The Hollow Crown: An Introductory Essayby Peter Kirwan

The Hollow Crown: An Introductory Essay

The hollow crown is a circlet denoting power, birthright, responsibility, legacy and burden. It is also a small item of headwear that sits, more or less comfortably, on the head of a king. It is both multiple (each king showing their own preferences in their choice of headwear) and symbolically singular, able to be worn by only one person at a time. It is an object of adoration that brings rooms to a standstill, shaping the space in which it is received; it is also a piece of metal that clatters messily to the ground, rolls and sinks. And it is, as in the above speech, a marker of death as well as of life.
The Hollow Crown – the 2012 and 2016 television series, rather than the object – is one of the most important Shakespeare productions of recent times. The seven feature-length episodes are the largest-scale investment in Shakespeare production ever undertaken for television, bringing together a wealth of (predominantly British) acting talent from veterans of the classical stage to the hottest film stars. Produced by Neal Street Productions specifically for television, rather than drawing on existing stage productions, they are also the first treatment of Shakespeare’s two cycles of history plays to be designed specifically for the medium, fully engaging with the visual, aural and technical language of quality television.
The international success of The Hollow Crown was marked through critical acclaim and multiple awards, and its broadcast as prime-time television on both sides of the Atlantic ensured a large audience (The Guardian reported over a million UK viewers for Henry VI, Part 1, an extraordinary feat given the play’s obscurity even in academic circles).[1] Its release on DVD – and now as part of Drama Online – will, however, undoubtedly result in a greater longevity for the films in an educational context, supplanting many of their competitors as the only modern productions of the history plays to conform to mainstream conventions of televisual/cinematic naturalism. The Hollow Crown is good television, and thus an important resource for the instructor seeking to help their students get to grips with the complexities of the plays.
In this introduction, I will attempt to articulate something of the achievement of The Hollow Crown in redesigning Shakespearean history for twenty-first-century television. In doing so, I take the position that The Hollow Crown is an important intervention in the production and reception history of these plays, but one that is specific to its cultural, historical, political and interpretive moment. Its directorial and performance choices do not resolve the issues of the plays, but open up productive questions that are as multi-faceted as the hollow crown itself. For as the crown shifts between material and symbolic functions, and takes on the values that are projected onto it by society, so too do The Hollow Crown’s idiosyncrasies, contradictions and innovations create a vision of medieval English history that defies easy interpretation.

The Two Tetralogies

The dates and origins of the plays now best known as Shakespeare’s ‘tetralogies’ are the subject of ongoing scholarly debate. Most scholars agree that the Henry VI plays were among Shakespeare’s earliest and contain the work of several authors (the New Oxford Shakespeare, in 2016, credited much of the trilogy to Marlowe and Nashe).[2] Richard III followed; then, a few years later, Shakespeare was the sole author of a second tetralogy, covering the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, concluding the last with an epilogue that gestured towards the ruinous reign of Henry VI, ‘which our stage hath often shown’ (Henry V, Epilogue 13). With the exception of Henry VI Part One, all of the plays in these cycles made it into print in Shakespeare’s lifetime, though often under different titles and in substantially different forms. It was the First Folio, in 1623, that first organised the plays into a cycle, standardising the titles to represent the monarch whose reign dominates each play.
One of the first questions that any producer of the plays must decide is how far to treat the plays as stand-alone works, or as parts of a cycle. Richard II, Richard III and Henry V have longstanding histories of production in isolation, structured as they are around a complete dramatic arc for their title character. Other plays in the cycle work equally well alone, most notably Henry IV Part One, which was first published simply as The History of Henrie the Fourth and concludes with victory for the king and the apparent redemption of the young Prince Hal. Yet the plays with a ‘Part’ at the end of their title are rarely produced without their companion pieces, and the twenty-first century has seen a marked increase in the number of large-scale theatrical cycles of three, four or even eight plays in sequence.
