The Hollow Crown 1.3: “Henry V”

Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred anew;
. . . I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon.

The undertaking of telling this tetralogy of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V under the heading of “The Hollow Crown” allows its directors to two unique things: a) place different models of governance immediately side-by-side, and b) theorize a core arguments for each play as well as a central theme for the set. In the last installation, the telling of Hal-cum-Harry’s brief reign, I finally now understand how Henry V functions as the crowning jewel to this quartet: in Harry England is balanced the performativity or “personation” (a la Louis Montrose) of the monarch, Richard II’s only skill, with the grit and gristle of the material reality of ruling that seemed to eat the ever-capable Henry IV alive. Hal, finally come into his own as a monarch, is the perfect balance of the two, welded together by a genuine care for his commonwealth as such.

In this final installment, Hiddleston seems to realize that he is the frontman, and need not share that position with anyone. His Harry is given a new Hotspur, a new foil to contend with, the Dauphin of France. A young man hot for the honor of war, this prince still has a father looking over his shoulder and had not a riotous youth to buff out his too-pristine accoutrements. Like Richard, Harry’s youth hangs as a specter over this production. My favorite scenes have always been the conversations with the men the night beforehand Agincourt. Here I understand better the why Harry links himself to these Welsh men. The Welsh are in riot when we first meet Hal, whose youth with Falstaff is often referred to as “riot.” Welshness, as the prince of Wales, becomes synonymous with this rebellious youth. Here, he invokes his youth, his Welsh heritage, to the Welsh aid making up a major portion of his French contingency. As Harry has ameliorated himself to kingship, so have the Welsh rejoined the commonwealth.

Hal (Tom Hiddleston) assumes the throne of England as the people’s prince.

That Harry is not longer a youth but still youthful conditions much of this performance precisely because we have been able to chart the progression of his development with DVDs side-by-side. His crown is off as often as it is on. While the film opens with his funeral service, him interred with the crown, his first live movements are a horseback without it. He races to the throne room to hear the Dauphin’s message, snagging the crown from a servant’s waiting arms without even looking at it. When he attempts to woo the princess Katherine, it is only after he removes the crown to a chair that he finds any success with her. The crown is a costume for Hal, who plays many parts with it—like Richard II—but is able to separate his person from its performance as his father could not.

To the Dauphin’s messenger (Jérémie Covillault), Hal as Harry England (Tom Hiddleston) is a capable but outnumbered soldier.

Thus, Harry plays a number of roles in this film. He is first the Christian king who, having recuperated England under a smooth transition, his counsellors profess his youth, coupled with the resources and his claim to legitimacy makes this the perfect time to attempt France. And of course it is legitimacy that moves him. No son of a divinely ordained line, he has yet to have evidence that God is on his side. He plays second the soldier of morale, staving off mutiny both at the siege of Harfluer and the night before Agincourt. He can rouse both the peers of his realm as well as the commonest man whose just lost an eye. For once, it seems, England’s monarch has his thumb on the pulse of the nation.

As the battle and all that day wait on Harry (Tom Hiddleston), he prays to God to keep fear from his men’s hearts. He acknowledges that the prayer is likely in vain, coming to God out of truancy as yet unforgiven.

As in any adaptation, elements need be omitted. Two of the darker moments that trouble Harry as the spirit of English virtue were blurred out here: the deceit and execution of the three nobles, and the slaughter of the drummer boys protecting the English camp. All that remained was the hanging of Bardolph for having stolen a crucifix in a moment of terror from a church at Harfleur. Despite the brief flashbacks of tomfoolery together at the Boar’s Head, Harry distances himself from the dead Bardolph and uses his death to dictate honorable behavior in war to the on-looking regiments. The tone of celebratory nationalism is hard to ignore I this play. As a viewer, I am more willing to accept it of and from this Hal precisely because of the tribulations of June former two monarchs immediately preceding.

In his last role, Harry (Tom Hiddleston) courts the princess of France, Katherine (Mélanie Thiérry), that she would take him rather than be taken.

