Part one of the four-part The Hollow Crown, the BBC’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad tetralogy, Richard II charts the last two years of the titular English king’s life as his exiled cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, returns to England and easily usurps him. Ben Whishaw plays the weak-willed, foppish King Richard II with affecting nuance and Rory Kinnear plays the chivalrous and worthier Bolingbroke, who eventually becomes King Henry IV and is played in later episodes of The Hollow Crown by Jeremy Irons.
Going into the mini-series without having previously encountered Shakespeare’s history plays Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two, or Henry V, I was nevertheless drawn into the medieval history of the English monarchy, Shakespeare’s splendid and poetic use of language and his incredible insight into character, and the vast amount of acting talent within the project (even Sir Patrick Stewart shows up in a small role with a magnificent monologue). A beautifully made but very slowly paced two-and-a-half hours, Richard II is a fascinating study of two types of historical rulers: the divinely appointed and the earthly appointed.
Richard II believes very much in his divine right to rule but clearly cares more for his crown and royal accoutrements than for his people. His association between his status to his godliness is echoed in his words and appearance: Richard calls out his unloyal subjects as Judases to his own implicit Christ and Whishaw is bearded and often dressed in white—in semblance to popular (but ahistorical) depictions of Jesus. Director Rupert Goold also visually compares Richard’s death by arrows to that of the martyr St. Sebastian and his nearly naked corpse to that of Christ on the cross. All of Richard’s apparent divinity is no match for his true failings of character; he is an ineffective king—flighty, foolish, and easily flattered. Richard makes bad or unpopular decisions and quickly changes them without warning or reason. Redeemably, he is very eloquent, as most Shakespearean protagonists are. Since Richard is given the lion’s share of lines in the play, his weakness of character grows ever more apparent as he monologues to great extent and repeatedly switches from one frame of mind to another. Whishaw expertly balances his unfortunate and unheroic character on the knife’s edge of unhingedness as Richard gradually loses his position as king and faces utter humiliation.
Bolingbroke, in contrast to Richard, is a righteous man, dutiful son, and proud Englishman who has a strong affinity with the lower classes. He obeys and upholds the edicts of the king, even when he is eventually exiled by Richard, and is more concerned about maintaining his rightful inheritance (which Richard seizes to fund a war against Ireland) than pursing the throne. He loves his country dearly, kissing the ground when he returns to England from exile. Strangely, for a usurper, he does still care for Richard, who is his cousin and had once looked upon him with eerie benevolence. Bolingbroke seems ultimately unhappy with his new role as king and is unsettled by regicide, which according to Shakespeare’s tale of Macbeth is a crime against the laws of man and nature and is sure to beget more violence and trouble. Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, is further explored in Henry IV Parts One and Two.
Rating: 4 out of 5 pet monkeys