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For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2, William Shakespeare

George R. R. Martin’s sprawling fantasy epic A Game of Thrones is wildly popular – both the books and the critically-acclaimed television series. You really have to try to avoid having heard of one or the other, at least.  Both have been recommended to me several times by many people.  The theory is that I love fantasy literature (I did manage to get academic credit for studying The Lord of the Rings and related Tolkien works no less than three times) and I enjoy the kind of pseudo-feudal world Martin has created. Both are to some extent true, though I begin to suspect my preference is for specific authors’ creations rather than the genre as a whole.

I’ve tried watching the television show. It was well-done, I freely acknowledge that, and I greatly admire the performances of actors like Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke. But I felt no great drive to continue watching after the first episode or two. So I didn’t.

I’ve tried reading the book – in fact, I am about 100 pages into my fourth attempt to read the first book in the series.  Each time I have gotten about 200-250 pages in and lost interest.  Even though I know I’ll never have time to read all the books in the world, the fact that I have so little interest in reading a well-written (if ridiculously LONG) series of fantasy novels that are so popular kind of rankles. Perhaps this time I’ll finally give myself permission to stop trying.

Part of my disinterest is that most of my reading material is nonfiction, and has been for several years now. After all, why read Game of Thrones, featuring the struggles between the houses of Stark and Lannister (and others), when I can read about the REAL, historical game of thrones, featuring the struggles between the houses of York and Lancaster for the throne of England?  Also, seriously, Mr. Martin, you didn’t even TRY to be subtle on that, did you?

For the past four nights I’ve watched one of each of the four plays of Shakespeare’s Henriad, the tetralogy that covers the last gasp of the Hundred Years’ War and the start of the Wars of the Roses in England in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.  In 2012, the BBC created four films of the plays and released it for television under the title THE HOLLOW CROWN.  From Richard II through Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, and concluding with the brief flash of military glory that is Henry V, the series is breathtaking.  Indeed, there were entire scenes during which I’m not sure if I was breathing.

The cast lineup is phenomenal – performances by Patrick Stewart, Julie Walters, David Suchet, Richard Griffiths, Clemence Poesy, Rory Kinnear, John Hurt, Geoffrey Palmer, Maxine Peake, James Purefoy, and many others are all wonderful. Jeremy Irons turns in a masterful performance as the aged and unwell Henry IV, burdened by the guilt of his usurpation years earlier.  One of the things they did to make this such a personal, moving, gripping production was to continue the trajectory of the masters’ evolution in filmed Shakespeare.  Laurence Olivier declaimed his speeches as though onstage in a very traditional kind of theater.  Decades later comes Branagh, who speaks Shakespearean English as though it is his natural manner of speaking, but still the great powerful speeches are meant to rouse the troops, and they come smoothly, as if practiced.  In THE HOLLOW CROWN, some speeches are done as voiceover, such as Henry V’s prayer before the beginning of the battle at Agincourt, or Falstaff’s speech about honor at the end of Henry IV, Part 1. The intention and effect is to seem not just like that’s how the actors normally speak, but as if they’re coming up with the lines on the spot. It is, for lack of a better word, vernacular in style.

In spite of the fact that Irons gets top-of-the-top billing, the three performances to watch for are Ben Whishaw as Richard II, Simon Russell Beale as John Falstaff, and Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal/Henry V. Beale’s was recognized by the director of the two parts of Henry IV as one of the best, if not THE best, of the past century.

I’d never actually seen any of these plays all the way through, though I read Henry IV, Part 1 in college and have seen parts of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V.  My impression of Falstaff as a character was fat, drunk, comic relief.  I hadn’t understood from my earlier reading that the man’s a weasel. He’s a lying, cheating, thieving coward. Literally. It is incredibly difficult to feel any kind of sympathy for him, and yet, at the end of Henry IV, Part 2 when he tries to rejoin the newly-crowned Henry V’s company only to be publicly, harshly repudiated, you do feel grieved for him.  In Beale’s performance you see a man who is stunned as if struck a heavy blow.  Falstaff suddenly looks old, scared, and confused.  At first he is in denial, believing he’ll be sent for privately, but then he and his companions are all arrested.  By the start of Henry V he’s a defeated man, and though he has no lines in the play, is said to have died of a broken heart.

Tom Hiddleston, known to many of my friends as Loki from THE AVENGERS charts the young prince’s transformation from what can only be described as a fifteenth-century frat-boy to the ideal medieval king – young, athletic, and militarily victorious.  He looks the part, too. Instead of trying to look like the extant portraits of Henry V, which feature the frankly unflattering haircut reproduced by Branagh in his version, the film’s designers worked with what they have, which is a man who at times looks like energy personified and at other times looks as though he might have been carved from marble, so perfect are the angles in his face.  His pale eyes laugh at times, look sad at others, and can blaze and pierce you right through the screen.

The winning performance, however, is Ben Whishaw, who dives headfirst into the complicated role of doomed king Richard II. Richard II is one of the more troubling medieval kings of England. He ascended the throne as a child, and dealt with the Peasant’s Revolt at something like age fourteen. And yet he was not hugely popular as an adult. He was considered extravagant, morally questionable, and in short, the barons did not entirely approve of him.  Even Shakespeare is unable to make him all sympathetic or all wicked. This is no Richard III, in which you know who the bad guy is. Richard II is all shades of grey. In fact, it was originally titled “The Tragedy of King Richard II,” and he is indeed a tragic character.  In one analysis I read, the author writes, “Pathetic and yet too self-conscious to be entirely tragic, sincere and yet engaged in acting his own sincerity, possessed of true feeling and elaborately artificial in expressing it, Richard is the distant predecessor of more than one hero of the mature tragedies, who suffer in acute self-consciousness and whose tragedy expresses itself in terms that clearly point to the presence of the weakness that has been, in part, its cause.”

Whishaw’s performance is redolent with the air of otherworldliness that you see in someone like Michael Jackson – he is always on stage, always acting a part, and not entirely on the same wavelength as other humans. And yet you sense that in spite of the magnified presentation, his feelings are real and deep. In the making-of featurette to Richard II, the actor and the director spoke of Richard’s sense of himself as an almost messianic figure, and they worked with that.  The image of Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows also arises more than once, and the production does an admirable job of never quite straying into heavy-handed religious imagery. It’s there, it’s impossible to miss, but you don’t feel like it’s beaten into you.

This is an extraordinary set of films.  I heartily recommend it. I suspect I will be returning to it to watch it many more times.