The Hollow Crown takes elements of both approaches. Richard II may have been the first episode, but in many respects it stands alone; no cast members (even in high-profile roles such as Northumberland, not to mention Henry IV himself) return for Henry IV Part 1, despite the historical events of each taking place within a five-year span. The Henry IV/Henry V and Henry VI/Richard III cycles, however, retain the majority of key cast members within their sequences, and the presence of Anton Lesser as Exeter in both Henry V and Henry VI offers at least one moment of continuity between the two sequences.
All episodes apart from the two Henry IV films (adapted by their director, Richard Eyre) are reworked extensively from the plays by Ben Power. The most obvious distinction between the two series is the compression in Series Two of the three Henry VI plays into two films, following a common stage practice. While Henry IV is sometimes also compressed into a single narrative (most notably in the only major cinematic film of the two to date, Orson Welles’s 1965 Chimes at Midnight), the choice to treat the two plays separately allows a greater showcase for the ever-popular Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale) and a full Bildungsroman for Tom Hiddleston’s Hal as he progresses towards becoming Henry V. The second series, by contrast, divides Henry VI around the arrival of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Richard III, seen lumbering in silhouette towards the camera at the end of the first film. 1 Henry VI and the majority of 2 Henry VI, with their multiple storylines and large ensemble casts, are severely truncated into a single film, while the second film plays out the development of Richard at length through the final act of 2 Henry VI and the whole of 3 Henry VI. Thus, The Hollow Crown might then best be understood as conceptually divided into three stories: those of Richard II, Henry V and Richard III, with the necessary context to understand each.
The first series of The Hollow Crown debuted on BBC2 in June and July 2012 as part of the corporation’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad that accompanied London’s hosting of the Olympic Games later that year. In a year saturated with Shakespeare owing to the World Shakespeare Festival, which included unusually dense programming at both Shakespeare’s Globe and the RSC, The Hollow Crown was still a major event, in no small part because of its subject matter. In 2012, the British monarchy was enjoying a swell of popularity. The much-publicised marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in the previous year had occasioned a rare additional bank holiday, and the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee in 2012 capitalised on the media and popular interest by staging a flotilla down the Thames, draping a building-sized banner of the royals on the South Bank, and encouraging communities up and down the country to hold street parties. The mood of celebration that belatedly accompanied the Olympics themselves aligned with the public nature of the Jubilee celebrations to create a climate of unusually (for the UK) visible patriotic sentiment, with British and English flags flying liberally. This sentiment was a construction, and certainly not shared by the whole of Britain, but the discourse around national identity was at a peak point when The Hollow Crown aired.
Richard II is ambivalent in its representation of England, described (incorrectly, as any Scot might point out) as ‘this sceptred isle’ (2.1.40) by the dying John of Gaunt. Gaunt’s speech, often quoted out of context as a hymn of celebration, announces the death of his country that ‘[h]ath made a shameful conquest of itself’ (2.1.66). The play’s complex debates between competing claims, its staging of the act of deposition, and its divided sympathies, make it a difficult play on which to build a clear national statement. Henry V, by contrast, has long been deployed in contexts of national pride and patriotism. The ‘Once more unto the breach’ and ‘Band of brothers’ speeches have a history of appropriation for sporting competitions (including the 2015 Rugby World Cup, hosted by England), and the play’s narrative of England conquering France has made it useful as a rousing political tool from the Seven Years’ War to World War II.[3]
Yet Henry V is also far less simplistic than its appropriation might suggest. Laurence Olivier, directing his film version in 1944 as a morale-booster and statement of military pride, had to cut out a great many of Henry’s more questionable actions in order to keep the narrative as heroic as possible, and Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film – made in the more cynical aftermath of the Falklands War – lingered longer on the victims of conflict and the muddy messiness of war. In 2012, I would suggest that the prevailing mood had shifted yet again. From 2007 to 2011, the town of Wootton Bassett had staged repatriations of British soldiers killed abroad in controversial foreign engagements, repatriations covered extensively by a media that provided names and back stories for the ‘heroes’ returning home. Whether seen as a tribute to the individual sacrifices made by serving soldiers, or as an emotive distraction from the moral questions circulating around the war itself, the town newly honoured as Royal Wootton Bassett stood as a symbol of a national narrative that now focused less on the big questions of war than on the personal stories that gave war a face.
