A “crisis of degree”: an opportunity to binge on Shakespeare this holiday weekend – and it’s free!

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/05/2016 - Programme Name: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses - TX: n/a - Episode: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses (No. Henry VI Part 1) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, SUNDAY 1ST MAY, 2016* Gloucester (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Talbot (PHILIP GLENISTER), Plantagenet (ADRIAN DUNBAR), Warwick (STANLEY TOWNSEND) - (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd - Photographer: Robert Viglasky

Hugh Bonneville as Gloucester, Philip Glenister as Talbot, Adrian Dunbar as Plantagenet, Stanley Townsend as Warwick. (Photo: Robert Viglasky)

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.


One tough cookie.

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):


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3 Responses to “A “crisis of degree”: an opportunity to binge on Shakespeare this holiday weekend – and it’s free!”

  1. Jeff S. Says:

    The American Shakespeare Center in Virginia is two-thirds of the way through staging Henry VI, and they’re marketing it in an interesting way: Part I was “Shakespeare’s Joan of Arc,” and Part II was “The Rise of Queen Margaret.” Warts and all, the plays have been marvelous to see in their entirety. Of course, even really good actors can’t fix the slow and saggy parts, but boy is it fun to see a witchy Joan of Arc, the shrewd Margaret, and the nutty Jack Cade all come alive on stage.

    Happy new year, Cynthia!

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Happy New Year, Jeff! And yes, a tremendous experience always (though I resent a bit the calumny against Joan of Arc). So much of the characterizations are sucky uppy Elizabethan political rationalizations!

  3. Nigel Harris Price Says:

    You will never believe it, Cynthia, but most people here cannot stand Shakespeare. For me, Shakespeare rates as GOD! Yet Burton and Hopkins were all born just south of where I live now – Penrhiwceiber, in the Cynon Valley – the Rhondda (the famous one!) is one valley west. The temperament of our folk is ‘grit and gristle’ with a superbly lilting ‘pepper honey chestnut’ to their voices. For an instance, someone phoned me today from “The Advocacy”. “Agatha Christie?” I questioned and was put right. The metre of Shakespeare and the singing tones of words were put in discipline at Oxford where Burton studied English and created a superb actor. Although many Welsh will never forgive him for putting his autistic daughter in a USA mental institution and being a tax dodger (as well as philandering, as has Tom Jones), they shudder as they remember “His Voice”. Hey, at least I no longer walk the streets at night, bumping into posts and spouting – “let me not the the marriage of true minds admit impediment”.

    I have related this once and will do again – Dylan Thomas – “Though they go mad, they shall be sane, An death shall have no dominion.”

    Remember, no sitting on easy chairs for us working folk.

    “Puckered lips now” – Francis Ford Coca Cola