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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

71. Dominic Cooke’s Henry VI Parts 2 & 3 (2016)

Season 2, episode 1 of “The Hollow Crown” ends somewhere in the middle of Henry VI, Part 2. Our callow King Henry VI was expecting to oversee the trial of Humphrey, Lord Protector of England, only to learn that Humphrey was—ummm—assassinated in the Tower. In his displeasure, the king banishes Somerset, whom he suspects for the murder, until Queen Margaret pleads Somerset’s case so shrilly that the king relents, which is the last straw for Richard Plantagenet. Seeing that the king refuses to be anything other than a pawn for the grubby politics of Margaret and Somerset, even at the cost of forgiving the murder of loyal, noble subjects, Plantagenet asserts his own heredity claim to the crown, and departs. Upon his arrival at his own keep, he calls for his children in succession, lastly coming to Richard.

Season 2, episode 2 will get us through the rest of the way through Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3.

After some battling, York (Plantagenet) marches to the throne, where he and the king engage in a struggle of wills.

KING HENRY VI

I am thy sovereign.

YORK

I am thine.

Henry VI asserts that he is the rightful king because of the succession of Henry V and Henry IV, the latter of whom won the crown in battle. York reminds Henry VI that his grandfather won the crown from Richard II in open rebellion of his king. Henry reminds him that Richard gave the throne to Henry IV, but York reminds the king that Richard was forced to abdicate. A Mexican stand-off occurs. The divine right of kings was supposed to ensure shit like this didn’t happen. This is really what these history plays have been arriving at.

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The king, taking a hint from the Duke of Exeter, offers a compromise: if York will support the king for the rest of his reign, then the crown will revert to the house of York upon his death. York, loving his country much more than his own ambition, agrees.

That was a mistake.

The king’s forces feel dishonored, and rush off to tell the queen that her children are now dis-inherited.

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Later that night, Margaret’s forces ambush York at his keep, burn it to the ground, and gloats in her victory. She dabs a handkerchief in the blood of his dead son and shoves the cloth into his mouth. She shoves a crown of thorns onto York’s head. Her forces take turns stabbing him before they behead him as his son Richard watches helplessly from the shadows.

York does utter a wonderfully articulate curse.

And three of his sons survive.

A civil war ensues. Certain nobles change sides. Fighting for York’s children isn’t the same as fighting for York. The queen retreats back to France.

The king, such as he is, goes mad.

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Oh, yes, the youngest son, Richard, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is perfect.

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Of course, season 2 of The Hollow Crown is making its way to Richard III, which is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. Richard is a better villain than Henry V was a good hero. But what happens to Richard in this context (Henry VI, Part 3, mostly) leading into his titular play is a son who is quite vulnerable, the youngest child, with some deformity, but who is transformed by war into a fierce person. As Fate would seem to madly jig about the what will happen to England, the tension of Richard’s character and his family’s fate keep this film quite engaging.

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There is a lot of action in this play—oodles of battles, including one from the end of H6 Part 2—and this story is not necessarily great drama compared to Shakespeare’s tragedies. A lot of clanging swords. The characters, when given a chance to reveal themselves, do not give us a lot to think about or even recognize. These are vicious people whose sense of honor cannot remember the faults of their immediate predecessors, much less history.

When Richard’s brother Edward IV emerges victorious, we realize that this is not a clearly superior monarch to Henry VI. Richard’s family begins to disintegrate even though England is theirs. Clarence earns his share of shame.

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Laurence Olivier’s and Richard Lonraine’s films of Richard III both seem to regard Richard’s devious successes as miraculously guaranteed. What we see in Cumberbatch’s performance of Richard in this play before Richard III, though, is someone who would sacrifice anything for his family’s honor and survival, someone who dearly loved his father, someone who must eventually confront the realization that what is left of his family is not worth saving.


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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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