It’s not often that Shakespeare is on our televisions (and indeed, in the U.S. Shakespeare is almost never on our televisions), but this summer the BBC decided that Shakespeare would be the main act of the summer. They aired ‘The Hollow Crown’, a four-part mini-series consisting of four of Shakespeare’s history plays—Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Not only that, but the BBC tied The Hollow Crown to the Olympics by saying that Shakespeare represents a huge part of British culture. They hoped to bring Shakespeare to mainstream audience, to pique interest in the magnificent stories that he wrote and the excellent job directors and actors could do bringing them to life. I can attest to that culture, having studied Shakespeare last year in London and having seen many productions of his plays—England is truly alive and well with Shakespeare’s work, certainly more so than the United States.
The idea behind producing all four of Shakespeare’s histories is to make an epic story, which provides more depth than simply adapting one of the plays could provide. Here, we get to see the journey of kings, sad and triumphant, peaceful and warlike. In Richard II, we see how Henry IV becomes king. Henry IV is all about Henry’s son, Prince Hal, going from being an irresponsible young rapscallion (yes, I did use that word) to realizing his duty as the next in line for the throne. In Henry V, that same Prince is now a king, determined to prove that he is a good king and one to be taken seriously.
These plays could be very boring, considering that the story of the succession of kings is ultimately a story full of politics, and politics, while intriguing, can be a bit dull at times. Indeed, the dullness of politics has its moments in these productions, but those moments are few. Instead, Shakespeare’s plays and the resultant productions focus on the personal stories—this isn’t just about the succession of Kings, but about men growing into the roles of kings, or relinquishing them, in their own ways. They are personal journals, in which the kings, while divine rulers to their subjects, are shown in much more human, personal moments, so they become men that we can sympathize and relate to. And overall, the series is successful in creating not only good stories, but characters we can relate to even as they strive to be greater than most.
Richard II is a Shakespeare play that is rarely adapted to the screen, and for good reason. Not much happens. Richard is king of England, and two of his subjects get into a quarrel. He banishes them both, and leaves to go wage a war that people don’t want. He is a young king, and some of his subjects think he is unfit to rule. One of the men he banished, Henry Bolingbroke, returns to England and, with some help, takes the throne from Richard, and weeds out those in the kingdom who would betray him. He grips England with an iron fist.
Ben Whishaw as Richard in the mirror scene.
In this production, Richard II is played by Ben Whishaw. Dark haired, pale skinned, and always dressed in white, Richard is given a lot of visual symbolism. He is often made to look like Christ, both when he spreads his arms wide in front of the throne as a king before his subjects and later, when he looks Christ-like in death with an arrow sticking out of his side (and his chest, and his shoulder), the picture of sacrifice. Ben Whishaw plays Richard well, as a delicate, sometimes sassy, sensitive king. He is very obviously very young, both in appearance and action. He doesn’t know quite how to run a kingdom, and isn’t quite strong enough to go head-to-head with those that criticize him; instead, he punishes them. We feel for him in his sensitive moments, such as when he can’t bear to part with the crown, but we also can understand why he doesn’t make a good king.
The usurper is Henry Bolingbroke, played by Rory Kinnear, who does a good job playing Richard’s foil, in that not only is he older in appearance, but he acts more like a king-he is strong-willed, and a leader, and determined. He is also ruthless, in some ways; he demands the heads of traitors. Yet he is also respectful; we learn that for all he wanted Richard locked away, he did not want Richard dead. And Kinnear convinces us, more than Richard ever could, that he is a king, even before the crown is on his head.
There are also other actors who light up the screen when they are on. Patrick Stewart plays John of Gaunt, briefly, in the beginning. This is Henry’s father, who is a harsh critic of Richard, who stands up to him, and then dies, and Stewart allows him to make a mark. David Morrissey is steadfast as Northumberland, one of Henry’s supporters.
