Declaring a love of Shakespeare has long been a shortcut to gaining cultural credibility. But any mug can fake a knowledge of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. How much more impressive it would be to casually opine "I think his Henriad tetralogy is divine!"
The Henriad comprises four of Shakespeare's history plays: Richard II, Henry IV Part I and Part II, and Henry V. Henry V is well known and frequently produced, including Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film. This lavishly-produced series provides an opportunity to explore the other, lesser-known plays in the sequence (which is as close as Shakespeare fans get to the excitement of a 'new work').
Richard II was utterly convinced of his divine right to rule, which led to him behave like a bit of a stinker at times. The play charts his downfall at the hands of Henry Bolingbroke, who is crowned Henry IV. It is from one of Richard's speeches that the series takes its name:
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Deprived of his throne, Richard is like a confused child, crying, roaring and wheedling in a futile attempt to get his way. As Richard, Ben Wishaw gives a performance that is haunting (I mean that quite literally - it hovered around me like a ghost for days afterwards). Patrick Stewart and David Suchet (sans Poirot moustache) offer fine support, alongside a host of Britain's finest actors.
Henry IV leaps forward to the end of Bolingbroke's reign. Jeremy Irons brings his usual gravitas to the role of Henry, tormented by political enemies and a guilty conscience ("uneasy lies the head that wears the crown"). His son, also Henry but known as Hal, is a bit of a lad, hanging out in taverns with a bawdy crowd including Sir John Falstaff. When rebels rise against Henry, young Hal receives a stern 'wake up to yourself' lecture from his dad, and proceeds to lead the troops into battle to save the crown.
If your only exposure to Tom Hiddleston thus far has been his role as Loki in the Avengers, you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that he is an accomplished classical actor. In Henry IV and V he brilliantly conveys Hal's transition from reckless roisterer to noble king. He is equally effective as the cheeky playboy, fierce warrior and awkward suitor of Catherine of France, and his delivery of the famous St Crispin's Day speech had me reaching for the tissues.
Many actors deliver Shakespeare as if they are reading a sacred text (call me a heathen, but I always found Laurence Olivier a bit hammy). In these productions, the actors speak their lines as if Shakespearean English is their native tongue, with all the natural pacing and inflection that we hear in modern speech. Even the meaning of obscure words or puzzling phrases becomes clear with this naturalistic delivery. This approach highlights not only the consummate skill of the actors, but the sheer brilliance of Shakespeare's writing, revealing more fully his subtle humour, sharp observations and complex character development.
In an effort to prove Shakespeare's timeless relevance, productions have transplanted the plays into a wide range of eras and settings. It has been so long since I have seen a production set in medieval times that the effect was startlingly refreshing. The costumes and historical settings are marvelous, and the battle scenes horrifyingly brutal.
The Wars of the Roses
The second series of the Hollow Crown, The Wars of The Roses, condenses Henry VI parts I, II and III into two films, and finishes with Richard III. This series is much darker in tone and look; where the first series featured rollicking pub scenes, rich costumes and blazing pennants against sunlit fields, much of the action of series two seems to occur in dimmed rooms or under rainy skies.
The Wars of the Roses takes up the tale of Henry VI, who was born only months after his father’s death but shows none of his talents. Where Henry V was clever and audacious, Henry VI was a simple and weak-willed soul, more interested in theological studies than politics or warfare. This leaves the kingdom vulnerable to the machinations of the courtiers and the ambitions of the Plantagenets.
Tom Sturridge brings a sympathetic touch to poor old Henry VI, poignantly portraying his descent into madness. Sophie Okonedo is ferocious as Queen Margaret, as strong and persistent as Henry is weak. The plays outline the ongoing battle for the throne between Margaret and Edward Plantagenet (later King Edward IV). The double-crossing and back-stabbing became so convoluted that I had to keep pausing the video to read Wikipedia to try to get my head around what was happening.
The in-fighting between the York and Lancaster tribes is put on hold long enough for the English to troop off to fight the French. Sherlock's Andrew Scott appears as King Louis, whose troops are led by Joan of Arc. Laura Frances-Morgan’s performance as Joan reminds us that this near-mythical character was really a simple peasant girl, making her achievements all the more extraordinary. If you are faint-hearted, her death scene would be a good time to wander off and get a cup of tea.
The dialogue in Henry VI is not Shakespeare’s best (it was one of his earlier plays, and generally regarded as one of his weakest), and the production compensates for this by lingering long and gruesomely on the battle scenes. From an historical perspective, it gives an chilling sense of just how brutal the warfare was. However the amount of time devoted to these scenes seems a little ironic, given that in the plays the large battles are only alluded to, and the onstage skirmishes are generally summarised as “they fight”.
Richard III, in contrast, is deservedly well-known, with many juicy speeches and canny insights into human behaviour. Experts still argue over whether Richard III was really as nefarious as the play makes out*. Regardless, Shakespeare’s Richard is one of the great villains of literature, and Benedict Cumberbatch attacks the role with malevolent fervour. He smirks and plots and rages and winks, making this unsympathetic character compelling and charismatic.
These productions provide riveting entertainment while maintaining the integrity of the original works. They provide proof that Shakespeare's works can still be appreciated today without the need to dumb them down or make them 'hip' for the modern audience. Long may we continue to enjoy them!
* His supporters point to the fact that he displayed unswerving loyalty to his brother, and was a capable and fair administrator. During his short reign he refused to take largesse from his subjects during his ‘victory lap’, established a court to which poor people could take their grievances and banned the clergy from collecting fraudulent payments. And even his enemies had to admit that he was an extremely courageous and skilful soldier. On the other hand, there is the strong likelihood that he was complicit in the disappearance (and presumed death) of his nephews, the notorious Princes in the Tower. However even this should to be considered in the light of those ruthless times. One of Richard’s brothers, Edward IV, ordered the death of another brother, the Duke of Clarence. The warring clans of York and Lancaster had heavily-entwined family trees. Politics was literally a life-or-death business, and even family loyalty was a precarious affair.
So was Richard the very embodiment of evil or does Shakespeare’s play represent the greatest hatchet-job in history? The truth probably lies, as it so often does, somewhere in the middle.