Friday, May 09, 2014

"The Hollow Crown"

Which is not a book, of course, but a TV presentation of Shakespeare's four history plays: Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V. Filmed on locations including Gloucester Cathedral and Pembroke Castle, and beautifully acted by a cast led by Jeremy Irons as Henry IV.

Apart from Henry V, I don't think I had seen or read any of these plays before. Nonetheless, these plays are filled with familiar quotations that I heard in context for the first time, such as:

John of Gaunt's speech from King Richard II, Act 2, scene I

"This royal throne of kings, this sceptre'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."

Henry IV's speech from Henry IV, Part 2, Act 3, scene 1

"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."

Henry V is filled with iconic calls to arms:

King Henry V, from Henry V, Act 3, scene 1

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger. . . ."

And of course: 

King Henry V's "Saint Crispin's Day" speech – so familiar that, of course, it must have been what he actually said before the battle of Agincourt (Henry V, Act 4, scene 3).

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

Shakespeare's language – and version of history – so permeates our culture, that a new book (discussed in the TTBOOK segment on fiction linked in the previous post) claims "Shakespeare is the most important figure in history who influenced everything from starlings to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln." The book is called, "How Shakespeare Changed Everything," by Stephen Marche. I haven't read it yet, but it sounded like it might be a fun (if rather ADHD) read.

For me, watching the plays revived an old interest in the period. And so I started on a binge of reading and rereading (and watching!) all the fiction and non-fiction I could find pertaining to the Plantagenets.

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