finding his father alive, convinces him of his good intentions just before the king dies. It’s a small redemption for Hal, although the audience is left wondering if Henry hadn’t been right.

Henry IV in the end proves himself not much better a king than the Richard he deposed, with almost as many nobles aligned against him as he had aligned against Richard. It’s small vindication for Richard, however.

During both parts, Falstaff’s story has been a running undercurrent and his on again-off again relationship with Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston) is the counterpoint story that is entwined with the political one: Falstaff’s drinking, his debts, his friends, his duplicity, his cowardice, his lusts, his boasts and lies and his eventual fall are inserted into the tale of the political machinations and dynastic struggles.

Falstaff is the great comic relief, the best of all Shakespeare’s such characters, but he is also a tragic character: flawed and doomed to fail. He is played here by Simon Russell Beale; wonderfully and passionately acted, although neither as jolly nor as humorous as he is often portrayed. He has a sharp edge of anger and deviousness in him, here. But one can’t help feel he deserves better and he certainly remains a charmer for all his faults.

The real tragedy comes at the end. Falstaff, thinking his former friendship with Prince Hal will win him a favoured spot in the newly-crowned Henry V’s heart (as well as money, land and a kingdom of pleasure for his lowlife followers) is disappointed and heartbroken when the King rejects him during the coronation. It’s a tearjerker, seeing Falstaff humbled, ridiculed, rejected and disposed of, although we know from earlier scenes that Hal’s affection for the old man is really a tissue-thin patina and that Falstaff has deluded himself about the prince’s feelings:

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
To see perform’d the tenor of our word. Set on.
King Henry IV: Act V, Sc. 5

And thus the stage is set for Shakespeare’s great patriotic work, Henry V.

These film adaptations of Shakespeare are superb and set the standard for future productions. I can’t recommend them enough: intrigue, action, suspense, passion, tragedy, humour, stirring speeches – what more could anyone ask for in a movie?

I will add a comment after I’ve watched the last film – Henry V – and how it compares with the 1989 Branagh version.

* The last film versions I saw of his works were the 2011 version of Coriolanus (with Ralph Fiennes), Titus (Andronicus) with Anthony Hopkins (released to DVD in 2006) and Merchant of Venice (2004). All were superb (the former two are in the $5 DVD bin these days), but I haven’t managed to see any others in between. I have the 2009 King Lear, 2010 As You Like It and the 2010 Tempest waiting in my Amazon basket, and a 2010 Hamlet at home still to be watched.

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