I've said it before and it bears repeating.
"The Hollow Crown" series is a brilliant, immersive, rich, captivating, and remarkable rendition of Shakespeare's history plays of Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2), V, and Richard III.
All one has to do is see the line-up of actors and actresses to know the worth in watching this series of movies.
Dame Judi Dench
Benedict Cumberbatch... and more!
If you have ever wanted to enjoy Shakespeare, then this is your chance to experience it in a way that would have made the Bard ecstatic.
So, what is it all about?
Take a moment to watch this trailer, and see what I mean. If it doesn't give you chills... well, it will, just give it a chance!
And now, for an overview for those who have never read these plays by Shakespeare:
Henry IV, Part One
Henry Bolingbroke—now King Henry IV—is having an unquiet reign. His personal disquiet at the usurpation of his predecessor Richard II would be solved by a crusade to the Holy Land, but trouble on his borders with Scotland and Wales make leaving unwise. Moreover, he is increasingly at odds with the Percy family, who helped him to his throne, and Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, Richard II's chosen heir.
Adding to King Henry's troubles is the behaviour of his son and heir, the Prince of Wales. Hal (the future Henry V) has forsaken the Royal Court to waste his time in taverns with low companions. This makes him an object of scorn to the nobles and calls into question his royal worthiness. Hal's chief friend and foil in living the low life is Sir John Falstaff. Fat, old, drunk, and corrupt as he is, he has a charisma and a zest for life that captivates the Prince.
The play features three groups of characters that interact slightly at first, and then come together in the Battle of Shrewsbury, where the success of the rebellion will be decided. First there is King Henry himself and his immediate council. He is the engine of the play, but usually in the background. Next there is the group of rebels, energetically embodied in Harry Percy ("Hotspur") and including his father, the Earl of Northumberland and led by his uncle Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester. The Scottish Earl of Douglas, Edmund Mortimer and the Welshman Owen Glendower also join. Finally, at the centre of the play are the young Prince Hal and his companions Falstaff, Poins, Bardolph, and Peto. Streetwise and pound-foolish, these rogues manage to paint over this grim history in the colours of comedy.
As the play opens, the king is angry with Hotspur for refusing him most of the prisoners taken in a recent action against the Scots at Holmedon. Hotspur, for his part, would have the king ransom Edmund Mortimer (his wife's brother) from Owen Glendower, the Welshman who holds him. Henry refuses, berates Mortimer's loyalty, and treats the Percys with threats and rudeness. Stung and alarmed by Henry's dangerous and peremptory way with them, they proceed to make common cause with the Welsh and Scots, intending to depose "this ingrate and cankered Bolingbroke." By Act II, rebellion is brewing.
Meanwhile, Henry's son Hal is joking, drinking, and thieving with Falstaff and his associates. He likes Falstaff but makes no pretense at being like him. He enjoys insulting his dissolute friend and makes sport of him by joining in Poins' plot to disguise themselves and rob and terrify Falstaff and three friends of loot they have stolen in a highway robbery, purely for the fun of hearing Falstaff lie about it later, after which Hal returns the stolen money. Rather early in the play, in fact, Hal informs us that his riotous time will soon come to a close, and he will re-assume his rightful high place in affairs by showing himself worthy to his father and others through some (unspecified) noble exploits. Hal believes that this sudden change of manner will amount to a greater reward and acknowledgment of prince-ship, and in turn earn him respect from the members of the court.
The revolt of Mortimer and the Percys very quickly gives him his chance to do just that. The high and the low come together when the Prince makes up with his father and is given a high command. He vows to fight and kill the rebel Hotspur, and orders Falstaff (who is, after all, a knight) to take charge of a group of foot soldiers and proceed to the battle site at Shrewsbury.
The battle is crucial because if the rebels even achieve a standoff their cause gains greatly, as they have other powers awaiting under Northumberland, Glendower, Mortimer, and the Archbishop of York. Henry needs a decisive victory here. He outnumbers the rebels, but Hotspur, with the wild hope of despair, leads his troops into battle. The day wears on, the issue still in doubt, the king harried by the wild Scot Douglas, when Prince Hal and Hotspur, the two Harrys that cannot share one land, meet. Finally they will fight – for glory, for their lives, and for the kingdom. No longer a tavern brawler but a warrior, the future king prevails, ultimately killing Hotspur in single combat.
