The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Part 2, the second episode in the second season of the outstanding Hollow Crown series, actually followed the events depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 3. If that sounds confusing, it is just the beginning.
The events of the Henry VI plays presented a challenge even for the original playgoers, who watched a dizzying depiction of semi-historical crowd-pleasing propaganda that charts the War of the Roses, which pitted the House of Lancaster against the House of York in the latter half of the fifteenth century. In relatively short order, the throne of England was claimed by Henry VI (and his queen, Margaret), Richard of York (who claimed but never reigned), Edward IV, Henry VI (again), and Richard III. The tumultuous period ended with the accession of Henry Tudor as Henry VII. But then, you knew all that.
The most recent Hollow Crown episode galloped and battled through those events with as much clarity as the events and Shakespeare’s text allow (the shifting loyalties of various characters can bring on a bout or two of whiplash, but neither the Bard nor the Hollow Crown people could take the time to make them all convincing. . . and the most unbelievable parts of the story are among the most historically accurate). This episode owed much to compelling performances by Sophie Okonedo (Queen Margaret), Stanley Townsend (Warwick, “The Kingmaker”), and the brilliantly sinister Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard Plantagenet, whose soliloquizing (with plenty of help from scene direction) was absolutely perfect.
Sure, I missed some of my favorite lines, such as Richard Plantagenet’s “To weep is to make less the depth of grief” (3 Henry VI, II, i, 85), especially since that is one of the key lines in shaping (and misshaping) Richard’s future behavior. But so many others were included and feelingly delivered, such as “True nobility is exempt from fear” (2 Henry VI, IV, i, 129, a line transferred from Suffolk to Somerset in the Hollow Crown‘s telling) and Warwick’s “What is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust? And, live we how we can, yet die we must” (3 Henry VI, V, 2, 27). I understand that stage plays and television movies are not the same medium, but whether onstage or onscreen, I consider the bard’s brilliant words (rather than action scenes) to be crucial to the Shakespearience (see what I did there?), so it always grieves me when such powerful moments are missed.
I’m only complaining a little, however. The whole Hollow Crown Shakespearience (one too many times?) is wonderful. And Henry VI Part 2 (in Hollow Crown accounting) sets the scene deliciously for Richard III, Shakespeare’s most performed history play, which comes Christmas night, December 25–making it the last gift I will open.