There are three other related interpretive choices that vere drastically from previous film versions. First, the film opens with a dead Harry, a mourning Kate and babe, so we know from the start that to is the last of his tale. Its a bit crushing, altering what we can expect from the conclusion of the action. Second, brief glimpses of Kate are the laced throughout, but the English language lesson scene and Harry’s courtship lack all playfulness and brevity. In the first, Thiérry is stiff, refusing to reinforce her learning the names of body parts by indicating them physically in the way that Emma Thompson did so compellingly in Branagh’s version. Despite being the heartthrob of the moment as Loki in the *Thor* and *Avenger’s* films! when Hiddleston finally gets a moment to play the amorous monarch he is refused. He would have Kate be something he doesn’t have to take by force, but chooses him; in the aftermath of battle and as the foremost item of negotiation in the treaty, Kate returns his kiss but nothing more. She doesn’t have much choice, although the final moments of the film where she weeps dressed in black suggests her heat was indeed won. While Harry finally gets to star here, he does not get to keep Hal’s friends nor playfulness. Of anything that is what he sacrifices for the win in France.

So while Kate is the visual motif hinging the film together, the invisible voice of the Chorus, played by the wonderfully wizened John Hurt, holds the narrative together. The metatheatrics of this play means that often the Chorus gets embodied representation, again, as Derek Jacobi did for Branagh. This third element may have been the films greatest but of artistic license: the chorus is an older version of Falstaff’s servant boy who then serves Hal on the fields of France. Because the boys are not slaughtered at Aguncourt, it is suggested that to new generation of Englishman, learn that lost art of honor from the king himself, have lived on as old men, as he predicted:

We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day

By linking our storyteller to this battle as a participant and rememberer, we are thus linked with that moment. Having lived on from it, we are the inheritors of this kind of noble kingship. Hurt’s eyes twinkle at the last as he grasps the rag still stained with the blood of dead York and the king himself, as if imploring us to consider our own rulers: In what ways do they choose to fill that hollow crown that licenses the figurehead of governance? How do they personate the vehicle of sovereignty whether under the guise of monarchy or otherwise?

About these variations I do not grumble, but find the ameliorating choices compelling as respite from suffering through as spectators the inefficiency of Richard II and Henry IV. All the more do we want to celebrate Harry as an ideal model of governance. But Shakespeare, and the film, doesn’t allow us to dally in these notions of idealism rewarded. Harry dies so soon, leaving young son who we are reminded looses France quickly never to be regained by England again. Like the death of Falstaff, we are left with bitter taste in our mouths. If we aren’t allowed to hope for some superman, some Harry England born from the refuse of London’s alleys, to save the commonwealth from its decay, the film suggests we muster to collectivity, to one another in the ethos of the multitude, for a national cohesion Hal so longs for us.


  • “Henry V.” The Hollow Crown. DVD. Directed by Thea Sharrock. Written by William Shakespeare. 11 October 2013. California: NBC Universal, 2013. PBS.

The Hollow Crown 1.2: “Henry IV”

Coming to look on you, thinking you dead-
And dead almost, my liege, to think you were-
I spake unto this crown as having sense,
And thus upbraided it: ‘The care on thee depending
Hath fed upon the body of my father;
Therefore thou best of gold art worst of gold.
Other, less fine in carat, is more precious,
Preserving life in med’cine potable;
But thou, most fine, most honour’d, most renown’d,
Hast eat thy bearer up.’

– Hal to his father, Henry IV

In the fim criticism of Hal’s exploits, filth and cleanliness have become important interpretive cornerstones. Olivier’s Henry V was famous as a WWII rally-cry for a nation at war, more interested in the play’s metatheatrics and commentary on honor than depicting the “perforced decay” of war itself. Branagh’s breakout smash of the same text is notorious now for the murk, gore, and even tinted film stock used to convey a nation in conflict, decaying from the inside out. But these are the stories of Hal at his best. It is partly what makes it easy to love Henry V as a play. But Richard Eyre took on the challenge of telling the story of Henry IV’s reign, embattled by riot from the Welsh and his own son. By contrasting these seditions, the parts one and two trace not the evolution but the revelations of Hal: the realization of who he needs to be as a monarch, and the epiphany of the sacrifice that crown will ask of him.

In this dark and greasy portrayal of early modern London life, the paces to sobering epiphany are marked by Henry very damply. It is as if the film itself is a Falstaff, made of piss, grease, and cheap ale. In fact, cleanliness is the very thing that pisses off Hotspur from the start and ignites the action of part one: one of the king’s cronies, “fresh as a bridegroom” and having not participated in a battle against the Welsh come demanding captives from Hotspur who is badly caught his breath or cleaned his blade from battle. This world of “cracked crowns” is “as gross as butter” indeed, to the point that the dirt and poverty looses its carnivalesque hue and takes on a gravity that we, in age of start wage disparities, empathize with. And Hal, as he walks through his small dominion of the Boar’s Head, meditates on just this through voiceovers of internal monologue. Voiceovers have long been out of fashion in cinematic Shakespeare, often used for soliloquies that, while indeed conveying motivation, do have a kind of audience in mind that stream-of-consciousness does not. However, coupled with direct addresses to the camera, it is actually largely effective here. (I suspect that the usefulness of the device by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards might also be representative of a larger trend and approach to direct address as a sophisticated rather than campy device.)