On the way to this climax, we are treated to Falstaff, who has "misused the King's press damnably", not only by taking money from able-bodied men who wished to evade service but by keeping the wages of the poor souls he brought instead who were killed in battle ("food for powder, food for powder"). Left on his own during Hal's battle with Hotspur, Falstaff dishonourably counterfeits death to avoid attack by Douglas. After Hal leaves Hotspur's body on the field, Falstaff revives in a mock miracle. Seeing he is alone, he stabs Hotspur's corpse in the thigh and claims credit for the kill. Though Hal knows better, he allows Falstaff his disreputable tricks. Soon after being given grace by Hal, Falstaff states that he wants to amend his life and begin "to live cleanly as a nobleman should do".
The play ends at Shrewsbury, after the battle. The death of Hotspur has taken the heart out of the rebels, and the king's forces prevail. Henry is pleased with the outcome, not least because it gives him a chance to execute Thomas Percy, the Earl of Worcester, one of his chief enemies (though previously one of his greatest friends). Meanwhile, Hal shows off his kingly mercy in praise of valour; having taken the valiant Douglas prisoner, Hal orders his enemy released without ransom. But the war goes on; now the king's forces must deal with the Archbishop of York, who has joined with Northumberland, and with the forces of Mortimer and Glendower. This unsettled ending sets the stage for Henry IV, Part 2.
Henry IV, Part 2
The play picks up where Henry IV, Part 1 left off. Its focus is on Prince Hal's journey toward kingship, and his ultimate rejection of Falstaff. However, unlike Part One, Hal's and Falstaff's stories are almost entirely separate, as the two characters meet only twice and very briefly. The tone of much of the play is elegiac, focusing on Falstaff's age and his closeness to death, which parallels that of the increasingly sick king.
Falstaff is still drinking and engaging in petty criminality in the London underworld. He first appears followed by a new character, a young page whom Prince Hal has assigned him as a joke. Falstaff enquires what the doctor has said about the analysis of his urine, and the page cryptically informs him that the urine is healthier than the patient. Falstaff delivers one of his most characteristic lines: "I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men." Falstaff promises to outfit the page in "vile apparel" (ragged clothing). He then complains of his insolvency, blaming it on "consumption of the purse." They go off, Falstaff vowing to find a wife "in the stews" (i.e., the local brothels).
The Lord Chief Justice enters, looking for Falstaff. Falstaff at first feigns deafness in order to avoid conversing with him, and when this tactic fails pretends to mistake him for someone else. As the Chief Justice attempts to question Falstaff about a recent robbery, Falstaff insists on turning the subject of the conversation to the nature of the illness afflicting the King. He then adopts the pretense of being a much younger man than the Chief Justice: "You that are old consider not the capacities of us that are young." Finally, he asks the Chief Justice for one thousand pounds to help outfit a military expedition, but is denied.
He has a relationship with Doll Tearsheet, a prostitute, who gets into a fight with Ancient Pistol, Falstaff's ensign. After Falstaff ejects Pistol, Doll asks him about the Prince. Falstaff is embarrassed when his derogatory remarks are overheard by Hal, who is present disguised as a musician. Falstaff tries to talk his way out of it, but Hal is unconvinced. When news of a second rebellion arrives, Falstaff joins the army again, and goes to the country to raise forces. There he encounters an old school friend, Justice Shallow, and they reminisce about their youthful follies. Shallow brings forward potential recruits for the loyalist army: Mouldy, Bullcalf, Feeble, Shadow and Wart, a motley collection of rustic yokels. Falstaff and his cronies accept bribes from two of them, Mouldy and Bullcalf, not to be conscripted.
In the other storyline, Hal remains an acquaintance of London lowlife and seems unsuited to kingship. His father, King Henry IV is again disappointed in the young prince because of that, despite reassurances from the court. Another rebellion is launched against Henry IV, but this time it is defeated, not by a battle, but by the duplicitous political machinations of Hal's brother, Prince John. King Henry then sickens and appears to die. Hal, seeing this, believes he is King and exits with the crown. King Henry, awakening, is devastated, thinking Hal cares only about becoming King. Hal convinces him otherwise and the old king subsequently dies contentedly.
The two-story-lines meet in the final scene, in which Falstaff, having learned from Pistol that Hal is now King, travels to London in expectation of great rewards. But Hal rejects him, saying that he has now changed, and can no longer associate with such people. The London lowlifes, expecting a paradise of thieves under Hal's governance, are instead purged and imprisoned by the authorities.
