Tag Archive | Shakespeare

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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Blogging The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part Two

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.

(Act 5.5.49)

The most important thing about Part Two? I finally realized what this project is trying (very deftly) to accomplish: a very smooth, cohesive narrative from these history plays (excepting perhaps Richard II, which suffers from being the most cutoff from the rest of the action). There is an age-old argument over whether Henry IV Parts One and Two are meant to be accepted as two separate, divorced narratives or an over-arching 10-act play. This adaptation is attempting the latter, with my guess being that the cohesiveness will continue into Henry V.

Play vs. Adaptation

For my money, I am a huge fan of Part One and sort lukewarm towards Part Two. Both plays mirror each other (Hal messes around, the threat of rebellion looms, confrontation, King Henry and Hal reconcile) but Part One is much more successful while Part Two ends up being a weaker re-hash. All of the action in Part Two feels like filler, keeping time until the king dies. It is as if Shakespeare was looking for any excuse to utilize Falstaff again (and in this case, 50% more) as well as recapture some of the main antagonism from Part One. If you don’t like Falstaff, this play is a problem. Like a case of “too much of a good thing” gone literary. While the formula for Falstaff was perfect in Part One, the sequel fails to harness the same appropriate level. What this leaves us with is a Part Two where less than half is significant in the long run.

The film adaptation attempts to fix some of the errors of the play while also shining the edges to make it fit better as a continuation. And talk about continuity from Part One to Part Two: Hal still has visible injuries from the Battle of Shrewsbury; where he is stabbed in the shoulder is still clearly nasty and unhealed, his lip scabbed over. It benefits not only from the emphasis on making it flow as an actual sequel to Part One, but it also juggles around a few scenes to make it more balanced. For instance, in the fourth act of the play, King Henry IV inquires after the whereabouts of Prince Hal (who is supposed to be hunting) and discovers from Hal’s brother Clarence that he is actually at the tavern; Hal shows up soon after this exchange. In the film, this exchange shows up about 15 minutes in, thus making the scene follow more logically while also balancing out the representation of various main characters: the next scene involving Hal places him in a position that will directly lead to him to the tavern, confirming his brother’s information and making the story flow significantly better.

It also makes more sense in the film because the story and actors strive to make the audience see Hal’s changing perception and feelings toward Falstaff. Warwick (Iain Glen, who inevitably pops up in everything I watch) defends Hal after the King learns he is at the tavern and his analysis of Hal’s behavior (that he is studying his tavern friends) is proven more or less to be true by the final act. At the end of Part One, you can help but imagine that Hal must feel palpable resentment toward Falstaff for taking the credit of killing Hotspur. So in Part Two, Tom Hiddleston’s Prince Hal is much more guarded and curt with Falstaff. His jabs seem meaner and cold, setting us up for Hal’s rejection.

I spake unto this crown as having sense,

And thus upbraided it: “The care on thee depend-

ing

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 medicine potable,

But thou, most fine, most honored, most renowned,

Hast eat thy bearer up.”

(Act 4.5.157-164)

The fundamental piece to making these two plays work as one is eliminating a portion of Part One where Hal saves the King’s life and they reconcile. I was upset at the removal (especially due to its status as a pivotal moment in the play) but because this process is basically repeated in Part Two, this is more evidence for the plays being two separate entities. To correct this, the adaptation removed this crucial bit in order to make their eventual reconciliation in Part Two flow better and remove the redundancy that would have occurred otherwise. Although I much prefer Hal saves the King’s life in battle vs. Hal is accused by the King of stealing the crown. Oh well.

To conclude, the BBC did  Henry IV Part Two all kinds of favors by treating it as a true sequel and ironing out many of the kinks that make the play less successful at the same story. It made the experience more enjoyable, and the actors were definitely up to the task of presenting the ever-changing moods and emotions of Shakespeare’s characters.

Blogging The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part One

And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,

Redeeming time when men think least I will.

