Archive for September, 2016

‘The Hollow Crown’: A Poisoned Chalice or the Ultimate Prize?

September 15, 2016



Benedict Cumberbatch as Shakespeare’s Richard III


I am currently watching the second instalment of Shakespeare’s history plays, concerning ‘The Wars of the Roses’ as interpreted by the BBC’s condensed and somewhat, contorted adaptation.

The first part of ‘The Hollow Crown’ covered Shakespeare’s history plays: Richard II, Henry IV, Part I and II and Henry Vth.  It was, for the most part, an excellent production. A combination of strong casting, brilliant original material and interesting sets made it a joy to watch. Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff was a triumph. He gave a mesmerizing performance which managed to capture all the facets of Falstaff’s complex character in little more than a look or a gesture.

The overwhelming sense of these plays was the great burden which kingship brought for the poor unfortunate who wore the crown. In another blog post I have written about this in detail, taking specific lines from each of the plays and discussing the many aspects of this heavy weight as explored by Shakespeare from insomnia to assassination as each monarch becomes metaphorically weighed down by the responsibilities of his kingship until it leads to his ultimate destruction.

Richard II can not compromise his royal dignity, relies on poor council and favourites and fails to balance the demands of kingship which leads to his deposition and death at the hands of his cousin, Bolingbroke.

Once he usurps the throne, Bolingbroke realises almost immediately that being a king requires him to make hard choices, stains his hands with bloody crimes and he never enjoys another moment of peace again. Even the warlike Harry is driven by his ‘just and rightful claims’ in France to an untimely grave, leaving his widow and tiny son to the chances of fortune’s wheel and so the scene is set for the next part of the history cycle in the form of the tetralogy of Henry VI, parts I, II and III and Richard III.

The first three of these plays are the least well-known or performed of any of Shakespeare’s histories. It is a huge challenge to bring the history of this period to the stage due to the complexity of the plot-lines, cast of myriad waring nobles and dis-jointed nature of the events which led to the start of ‘The Wars of the Roses.’ This posed a huge challenge for the BBC production as it did originally for Shakespeare and his collaborator, Thomas Nashe in 1591.

In the first of their condensed, three part version, we see the consequences of Henry Vth’s decision to stake everything on reclaiming ancestral lands in France. The English Kingdom in France held on for about thirty years after Agincourt and many historians think that it could never have been sustained in the long-term due to the various pressures and shifting political alliances in the area at the time. The influence of the Dukes of Burgundy, the cost of maintaining sufficiently well supplied garrisons, the resurrection of French hopes in the form of the Dauphin’s party and La Pucelle and the enormous strain of holding the disparate parts of the little empire together during the long years of Henry VI’s minority all combined to make it an extremely complex and difficult period to bring to the stage or the tv screen.


Was ever king that joy’d an earthly throne,
And could command no more content than I?
No sooner was I crept out of my cradle
But I was made a king, at nine months old.
Was never subject long’d to be a king
As I do long and wish to be a subject.

While we witness the burdens of kingship in the lamentations of the fragile and incapable Henry; the lesson from the first part of the new adaptation seems to be the ingratitude of royal service. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the youngest of Hal’s brothers has shouldered the burdens of government on behalf of the infant king for many long years as Protector of the realm. In the screen version he appears to have done this in isolation despite his frequent references to a regency council whereas in reality he shared the responsibilities with John of Bedford, who looked to securing the French holdings, Cardinal Beaufort and other members of the leading aristocratic families which became one of the causes for The Wars of the Roses as they disagreed over policy and were pressured to provide huge sums to maintain the status quo.

Gloucester is brought down by a fabricated conspiracy and his wife’s dabbling in witchcraft but the real villains are the scheming Somerset and his lover, and Henry’s new queen, Marguerite of Anjou. Marguerite wants Henry to rule alone, largely so that she can operate him as her puppet with Somerset at her side. So, we begin the see the flavour of the new adaptation. It’s all going to be about what people will do in order to achieve the ultimate prize of power, symbolized in the form of ‘the hollow crown’.


Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous:
Virtue is choked with foul ambition
And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand;
Foul subornation is predominant
And equity exiled your highness’ land.
I know their complot is to have my life,
And if my death might make this island happy,
And prove the period of their tyranny,
I would expend it with all willingness:
But mine is made the prologue to their play;
For thousands more, that yet suspect no peril,
Will not conclude their plotted tragedy.

As the second part  unfolds we see the rival divisions in the court forming up behind Somerset and the red roses or the Duke of York and his symbolic white rose. We see how York abandons his loyalty to his monarch and desires to be made royal heir himself through his hereditary Mortimer claim and how Marguerite counters with ‘feminine’ whiles. She bursts into tears every time her desires are thwarted in order to make Henry a slave to her will or sleeps with Somerset in order to bind him to her and use his power at court to rid her of her enemies.

