I was very excited to see The Hollow Crown return to my local PBS station with three new episodes. They condense Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3, and Richard III into three parts.
These plays are considered by some to be part of the Henriad and by others to be a separate minor Henriad. I consider them to be Margaret’s tetralogy. I’ve seen it in series only once before, in the magnificently conceptualized 1980s BBC-TV version directed by Jane Howell.
Despite lavish production values, I thought this new version fell far short of Howell’s mark, and I think that was down to the screenwriter and director. The actors were all magnificent, particularly Sophie Okonedo’s Margaret and Tom Sturridge’s Henry VI.
But the editorial cuts and directorial choices turned Shakespeare’s sweeping, subversive sociopolitical drama into a top-heavy look at the aristocratic elite. Almost all the common folk were eliminated, except as objects in massive CGI bloodbaths and carpets of hacked bodies.
The problem with that approach, is the commoners’ scenes are essential to the story for both counterpoise and emphasis. Early in Henry VI, Part 1, it’s a commoner, nay, the child of a commoner, who blows the powerful Salisbury into oblivion with one blast of an artfully aimed cannon (1.4). The mighty Talbot calls his common soldiers his “substance, sinews, arms, and strength” (2.3.63), and it is nameless soldiers of the opposing side who later overwhelm him and his son. Commoners drive the story forward through all three parts of Henry VI: La Pucelle’s shepherd father pleads for recognition, would-be con-man Saunder Simpcox and wife are exposed, citizens wronged by nobles petition for justice, oppressed apprentices fight their masters, pirates kill Suffolk, Jack Cade leads a peasant uprising (Cade himself trespasses upon a contented member of the middle class, Alexander Iden, who reluctantly fights and kills him, for which Iden rises to knighthood), a war-weary Henry encounters a Son who killed his father and a Father who killed his son, and in the end two keepers capture Henry.
In Richard III, a lowly jailer consoles the fallen Clarence, common murderers debate morality, ordinary citizens discuss the orderly transfer of power, and a mere scrivener blows the whistle on Richard’s deceit.
For all that, The Hollow Crown delivered a story edited for a pre-Brexit, pre-Trump world, one in which the focus could safely rest on the top strata of government and culture and the populist movements that powered those events could be ignored.
The amazing thing is, 400 years ago, Shakespeare didn’t do that. He wrote a play that crossed socioeconomic lines, one that let commoners speak their minds, stand on their rights, do terrible things, and yet take on their social betters.
All of which made me think that perhaps there’s an interesting alternative version of the Margaret tetralogy: one in which the parts of the nobles are reduced and the commoners are emphasized. Yes, Henry VI with less Henry, Richard III with less Richard. And common people all over the place. It’d be the same epic story told from a different perspective, yet one that’s present in the plays themselves. That’s something I’d like to see. Come to think of it, that’s something I’d like to try to do. Hmm.