Blogging The Hollow Crown: Henry V

But I will rise there with so full a glory

That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,

Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us.

And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his

Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul

Shall stand sore chargèd for the wasteful vengeance

That shall fly with them

1.2.279-284

We have reached the end of The Hollow Crown saga, and the end is bittersweet. These plays have a lot to say about power, royalty, duty, war, betrayal, and justice. Familial duty, sovereignty, and divine right. These adaptations had some tough choices to make when they were envisioned, about what to emphasize and how to make these narratives a sweeping 4-part epic. Within the first fifteen minutes of Henry V, it struck me how great a project this undertaking was and how near to perfect it was realized on screen. I read somewhere that before embarking on watching The Wire, you have to keep in mind that you will not realize its greatness until you reach the third season, maybe even the fourth. It is then that all of the knowledge you have compiled, all the characters you have slowly come to know payoff and make you realize how wonderful the experience has become. While not as dramatic with The Hollow Crown (you can most assuredly enjoy the various parts as standalone), the experience of watching the four adaptations strung together as a continuing series gives the story a chance to breathe, and the audience gets comfortable in the time period. By watching the various parts, you come to appreciate the whole and in this case the meaning of The Hollow Crown series. Prince Hal is the primary link here: we go from Bolingbroke asking after his wayward son in Richard II, to his exploits in Henry IV Parts One and Two, and we get to follow into his role as King in Henry V. A fascinating trajectory.

I felt that before experiencing The Hollow Crown version, I should take a look at Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version, just to do a bit of comparing. There are many differences (thankfully, as their should be) and in the end, watching both gives you an even greater picture of the play than the two alone. The first difference is the treatment of the Chorus. In Branagh’s treatment, we have Derek Jacobi dressed in modern garb acting as Chorus. In this version we have the disembodied voice of John Hurt (until he shows up to close out the series). First off, these guys are both greats. I was very pleased to hear and see John Hurt, as I was not expecting it. I did like this usage slightly better because without a physical Chorus forcing your attention on their speaking, a voice over allows more sweeping scenes of our characters as they go about their lives and tasks, according to what the Chorus is telling us.

The story begins with a funeral, Henry V’s to be exact. Here is where more bittersweet comes in. We are about to witness his greatest triumph, and yet, we know that it will be short lived. The final Chorus of the play makes it impossible to ignore the fact that this will happen, and soon, but Branagh’s version ends on the happier note of England and France united as the Chorus informs us. But the funeral gives not only further context to the ominous news of Henry’s death but it also gives us an epilogue to The Hollow Crown. We close out our Harry story fully told, thereby allowing us to see the ends of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V.

I think the King is but a man, as

I am; the violet smells to him, as it doth to me; the

element shows to him, as it doth to me; all his

senses have but human conditions.

4.1.103-106

But before we get into the story, we see that for all intents and purposes, Harry has retained his joie de vivre. He rides on horseback, seemingly late for his meeting, just in time to grab his crown and saunter in. Unlike how we last saw him, in his coronation attire, he is wearing the same outfit from when he was merely a prince. Cinematic as always, the film allows Shakespeare to breathe, moving us from various scenes and shuffling bits of dialogue to suit its purpose.

Branagh’s version is more typical of what I consider a direct input from stage to screen. This is by no means knocking Kenneth Branagh. The guy is unparalleled when it comes to contemporary takes on Shakespeare. But The Hollow Crown had a different vision, and his film has been given a lot of room to breathe since 1989. And again, I feel like I have a stronger grasp on the character, as played by Tom Hiddleston, to know where certain moments in Branagh’s version wouldn’t necessarily work in the other incarnation. Thus The Hollow Crown’s Harry sounds more like how I envisioned his tone while I read the play, but that may be due to already seeing Tom Hiddleston’s version of the character. For instance, his speech to the ambassador is more as I imagined it (toying with him) than in Branagh’s slowly rising of his voice to the point of malice.

We must bear all. O hard condition,

Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath

Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel

But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease

Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!

4.1.238-242

The adaptations differ in other ways than mere line deliveries. Branagh’s includes a scene where Harry confronts three traitors, THC does not. Instead, THC finds a way to incorporate a bit where (in disguise) the King challenges another soldier and they exchange gloves, whereas Branagh’s excludes it. Branagh’s highlights the boy (as played by Christian Bale, little cutie) and the slaughter of all the boys as the impetus for the King ordering that all of their French prisoners be killed. THC focuses on the death of York as the impetus for this action, and does not include the slaughter of the boys at all, and “the boy” is not killed. Most interesting, in Branagh’s we get all of Henry V’s famous speeches either from horseback or at some height, as he addresses his soldiers and the major of Harfleur. In THC, all of his speeches are more personal; he addresses select groups of his soldiers, only his brothers and aides, or only small gathered crowds. In my view, this gives the speeches more resonance and strips them of their typical battleground rally premise.

I loved one more thing from Tom Hiddleston’s performance and that was his scene with Kate, his bride-to-be. Branagh (so I have read) has said that the key to this scene is to play it as if these two are falling in love. And that is every bit as he played it in his film version, so although he was saying it was hard for him to woo ladies, he was imploring her for love all the while, obviously smitten. But he missed one aspect that was glaringly obvious to me as I read it: the start of this courtship is overwhelmingly awkward at first. The awkwardness pervaded my mind and made me squirm. And Tom Hiddleston played it like that at all of the necessary moments. It was brilliant.

Other observations:

  • In Branagh’s version, he makes the execution of Bardolph much more painful for the King: he is forced to look into his eyes as he is hanged. The Hollow Crown spares Harry from even seeing the execution, only the aftermath, leaving his feelings on the subject guarded.
  • I like the scenes that explicitly show how weary the English are becoming on their march across France. We see soldiers being carried, some sick, and some being left for dead (or already dead) on the road.
  • One scene that elevates this adaption belongs to the night before the Battle of Agincourt: both Harry and the Dauphin are looking up at the moon. The Dauphin is anxious for morning because he is ready to fight; Harry looks fearfully at it, knowing the morning could bring much bloodshed to his people.
  • Unfortunately, both versions excise a speech from the Queen of France that occurs at the end. Most scholars find it unnecessary, as she is a character that shows up only for a few lines. But they are either given away to Burgundy or excluded wholly. This is definitely a feminist take on it, but it is a shame that her character gets the short shrift, especially as she advocates peace and good will.
  • Finally, this version puts greater emphasis on the aspect of religion: the King crosses himself every time he mentions God. Crosses are prominently displayed on soldiers, shields, murals. And before the battle, Henry explicitly prays while he explains how he has attempted to rectify what was done to Richard II.
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About Staciellyn Chapman

Grad student at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. This blog is an attempt to condense the craziness that is my TV viewing habits (with the occasional aside into film, music, and general life).

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