The BBC has commissioned four new adaptations of Shakespeare’s history plays: Richard II, Henry IV (parts one and two) and Henry V, to be shown in a sort of miniseries dubbed The Hollow Crown.
‘Within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antick sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp.’ (3:2)
The first adaptation, Richard II was shown on Saturday 30th June, with Ben Whishaw as the narcissistic sovereign. I’ve never read the play (in my defence I am a medievalist, not an Early Modernist!) so I enjoyed this offering with very few preconceptions. Whishaw gave this monarch a level of effeminate ‘campness’ which strikes a chord with what we know to be Richard’s penchants for art and courtly culture, and his dislike of battle. Part of me felt it was a bit too much at times, but I went with it, and enjoyed this take on him nonetheless.
Like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, the lines are iconic, abounding in our common usage, an entrenched part of the English psyche (think along the lines of: ‘death will have his day’ and ‘this England’). The rich references (spot St Sebastian) and stunning filming locations as well as the turmoiled political sentiment made a fitting homage to ‘this sceptred isle.’
Are we still medieval?
In a programme immediately afterwards on BBC2, Derek Jacobi considered other deposed despots and the strange affinity of their psychologies and speeches with those of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Colonel Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Margaret Thatcher were all cited as examples, highlighting the timeless misuse of power from the Middle Ages through to the present day. Ben Whishaw spoke of the unsettling similarity of the portentous words of Gaddafi’s son with those of Richard II at their respective political demises, promising civil war and devastation to follow. The point was that power-obsessed minds can only foresee darker times following the end of their reign, no matter how inhumane or sinister that reign might seem to the majority of others, and that this little personality quirk possessed by some leaders hasn’t changed much over time.
Divine right vs democracy
Richard was king by divine right which meant, in his mind at least, that he could do as he pleased. He was only one step down from God. He believed in the royal prerogative. Shakespeare’s play questions this concept rigorously. Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth I was not impressed. The production played to icy reception in her court, and apparently Shakespeare was given short shrift – a rather terrifying beginning for a playwright who was still making a name for himself! I’m sure he learned the lesson of political tact from this point onwards.
House of Lords reform
The question of hereditary power is rather pertinent in the context of the debate raging at the moment about the House of Lords. Many question whether the current system of hereditary peers should be reformed to consist of a democratically elected group. Seems like a no-brainer to me. Why is it even a question? Sometimes I wonder how far we’ve really come since the Middle Ages.
Tom Hiddleston plays the roguish Prince Hal and Jeremy Irons is Henry in Henry IV (part I) on Saturday 7th July, 9pm, BBC2 in the second instalment of The Hollow Crown. What other medieval/Early Modern/modern issues will this play raise? There are bound to be several, because us humans just don’t seem to change.