Besides the actors, the cinematography itself is enough to steal some scenes. We get
Richard in the final scenes.
wide, sweeping shots of green fields. There are many scenes where we see turquoise water and the waves lapping up upon a clear, pristine sandy beach. Even smaller scale scenes have there moments—Richard and his cousins sit upon a stony bridge surrounded by green trees, feet hanging over a steady stream on a clear, sunny summer’s day.
The costuming is equally wonderful to look at. Richard wears white-gold garments that are made for a king of extravagance, while Henry goes for imposing dark colors.
If this production is anything, it is a production meant to be looked at. What the script cannot provide in action the production makes up for by being candy for the eye. The film, at two hours and twenty minutes long, can drag in places, but there’s always something to watch, whether it be the costumes, the scenery, or the symbolism. At one point Richard looks in a mirror and smashes it, declaring that he is no longer king. The imagery is heavy, and there is no pulling punches, but it works to make the story more cinematic than the script originally is.
Henry IV Parts 1 and 2
If Richard II is a production of images, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 is a production of actions and words. The script has more to give for television purposes, in that more happens, and faster. There is definitive action. As a result, the production doesn’t need as many lingering shots or symbolism. Instead, the story is more practical and stark, moving on when it needs to, with very little in the way of scenery to speak of. It isn’t pretty to look at, but it is captivating to watch.
Henry IV, as a whole, is the coming-of-age story of Prince Hal, King Henry IV’s son. Hal is irresponsible and keeps bad company and seemingly has no concept of the fact that he is soon to be king. On the other end of the spectrum is Northumberland’s son, Hotspur, who is noble and a respected warrior, who eventually decides to lead a civil war against the king. Prince Hal decides to take up the responsibility of war and challenges Hotspur. This is his first step towards being worthy of the title of king. This is what makes up Part 1.
Part 2 focuses on Prince Hal’s friend, Falstaff, a drunkard of a man who steals, lies, and does everything to excess. He has no responsibilities, and he certainly never grew up, despite being an old man. Yet, with Henry IV so wrapped up in being a king and keeping his crown, Richard’s death still looming over him and causing unrest, Falstaff has become a sort of surrogate father to Hal, if a very bad one. This second part examines Falstaff’s character in parallel to Prince Hal’s, and what it is that eventually makes Hal realize that in order to become a good king, he must cast Falstaff and the rest of his bawdy friends off and make a new life for himself. And it isn’t easy, but it is necessary.
Henry IV is played by Jeremy Irons, and Irons plays him as stern and always aware of his
Jeremy Irons as Henry IV
duty. He is tired, in this production, and as Hal points out, the crown has eaten away at him. And Irons makes his character look it—the concerns over his son and the civil war and everything else wear him down until, sick and frail, he is close to panicked that he will not be able to impart on Hal the ways of kingship. He and Hal have no real relationship to speak of, save for an undercurrent of resentment, until the end, when both accept the future—Henry’s death and Hal’s kingship.
Tom Hiddleston makes us invested in Hal’s journey, by playing him as a rogue but with an undercurrent of something more serious. He is aware of responsibility but does not take it, not until he needs to, and he is also innocent to what being a prince and, later, a king entails. This is most obvious during his battle with Hotspur, when he comes from the battle gasping and faces Hotspur wide-eyed and almost desperate before managing to get a hold of his anger, whereas Hotspur is self assured-battle is where he belongs. In Part 2 Hiddleston brings more sensitivity to the performance when he realizes what being King has done to his father, and what he must do.
Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal, shortly before becoming King.
It is the last part of Henry IV Part 2 that Hiddleston shines the most, accepting responsibility for being the king and mourning his father’s death. Hiddleston allows Hal to lose his carefree attitude and replace it with something more regal, and determined to prove that he is responsible and ready to be king. He doesn’t lose his sensitivity, or his humanity, but he allows it to show to different people—his father and his court. With Falstaff, he is cold and aloof, every part the king to make it known that he has rejected his formal life. He is not the thing he once was, he tells Falstaff, and we can all see it in the way he holds himself, the look in his eye, and the way he talks. His fathers’ death has changed him.
