The heavens themselves, the planets and this earth
Observe degree, priority and place …
Office and custom, in all line of order …
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!
So begins the newest round in Hollow Crown series, encompassing William Shakespeare‘s Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III (last season presented Richard II, Henry V, and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2). But don’t go looking for a prologue in any of these plays that will include the words I’ve just cited. The lines are, in fact, a truncated version of Ulysses’s speech in Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene 3, as the Greek leaders discuss the morale of their army.
The late great French theorist René Girard cites Ulysses’s address in his Theater of Envy as “a meditation on the violent breakdown of human society in general, the undoing of the cultural order” – yet he didn’t find much to suit his purposes in the history plays. For me, however, these plays resound with his “mimetic crisis,” as kings fall and usurpers grab power, all in quest the “hollow crown” as a mimetic objet du désir – the “hollow crown” is a recurrent image in these BBC performances; at one point, it is tossed into a swamp, at other points, it’s an object of mesmerized fascination. Shakespeare was keenly aware of the “the canker vice,” “that monster envy” that causes ambition, selfishness, and conflict. The Bard’s “sacred kings,” victims readied for sacrifice, underscore the messages of Violence and the Sacred.
Yet the French theorist who was 100% non-Anglo could be forgiven for his relative (but only relative) disinterest in the “Hollow Crown” plays, which were principally designed to buttress the Tudor regime’s claims to the English throne. When the boy Earl of Richmond is briefly and reverently introduced in Henry VI, all Shakespeare’s audience knew why: he would become the grandfather-usurper of the Great Queen, Elizabeth I, and the future Henry VII needed all the prettifying he could get.
Hurry hurry and hurry and watch the new season – the link is here. The first of the plays will no longer be available after Jan. 3, and the others expire in the weeks following. It’s a great opportunity. Henry VI isn’t often performed, for good reason – it’s three parts, and doesn’t really wrap up until Richard III. Moreover, the weak and vasillating Henry VI is an unsatisfying focal point for so much dramatic emphasis. (I find the same for Richard II, who at least is given some grand and memorable speeches). The performance of Tom Sturridge doesn’t persuade me otherwise – but Sophie Okonedo‘s ambitious and vengeful Margaret of Anjou is great compensation (she was the wife in Hotel Rwanda). So are a range of other top-notch performances –Ben Miles as the wily and ambiguous Somerset (fans of The Crown will remember him as Princess Margaret‘s boyfriend, Peter Townsend), and Hugh Bonneville‘s Gloucester come to mind. (A small note: as far back as we can go in history, we seem to find haircombs. Could none of these characters, especially King Henry, have found one?)
I’ll finish with Richard III sometime this weekend. Meanwhile, here’s a video highlight (Sophie O. takes the term “bitch-slap” to a whole new level):