Tag Archives: The Hollow Crown


Perhaps it’s that Henry V is such a triumphant example of the language of transforming imagination, soaring poetry transporting us all beyond the physical confines of the ‘Wooden O’, that the BBC’s next contribution to The Hollow Crown did not quite soar, despite John Hurt voicing the chorus. It’s why the play, probably first performed in 1599, has become almost a metaphor for British martial rhetoric, intentionally undercut here, and out of Henry’s mis-spent youth at the Boar’s Head, for the making of man and hero. Perhaps it needed Oliver’s theatrical references in the World War II film, or the Te Deum splendour and horror of Kenneth Brannagh’s version, but the moment Henry delivered his warning to the Burghers of Harfleur, with the gates already open, was almost comic. Perhaps that was the director’s intention, to deflate Hal’s semi psychotic but truthful vision of war, but, just as the poetic language speaks to an audience in a theatre, both that and the Crispin’s day speech need a bigger present audience. It is about the making of political and royal rhetoric, despite the ironies of life and horror of war, though with the vision of the truly good King in the frame.

What was so winning though was Tom Hiddleston’s human, sensitive and pasionate Harry, reminding us that love and brothership is behind his journey, at least he hopes, high to low. The strange wooing of Katherine was lovely, with the ravashing Melanie Thierry playing the forced French consort, and reminds that the drive of the play is towards union, from Germaine Greer’s ‘poet of marriage’, as she described Shakespeare. It also places, as ever, the play of language and metaphor at the very centre of everything, as does the famous English-French translation scene, with its sexual punning, getting to the heart of the matter. So of course brave King Harry dies, in fact of dissentry on the way back from France, but Henry VI is sired, truly ushering in those Wars of the Roses, and the perpetual fear of weak Kingship “Whose state so many had the managing, That they lost France and made his England bleed.”

Henry VI was related to Charles I of France, who thought he was made of glass, and a devote King who reportedly wandered the Court, in days where one fashion was for Court ladies to wear dresses with their breasts exposed, with his head in his hands. He is also supposed to have spent the battle of Tewksbery talking to a tree! A clear warning about the danger of heriditary monarchy. But it is work here on Southwark and Edmund Shakespeare, William’s unkown youngest brother, with the real founding under Henry VI of The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumpiton in Southwark, that originally owned The Vine where Edmund Shakespeare was staying when he died, that might open a valuable doorway on the very neglected Henry VI play cycle too. Just as it should open a door to Southwark itself and how that place of theatres also echoes back into the plays. Henry VI features a very dishonourable Bishop of Winchester, the power there, a false miracle, at the cusp of a Reformation, and all the themes that of course haunted power and Kingship during the Reformation. Yet perhaps there is another brotherhood at play when Shakespeare speaks of we “few, we happy few, we band of brothers” in Henry V, the brotherhood of the players themselves, excempt from military service, inside the arena of a theatre.

Phoenix Ark Press

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Wonderful to see the BBC series of plays, and actor’s commentaries, in The Hollow Crown. To see Simon Russel Beale talking about that empty word ‘honour’, or Falstaff, though honour was very important to Shakespeare and the time, in a sense beyond the Knighted meaning, that might evoke Calvino’s The Ancestors. To see Jeremy Irons rowing The Thames, recalling those events James Shapiro describes so powerfully in 1599, when the Burbages and Shakespeare, perhaps his youngest brother Edmund, a player too, carried the wood from The Theatre across to river to Southwark, to build The Globe. They took their theatre, their craft and their vision on their backs, and Phoenix believe in very conscious opposition with the likes of impressario and landlord Philip Henslowe, as Will Kemp, an original Globe sharer, split away, although any good story needs its baddy and Henslowe is quite a complex character.

If the experimental blog on Edmund Shakespeare here, Shakespeare’s Brother, is of any value, it has turned up some startling and unknown facts about Southwark and a London district we think completely underestimated in understanding a period and those plays. One of those insights is Jeremy Irons’ reporting that Falstaff was based on the Lollard soldier Sir John Oldcastle. An ancestor of the temporary Master of the Revels, Lord Cobham, whose wife lived on London Bridge and owned Southwark property, Oldcastle may have been an inspiration, though one chorus actually denied it on stage, mentioning Oldcastle, out of the little controversy, and saying ‘this is not the man.’

But another candidate is the real Sir John Fastolf. If you believe in the literal translation of authors, out of people or events, he seems an obvious candidate. Perhaps the point is that the Fastolfs actually owned a Southwark Tavern called The Boar’s Head. The sight was excavated by the Museum of London, though nothing found. Then there is that very famous Boar’s Head of Henry IV and East Cheap. There was a Boar’s Head in the walled City too, and perhaps two in Southwark, with its hundreds of taverns, but again it has been slightly translated. For those who have been following the little spat about the Edward Devere, Earl of Oxford, authorship theory though, it brings up the subject of how writers actually work, moving between facts and fictions, drawing from many ideas and sources, and translating their realities, as Bottom is translated in his fairy dream, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Perhaps then Will was thinking of Oldcastle, but a local tavern owning family too, the Fastolfs, and their cowardly ancestor Sir John Fastolf, soon to be made a False Staff, with a rival tavern in Southwark actually in the frame. Was he taking revenge for some local goings on, as he got caught up in that battle over the Soer house? He might simultaneously have been firing a purposeful shot at the walled City. But perhaps the point, if we are seeking Shakespeare’s ‘identity’, out of the nonsense Devere theory (that’s a friendly shot at William Ray) is the difficulty of biography and the real value being the realised vision on the page.

But what is really thrilling, with unknown Edmund Shakespeare in the frame too in Southwark, now linked to a tavern called the Vine, owned by the Hunt family, probably bought under Henry VI, by a local fraternity called The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption, Edmund being the missing player if you like, is building up the localised picture, however faint, however filled with semi-fictive imaginings, of a real place and very interconnected people. There is a great deal more to come.

Phoenix Ark


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