(1.2.216-221)

Okay, this was pretty awesome. This adaptation was leaps and bounds better than Richard II. I felt like I was actually watching a film as opposed to a play that was staged on real sets. It gives more life to scenes of Prince Hal at the tavern than a play version ever could and lets the action breathe a little with these glimpses into everyday people’s lives. More so than in Richard II (where they utilized this trick a little), this adaptation endeavored to represent some of the most important monologues as INNER monologues. In many plays, you do get the sense that you have been awarded temporary telepathy to access these private character observations. A voice over takes this to the next logical level, showing the viewer that we are privy to something no one else is hearing. To be fair, Henry IV Part One is much more fun than Richard II could ever be; the plays really shouldn’t be compared tonally. Henry IV is gifted with many entertaining scenes and is downright hilarious but at the same time packs an emotional punch whenever those scenes turn to the serious matters at hand.

The cast: I love, love, love Jeremy Irons. In my eyes, he can do no wrong. Shakespeare from his lips seems as natural as breathing. Who else do I love? Our Lady Mary, Michelle Dockery. She certainly managed to breathe life into a character (Lady Percy) that I only gave cursory regard to while reading the play. Among a plethora of fantastic character actors, I have to single out Harry Lloyd as Mortimer. Mainly because this is literally the first time I have not felt an overwhelming urge to punch his character in the face. Re: as Viserys in Game of Thrones, annoying-weird side-grin posh kid from Doctor Who’s “The Family of Blood” and “Human Nature.”

But the spotlight must be put on Tom Hiddleston. Yes, I am a super fan of his and I am dangerously close to devouring his entire filmography but, Prince Hal is also a literary character close to my heart. And Tom somehow perfectly captured all of the emotions that resonate the most for me when it comes to the character. Best moment: when the king calls Hal to court and the news reaches him at the tavern where he had just been toying with Falstaff over their latest caper. Hal’s face falls at the weight of the news that war is brewing: on his face I read this is it, the time for games is over, I must now become the person I have been running from…but before he sinks into his despair we get a glimpse of Falstaff’s worth as well. He knows the way to cheer Hal, to put on an impromptu scene where they both get to play at being King Henry. This serves for a while but sooner than he’d like Hal’s thoughts return to the problem at hand: the end of passively playing his role as Prince. I think everyone (even those that are not the crown prince) can find some commonalities with Hal. He’s just a young dude trying to ignore the fact that he already knows what his destiny is by having a bit of fun. But when the time comes to step up to the plate, he realizes that there is no way to ignore destiny; what matters is how you handle yourself when that time comes.

For every honor sitting on his helm,

Would they were multitudes, and on my head

My shames redoubled! For the time will come

That I shall make this northern youth exchange

His glorious deeds for my indignities.

(3.3.142-146)

The juxtaposition of Hal with Hotspur is another excellent thing about Henry IV Part One. The way Shakespeare writes it (and not necessarily the way history would have it) Hal and Hotspur are just two young guys who don’t get the privilege of making youthful mistakes. Hotspur cannot undo this rebellion and Hal cannot undo the fact he is Prince of Wales. At the outset, King Henry bemoans the fact that Hal is his son and not Hotspur; Hotspur has numerous achievements in battle under his belt and a doting wife while Hal has Falstaff and the hunt for constant amusement. They are both the talk of the country: Hotspur for his prowess and Hal for his tavern-hopping. The difference between the two being that for Hotspur, his activities must end in his death and for Hal, he must sacrifice what he enjoys to live up to his title. And similarly to Richard II, I started out being largely annoyed by Hotspur but by the end I had heaps of sympathy for him; it is particularly heartbreaking that he never hears the king’s pledge to stand down. Yeah, obviously I am not naive enough to believe he would have been able to get out of his rebellion unscathed (or even alive really) but he deserved to know that he received the king’s love on the battlefield.

