Series in Review: The Hollow Crown

A decade ago, one would have argued that the Shakespeare media marketplace lay in the feature film. And you might have been right. As Simon Crowl has argued time and again, Kenneth Branagh was the hope of the industry. Born a street vagabond in Belfast, bred to be a carpenter, Crowl argues that his “genius as a film director is bound up with his powers of synthesis,” particularly in combining his “native Irish bravado with his adopted English tradition.” There have been an increasing number of non-tween Shakespeare’s other than Branagh’s in recent years: Taymor’s The Tempest and Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. Today, however, the real bulk of the work (outside brick-and-mortar playhouses) is being done on the silver screen. The Shakespeare cinema industry seems to have taken up residence in television, namely the mini-series.

The most important of these recent incarnations is The Tudors. While Wyatt and Holbein were frequent guests, the show never got far enough into Elizabeth’s reign to introduce playwrights. (There are some excellent moments dramatizing medieval interludes and other kinds of court performances, however.) Demonstrating that there was a market for the Renaissance on television, perhaps not the length of an entire seasonalthough the CW’s Reign is putting this to the testthere was certainly room for the miniseries. There had been precedents: The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), The Shadow of the Tower (1971), and Elizabeth R (1972). (Who could forget the emerald green velvet lining of the box set to Elizabeth R?) Many of these were produced as collaborative projects between BBC and PBS, with significant support from cultural institutions. They were one-off projects in the service of their merits rather than the revenue they might produce. The ’60s and ’70s was an especially sparse time for live-action material on PBS. The bulk of their properties were made up of children’s programming like Sesame StreetMr. Rodger’s NeighborhoodElectric Company, and The Wonderful World of Disneymuch of which extremely influential in the development of the Kid’s market. In an age where the live-action drama reigns supreme whether it be basic cable, online streaming content providers, or the premium channels, the period/costume drama appeal is growing, and Shakespeare with it.

In the last year, The Hollow Crown and The White Queen vied for attention across these markets by using the miniseries format. As White Queen aired this past summer on STARz, I blogged extensively on the series’ narrative development. It recounts the War of the Roses by way of Phillipa Gregory’s feminist bent, tracing machinations sovereign and common through the eyes of Elizabeth Rivers, Edward IV’s queen. White Queen was rather first-wave in its gender investments, so it was interesting to see Reign on the air a month later with a refreshing third-wave posture in its version of the girlhood of Mary Queen of Scots. At the same time did PBS run The Hollow Crown as a four-part series through the end of September and into October. Featuring two generations of England’s best classical talent, the series professes itself as a teleplay, not an adaptation, of Shakespeare’s Henriad. Following three kingsRichard II (Ben Whishaw), Henry IV (Jeremy Ironswho’s son, Max Irons played the role of Edward IV in White Queen), and Henry V (Tom Hiddleston)the series uses the conceit of the ‘hollow crown’ to organize the ideological content of these performances.

The title conceit comes from a quotation in Richard II. Realizing he has lost England and any sway he might have had over the commons or peers of the realm, Richard looks out across a beach to his few remaining retainers and commands:

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,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin.

Richard lists here all the kinds of monarchal stories one might tell, of poisoning, war, and usurpation, arguing the life of a king always ends the same way: with murder, by the very crown they wear. Insignificant without a wearer, Richard is coming to the realization that it is not the hat that makes the man. To wear the crown is both to tempt death and forget one’s own mortality. It is the crucial prop with which to perform king, to personate kingship. The series foregrounds this question, what makes a king, by providing us three different answers in Richard, his usurper Henry and Jr., in the trappings they adopt in order to, as Shakespeare says, “monarchize.”

In the next couple weeks i’ll be reviewing the series in three parts based on the American DVD release by PBS under their Great Performances series. In part, it will be a nice distraction while we wait out their conclusion to the fourth season of Downton Abbey. It is also a compelling next iteration in the Renaissance miniseries fad crossing the airways, a glut of which was available this past fall. A trailer to whet your whistle:

The White Queen 1.10: The Final Battle

Men go to battle. Women wage war.

While I imagine the producers of The White Queen had hoped for more than a single-season run of episodes, I think this story was best served in a mini-series format. Confined to a limited number of episodes meant that the parameters of the narrative arc needed to be firmly defined. Firm bookended seemed to have provided the writers with clearer goals for the end of the season as the show itself seemed to establish its points of emphases around episode seven. While overall it did seem to loose Queen Elizabeth as a focal point, flattening her with age, but the show never lost its sense of gendered investments about the way the late-medieval English aristocracy marshaled power.

Richard’s sigil, the Warthog, flies for the last time at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

And the show did divide down gender lines to the bitter end. There were certainly fewer men left at the end of the day than women. The Stanleys, in their willingness to sacrifice honor and virtue for power, continued to find success in their strategy to refuse to pick sides. In the end, they become the new Kingmakers and replacing the vacuum Warwick had left behind. Even infamous Richard seemed to have been cured of his chivalry by the end of the series. In fact, the show makes him out to be merely a bad politician (rather than the smooth operator Shakespeare depicts), wherein the deaths of all the sons of York and its heirs were somehow influenced by his presence. And Henry Tudor is not much to be invested in as the hapless puppet of a vain, extremist mother. While a noble, stoic child, it is unclear what this version of Henry has grown up into as a man.

Henry Tudor lands ashore, finally returning to English soil.

The survival rate of the noble women as the political centerpieces wasn’t all that better than there counterparts. Queen Anne died a sad and desperate death shortly after the passing of her son and the disintegration of hers and Richard’s great love when it had little to do with political gain. At the heart of the episode is Anne’s rival, Princess Elizabeth, daughter of the once Queen Elizabeth. Beloved by Richard and betrothed to Henry, she only stands to gain here. But if you know your English history (and catch the cursing hints dropped by her sister Cecily), the future is a barren one for Elizabeth and Henry. She is a disturbing figure in how little she cares or understand the larger implications of her marriage (such as the death of thousands). In Lady Margaret we are given the barest glimmer of hope that she might in fact feel the true full weight of her political wrangling all these years when the lives of her beloved and her son hung in the balance. Alas, in her sons’ victory we see the dissolution of any real piety in Margaret.

Struck by the sight of God’s work before here in the success of her son, Margaret Regina revels unawares amongst the dead masses.

On March 16, 1485, there really was a total solar eclipse that was widely interpreted to mark the fall of the House of York and the beginning of something entirely new in England. As the show would suggest, a violent and male-dominated medieval period moves aside for the beginnings of something more progressive in the Renaissance, whose high watermark was the long and stable reign of Queen Elizabeth I of the House of Tudor. But of of course this is as much mythology as the rumors spread about Richard’s hunchback. The White Queen is a show that substitutes history for its close kin, nostalgia. It wistfully longs for any idyllic past that was sumptuousness, love, offspring, and a bit of intrigue in the upper crust, completely ignoring the brown bread-and-butters dying in battle at the feet of Margaret of Anjou and Lady Margaret Beauford. How might a show trace the place of the English feudal peasant through the motions of the War of the Roses? The civil strife at the lowest strata of English society was often made reference to in the show, this episode included, but little was seen and less heard about the actual position of those conscripted to fight. It may be an intersting thought experiment to envision a program that rather than arguing that “Men go to battle. Women go to war.” was based on the liminal proposition that “Kings go to battle. Peasants go to war.”

  • CITATION: “The Final Battle.” The White Queen. Television. Directed by Colin Teague. Written by Emma Frost. 19 October 2013. London: BBC One, 2013. STARz cable channel.
  • Check out the BBC One promo video for this episode below: