The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses – Gritty Historical Shakespeare

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Seems like ages ago we first discussed Benedict Cumberbatch being cast as Richard III for the BBC’s Shakespeare cycle titled The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses. This TV miniseries encompasses the plays Henry VI, Part I, Part II, and Part II, and Richard III, and premiered in 2016. It followed an earlier series that covered the plays Richard II, Henry IV, Part I and Part II, and Henry V in 2012, featuring Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal, among others. Somehow, I totally missed any airing of the first cycle of The Hollow Crown on PBS (and I couldn’t find it streaming), but hey, I know the Shakespeare so it wasn’t hard to pick up with the second cycle when it aired on PBS last Christmas.

The first episode, Henry VI, Part I, actually covers most of the first two plays, while Henry VI, Part II has the plot of Part III. Then Richard is just Richard, duh. This works out pretty well, since everyone can agree that VI is one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays, but the story serves as a good setup for Richard, and this screenplay does an excellent job of giving the Wars of the Roses context and depth without dragging you down in too many details. The pacing is just about perfect, with the action and dialog moving at a smooth clip, keeping all the juicy political bits and adding just enough battles to be appealing to those who might be bored by talking, I guess. This is one dark, gritty Shakespeare, with mud and stringy hair and gloomy stone castles, while also not being stripped-down and stark. The big court scenes, in particular, have a unique balance between lush, shiny “costume drama” and “modern elegance” that says, to me, that the director was making a point of not being too old-school Lawrence Olivier, but also wanted to be faithful to the historical story and language. I think this production rides that balance well.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

Henry VI may be one of England’s lamer kings, but OMG Tom Sturridge is smolderingly hot.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

Hugh Bonneville is an awesome Duke of Gloucester, and lookit those super-cool swirling robes.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

The Queen criticizes Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester (played by Sally Hawkins), for wearing fancier dresses than royalty, and yep, these gowns and headdresses are perfect for the role.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

Whoever sourced the fabrics for this production found some winners. Also, lovely period jewelry. She’s wearing this outfit when the Queen picks a very entertaining bitchfight.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

Not flashy, but I looked carefully at all these scenes with laced-up garments and didn’t see a metal grommet anywhere. A+

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

She doesn’t deserve him. *sigh*

The first two episodes, Henry VI, Part I and Henry VI, Part II, are dominated by Margaret of Anjou / Queen Margaret. Taken prisoner by the Duke of Somerset, who then becomes her lover, she reluctantly marries King Henry and dominates him all the while. Henry is mild, meek, bookish, and totally dependent on his councillor the Duke of Gloucester. In this production, that relationship is depicted as quite loving in a father-son fashion, and Gloucester has a doomed nobility that made me root for him and the King over the nefarious Somerset and his crew. Margaret comes of as a shrew from the start — suspicious, grasping, and conspiring, her every line drips with bitchiness. It’s kind of entertaining but I never get a good idea of her motivations. Why does she side with Somerset at the very beginning? He’s not overwhelmingly attractive nor does he deliver his lines with great seduction. He makes no fabulous promises to her. And other than being a little wishy-washy, Henry isn’t so terrible; after all, they have a son, and this show doesn’t make a particular point that Ned could be Somerset’s child. The best use of Margaret is keeping her in the Richard III episode, where she’s often kept out (Shakespeare deviated from history there). She harangues and curses Richard something fierce.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

Margaret of Anjou (played by Sophie Okonedo) is one of Shakespeare’s nastier queens, and this production really emphasizes her back-stabbing actions.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

Something about this gown doesn’t thrill me (is it the fabric? the cut? not sure), but the hair / headgear is quite well done.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

Somebody needs a hug!

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

Joan of Arc’s brief appearance (as portrayed by Laura Frances-Morgan) is gut-wrenching and felt, well, particularly relevant to today.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

However, I’m ambivalent about putting Queen Margaret in armor and making her an active combatant. Yes, Shakespeare puts the ‘she-wolf’ at the battle but historically, it’s highly unlikely that she’d be in armor, wielding a sword with the foot soldiers. That just feels too modern to me. C’mon, the English just burned Joan at the stake for doing it!

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Richard III is a complete and total villain. He’s a slimy, sleazy, nasty, utterly unredeemable jerk. On screen, it looks like the actor is reveling in how awful the character is, which is a bit OTT compared to other performances of this role.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

Elizabeth Woodville (played by Keeley Hawes) marries Edward, becomes queen, and always has perfectly period headgear.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

Elizabeth with Cecily, Duchess of York (the always fabulous Judi Dench, who has a killer scene with Richard/Cumberbatch), and Phoebe Fox as Anne Neville.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016)

He’s quite a good fighter for a hunchback!

 

Have you seen any of The Hollow Crown series?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

34 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    I’m not a fan of Richard III as I feel the whole thing is Tudor propaganda.Richard didn’t kill the boys in the Tower. Margaret Beaufort was behind it and whether Henry VII was in on it from first, is mute, he probably found out and went along with it.
    I always felt Margaret of Anjou’s son was Somerset’s as well. Henry VI probably blocked and died a virgin.