The Elizabethan stage lacked scenery. It begins with a Prologue, in which the Chorus (a lone speaker addressing the audience) apologizes for the limitations of the theatre, wishing for "a Muse of fire", with real princes and a kingdom for a stage, to do justice to King Henry's story. Then, says the Chorus, King Henry would "[a]ssume the port [bearing] of Mars". The Chorus encourages the audience to use their "imaginary forces" to overcome the limitations of the stage: "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts ... turning the accomplishment of many years / Into an hour-glass".
Shakespeare's plays are in five acts. In Henry V, the first act deals largely with the king and his decision to invade France, persuaded that through ancestry, he is the rightful heir to the French throne. The French Dauphin, son of King Charles VI, answers Henry's claims with a condescending and insulting gift of tennis balls, "as matching to his youth and vanity."
The Chorus reappears at the beginning of each act to advance the story. At the beginning of Act II, he describes the country's dedication to the war effort: "Now all the youth of England are on fire... They sell the pasture now to buy the horse, / Following the mirror of all Christian kings ...." Act II includes a plot by the Earl of Cambridge and two comrades to assassinate Henry at Southampton. Henry's clever uncovering of the plot and his ruthless treatment of the conspirators show that he has changed from the earlier plays in which he appeared.
In Act III Henry and his troops siege the French port of Harfleur after crossing the English Channel. The Chorus appears again: "Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy/And leave your England, as dead midnight still". The French king, says the Chorus, "doth offer him / Catharine his daughter, and with her, to dowry, / Some petty and unprofitable dukedoms." Henry is not satisfied.
At the siege of Harfleur, the English are beaten back at first, but Henry urges them on with one of Shakespeare's best-known speeches. "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; / Or close the wall up with our English dead...." After a bloody siege, the English take Harfleur, but Henry's forces are so depleted that he decides not to go on to Paris. Instead, he decides to move up the coast to Calais. The French assemble a powerful army and pursue him.
They surround him near the small town of Agincourt, and in Act IV, the night before the battle, knowing he is outnumbered, Henry wanders around the English camp in disguise, trying to comfort his soldiers and determine what they really think of him. He agonizes about the moral burden of being king, asking God to "steel my soldiers' hearts". Daylight comes, and Henry rallies his nobles with the famous St Crispin's Day Speech (Act IV Scene iii 18–67): "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers". The French herald Montjoy returns to ask if Henry will surrender and avoid certain defeat, and ransom his men's survival; Henry bids him "bear my former answer back," saying the French will get no ransom from him "but these my joints."
Shakespeare does not describe the battle in the play. Though the French in one scene complain that 'Tout est perdu', the outcome is not clear to Henry, until the French Herald Montjoy tells him the 'day is yours'. The battle turns out to be a lop-sided victory: the French suffered 10,000 casualties; the English, fewer than 30. "O God, thy arm was here," says Henry.
Act V comes several years later, as the English and French negotiate the Treaty of Troyes, and Henry tries to woo the French princess, Catherine of Valois. Neither speaks the other's language well, but the humour of their mistakes actually helps achieve his aim. The scene ends with the French king adopting Henry as heir to the French throne, and the prayer of the French queen "that English may as French, French Englishmen, receive each other, God speak this Amen."
The play concludes with a final appearance of the Chorus who foreshadows the tumultuous reign of Henry's son Henry VI of England, "whose state so many had the managing, that they lost France, and made his England bleed, which oft our stage hath shown". Shakespeare had previously brought this tale to the stage in a trilogy of plays: Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, and Henry VI Part 3.
As in many of Shakespeare's history and tragedy plays, a number of minor comic characters appear, contrasting with and sometimes commenting on the main plot. In this case, they are mostly common soldiers in Henry's army, and they include Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph from the Henry IV plays. The army also includes a Scot, an Irishman, and an Englishman, and Fluellen, a comically stereotyped Welsh soldier. The play also deals briefly with the death of Sir John Falstaff, Henry's estranged friend from the Henry IV plays, whom Henry had rejected at the end of Henry IV, Part 2.
