The Hollow Crown is…Early 21st Century Shakespeare in a Medieval Setting

A lot of people are going to pass on season 2 of the “Hollow Crown.” This will primarily be since it’s on PBS or the BBC. Rebelliousness, confusion, lack of access to education, inability to act with the new, classically religious inclinations -there are plenty of reasons why. It is Shakespeare, after all. Who understands him anymore? Credit scores don’t exactly rise with fluency in early modern English.

For the unacquainted, Shakespeare wrote several “histories” about the English crown. Most notable are two tetralogies, the first that covers Richard IIHenry V and the second Henry VIRichard III.  Season 1 of “The Hollow Crown” covers the first tetralogy and season 2 the second. If anything, all eight plays are sad reminders that most popular history is monarchical history.

Making Shakespeare Relevant?

Most critics writing about “The Hollow Crown” mention “Game of Thrones.” That’s not a far way off. In fact, the BBC series actualizes much of what Shakespeare insinuates. The “Hollow Crown” uses impressive cinematography and editing that synchronizes with monologues. Action! Adventure! Novel wordplay in the midst of horrific violence! A novel name with an edge of farce! 

Technically, “The Hollow Crown” is beautiful. It also looks high budget. But this is still TV. The production shaves a ton of dialogue for its modern fit and also reassigns lines spoken by periphery characters because, in truth, the minute themes they add only matter to academics and obsessives. For most viewers, though, trimming dialogue is not a bad thing. Each episode still maintains its given play’s central themes and events.  

Popular Concepts of the Medieval Setting

Shining plate armor, swords, and fantastical tales historically go together for a few reasons. Religion leaves plenty of room for monsters and miracles. Courts blended such tails with reality and did so for generations -hence Arthurian knights wearing plate. Aesthetics and myths became congruent, leading to greater expectation for later medieval fiction to include the fantastical.

Historicity, as we understand it, actually came late to Europe. Popular portrayals of myth, legend, or ceremony were featured in dress of the times. Not until the Enlightenment era did distinguishing time through period dress become a consistent “thing.” The more research, the more accuracy -far as we know.         

Modern Fantasy, Historical Fiction, and the Medieval Setting

But then there’s interpretation! Historical dramas and fantasies alike play up knights in shining armor and other representations embedded in the medieval fantasy genre. Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings is the case in point. It reinvigorated fantasy but is also based on a puerile series that willfully perpetuates a mythos of Anglocentric west vs. east -the only saving grace is that Frodo (Sam?) actually destroys the Ring of Power.

“Game of Thrones,” meanwhile, adds rounder characters, a more mature setting, and focuses on status quo vs. disrupter. It also combines a generic castles-and-knights “look” with fantasy. The only problem is that “Game of Thrones” and other modern fantasy are still entrenching ethno-geographic layout without truly investigating it. The absence of such criticism within a medieval fantasy setting, if it features ethnically/visually homogeneous groups, merely reinforces ethnocentrism and all its stupidity.

Historical fiction, unlike fantasy, relies on time and place because they are important for portraying an era or its figures. So are historical timelines and chain of events. The premise, in fact, is exploratory speculation. Actual events within recorded history, or academic guesswork if prehistory, still happen. If the timeline changes then we have a transformation into alternative history. That would never, ever, be allowed in Shakespeare’s time.     

Breathe Deep: Shakespeare’s “Histories” are Great Propaganda  

Shakespeare’s histories walk a vague line between fantasy, historical fiction, and what we would today call propaganda. Yes, they rely on events and actual figures. However, the bard also force-fits history into a standard dramatic schema based off morality plays geared for…Tolkien’s shire folk. Characters have ages incongruent with historical counterparts. Their sentiments and lines reflect Shakespeare’s (and co.’s) emphasis on dramatic payoff over recorded facts. It’s as if Shakespeare was contouring his presentation of events to fit a narrower minded crowd. Go figure!  

Treason in the late 16th century had…torturous repercussions. That meant a few things, like not being overtly pro-Catholic and never undermining the Tudor dynasty. Shakespeare’s work doesn’t ever do either. Listing the divides between his history plays and actual “history,” as researched, is pointless. Think more Virgil’s The Aeneid than Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.    

English Identity, According to the Tudors, In Medieval Times

Though performed after the Henry VIths and Richard III, Richard II is, chronologically, the first play of Shakespeare’s two historical tetralogies. The drama investigates the title character’s behavior, beliefs, and his resultant usurpation by Henry Bolingbroke -the future Henry IV. Funnily enough, Henry IV was also the first king to speak English as his first language.

Such populist implications signify a few things, most predominantly ethnolinguistic nationalism. Both seasons of the “The Hollow Crown” showcase as much, as well how nobillic infighting can sabotage cooperativeness and peace. More intrinsically, it also contrasts capability with sinfulness. At the end we see how the Tudors assert their holy mandate, preserving the kingdom’s sanctity in the face of gross manipulation.

The militarism within the two tetralogies also has different tracts. Richard IIHenry V analyzes open-mindedness and identity. This also touches upon English national identity. All yeomen had to practice the longbow since Edward III (1377) -the only English King to significantly expand his holdings in modern-day France since those lost by King John (1216). It feeds into Henry V’s victory at Agincourt (1415) even if mud, heavy blunt objects, financial incentive, and knives won that day. Meanwhile, Henry VIRichard III shows how the machinations of the nobles and gentry, with a weak monarch, can lead to deformative evil -that is vanquished by Elizabeth the Great’s grandfather Henry VII.               

Shakespeare Today

Shakespeare, in essence, is telling a story about the English. As much as it is a nationality, though, English is also a language and people are speaking it across the world. Over 1.5 billion people, in sum, proficiently speak the language -around 60 million are British. The U.S. even had a Henry V-themed moot court case helmed by federal judges, including Alito and Ginsburg, in 2010  -it was split on the legality Henry V’s invasion of France. To their credit, they unanimously voted Henry V’s killing of prisoners unlawful.

But Shakespeare, for better or worse, is not of the present. His plays are a reflection of Elizabethan times, and through its populism, a wish for a brighter future. Their artistic merit, however, also reflects early modern English everything. Shakespeare’s works are for money -in that time patronage. There are a few reasons to revisit the scripts and study them. First and most importantly, it is to examine early modern concepts. Most people find this boring, awkward, and gross. Other reasons to look at Shakespeare include examining characters, critiquing an era, or understanding historical records/literary works that reference the plays.      

“Fair” Casting?

The first season of “Hollow Crown” has impressive actors. Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, and Ben Wishaw all have central roles -they are also all white. In fact, casting for the “Hollow Crown” exclusively shows Caucasian actors except for a few roles and scenes. Most prominent is Patterson Joseph as York in Henry Vth. He tragically dies in battle. 

Season 2 also has a lot of great cast. Most notable is Benedict Cumberbatch, Sophie Okonedo, and Judi Dench. There is also Hugh Bonneville, Michael Gambon and a number of British actors. The only noticeable ethnic minority in a main role, though, is Sophie Okonedo as Princess/Queen Margaret -a Frenchwoman, an outsider, an interloper. Also of note is Stanley Townsend playing Warrick -a character who aids two usurpation attempts. At least the actor is more exotic looking than your average Irish person. But(!) he also plays one of the most untrustworthy characters in the series.

Some extras, meanwhile, are obvious ethnic minorities. Predominantly men, these actors pepper the screen in a manner that feels…calculated. Near all are of African descent -South Asians, Asians, Middle Easterners, etc. are rare or nonexistent.   

Tokenization

The rare inclusion in “The Hollow Crown” of *some* British ethnic minorities, mostly Africans, implies a symbolic schema that orients around ethnicity. It would be unsurprising if the project hopes to jarr racists with the mere visage of people untypical for fantasy settings. That good idea, though, leads to a bad result because of its limited application. “The Hollow Crown,” intended or not, creates a visual motif of ethnic duality rather than one of ethnic diversity. 

It’s as if “The Hollow Crown” uses tokenization to imply egalitarianism or, worse yet, meritocracy. As we should all know, tokenization is the feigned acceptance of an othered individual to preserve a homogeneous group’s sense of equability. It reduces an individual to their heritage, and therefore a symbol of acceptance to functionally mask the sum’s bias. 

The Inklings, BBC, and Shakespeare

WW II was…WW II. Influence, explanations, and definitions were at a premium in the post-war years. Russia only being a plane flight away, it seems the Inklings decided a Christian outlook is best -China only went nuclear in the mid 1960’s, India the mid 1970’s, and Pakistan the late 1990’s. Where the Inklings were neurotic, however, it almost seems the modern day BBC is wistful for a past, any past, that lacks the complications of the present.   

Globally and historically speaking, Shakespeare and English was so backwoods that whole ethnicities and religions took on metaphor. Aaron and Othello are forever “Moors,” Shylock forever a “Jew.” To be fair, Shakespeare’s plays do feature a number of European settings…and most are also the butt of attributions. The 21st century has three options -perpetuate these tropes (stupid for many reasons), leverage them for thematic ends, or challenge them. “The Hollow Crown” seems to be doing all three.          

John Lion: John is a freelance writer with a passion for everything TV. A fan of thrillers and suspense, he also enjoys screwball comedies like Louie and Venture Bros. John has a particular fascination with TV's impact on public awareness and concerns. Email him at johnloeblion@gmail.com.