Theater Reviews

The Hollow Crown’s “2 Henry VI”: Perspective and Personal Sovereignty

Elizabeth E. Tavares (Pacific University)

The second episode of the new Shakespearean miniseries, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, makes clear that the producers concretely thought about what the television serial medium can offer these plays beyond production values. While the first episode employed the editing technique of cross-cutting to underscore the ways in which a king might be slingshot between factions (thus rendering his decisions always in terms of a lesser evil), the second episode, “2 Henry VI,” uses point-of-view (POV) framing to suggest the consequences of a government dictated by personal motivations rather than that of the commonwealth.

The episode makes great pains to link itself to the premiere as well as foreshadow themes to come. It opens with a cross-cut, moving between an extreme close-up of an anxious Henry VI’s (Tom Sturridge) eyes and then looking out from within the beaver helm of Richard (Benedict Cumberbatch). The king is about to lose a battle with the York faction, but gain back the attentions of his wife, Queen Margaret (Sophie Okonedo) with the sacrifice of Somerset (Ben Miles). With this editing technique, a shift is signaled. Rather than focusing of the factional sway of competing interests around a weak king through cross-cutting, this episode attends to the ways in which the personal—revenge, desire, ambition—proves a similarly poor model of governance by putting viewers in the shoes of individual participants.

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The viewer is positioned over the shoulder of Richard (Benedict Cumberbatch), to the left, in order to watch alongside as his brother, Edmund (Angus Imrie), is killed by Clifford (Kyle Soller). Robert Vigalsky / Carnival Film & Television Ltd.

For example, when we first meet adult Richard, he seems to be coddled by his mother and the youngest York, Edmund (Angus Imrie). Having won the day, the family sups, only to be besieged by a furious Queen Margaret. Richard and Edmond hide together in corridors to try and escape, but Edmond is found by Clifford and stabbed in the back. We watch on silently through Richard’s eyes, hiding in the dark and unable to save his younger brother. Just outside, through Lord Vernon’s (Stuart McQuarrie) eyes we watch the beheading of York, but not after he has been crowned with thorns by Margaret. Everyone but the last is killed by being stabbed in the back; the episode doesn’t shy away from beheadings—of which there are several—and the maiming of limbs on the battle field.

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After a close-up shot of the head of the murdered York (Adrian Dunbar), the camera captures the horrified expression of King Henry VI (Ben Sturridge) and Exeter (Anton Lesser) as if from a head looking down. Robert Viglasky / Carnival Film & Television Ltd.

Perhaps the most powerful POV sequence is later, during the battle for London. Henry VI refuses to be left behind even though his queen is the one who inspires troops. None of his generals seem to want him there. Having willfully given up his heir’s title to the throne, it is a war of his own making at this point. We follow along with Henry VI as he hides behind trees and under brush during the battle. As he watches the unheroic bloodshed, we get a voice-over of his contemplations of a shepherd’s life away from these responsibilities:

This battle fares like to the morning’s war,
When dying clouds contend with growing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,
Can neither call it perfect day nor night.

He then stumbles upon Clifford (Kyle Soller), drowning in his own blood. He asks to be put out of his misery; but where Richard decided to let him suffer, Henry VI is merely too weak to kill the young man. He runs off and pukes instead. Through his eyes we then get the parable of looting: a young solider realizes he is picking the pocket of his dead father, and an old man of his dead son. To this, Henry can only find more pity for himself—“here sits a king more woeful than you are”—and throws his crown into a stream. While perhaps pitiable and sympathetic in the first episode, having been put in his shoes and forced to follow his decision in terms of perspective, Henry’s self-preservation seemed, to this viewer at least, ignoble and selfish.

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A bird’s-eye view of Oxford (Steffan Rhodri) mourning Warwick (Stanley Townsend). Robert Viglasky / Carnial Film & Television Ltd.

Even the great king-maker Warwick (Stanley Townsend) is given a similar POV treatment. Insulted by the new King Edward IV’s (Geoffrey Streatfeild) ill-timed marriage to an English widow rather than a French princess, he takes to battle. (In another moment of pointed casting, King Louis XI is played by Andrew Scott, famous for his role as Moriarty in the Benedict Cumberbatch-Martin Freeman Sherlock series about to finish its fourth season this week on the BBC. With his close tie to Cumberbatch, the brief inclusion immediately broke the fiction for me.) Warwick also dies of a wound to the back and is left to choke on his own blood. We get a voice-over of parts of his death speech rather than have it directed to Oxford (Steffan Rhodri), who finds him on the field and realizes all is lost. An addition to the text is then made: Warwick asks Somerset to look to his daughter Anne. Then, rather than give his final words about flying to heaven, the camera slowly pans up into the sky for a bird’s-eye view, ostensibly mimicking the rise of Warwick’s soul rather than letting the words do the work.

In each of these scenes, we travel from one part of a field to another to experience a personal death, a personal motivation. The POVs do not necessarily interrogate, but rather make a claim about what motivates loyalty: revenge. One ignoble death, unfairly given, leads to another and another. It is a series of one-upmanship that lead to the row of heads on London’s gates and at which Henry VI is horrified. Like Henry VI’s cowardice, such revenge is another form of self-preservation supplanting the function of loyalty to a sovereign.

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As earlier with Richard, the viewer is positioned behind the shoulder of King Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) to watch a soldier (Simon Armstrong) unknowingly loot the body of his own son. Robert Viglasky / Carnival Film & Television Ltd.

The only person not given perspective—and the opportunity for empathy—is Margaret. Rather, her role is no longer that of a pawn, but a bookend. The first and last scenes of the episode follow her through the mists of a lost battle to find and mourn a dead beloved: first, her lover Somerset, and second, her (their?) son (Archie Bradfield). Because Margaret is a cornerstone to all three episodes and perhaps the character most driven to violence by the personal, I am interested to see the treatment of her in the last episode.

We first get a sense of Richard’s future villainy when he wanders the ruins of their home with his brothers.  They find their father’s sword and are struck by its brilliant reflections of sunlight and their faces. (In the original text, there is no sword, but rather three suns descend in a kind of eclipse to portend the sons’ future.) Richard interprets this reflection as an omen of things to come, while George and Edward merely agree. Here, Richard takes over the narrative. A moment of collective agency (and sympathy for Richard) is re-made into a moment portending his personal desire for the crown.

It is this foretelling of Richard’s inherent evil that makes the most of the cinematic techniques of framing even as it sacrifices his character’s complexity in the process. He seems one-dimensional if evil all along; his decisions no longer reflect a man who lost a close brother while young and then suffers a lifetime of cruelty because of his deformity. (And Cumberbatch goes all the way, exaggerating a hump, limp, and severely withered left arm from the start. Most actors today pick one or two of these traits on which to focus. For the record, the recent archaeological dig discovered that while Richard suffered prominent scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, there is no skeletal evidence of a limp or malformation of an arm. It would seem two out of three were invention. For more, see the documentary, The King in the Car Park.)

Recasting the sons/suns episode puts Richard more firmly in the camp of the inappropriately ambitious. This choice does, however, help with the transition away from POV framing to the intimate Direct Address strategy for which Richard III is famous as a play, and has found great success in other series, such as The Office and House of Cards (British series both rebooted for American audiences). Richard remarks on his suffering directly to the camera while being ferried to the Tower. Afraid for his life, the imprisoned Henry VI exhibits his only moment of cruelty, spitting back at Richard his deformities and ugliness. Henry is stabbed dead in the heart by Richard—the only death in the episode where the victim can see his assailant coming for him. The intimacy of his death and Richard’s directness portends strategies and themes to come in the final episode, “Richard III.”

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