The crown is seen again as a prize worth committing crimes to obtain. People lose their honour and betray the trust placed in them by their office and their king while Henry VI stands by ineffectually and watches them tearing each other apart.

A vacuum in the centre of monarchy makes for troubled times. Henry’s weakness in every area that mattered for a medieval king; his inability to lead armies, to conduct the business of power, to act fairly and consistently or even take an interest in growing factionalism of his court presage disaster, disorder and civil strife. Henry asks for unity among his ministers:

Civil dissension is a viperous worm
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth

yet he seems blind to cause of their dissention, namely his incapability of ruling properly and the pressing need for someone to assume that role.


I will stir up in England some black storm
Shall blow ten thousand souls to heaven or hell;
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage
Until the golden circuit on my head,
Like to the glorious sun’s transparent beams,
Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw.
And, for a minister of my intent,
I have seduced a headstrong Kentishman,
John Cade of Ashford,
To make commotion, as full well he can,

So York uses Jack Cade’s rebellion for his own ends in order to get the crown and rages through the streets of St Albans on a mission to take out his personal rivals so that he might focus on the ultimate goal of the throne for himself.

The third part of Henry VI opens with the scene in the throne room where King Henry confronts the Duke of York who has dared to sit upon Henry’s throne in open defiance, at last, of his anointed sovereign.


Think’st thou that I will leave my kingly throne,
Wherein my grandsire and my father sat?
No: first shall war unpeople this my realm;
Ay, and their colours, often borne in France,
And now in England to our heart’s great sorrow,
Shall be my winding-sheet. Why faint you, lords?
My title’s good, and better far than his.

Despite these words he gives up his son’s inheritance in a matter of a few lines and resigns himself to sitting out his days on the throne until such time as York and his heirs inherit it, much to Queen Marguerite’s disgust and contempt. Henry is referred to as ‘degenerate’ – the last faint flicker of the flame that had been the House of Lancaster. By contrast with the pitiable and agonized deposition scene in Richard II, it is obvious that Henry has longed to be a subject all along.

It is York’s youngest son, Richard, who views kingship in a positive light:

father, do but think
How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown;
Within whose circuit is Elysium
And all that poets feign of bliss and joy.

This seems a strange speech for Shakespeare’s Richard to pronounce at this point. Perhaps it goes to explain why he would murder his way to get the crown upon his own head or it is meant to show his youthful naivety in contrast with anyone who has actually experienced the ‘joys’ of kingship. Shakespeare often plays fast and loose with historical fact and the real Richard would only have been a child at this time. He may well have considered the crown to be the ultimate prize as he watched his family sacrifice so much to obtain it but he was also astute enough to know the heavy price for wearing it. Certainly his own experience, when it comes, is about as far removed from Elysium as possible as we see the crown devour him until he is reduced to a paranoid and crazed monster, bereft of any friends and unable to sleep for his conscience.

York, foolishly agrees to Henry’s bargain and assumes that the King’s party will abide by the accord but Marguerite is bent on revenge and having chided her hapless husband she organises an attack on York which leaves his young son Edmund dead at his feet, murdered in cold blood by Clifford in revenge for his father’s death at St Albans and York forced to kneel on a dung heap while Marguerite smears his face in his son’s blood and jams a crown of thorns onto his head before he is stabbed to death.

See where ambition gets you! Shakespeare is at pains to show that everyone connected to York will suffer for his pride and that his victory at St Albans will be paid back three times over by the unfolding cycle of violence and revenge which he unleashed by his incautious actions.

In the screen adaptation it also creates a motive for Richard of Gloucester’s revenge against the House of Lancaster. He watches his brother being murdered by Clifford and his father being dishonoured, tormented and stabbed. He will take his revenge on Marguerite and her family when the opportunity arises later in the plays and really who would blame him?

York’s pretensions end on the shaft of a pike, wearing a paper crown on his head but his sons take up his fight and seem to be favoured by divine will. Edward IV wins a great victory in the field and the royal party are forced into exile but Shakespeare is about to unfold the next fateful sequence of events which begin with Edward’s infatuation with the widowed Lady Grey and secret marriage.

A king needs loyal supporters to counter his enemies but when you offend these with your actions you begin the process of your own downfall. Edward’s secret marriage to Elizabeth for love makes Warwick’s formal negotiations for a match with Bona of Savoy look ridiculous and angers the French king. He supports Marguerite and Warwick abandons his king in favour of the Lancastrian cause. So we lurch off again into another round of battle scenes and slaughter as the York brothers fall out and re-unite to bring down Warwick’s ambitions and murder the queen’s supporters. We see the aftermath of Tewkesbury where the Lancastrians are hung from trees rather than beheaded and Richard stabs her son in front of her before she is carted off to prison in the Tower. Everyone is making fast and loose with history now for the sake of dramatic effect!

