¶ Back in 2014, I reviewed a series of teleplays produced by the BBC called The Hollow Crown. Starring Tom Hiddleston, the three-part miniseries based on William Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” “1 Henry IV,” “2 Henry IV,” and “Henry V” was distributed by NBC Universal in the U.S. and aired on PBS.
¶ Having earned several awards and a following via unexpected DVD and VOD sales, this winter PBS is airing the second installment, called The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, featuring “1 Henry VI,” “2 Henry VI,” and “Richard III,” with Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role. I am happy to say that I will again be reviewing the series, but this time for my friends over at In The Glassy Margents over the next few weeks. I’ll post the links as they become available here.
¶ The series is still streaming for free on PBS through early January, and via Amazon VOD ($5 for the season).
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,
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.
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.
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 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.
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.