The unearthing of the historical Richard III’s skeleton in September 2012 and the subsequent build-up to his reinternment in Leicester Cathedral in March 2015 only fuelled more interest in the personal aspect of medieval history, as well as inspiring several new productions of Shakespeare’s play. It is no accident that the BBC cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard, a year after the actor (apparently a distant relative of the dead king) had read a poem at Richard’s reburial. Series Two of The Hollow Crown was both a logical extension of the first series’ success and a timely capitalisation on the international interest in the last king to die on English soil. 2016 was also the quartercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, and the BBC took an even greater role in the commemorations than in 2012, producing a broad range of documentaries, comedy programmes and stand-alone productions in addition to The Hollow Crown. As with the 2012 series, then, The Hollow Crown once again used Shakespeare to align questions of national popular interest with the BBC’s own presumptive role in acting as cultural gatekeeper.

Filmic Conventions and Casting

The style of The Hollow Crown is cinematic realism. All seven films (with the partial exception of the more visually ambitious Richard II) share a common palette and tone, dominated by greys and browns in the landscape and mise-en-scene. The films use a combination of sets, real buildings and exterior locations; the countryside is a major factor, with Henry V in particular capturing the clogged paths and muddy fields of an unromanticised and obstructive environment. This interest in realistic environments is perhaps surprising given the theatrical pedigree of the films’ directors: of Rupert Goold (Richard II), Richard Eyre (1 and 2 Henry IV), Thea Sharrock (Henry V) and Dominic Cooke (1 and 2 Henry VI and Richard III), only Eyre had previous experience of directing feature films, although Goold had also adapted his own stage production of Macbeth for the small screen. Yet the films eschew overt theatricality in favour of the high production values of historical costume drama.
The shift away from the theatre is evident also in the films’ fluid – and sometimes confusing – deployment of time. Especially in The Wars of the Roses, Power draws on historical time in the adaptation, with liberal use of captions announcing a passage of several years. Given that Richard II is also designed to look as if it precedes Henry IV by a substantial interval, the effect is given throughout the seven films of substantial time passing. Yet this works directly against the plays themselves, which compress time to give the impression of immediate cause and effect. The most jarring moment is between the two parts of Henry VI, where York’s sons are still children at the time he declares war on King Henry; yet the boys have time to grow into adults by the time the second film begins. The films attempt to strike a balance throughout between the dramaturgy of plays designed for a fast-moving platform stage and the televisual concern for historical realism that tempts the adaptors into using real dates.
The cast across the two series features a combination of theatre, television and film stalwarts, and part of the success of The Hollow Crown is its canny casting. The ostensible stars of the first series were the named kings – Ben Whishaw (Richard II), Jeremy Irons (Henry IV) and Tom Hiddleston (Henry V), Hiddleston in particular riding on his multiplex success as Loki in the Marvel Thor/Avengers franchise. Yet the production boasted a genuinely all-star cast, including Patrick Stewart (John of Gaunt), Simon Russell Beale (Falstaff), Julie Walters (Mistress Quickly), Rory Kinnear (Bolingbroke in Richard II), and even small roles such as York in Henry V (Paterson Joseph), the Bishop of Carlisle (Lucian Msamati) and Doll Tearsheet (Maxine Peake) were taken by actors who headline classical theatre productions. The second series offered a slightly differently oriented hierarchy of performers: the five promoted leads were a combination of lesser-known actors in major roles (Tom Sturridge as Henry VI, Sophie Okonedo as Margaret), famous actors in lesser-known roles (Hugh Bonneville as Duke Humphrey, Judi Dench as the Duchess of York) and one bona fide celebrity (Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III). Other major roles were taken by actors best known for theatre work (Geoffrey Streatfeild as Edward IV, Ben Miles as Somerset), while better-known faces to film and television audiences cameoed in single scenes (Andrew Scott as King Louis of France, Michael Gambon as the dying Mortimer).