If I had one gripe, it would be the particular brand of fighting they used to stage the final battlefield scene: it was of the blurry, no idea what is going on variety. And when you really want to know what is going on, that is frustrating. I assume it was budgetary but yeah, frustrating. But everything else I loved. The humor, the heartbreaking moments, and especially all of the great character moments that make up the play. Hotspur challenging the crazy beliefs of Glendower, the rapport between Hotspur and Lady Percy, Hal and Poins tricking Falstaff, every quiet Hal moment encompassing his acknowledgement of the outrageous life he leads to the point where he sees just how his behavior has affected his father’s opinion of him. Great, great stuff. On to much heavier stuff (namely, betrayal!) in part two.

Blogging The Hollow Crown: Richard II

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings —

How some have been deposed, some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,

Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,

All murdered. For within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court…

(3.2.160-167)

Unlike most of the schlock that America parades out for summer television, the BBC is debuting new adaptations of Shakespeare’s most prolific history plays: Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V. I have somewhat promised myself to get through as much of my complete works of Shakespeare as possible this summer and the incentive of these adaptations has certainly helped. And since Prince Hal and Falstaff represent my first experience with Shakespeare (picture a “gifted” class that I attended in fourth grade where my teacher was obsessed with the Battle of Agincourt and Joan of Arc, from what I remember…) I am very excited to revisit these plays in particular.

I entered my viewing of Richard II with much anticipation: it was nearly 2 and a half hours (signifying to me that only a few bits would be excised) and Ben Whishaw, as the titular King Richard, was sure to impress. In fact, the credits were a roster of well-known talent: James Purefoy, David Morrissey, and Patrick Stewart, among other notable faces. And largely, I wasn’t disappointed. On performances alone it was great (save for Tom Hughes as Aumerle…I’m not sure what he was aiming for but it didn’t translate for me). Other than pretty much every monologue by King Richard, I also love John of Gaunt’s (Patrick Stewart) description of England, his glittering praise even making this American wonder at its magnificence:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this

England…

(2.1.45-56)

Now, on to Ben Whishaw and his portrayal of King Richard. I don’t have much experience with his career (although I watched the first episode of The Hour to get a clearer, non-Shakespearean view) and he is talented, fo sho. As one would hope with a title character, he is the most compelling presence in the adaptation. I am absolutely not an expert on British history so the pampered, almost fairy-like demeanor that Whishaw exudes was in stark contrast to what I pictured when I was reading the play. According to the greatest of all quick Internet sources, Wikipedia, I guess Whishaw was going for a more historically accurate portrayal of Richard II? He “lacked manliness” and most likely had a narcissistic personality disorder, something that must be hard to avoid when you spend your childhood being groomed as king.

I do have a few gripes. First off, the lack of a defined time span didn’t really work for me. In the play, the acts serve as a mental jump for your mind that allows you to insert however many months in between that seem appropriate for the action. Richard must go to Ireland and stay long enough for Bolingbroke to return and amass his army — and more popularity, etc. Without the benefit of these time gaps, and with no indication by what is going on onscreen, it almost looks like Bolingbroke is banished only to return on the same boat the next day. Also, the transitions and staging weren’t the smoothest; this is where adherence to the play was too strict. [Cut to: beach scene; the Welsh force has given up on waiting for Richard’s return.] I just watched Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, so I may be coming to this adaptation with too much in the way of  innovative expectation. I mean, there is a movie where all of the scenes were fully realized for cinema, versus simply moving the acting from the stage to a few standing sets and shooting locations. I almost signed audibly at the number of times action simply took place on what appeared to be the same  beach in Richard II.

And finally, I think the shades inherent in Bolingbroke’s character are lost in translation from page to screen. In the play, he is a bit more murky — he claims he only wants what is rightfully his, but the idea that he might go for the crown is always there, even if it is also only in the back of his own mind. In the film. he says he only wants his due but doesn’t look surprised that Richard so willingly agrees to step aside (once again, things that are a bit clearer when you allow for the movement of time).

BUT, what I value most about this play is the way that Richard II slowly transitions from apathetic and heartless despot into sympathetic and downtrodden former king. That is very much on display in the film. I actually don’t think the play works if you miss out on this, if you don’t get through the majority of it and begin to feel for Richard in his defeat. Ben Whishaw and company aptly demonstrated this reversal of fortune and I had a grand ol’ two and a half hours.