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.

Diversity, Dramaturgy, and Broadway Musicals

Revisiting the classics with diversity in mind isn’t just a moral and artistic imperative, but a strategy for giving them new life.

By Jenny Lee

Gentle reader, we are both on the internet in 2019, so I assume you too have absorbed a lot of essays about Why It Is Important to Have Representative Media. This is so true and  well-trodden that I must glide over it and write this essay about something else entirely.

I’ve been thinking about how diversity helps us reframe and reimagine older cultural works, written in even more exclusionary times and places, and also I have been thinking about the Stratford Festival’s 2018 production of The Music Man (directed by Donna Feore).  

If you’re not familiar with the plot of The Music Man and do not have a Theatre Kid™ in your life to explain it, I am here to help. It is a Broadway musical about a con man called Harold Hill who rocks up in River City, Iowa, intending to sell uniforms and equipment for a boys’ marching band before skipping town. Imagine Footloose, if Kevin Bacon wanted to sell you a tuba instead of spreading the joy of dance.

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Daren A. Herbert and company in The Music Man, Stratford Festival 2018. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

Harold promptly falls in love with the town’s librarian, Marian (I know!), which gives him a reason to stay in town – except that he lacks the requisite musical skill to teach River City’s new boys’ band to play, and the townspeople inevitably find him out.  

In the Stratford production, this was the moment at which the production rose from charmingly classic to vividly contemporary. As the people of River City discover the con and start grimly looking for tar and feathers with which to enact justice on a captive, terrified Harold Hill, played by Daren A. Herbert, you remember that The Music Man’s quaint Main Street U.S.A. set is a recreation of the American Midwest in 1912, and Herbert’s version of Hill – unlike, say, Matthew Broderick’s – is a black man explicitly living in a time and place where lynching is an extremely concrete reality.

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Matthew Broderick and his white privilege starring as Harold Hill in the 2003 TV version. Also, yes, every single production of this musical looks like this. Photo: AP Photo/ABC, Rafy

Suddenly, this anodyne mid-century musical has much higher stakes, and resonates more deeply with a 21st-century audience – and not a word of the script has been changed. It’s an absurdly effective dramaturgical decision, and it works because of, not in spite of, the diversity of the cast.

Often, diverse casting has little effect on the interpretation of the text. Twelfth Night, for example, is set outside of real-world geography and history, and so a modern audience (ideally) shelves their ideas about race at the door, and this is fine. The Music Man is fixed in its time and setting and doesn’t have this luxury, but it has the advantage of a built-in context that much of its audience will understand. (This is why so many productions of Shakespeare are ‘set’ in 1942 Paris, 1920s New Orleans, or whatever: it’s an easy way to help your audience interpret what’s happening using pre-existing knowledge, and also justifies cool costumes.) The fear is heightened, but if you don’t know anything about Progressive-era race relations, the script still works as written. 

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You may have heard of this other musical which uses the racial diversity of its cast to underscore a historical and political point … Photo: Joan Marcus

These choices make worn-out texts feel more interesting, closer to reality, and ultimately better. Rather than rendering performers’ identities and experiences abstract, asking the audience to believe they don’t matter, thoughtful and diverse theatre-making can make race, gender, disability, or sexuality central to the audience’s understanding of an old cultural text, revealing secrets we never knew it was keeping.