The effect of the casting is to shift the balance of power and interest throughout. Henry VI Part One benefits from foregrounding an ensemble cast to begin with, headed by actors such as Ben Miles (Somerset), Stanley Townsend (Warwick) and Adrian Dunbar (York) who are less known quantities and can thus complicate audience alliances and expectations. However, the star casting in certain roles also skews these impressions. Bonneville, beloved from Downton Abbey, is the de facto lead of Henry VI Part One and cast in a particularly noble light, while the Duchess of York in Richard III takes unusual prominence in the person of Judi Dench (who also speaks the prologue to 1 Henry VI). Casting Skyfall co-stars Whishaw and Kinnear, both at a similar stage of their career, as Richard II and Bolingbroke creates an equivalence between them that is emphasised at times by their presentation as co-leads within the film, and yet which is also destabilised by Richard’s ostentatious presentation of himself that, within the film world, attempts to turn him into a celebrity. Finally, the films betray the BBC’s internal conflicts between fidelity to source material and historical context on the one hand, and diversity in employment on the other. The films adopt the practice of integrated casting, with Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) actors playing roles such as Margaret, York in Henry V and the Bishop of Carlisle, and yet the casts remain overwhelmingly white. The films also work hard against the source material to bolster and flesh out the roles of women, which leads to extraordinary performances such as Maxine Peake’s complex, aggressive and moving Doll Tearsheet, but also to a tonal imbalance weighted surprisingly heavily towards domestic scenes, such as the Welsh Woman’s singing or the wooing scene of Henry V.

Interpretation and politics

Judi Dench’s voice-over at the start of Henry VI, Part One opens up the first of many important questions about the role of The Hollow Crown in interpreting the history plays for the 2010s. The lines are taken from Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida and, spoken in Dench’s authoritative tones, they serve as a warning for everything that follows. But what exactly is the nature of the warning? The words are taken out of context and indeed from different parts of Ulysses’ speech, but here the message appears to be that the received hierarchy is the natural order of things, and that if people attempt to change their stars, ‘discord’ will ‘follow’. The most apparent reading is one of a conservative politics that, in this context, approves the hierarchy of king, nobility and commons, and condemns those who resist it. This is heightened, perhaps inadvertently, by the almost complete exclusion of lower-ranking characters from the films – most notably, the Jack Cade rebellion is entirely absent, along with other vignettes such as the battle between the apprentice and his master.
Anyone approaching The Hollow Crown will need to negotiate the film’s interesting shifts between clear coding of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters on one hand, and more complex balancing of audience sympathies on the other. Sticking with Henry VI, one of the film’s clearest choices is to conflate the worst aspects of Suffolk and Somerset into the single figure of Ben Miles’s Somerset – this character is the lover of Henry’s wife, the withholder of troops from Talbot and the instigator of enmity against York, and for good measure is also shown taking luxurious massages while others are dying and grinning into his wine while watching Joan of Arc burn. By contrast, Paterson Joseph as York in Henry V is given prominent screen time throughout the film in order to prepare for his announcement as one of the only named English dead; he is framed as a loyal and valiant soldier, saving innocents and overpowering enemies in slow-motion during the battle, and finally rescuing the Boy, only to be stabbed through the back and left gurgling his life out in the Boy’s arms. In characters such as these, the films clearly manipulate audience response, and the series invites careful consideration of the choices it makes in order to assist its audience in making moral judgements and emotional investments within this sprawling saga.
