Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

Though Shakespeare has been dead for over 400 years, modern renditions of his plays are still alive and well. BBC’s The Hollow Crown adapts Shakespeare’s history plays, which prompt us to examine the Bard as not only playwright, but historical interpreter.

By Serena Ypelaar

As we approach William Shakespeare’s 455th birthday – thought to be April 23, the same day as his death – one can’t deny his unparalleled legacy. Shakespeare is still studied in schools worldwide. His words and idioms still pervade the English language. And people are still adapting his works on stage and screen.

As a self-professed Shakespeare devotee, I’ve seen several productions, personal highlights being Hamlet at the Globe Theatre in London; Colm Feore in Macbeth at the Stratford Festival in Ontario; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare in High Park. I have yet to see King Lear and Richard III (my favourites) on stage, but thanks to Shakespeare’s robust canon, we’re also blessed with film and television adaptations – like The Hollow Crown.

Tom Hiddleston as Henry V in The Hollow Crown. Photo: BBC

Most of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays are his comedies and tragedies. When I first heard about The Hollow Crown, which adapts Shakespeare’s tetralogies, I knew I had to see it. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Irons, Tom Sturridge, Sophie Okonedo, and Dame Judi Dench, The Hollow Crown covers Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V in the first cycle; and Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, and Richard III in the second cycle.

Shakespeare’s history plays don’t receive as much appreciation, but they’re fascinating because they demonstrate the playwright in action as a historical interpreter. Taking historical events and condensing them into dramatic plays is a sensitive act of storytelling, albeit heavily influenced by reigning powers at the time. Shakespeare composed his plays during the Tudor and Stuart eras, and his work thus appealed to Tudor and then Stuart sensibilities. Under Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare furthered the Tudor Myth, which essentially comprises propaganda that glorified the Tudors and sought to legitimize their claim to the throne – which meant historical figures like Richard III, the Plantagenet king slain by Henry Tudor (Henry VII) were heavily vilified. Shakespeare’s contribution is Richard III, a play depicting Richard as deformed and mercilessly evil.* 

The Bishop of Winchester (Samuel West), Henry VI (Tom Sturridge), Queen Margaret (Sophie Okonedo), and the Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) in The Hollow Crown’s adaptation of Henry VI. Photo: Robert Viglasky

Since Shakespeare’s history plays were political tools used to flatter and curry favour with kings and queens, their content is open to discussion. However, to those unfamiliar with early English monarchs, the plays can also familiarize audiences with important histories. I admittedly never could get Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI straight (so many Henrys!), but after watching The Hollow Crown, I’ve grasped enough of an overview to launch further research (of the Wikipedia variety for casual learning). Much of my medieval history knowledge has therefore been shaped by Shakespeare, for better or for worse.

Like any historical adaptation, it’s important to understand the changes Shakespeare made for the sake of drama (and political appeasement). A completely accurate account may not make for the best entertainment, especially on an Elizabethan or Jacobean stage. All the same, I admire how Shakespeare’s tetralogies are all interwoven. In The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, for instance, we see the future King Richard III witnessing his father Richard of York’s death at the hands of the Lancastrians; revenge is a major theme in the plays, which The Hollow Crown illustrates well. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses.
Photo: Robert Viglasky

As a screen adaptation, the delivery differs from stage productions, but the performances are so excellent that the production is still effective. Most notably, Benedict Cumberbatch’s monologues as the dastardly Richard III gave me chills. In typical Shakespearean asides which break the fourth wall, Richard’s eye contact with the viewer fosters an unsettling connection, even through a television screen. Likewise, Tom Sturridge’s depiction of both compassion and weakness as Henry VI demonstrated complexity in a sympathetic way, and so I felt – from the comfort of my sofa – swept up into the dramatic interpretation of dynastic conflicts from centuries past.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s plays transcend entertainment because they are prominent accounts of history. Like any historian’s account of events, the Bard’s plays continue to inform our remembrance of English political history. The Hollow Crown is a reminder of this phenomenon and the weight that the legendary playwright’s voice carries. That leaves Shakespeare as not only a dramatist, but a historical interpreter shaping contemporary perceptions of history – both in the late 16th and early 17th century, but also as long as his plays continue to be performed and read.

*During the Book History and Print Culture part of my master’s degree I specialized in Richard III and how Shakespeare’s portrayal influences public memory of the Yorkist king, and I’ll be writing about him in detail in the future.

Advice After the Fact: What Historical Advisors Do Best

Historical advisors make sure the era-specific details of television and film are portrayed authentically. Using Downton Abbey as a case study, we examine the various aspects they consider when recreating a time period.  

By Serena Ypelaar

The approach of fall, and later winter, inevitably means one thing: More time indoors = more television = more period dramas.

In mainstream media, historical television has gained traction in recent years, with shows like Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders, Poldark, Mad Men, and The Crown gaining cult followings. As a historian, I love a good period drama, since watching a fictional recreation of an era is one of the best ways to learn about it. Of course, being a historian means I’m also hung up on accuracy.