Simon Russell Beale is Falstaff, known for being one of the most bawdy characters in any of Shakespeare’s works. Beale, however, makes Falstaff a little more well-rounded (no pun intended, maybe) by showing that Falstaff does, in fact, find some affection in his friendship with Prince Hal. Sure, he often uses the friendship to save himself from punishment, and he uses everyone around him to his own ends, even claiming to have killed Hotspur despite that honor being Prince Hal’s, but there is an undercurrent of genuine affection towards Hal, and sadness when Hal rejects him. By the time we get to Henry V, Falstaff is nothing more but a shell of his former self. This performance works on many levels by making Falstaff more interesting. However, during Henry IV Part 2 Falstaff spends most of the play being grim, which makes his sadness at the end stand out less than it should—after all, Falstaff should be reasonably merry until he absolutely has reason not to be. And he only has reason to be truly grim when Hal rejects him.
Part I tends to be more interesting than Part 2, because there is a lot going on—we are introduced to characters, and given a civil war to worry about, and everything ends with a defining moment for Hal. Part 2 picks up towards the end, when we see Falstaff’s hope that once Hal is king, life will be good for him, juxtaposed with Hal’s realization that he must cast off his old life to be a good king. One of the most powerful moments is between Hal and Henry IV, when Henry IV tells him that he hopes his rein will be more peaceful, because he would gain kingship by divine right (inheritance) rather than through usurping the crown.
Henry V picks up a few years after the previous installment, when Prince Hal, now Henry V, is enjoying a peaceful rein. He is a good king, but there is a problem with France, which owns some lands that should, by rights, belong to Henry. So, they decide to fight for those lands against France in order to bring peace to the nations.
More than that, Henry V is the story about a king who realizes that, at the heart of everything, he is also simply a man, like his subjects. What is most interesting about this production is the way in which it differs from the past. The most recent production of Henry V had Kenneth Branagh in the lead role (and directing) and was big. Branagh played Henry as a confident king, one who would rally whole troops with inspiring speeches, one who was self-assured.
Tom Hiddleston as Henry V.
Tom Hiddleston goes for a different approach—he makes Henry V’s story not only that of a king who is a man, but of a man who is trying to prove that he is a good king, despite his past. The major speeches of this play are where the change is most obvious—instead of being delivered to whole armies, Hiddleston’s Henry delivers to handfuls of people, addressing individuals even, making the speeches more personal, and all the while seeming like he’s trying to reassure himself as much as those he speaks to. And this emphasizes the fact that Henry is also a man like his subjects, because he, too, has his doubts, and Tom Hiddleston plays upon those uncertainty well. His king is sure of himself when he needs to be, in front of others, but is much less sure when alone, or disguising himself as a commoner, or while trying to woo Katherine, or in prayer. But he is still a king, nonetheless, one that owns the battlefields and fights in Agincourt until the very end, determined to win. The performance makes you feel for Henry more, and as a result you become more invested in his story.
Edward Akrout plays the Dauphin as an angry young man, similar to Hotspur in Henry IV. The Dauphin is the prince of France, and is opposite of Henry in many ways; in that he is angrier and more eager for war. But they also share similarities: they are both determined to prove themselves, they are young, and they are proud and will not back down.
John Hurt voices the Chorus, which is handled interestingly, through interludes that carry the narration forward in time, the Chorus being a voice-over to visuals that show the passage of time and allow everything to flow smoothly. Interestingly enough, we find out that Hurt’s character is not the just Chorus, but is Falstaff’s boy, who goes to war in France as a child and witnesses Henry’s sudden death years later. We get a closure with him, having followed him through the story, always in the background, the only thing carried from Henry’s old life to his new one. He becomes an old man, and stands by Henry’s old throne, and delivers the Chorus’ last lines, closing the final chapter of an epic story of kings.
So is it worth watching? Yes. The Hollow Crown is beautiful produced, directed, and acted, and if there were ever a way to see all of Shakespeare’s histories, this is it. Put together, the histories become one epic story of kings rising and falling, of triumph and failure, love and loss, coming of age and taking on responsibility. Most of all, these stories are about change. People change, times change, but each change brings on a new story.