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.

The Hollow Crown 1.1: “Richard II”

No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.

Richard, in another’s hands, might be construed as pitiable and soft, born without the backbone to rule. But in Ben Whishaw’s grasp, his entitlement and indecision produce a slimy politician merely “landlord of England…not king.” He disregards the citizenry, hiking up taxes to fund troops to quash civil brawls. When this income runs out, he seizes the estate of his uncle, John of Gaunt (Sir Patrick Stewart), at his deathbed. Constantly anxious about “baseness,” Richard is never able to take power. Unlike Henry Hereford, Gaunt’s son, he doesn’t understand that the only power he wields is that which his people choose to give up to him. His inability to command resolution or obedience from Hereford, aka Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear), and Thomas Mowbray (James Purefoy) in the opening scenes speak to troubles to come.

A boom mike drifting into the frame reinforced the associations between a performance of Shakespeare and Richard’s personating of kingship.

Richard constantly undermines his own authority by virtue of his very anxiety over whether “we debase ourselves.” He reaches out to sycophantic favorites and flattering caterpillars, again and again asking for assessment by others while simultaneously dismissing them. (The PBS website offers a full synopsis of the production, including the eight beheadings of these favorites.) Richard does not know how to self-contatin, to self-assess. He waffles, equivocates, revises decisions at the last minute, and only panders to fairness when it serves his coffers. His peers begin to realize their king has “grown bankrupt” with this chilly callousness, operating without a clear moral compass and robbing the commons to freight conspicuous interests.

Richard is more interested in his exotic pet and hermetically-sealed surroundings than the debate between Bolingbroke and Mowbray.

There are three excellent scenes in this BBC Two/PBS production that distill the weaknesses of Richard’s model of kingship: the exile of Mowbray and Bolingbroke, the usurpation of Richard, and the gardener episode. Two of them focus on the problem that he does not know how not to personate the monarch, how not to be the center of the room, and in the end, how to resign his monarchal status. He is constantly posing, striking the image of a godly monarch but unable to summon the supposed benefits of power therein. We first meet Richard on his throne, propped between orb and scepter, unable to produce resolution between his peers. Then, at the perverted joust, used to decide who will die rather than display martial skill, the king in all his gold and finery is more concerned with his pet monkey than the outcome.

Richard, on Dover-like shores, contemplating if there are any moves left to make.

In these scenes he plays the king of sumptuous: power through excess. But the display fails to convince. He then assumes a warlike mask instead. He first attempts this in his campaign against Irish and Welsh rebells. Upon return to beachy England he realizes all is lost regardless of his battle trappings. (England is not fetishized as a landscape of rolling hills meant only for thoroughbreds of Elizabeth I, nor entirely made of the fog and muck of the Brontés, but is a hemmed-in island of grassy and all-consuming sandy shorelines.) He doesn’t discard the get-up, however. Holed up in Flint Castle, he glares over Bolingbroke’s troops in a suit of mail entirely of gold and framed by gilt angel silhouettes. Sweating, trembling, he can barely stand the weight of his regalia for a few moments. All the worse, it is an unnecessary display: Bolingbroke has brought terms of reinstatement, not usurpation. Richard is made a fool in his excesses of wealth and war.

The king adopts next the habiliments of an archangel…

His final performance is that of a Christ unjustly crucified for the sake of power. To his usurpation he rides on a Palm Sunday white mule, himself barefoot and dressed in a thin shift of white (with gold trim, of course). In his long equivocating speechunable to give up his title, unable to keep ithe whirls around the room adopting a posture of crucifixion several times. In part he blames, ironically, his “wavering commons,” his subject. It seems all to fitting then that a stable boy, having traded in several favors in order to merely “see” he who had once been king, leads to Richard’s death. Shot through with crossbow bolts by Gaunt’s nephew, his last pose mirrors an earlier moment of exchanged homoerotic glances between the king, his painter, and a model strung up as Christ, pierced through with prop arrows and fake blood. Art imitates life imitates art; The artifice of monarchy was not enough to prop up Richard.

…before assuming the position of Christ himself.

If the series is emphasizing Shakespeare’s thesis that the crown is conditioned by and comments on he that wear it, how should we understand this interpretation of Richard II? Despite stellar performances from some of best Shakespeareans working todayRory Kinnear, especially, fresh from his gripping portrayal of Iago in the National’s recent OthelloWhishaw steals the show as a king unable to command his own script. Richard performs many kinds of kingly types, but is unable to craft a version of kingship for himself. His abstracted personating is riven from the realities of governance, the needs of those “wavering commons.” This suggests that performing power is not the same as having poweran argument Paul Yachnin would be fond of. As a hold-over from the conditions of the play’s initial performance, such a claim would have helped protect the theatre from naysayers; by only performing the trappings of power, the theatre doesn’t necessarily have power. And yet a 1601 performance played a role in the downfall of one of Elizabeth I’s real favorites, Robert Devereaux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, in his failed attempt to instigate a rebellion.

Echoing an earlier painting of Christ, the king is murdered by a son of York and his stableboy.

So the threat, perhaps, is not in the ways kings choose to fill the crown of England, but rather in the very mutability of that prop. The English believed that the species of kingship at the helm also manifested in the state of the realm. The simile associating governance with gardening threads its way throughout the Henriad. Here, the illustrious David Bradely plays Gardener to Richard’s topiary. Not given a proper name, the Gardener stands in as an emblem for common perceptions, the voice of the things tacitly understood by the people. To the depressed and naive queen he explains the situation best:

In your lord’s scale is nothing but himself,
And some few vanities that make him light;
But in the balance of great Bolingbroke,
Besides himself, are all the English peers,
And with that odds he weighs King Richard down.

In the eye of the people, there is nothing miraculous nor mysterious left in the person of the king. The multitude has returned to a rubric of who has the resources to govern best rather than a religious right. Richard has the performance of kingship on his side, but Bolingbroke has his virtue and the support of the peers to back him. In Richard, the tale of the player-king ends, while Kinnear establishes the reign of Henry IV, to be measured in his age under the auspices of Jeremy Irons.


  • “Richard II.” The Hollow Crown. DVD. Directed by Rupert. Written by William Shakespeare. 20 September 2013. California: NBC Universal, 2013. PBS.