We popped the dvd of The Hollow Crown, the new made-for-TV adaptations of Shakespeare’s history plays produced by Sam Mendes, into the player at 2am last Sunday, confident that it would not endanger our sleep. Verse, history, the first episode starring Ben Whishaw…we gave our eyelids 45 minutes, tops.
Five minutes later we bolted upright, dislodging two sleeping cats, and cried, “Holy crap, we get Shakespeare!” Sure we majored in Lit, we took Professor Ramas’s English 23 class and she drilled us in the greatness of Shakespeare (A brilliant teacher, she could turn you into stone with a glance, but she also made you want to be a better reader, interpreter and actor—we each had to perform 500 lines in front of an audience). But it was still homework. Since then we’ve watched Shakespeare on screen and stage and enjoyed it, even if we knew we weren’t getting all of it. When these beautiful words are flying at you, you catch what you can and fill in the blanks. It’s not about vocabulary: the words mean whatever the hell Shakespeare wants them to mean. He made the English language his bitch.
Many years later, something clicks in our head and suddenly we understand the lines as if they were in plain English. We’re sure Prof. Ramas, repeat viewings of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Kurosawa’s Macbeth (Throne of Blood) and Lear (Ran), and Harold Bloom’s books had something to do with this “A-ha!” moment, but it was also the way the TV movies approach the plays. The Hollow Crown makes Shakespeare intimate and accessible.
Theatre gives the material a sense of urgency, film gives it epic scale, and TV makes it seem real. It’s like watching the news. In The Hollow Crown the lines sound like actual dialogue. Okay, conversations among the metaphorical-minded, but none of the flowery declamation contest stuff that causes involuntary eyeball-rolling.
In Richard II, the king (Whishaw) is a mincing wuss who believes that having been chosen by God, he can do no wrong. He makes arbitrary, terrible decisions and alienates his strongest allies. He banishes his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) for 6 years. When Henry’s father, Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart!!) falls ill and dies, Richard disinherits Henry and takes his property to fund an ill-advised expedition to Ireland. Henry returns, leads a revolt, deposes Richard and is crowned Henry IV. Richard is imprisoned in the Tower. Richard’s allies plot to overthrow Henry; when the plot is discovered, one of them tries to gain Henry’s favor by murdering Richard. So Henry’s reign begins with a storm of guilt.
The best part of Richard II: the death scene of John of Gaunt. As you know, no one in Shakespeare is so ill that they can’t deliver a killer speech with their last breath. Because it’s a play, not an exact copy of life. Nobody talks like that. It’s the mind speaking, not the mouth. Obviously it has to come out of their mouths or the actors would just be standing there.
Next: Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Why would you be interested? Because that’s nearly nine hours of Tom Hiddleston, and we know some of you sign your diaries “Mrs. Hiddleston-Cumberbatch”.
Have a sonnet. You’ll thank us for this.
Via the lovely obsessives on tumblr