    But aside from this, I’ll probably watch it later. Costumes looked ‘right’ and acting is good near great.
    Too bad Meryl Streep wasn’t cast as someone.

    Reply
    • lesartsdecoratifs

      No one knows what happened to the princes in the Tower. That also means that no one knows that Richard didn’t do it. And Richard had better means, motive and access than anyone else including Beaufort. Short of a late, late confession by some very dead people, he will never get any less suspect.

      Reply
    • Anonymous

      Uhmm? Have you been reading a bit too much Philippa Gregory or something?
      I’m pretty sure there’s a lack of real historians who think Margaret Beaufort had anything to do with it… the main suspects are Richard III and the Duke of Buckingham.

      Reply
    • Charity

      No credible historians have ever blamed Margaret Beaufort for the princes’ deaths. That’s pure Philippa Gregory, a NOVELIST, and she has zero evidence to back it up.

      Reply
    • shellieeyre

      I wonder whether you can point me to any evidence of Margaret Beaufort’s involvement in the deaths of Edward IV’s children (P Gregory’s books do not count); I wonder too when it is that you think she did it; the boys weren’t seen after 1483. Was it then? If it was, why did uncle Richard have nothing to say about it? If it was in the aftermath of Bosworth, where had they been for the previous two years? Was it perhaps during the failed Buckingham rebellion? But there’s still the vexed question of why Richard either didn’t notice or didn’t care. And what, other than putting or keeping Richard on the throne, did she hope to gain by it? Is it not possible that, if anyone other than Richard was responsible, that it was he that went along with it? The very best that can be said is that he totally failed to keep the boys safe and once they’d been offed, did absolutely nothing about it.

      Reply
  2. Liza Jane

    I love me some Cumberbatch, but they overplayed him in HVI-2. Yes, he had to be set up as a nasty, but focusing on him during scenes where Richard isn’t the focus threw off the balance.

    Reply
  3. opusanglicanum

    Eleanor of glouscesters gown shouldn’t be split up the front and the lace isn’t period

    sophie okenado’s gown isn’t a good medieval fabric, it’s a bit modern/bridal (I suspect it was sourced from Bombay stores in Bradford) her crowns not bad though. (the henry crown is very meh modern theatrical, medieval crown’s weren’t so plain unless they were funerary)

    keeley hawes has a nice replica of the fishpool cross, but phoebe fox’s cloak is a pair of my nana’s old curtains…

    Reply
  4. mmcquown

    When the remains of Richard III were found underneath a car park, the exact nature of his scoliosis was revealed. Accordingly, a group of researchers found a young man with a similar problem and attempted to train him in the activities that Richard would have had to know: riding, swordsmanship, etc. The subject proved quite capable of mastering them, and a documentary was produced. I saw it on PBS not too long ago. Score one for the Bard. (and mayhap his historical sources) PS: the young man, who already worked at the Bosworth site, now plays Richard there.

    Reply
  5. Susan Pola

    Nice to know about special. I’ll try to find it. But I believe Dr. Paul Murray Kendall ‘s excellent book on Richard mentioned the higher shoulder, and now we know why.

    Reply
  6. Saraquill

    Even if it’s dubiously period, I enjoy seeing Margaret of Anjou in armor. Far too many depictions of females in armor are about BEWBS! Her armor looks capable of actual protection.

    Reply
  7. Sarah

    I didn’t think the second Hollow Crown series was NEARLY as good as the first (acting- and direction-wise, but I still enjoyed it. (And though I am personally a partisan of Richard III, I have no objections to performing the play the way it was written. I mean, I don’t think Margaret of Anjou was that horrible in real life, either. But we’ll never know, so we can just enjoy Shakespeare’s wonderful words).

    Reply
  8. JT

    Why is there a black chick playing a 15th century English royal? In a time when black people weren’t even living in England? That’s actually worse than writing Richard III as a hunchback with an ugly face and psychopathic tendencies!

    Reply
    • Sarah

      Interestingly, it turns out that there have been people of color living in England/Europe for almost all of the last two millennia. Obviously Margaret of Anjou wasn’t one of them, because we have portraits of her that indicate otherwise, but dark skin and African ancestry in medieval England wasn’t unheard-of. I think that’s pretty cool! :)

      Reply
    • Lylassandra

      I fail to see how making a character black is worse than defaming their character in the popular imagination for the next 500 years.

      My favorite response to this complaint, however, was from a historian who pointed out that the manuscript with the depiction of Margaret people like to point to for how she “really” looked… also claims she was descended from a swan. =)

      Reply
    • Karen K.

      I think it’s a case of color-blind casting, which is fairly common in theater production. It’s not unheard of — for example, Denzel Washington as Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing.

      Reply
      • MoHub

        I think we tend to accept colorblind casting more readily in stage productions than we do in film. Perhaps it’s because we readily suspend our disbelief regarding live drama but somehow see film—even when it’s fictional—as pseudo-documentaries.

        Refreshingly, in the BBC’s last Robin Hood series, a con artist pretending to be a nun was black. Ultimately, there was more noise about her obvious polyester habit than about her ethnicity.

        Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      I quite liked Sophie Okonedo (a distinguished actress, not a chick, for god’s sake) as Margaret, although she was a tad old to be playing a teen princess in the beginning. The historical Henry VI was mentally ill, which is presumably why the actor drifts around looking like he’s just smoked some powerful weed; Margaret managed him and military matters with such flair that enemies called her “Captain Margaret.”

      Reply
  9. mmcquown

    I had run across an interesting article on the Net a few months ago about the cry for exporting the 2000-or-so “blackamoors” living in England in Great Elizabeth’s time. If I can find it again, I’ll pass it on. In this context, “Othello” has greater resonance.

    Reply
  10. Kathleen Norvell

    OK, this is right up my alley. First of all the Duchess of Gloucester’s reddish velvet gown looks like it’s been around for decades — really shabby. The second gown made me crazy because that shade of chrome yellow wasn’t available until the 18th century. The sleeveless overgown Margaret of Anjou wears had nothing to do with period clothing. The men’s costumes were better than the women’s IMO.

    I had a hard time with Sophie Okonedo’s chipmunk cheeks, more than the fact that she is an actress of color. Margaret of Anjou was one of the great “she-wolves” of France. English kings who married French queens did not meet with good ends. You would think they’d learn. I’m pretty sure she did her machinations off the field of battle. FWIW, I had the honor of playing Margaret of Anjou in a live Kingmaker game and it was great fun. We wore period costumes, of course. If you really want to see the evolution of Richard III’s motives, I think the BBC’s filmed plays from the late 70’s-early 80’s may be better. I enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch’s Richard more in the Henry plays where he is watching, listening, and learning all the political maneuevering that’s going on than his OTT portrayal in Richard III.

    Reply
  11. Celebrithil

    “…it’s highly unlikely that [Queen Margaret]’d be in armor, wielding a sword with the foot soldiers. That just feels too modern to me. C’mon, the English just burned Joan at the stake for doing it!”

    I agree that making her an active fighter feels very modern, but her armour would be less problematic than Joan’s, as it looks like she’s still wearing female clothing underneath.

    Reply
  12. Valerie

    Shakespeare is a master at creating extremes. And, of course, pure Tudor propaganda. I felt the dark tone of the costumes and settings helped establish the bleak time of the Wars of the Roses. Richard III was known to be an excellent fighter, scoliosis or no. I am glad they compressed the three Henry VI.

    Reply
  13. Lylassandra

    I dearly love Joan of Arc, and I was shocked when I first read Shakespeare’s take on her as a kid. (It makes sense to adult me as propaganda, of course, but I hadn’t thought it through then!) Do they treat her better in this version? That still really intrigues me.

    Reply
  14. mmcquown

    The “official” term is “non-traditonal casting” and it’s been going on in the theatre for quite a long time. I had seen a production of “The Revenger’s Tragedy” here (Phila) where the two brothers were of different races. After the first few minutes, one stops noticing. The “black chic” was cast because she was a good actress who could handle the material.

    Reply
  15. themodernmantuamaker

    I haven’t seen any of these but really should as I’m a bit of a fan of the Wars of the Roses period and feel it gets too little attention (maybe because it’s all so much more complicated than any of the Tudor stuff?).

    In terms of costuming, from what I can see here there is some good and some questionable, though I’m not an expert in this period. The hair and headdress styles on the women look pretty great (to my somewhat-untrained eye). What I get most annoyed with is the use of modern silk velvet – it’s a totally different animal from historic silk velvet!!! The modern stuff either needs to be backed with something to give it a stiffer hand or just use a high-quality cotton velvet instead. But the fluidity of modern silk velvet is just so wrong and bad-looking, it makes for such limp-looking costumes, so underwhelming.

    Reply
  16. Saint Cecilia

    ” Yes, Shakespeare puts the ‘she-wolf’ at the battle but historically, it’s highly unlikely that she’d be in armor, wielding a sword with the foot soldiers. That just feels too modern to me. C’mon, the English just burned Joan at the stake for doing it!”
    Shows what you know. Marguerite was present at the Second Battle of St Albans and the Battle of Tewkesbury

    She wasn’t alone. Æthelburg of Wessex, Æthelflæd of Mercia, Adélaïde-Blanche of Anjou, Sichelgaita of Salerno, Adela of Hamaland, Richilde of Hainaut, Matilde of Canossa, Florine of Bourgogne, Ida of Austria, Maud de Braose, Blanca of Castilla,Jeanne I of Navarre, Jeanne of Flanders, Jeanne de Clisson, Jadwiga of Poland, Maria of Sicily, Isabelle of Lorraine, and Caterina d’Ortafà all dressed in armor and took at least symbolic roles in battle.

    Reply
  17. mmcquown

    The oldest existing manual on swordplay (1295-1325) is called the “Codex Walpurga” after the female saint. The illustrations show a woman in many panels fighting with sword and buckler. The MS is generally referred to as I.33 or 1.33
    William Marshal’s wife had to direct the defence the castle on more than one occasion. It is reasonable to suppose that she wore some armour on those occasions.

    Reply

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