Yet the series does not deal solely in black and white, and indeed the vast majority of characters are imagined as real, flawed human beings. This is most apparent in Hiddleston’s Hal/Henry. Henry is angry and naïve, playful and dignified, pensive and violent; but none of these are contradictions. Hiddleston’s performance in many ways sums up the overall approach of The Hollow Crown, which is to try and persuade its audience that these historical figures are responding as human beings to extraordinary events. The politics of the plays is personal; instead of advocating or condemning the concept of war, the films instead prioritise what it is like to experience war. As such, there is complexity on all sides. Henry IV, Part One invites its audiences to sympathise with Hal, Falstaff, Hotspur and Mortimer at the same time, and even if the film ensures that Hiddleston’s Hal has the heroic arc of dispatching Hotspur at just the point when all hope seems lost, Hotspur’s motivations and individual heroism are all given fair weight. In Henry VI, Sophie Okonedo’s Margaret is accorded sympathy in an abrupt meeting with Somerset during the storming of her father’s castle, which establishes a strong connection between them from the start, and her disappointment with Henry is developed slowly with much hinting at the passage of time, including in conversations interspersed with archery and falconry. When she finally speaks across a bustling, feuding court to snap out her frustration, and Somerset steps forward to defend her, the groundwork for the ensuing drama has already been carefully laid.
The films thus try to establish a psychological through-line for as many of their characters as possible, encouraging sympathy with their actions by explicating their process. In doing so, the film mutes the extremities of stock characters and offers a version of conflict and politics in which there are few clear choices. This has one important effect on the tone of the series as a whole, however – it is melancholy. The battle scenes offer a certain amount of spectacular conflict, but regularly defer to individual stories that put a face on suffering (and indeed, the emotional deaths suffered by the English in Henry V are out of all proportion to their numerical losses). The sky is persistently grey. And most notably, Falstaff himself is barely funny. His discourse on honour, breaking with all tradition, is played as a non-diegetic voiceover as Falstaff walks around his camp gazing on soldiers preparing for battle. Simon Russell Beale plays Falstaff as someone who knows that his time has long passed, and indeed he often appears to be on the verge of tears. The comic scenes that are retained are still played for gentle laughs, but Falstaff is emphatically not larger than life, and both parts of Henry IV use him to reflect sadly on a world that no longer seems to have a place for levity.
The exception to all of the above is Richard II. While Goold operates within the same basic aesthetic framework, he is able to use Richard’s own penchant for display to create a fantastical court that throws the world of Bolingbroke – which determines the aesthetic for the rest of the series – into relief. Whishaw’s ethereal Richard receives Mowbray and Bolingbroke in a golden pavilion, where beautiful male servants hold out a basin of water for him to delicately wash his hands before he feeds his pet monkey. He appears on the walls of Flint Castle dressed in golden armour, flanked by prop golden wings. Richard’s own use of symbolism to display himself to others is then reflected in the film’s own use of symbols: early on, Richard watches as a half-naked man poses for a painting of a body pierced by arrows; later, Richard himself is shot with arrows and left sprawling in the same position as the victim in the painting. Goold is ambitious, too, in his use of filmic effects to heighten the surrealism of this film. Fast zooms from several angles onto Richard’s face show his thoughts racing as Bolingbroke and Mowbray gallop towards one another in the lists; later, Henry IV is subjected to a similarly dizzying set of close-ups as his lords throw the heads of his enemies into messy piles before his throne, and Henry’s disquiet is intercut with ground-level shots of Richard’s coffin being dragged towards the court by his murderer, Aumerle.
While none of the other films embrace symbolism to the same extent as Richard II, in some sense the series is entirely concerned with human beings combating symbols, most notably the crown of the title. The films repeatedly place the crown in the centre of the frame, whether held between Richard and Bolingbroke in the deposition scene, clutched by Hal as he sits by his father’s bedside, or lost during the battles of Henry VI, Part Two, sinking to the bottom of a stream. As Richard III slips around in mud at the conclusion of the Battle of Bosworth field, the camera captures his crown, still perched atop his abandoned helmet, lying forgotten. As Richard dies, it is another symbol he sees – a mirror (evoking that used by Richard II) held up to him by the dishevelled Margaret, who appears incongruously to bear witness to his demise. As Richmond is crowned in the mud, the hollow crown is once again filled, and doubly so as a cross-fade turns it into the velveted crown of his formal coronation. Yet even as the film seems to offer a symbolic dismissal of the hollow crown where Death keeps its court by showing Richmond wearing a different kind of crown, the film returns to the battlefield for a final image of Margaret as the last person standing, looking to the heavens while surrounded by hundreds of dead men.