Hal (Tom Hiddleston) goads the tavern boy after a bath of sack.

Before Hal can be taken out of his little room of great reckoning, he must first practice his answers to the King as a truant son with Falstaff. Having robbed Falstaff of his small modicum of honor in the thief jest, the air is tense to begin with. Hiddleston, drenched from head to toe as if he barely survived a keg stand, imitates the spittle and moisture of Iron’s enunciation if a brilliant moment of impersonation. Here, just as on the battlefield against his foil Hotspur, honor and muck collide as if ends on the same continuum. To be without honor is something viscerally disgusting, and “the body of our nation how rank it is” suggests that England as a whole is without honor. From this “fattest soil” must Hal emerge and be something more than merely “food for worms.”

Hal (Tom Hiddleston) weighs the loyalty of Poins (David Dawson) as they recover from their wounds in a London bath.

But “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” and Hal resists having to make this transition alone, unable to distribute some of the burden. It is clear that Falstaff, particularly in his nabbing the honor of killing Hotspur for his own betterment and then promising his friend Shallow that he has power to get him a title too, can no longer father Hal through this transition. In battle and in counsel, Poins is a close confidant, able to mingle among those of lowest and highest degree. But even he is ratted out by Falstaff, bragging to others that he has the ear and persuasion of the king, enough to get him to marry his sister. The nation is still “a body yet distempered” from which Hal must extract himself in order to prune and plant anew.

Thinking his father dead, Hal (Tom Hiddleston) crumbles under the weight of a crown whose responsibility he may not entirely want, may not be entirely entitled to, and has killed his father.

The DVD box set of The Hollow Crown packages both parts of Henry IV together, making up a four-hour middling narrative to the more theatrical bookends of Richard II and Henry V. Where Richard reveled in his monarchy although he wielded it poorly, Henry IV understands its stakes and is consumed alive by it. A long-time fan of Jeremy Irons (even as Leicester to Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth I), I was sure he would steal the role. It has been a long time since he played a frontman so exclusively as in The Mission, but even here he understands that despite having the title role, in reality these are steps in Hal’s story and he plays but a part. He too challenges our notions of kingship by linking it with disgust: even at the moment of victory against the Welsh on the battlefield he throws up phlegm  before making his rounds a-horse. At least in this way he is far more the embodiment of the state of the commonwealth ever more than Richard was.

Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) counsels his son (Tom Hiddleston) on the strategies he must deploy if his inheritance of the monarchal state is to be a smooth one.

What Irons does do is emphasize the notion than an heir must be “worthy” of a crown, a interesting and potentially seditious component in the play. In some versions Henry IV is played as sniveling and incompetent, a man who has bitten off more than he could chew. But here, the anxieties of legitimacy still linger from Richard II, making his desire for Hotspur rather than Hal as his heir more compelling, more justified and less un-fatherly. In his last moments he finds Hal has put the crown on his head as if “to try with it—as with an enemy / that had before my face murd’red my father—the quarrel of a true inheritor.” He is still unsure of whether his son is worthy of the weight, has the measure of honor necessary to carry the burden of the crown having grown up in a world of taverns and wenches. But as we are to learn, it is precisely that self-elected upbringing that has made Hal capable.

So while Hal’s riotous youth was a self-selected course, his ascension to the throne and his small band of younger brothers are not. His life is no longer his own, and in this moment Hal seems all wiser in having lived out his freedom early and well. No one else knows how to take this transition and what king he will make. Tyrannical? Incompetent? Excessive? His younger brothers wear their concern on their collection sleeve. To them Hal says:

This new and gorgeous garment, majesty,
Sits not so easy on me as you think.
Brothers, you mix your sadness with some fear.
This is the English, not the Turkish court.

It is for the final installment of the miniseries, the rise of Henry V, to which we are oriented to judge what final kind of king Hal means to be.


  • “1 Henry IV” and “2 Henry IV.” The Hollow Crown. DVD. Directed by Richard Eyre. Written by William Shakespeare. 27 September/4 October 2013. California: NBC Universal, 2013. PBS.