So much for Elysium in the form of a crown. The message seems to be as much about fear as glory here. People want the ultimate power of monarchy in order to keep their heads on their shoulders for a while longer. This is an aspect of usurpation and conquest that is rarely ever discussed but seems to underpin much of medieval history. The focus is always on opportunity and gain but not so much on what people feared to lose for themselves and their families or about revenge for previous injuries done to them or their loved ones.

King Edward is back in power and now has a baby son and heir to continue the dynasty but there is trouble ahead again as his youngest brother seeks to propel himself towards to ultimate prize of the ‘hollow crown’.

Richard III is far better known and more often performed than the three Henry plays and also one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays due to his representation of Richard of Gloucester. Whatever you think about the real person and his part in history, the play focusses on the nature of true evil and the lengths to which a man will go to climb over his own family in order to gain ultimate power. We have seen already that Richard thought the crown brought ‘Elysium’ to the wearer though Shakesepeare doesn’t explain why he would hold such a view. We have also seen how the House of York convince themselves of their hereditary claim through their descent from the second, third and fourth sons of Edward III, and what lengths Richard’s brothers will go to in order to achieve a Yorkist dynasty.

Clarence seems content to see his older brother sit on the throne, despite his earlier desertion and treason during the Warwick rebellion, but Richard is eaten up with envy and malice towards his own family. Perhaps Shakespeare seeks to explain this by his caricatured interpretation of Richard’s physical deformity. Nature has cursed him and his mother seems revolted by him so why not play the villain and have done with it? His earlier loyalty to family is undone by his ambition and twisted hatred of the queen so he begins to set traps for everyone who stands between himself and the throne.

Beyond all the debates over Tudor propaganda and scapegoating, all the controversies about hunchbacks and withered arms and the rest of it, there is another aspect to the Shakespearean Richard. His character provides another facet of the personality of Shakespeare’s kings.

Richard II is weak and tearful but dangerous and petulant, Henry IV is driven and resolute but plagued by conspiracy and weighed down, Henry Vth is the rake reformed who grows in stature and is cut down in his prime, Henry VI is lacking and lost despite his virtues, Edward IV is ruthless but one-eyed and Richard is scheming and calculating but his own psychosis is his undoing. Paranoia and tyrannical actions cause his kingship to implode from the moment of his coronation.

Shakespeare is exploring every facet of kingship in this cycle of plays and he needed this version of Richard in order to play out what power will do to a vicious mind given the opportunity to exercise it without restraint.

As the play draws on to its inevitable conclusion, we see Richard’s paranoia levels spiral out of control. He destroys a hapless Hastings and Buckingham without so much as a shrug but he can trust no one  and his dreams are haunted by his victims. This contrasts with Shakespeare’s treatment of Henry IV and Henry Vth’s bouts of insomnia. They gain the sympathy of the audience but Richard, like Macbeth in the banquet scene, is justly punished with hellish visions for his crimes.

‘Depair and die, despair and die’ the ghosts chant and presumably the audience is supposed to echo these sentiments for a corrupt and blood-soaked tyrant yet Shakespeare’s Henry Tudor is pretty much a non-entity in every production. No amount of hair curlers and winning smiles can make him more than a vapid, Prince Charming foil to Richard’s tortured soul. There’s little  meat on the bones of any of his speeches, which are all instantly forgettable and little joy to be had from the crown in the thorn bush scene despite its symbolic value as the happy resolution of the conflict.

Considering that Shakespeare was writing for the Tudors and eulogising their founder figure, his heart doesn’t really seem to be in it. Perhaps it was too much of a stretch of the imagination to re-case the miser king who was best known for ‘Morton’s fork’ and filling the treasury as another Henry Vth. Most people knew that Bosworth was won by a combination of De Vere’s command and the treachery of the Stanleys and Northumberland than any martial feats performed by Henry Tudor.

His character rather takes on the allegorical qualities of the good monarch – piety, justice, divine favour, goodness and humility in victory which might have been acted out at any way-side pageant by children dressed as angels, holding banners of these virtues.

So there we have it – The Wars of the Roses – condensed and sensationalised in three bite-sized chunks by the BBC with a wicked queen, an ambitious lover, insanity, lust and a pantomime villain thrown in for good measure. A morality play about what happens when a cycle of revenge and personal ambition destroys several generations in the pursuit of power which leads only to misery and self-destruction.

Personally, I would keep well away from anyone offering me a hollow crown and opt for a quiet life in the country which was perhaps Shakespeare’s message to anyone contemplating a usurpation during Elizabeth’s reign!