Questions and conclusions

The Hollow Crown thus raises important questions for discussion and analysis:
Does its interest in realistic human behaviour complement or frustrate the structural concerns of the plays?
How far does the adaptation for narrative clarity distort nuances of the plays’ politics?
When the story of the plays is at odds with the accepted facts of history, what takes priority?
Do the individual stories favoured by the films suggest that there is no grand narrative, or are they emblematic of a bigger picture?
The history plays are no strangers to adaptation, but the televisually literate success of The Hollow Crown may go some way towards the canonisation of this particular version of events as part of curricula and a broader public understanding of the two tetralogies. In the focus on the personal aspect of history and politics, the films are in accord with early twenty-first-century trends in historical drama, but viewers should not mistake the aesthetic realism as objective. Indeed, as the films enter curricula and criticism, as in James C. Bulman’s recent edition of Henry IV, Part 2, attention to the contexts that produced them will be ever more important.[4]
One of the major achievements of The Hollow Crown has been to prompt an extraordinary revival of popular interest in Shakespeare’s history plays. The Royal Shakespeare Company quickly capitalised on the success of the first series by programming the second tetralogy (Richard II to Henry V) as the flagship event announcing Gregory Doran’s tenure as Artistic Director, and these productions followed quickly to DVD. Illuminations Media subsequently released lavish packages of the BBC’s archived television versions of the history cycles, An Age of Kings and The Wars of the Roses, as well as the television version of Deborah Warner’s 1997 Richard II. The BBC itself went on to make the even more ambitious, ten-part The White Queen (2013), possibly reusing some of the sets from The Hollow Crown and demonstrating that a historical drama series based on the Wars of the Roses could work before returning to the second series of The Hollow Crown. The net result is that there is suddenly a wealth of performance resource for teachers and aficionados of the history cycles to draw on for the full eight plays.
Further, The Hollow Crown has cemented its place within popular culture. The fan community ‘Hollow Crown Fans’ started as a Twitter feed showing appreciation for the series, based initially on the involvement of Hiddleston and Whishaw (and later Cumberbatch) as an extension of existing fan communities for young male British actors. As The Hollow Crown was distributed, however, the fan community went from strength to strength and began curating #shakespearesunday on Twitter, an international event in which Shakespeare aficionados post Shakespeare quotes (usually accompanied with stills from The Hollow Crown) on a pre-arranged theme, often entering the top ten worldwide trends. The community has been continually active for four years and currently has tweeted nearly 100,000 tweets to a community of sixteen thousand followers. Even in this fan community alone, The Hollow Crown has already exceeded its original brief and become the continuing gateway into Shakespeare appreciation for a generation of enthusiasts. Its combination of celebrity appeal, skilful exploitation of television conventions and clear storytelling will undoubtedly continue to be influential on reception of the history plays for the foreseeable future.
Mark Sweney, ‘BBC’s Hollow Crown: War of the Roses draws more than 1m viewers’, The Guardian, 9 May 2016. [accessed 21 December 2016]
Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan (eds), The New Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016). Advance notice of the Marlowe attributions was given in Dalya Alberge, ‘Christopher Marlowe credited as one of Shakespeare’s co-writers’, The Guardian, 23 October 2016. [accessed 21 December 2016]. See also Hugh Craig, ‘The Three Parts of Henry VI’ in Hugh Craig and Arthur F. Kinney (eds.), Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009), pp. 40-77.
See Royal Shakespeare Company, ‘The Rugby World Cup in Stratford’, YouTube 17 August 2015. [accessed 21 December 2016]
James C. Bulman, King Henry IV Part 2 (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp. 45-9.
Show table of contents
Close comment
star button leave comment here