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Television Review: The Hollow Crown – Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2

The Hollow Crown: Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 (BBC; 2012)

Although William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 are chronological narrative sequels to Richard II, they are its continuation to a much greater extent in thematic terms, an interpretive angle that is especially evident in the adaptation of the plays for The Hollow Crown television film series. Comprising the elder years of the titular king who deposed the titular king of said previous play, the Henry IV stories feature a jaded and belligerent monarch (Jeremy Irons) defending his precarious usurped crown from rebellion while attempting to coax his immature son and heir (Tom Hiddleston) away from low associations and into the more serious role of a future ruler. But they also present the modes and styles of kingship of Henry IV and Richard II as opposing traps that the young man who would be Henry V must nimbly avoid. Prince Hal (the embryonic Henry V) must also assimilate and adapt the useful elements of these models to create a potent new hybrid conception of monarchy that the tetralogy-closing sequel that bears his name demonstrates most floridly.

Henry IV is likewise (and much more prominently) a psychodrama over the fate of Prince Hal’s kingly unconscious. Young Hal is pressured throughout both parts by a pair of father figures to choose between them and the elements of his psyche that they represent. His actual father the king is the superego, lurking in his drafty, greyscale stone palace, grasping tenaciously at power and legitimacy with a grim and humourless determination (“Heavy is the head that wears the crown” and all, and Irons’ skull is a veritable ton of bricks). Hal finds this oppressive milieu of duty and obligation absolutely stifling, and responds to its imposition with flight. Much to the chagrin of the elder Henry, his heir retreats often to a sack-soaked tavern in Eastcheap to rabble-rouse in the company of a dastardly troupe of ne’er-do-well commoners under the impish direction of the corpulent personification of the id himself, Sir John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale).

Both the kingly superego and the tavern-dwelling id tempt and urge the annointed Hal to follow their example, although Falstaff realizes his beloved protégé’s fate leads to the throne of his father and only hopes his rule includes generous patronage to good, true Jack Falstaff. King Henry’s expectations of Prince Hal are play-acted on the tavern’s humble stage in a well-known scene, and The Hollow Crown‘s version of it is a centerpiece of the production. Hal plays the king, while Falstaff plays Hal, and ironies and foreshadowing abound in the dialogue between them. Hiddleston provides his first great thespianic moment of the series with a dead-on, hilarious impersonation of Irons’ iconic imperious tones, and Beale is moving in the scene-closing beseechment to the king/the prince not to banish Falstaff, lest he banish all the world (Falstaff contains multitudes, and that’s not another fat joke).

The tug of war reaches its apotheosis in the climax of the aforementioned rebellion, lead by the Earl of Northumberland (Alun Armstrong) and his fearsome warrior son Harry Percey, a.k.a. Hotspur (Joe Armstrong, real-life son of Alun). The king’s forces overwhelm the rebels at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and Prince Hal kills Hotspur in single combat, thus overcoming the vigorous, warlike proxy-heir figure that Henry IV idealized and urged Hal to approximate. The dissembling coward Falstaff, who watches the clash of heroes from behind a tree, stabs and drags Hotspur’s corpse and grubbily takes credit for the kill. Hal is superficially amused and lets Falstaff have the glory, but Hiddleston plays it as an epiphany of disillusionment with the lusty, witty knight-vivant from Eastcheap.

Those familiar with the text are aware that Hal reconciles with his father in Part 2, taking the crown before the old man dies before convincing him that it was a statement of a resigned yet resolute acceptance of his duty to the throne rather than an impatient and ungrateful power grab. The new King Henry V then haughtily rejects Falstaff when his remaining father-figure begs for acknowledgement during the coronation procession. Beale (the greatest stage actor of his generation, or so says Wikipedia) is heartbreaking in this much-anticipated scene, although his brief, wordless, shattered cameo in Henry V conveys just as much pathetic sadness and tragedy with less emotional pomp.

Falstaff has been embraced as the most richly beloved of Shakespeare’s characters due to his id-ish characteristics: his earthy desires, shameless appetites, and self-aware, self-effacing wit. A modern Western culture that reifies fun, spontaneity and “living in the moment” even while it imposes its strictures on such impulses with an iron will has made Falstaff a tragic but irresistible mascot of its moral imperatives. It’s little wonder that Shakespeare was convinced to bring the character back in a lighter comic vein in The Merry Wives of Windsor; his repudiation of this raging personification of the id is harsh and cold, even if also true.

But Falstaff’s sacrifice was not in vain. The superego of Henry IV does not conquer the id of Falstaff wholly and entirely in the conflict over the persona of Henry V. Instead, the erstwhile Prince Hal becomes neither the forbidding, glowering monarch that his father was nor the lying, cheating, whoring, boozing hedonistic whirlwind that Falstaff was. Henry V melds the former’s command with the latter’s empathy, shrewd performativity, and common touch, and his triumphs in the fields and the castles of France in the tetralogy’s closing chapter proceed from the lessons learned from both (with a measure of Richard II’s sublime majesty thrown in as well). As Henry V will show, this pragmatic mediation of superego and id results in a masterfully-modulated ego of potent kingship that blazes with brief nationalistic martial fervour.

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  1. March 14, 2014 at 7:22 pm

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