Did you know there’s a specific job in which people ensure period dramas are accurate? Those magical people are called historical advisors.

Not every show has one, but I’d like to argue the importance of such a role. In the most miniscule ways, historical dramas give viewers a vivid impression of life in a specific era. The details simply provide a backdrop for the overarching narrative, but if incorrect, they undermine the story and realism of the series. I’ve highlighted five key elements a historical advisor must oversee to help interpret history for television and produce a credible period drama. In the interest of time, all examples come from Downton Abbey, whose historical advisor Alastair Bruce has spoken publicly about his role.

downton
Ensemble cast of Downton Abbey, in Season 1 promotional image. From left: Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Siobhan Finneran, Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera, Rose Leslie, Thomas Howes, Brendan Coyle, Joanne Froggatt, Rob James-Collier, Dan Stevens, Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Penelope Wilton, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Jessica Brown Findlay. Photo: Flickr

Setting, set design, and technology 

Set in Edwardian England, Downton Abbey follows the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the eponymous great house. We’re treated with an (albeit rose-tinted) illustration of British society and its evolution from 1912 through 1926. It’s important that these shows capture setting in a way that transports viewers while avoiding anachronisms. Sets must be dressed with care, including items such as telephones, musical instruments, and furniture to highlight technological advances of the time.

Costuming, dress codes, and wardrobe etiquette 

dressing
Downton Abbey capitalizes on portraying everyday aspects of life, such as dining or dressing, seen here. Source: Golden Globes

Perhaps the most universally enjoyed element of historical drama is the fashion. Historical advisors should ideally work with costume designers for accuracy, since clothing leaves a lasting overall impression. In an upstairs-downstairs series like Downton, the frequent act of the staff dressing their employers demonstrates how garments were worn. Alastair Bruce famously intervened in a scene in which newspaper man Sir Richard Carlisle shakes hands with Cora Crawley with his glove on. According to Bruce, gentlemen would always remove a glove before shaking hands.

Mannerisms, accents, and speech

Downton Abbey is located in Yorkshire, but you won’t hear the upper-crust Crawleys speaking with northern accents. Actress Michelle Dockery, who normally speaks with an Essex accent, had to adopt a measured drawl to convincingly play the aloof Lady Mary. Conversely, you’ll find the belowstairs staff using coarser dialects. Historical advisors must ensure consistency as well as monitor word choice in scripts, as some words weren’t commonly used yet. Physical mannerisms likewise illustrate character; the Crawleys and their peers would walk rigidly upright while the working class characters have a different gait, especially when relaxing “off-duty”. These details may seem insignificant to viewers, but when employed they can help teach us the nuances of how our forebears lived.

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Downton Abbey’s historical advisor, Alastair Bruce. Source: Downton Abbey Wiki

Gender, race, sexual orientation, and class politics

Often, dynamics between people from different stations in life drive the tension in period dramas. Any good period drama will highlight change, usually in the form of innovation, social causes, and cultural shifts. It’s essential that historical advisors allow writers to capitalize on these changes without sacrificing legitimacy. In a series like Downton Abbey, where men and women of varying status and motivations interact in a large house, there are specific protocols which historically would have been followed – and which Alastair Bruce had to emphasize during filming.

Society, nationalism, trends, and overarching historical context

The wider historical backdrop is the linchpin. It shapes the characters’ outlook, values, and knowledge (How do they understand the world? What has happened at this point, and what is yet to come? Are they racist? Probably). National context, such as British sentiment during World War I, was crucial to understand while writing Downton. This is one area I feel Bruce and writer Julian Fellowes falter – not in the overall context, but in the mindsets of their characters. The Crawleys are astonishingly progressive for conservative landowners; certain characters exhibit a surprising lack of prejudice, which at times breaks the carefully crafted personas from their vantage point of a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, the motivation was undoubtedly to foster empathy, which in a television series is understandable.

thomas and the crawleys
So we’re supposed to believe that these wealthy conservative Britons living a hundred years before us have the same tolerant sensibilities of our time? Oooookay (but we love the outfits so we’ll suspend our disbelief, am I right?) Source: The Daily Mail

With prior knowledge of Fellowes’ planned storylines before each season, Bruce conducted preliminary research using specific case studies – in this case, country houses in England – to determine the aspects of life in a country estate like the fictional Downton Abbey. He then advised on the finer elements of the story’s execution.

As someone who writes historical fiction, I can relate. I’ve always found the storyline to be the core of a project – the steering wheel, so to speak – while the research, the actual historical facts, are the engine. The creator is the driver. In period television, the writer and historical advisor must copilot the vehicle if they are to arrive smoothly at their destination: a polished, realistic period drama that will appeal to laymen and historians alike.* Granted, Downton Abbey is certainly not without its critics (myself included when it comes to the later seasons), but the showrunners’ meticulous attention to detail does it credit.

*Fans of Downton Abbey will hopefully forgive me for my tactless use of a car metaphor – it just came to me as I went. Trust me, I know it’s a sore spot, as I myself haven’t quite gotten over The Incident from the 2012 Christmas special…