The play begins with Richard (Gloucester) describing the re-accession to the throne of his brother, King Edward IV of England, eldest son of the late Richard, Duke of York (implying the year is 1471):
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Richard is an ugly hunchback, "rudely stamp'd", "deformed, unfinish'd", cannot "strut before a wanton ambling nymph", and says he is "determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days." Through a prophecy, that "G of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be", he has contrived to have his brother Clarence conducted to the Tower of London (the king interpreted the prophecy as George of Clarence). Speaking to Clarence en route, Richard blames the queen and says that he will himself try to help Clarence. Richard continues plotting:
I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter.
What, though I kill'd her husband and her father?
Lady Anne attends the corpse of Henry VI with Trestle and Berkeley going from St Paul's Cathedral. She bids them set down the "honourable load" then laments. Richard appears, and Lady Anne says that "Henry's wounds [...] bleed afresh". He confesses the murder, and she spits at him. He offers himself to her sword, but she drops it. He offers to kill himself at her order, but she accepts his ring. Richard exults at having won her over so and tells the audience that he will discard her once she has served his purpose.
The atmosphere at court is poisonous. The established nobles are at odds with the upwardly mobile relatives of Queen Elizabeth, a hostility fueled by Richard's machinations. Queen Margaret, Henry VI's widow, returns, though banished, and she warns the squabbling nobles about Richard, cursing extensively. The nobles, all Yorkists, unite against this last Lancastrian and ignore the warnings.
Richard orders two murderers to kill Clarence in the tower. Clarence relates a distressing dream to his keeper before going to sleep. The murderers arrive with a warrant, and the keeper relinquishes his office. While the murderers are pondering what to do, Clarence wakes. He recognises their purpose and pleads with them. Presuming that Edward has offered them payment, he tells them to go to Gloucester, who will reward them better for having kept him alive. One of the murderers explains that Gloucester hates him and sent them. Pleading again, he is eventually interrupted by "Look behind you, my lord" and stabbing (1478).
The compacted nobles pledge absent enmities before Edward, and Elizabeth asks Edward to receive Clarence into favour. Richard rebukes her, saying: "Who knows not that the gentle duke is dead?". Edward, who has confessed himself near death, is much upset by this news and led off. Richard blames those attending Edward. Edward IV soon dies (1483), leaving Richard as Protector. Lord Rivers, Lord Grey, and Sir Thomas Vaughan, have been imprisoned. The uncrowned Edward V and his brother are coaxed (by Richard) into an extended stay at the Tower of London.
Assisted by his cousin Buckingham, Richard mounts a campaign to present himself as the true heir to the throne, pretending to be a modest and devout man with no pretensions to greatness. Lord Hastings, who objects to Richard's accession, is arrested and executed on a trumped-up charge of treason. Richard and Buckingham spread the rumour that Edward's two sons are illegitimate and therefore have no rightful claim to the throne, and they are assisted by Catesby, Ratcliffe, and Lovell. The other lords are cajoled into accepting Richard as king despite the continued survival of his nephews (the Princes in the Tower).
Richard asks Buckingham to secure the death of the princes, but Buckingham hesitates. Richard then recruits Sir James Tyrrell who kills both children. When Richard denies Buckingham a promised land grant, Buckingham turns against Richard and defects to the side of Henry, Earl of Richmond, who is currently in exile. Richard has his eye on Elizabeth of York, Edward IV's next remaining heir, and poisons Lady Anne so he can be free to woo the princess. The Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth mourn the princes' deaths. Queen Margaret meets them. As predicted, Queen Elizabeth asks Queen Margaret for help in cursing. Later, the Duchess applies this lesson and curses her only surviving son before leaving. Richard asks Queen Elizabeth to help him win her daughter's hand in marriage. She is not taken in by his eloquence, and stalls him by saying that she will let him know her daughter's answer in due course.
The increasingly paranoid Richard loses what popularity he had. He faces rebellions, led first by Buckingham and subsequently by the invading Richmond. Buckingham is captured and executed. Both sides arrive for a final battle at Bosworth Field. Prior to the battle, Richard is sleeping and visited by the ghosts of his victims, each telling him to "Despair and die". They likewise attend and wish victory on Richmond. Richard wakes, screaming "Jesus", then realises that he is all alone and cannot even pity himself.
At the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485), Lord Stanley (who is also Richmond's stepfather) and his followers desert Richard, whereupon Richard calls for the execution of George Stanley, hostage and Lord Stanley's son. But this does not happen, as the battle is in full swing, and Richard is at a disadvantage. Richard is unhorsed on the field, and cries out, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse". Richmond kills Richard and claims the throne as Henry VII.
Here are some more clips from the entire series on BBC: