If there is an element of the Art Department often overlooked by audiences when regarding filmmaking, it's the Prop.
An object used by the actors performing in a play or film:
The only props used in the show are a table, a chair, and a glass of water.
But why am I speaking about the prop when this is a Costume Design focused blog? It is true that the prop can be something as far removed from costume as a chair or a plate. But it also can be something that easily and naturally intersects with the Costume Design: a piece of jewelry, a shield or a handbag.
It's in those cases when a great prop design can bring a lot of narrative meaning in a similar fashion as Costume Design itself. And it's those cases that I am going to be looking at in here. I am going to dedicate this series to spread the virtues of the prop and to analyze through specific cases how a good prop can complement the meaning behind the story and even come to stand as a visual representation of its main themes.
And to start this series, I am going to focus my attention on The Hollow Crown and how the design evolution of the Crown as a prop throughout the show's two seasons is made completely essential to the story at a narrative level.
THE HOLLOW CROWN
This is a series of British Television Film produced by BBC Two and Sam Mendes that undertakes the titanic task of adapting William Shakespeare's Henriad: Richard II, Henry IV (Part I and II) and Henry V during the first season and Henry VI (Part I and II) and Richard III during the second season.
Originally conceived as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, a celebration of British Culture intended to coincide with the 2012 London Olympics, the critical acclaim it garnered managed to expand the project and finance the second season, which allowed them to cover the entire cycle of plays of the Henriad.
Helmed by exceptional British talent both in front and behind the camera, the show shines in its incredibly powerful performances and centrifugal momentum. Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Jeremy Irons, Simon Russell Beale, Tom Hiddleston, Tom Sturridge, Hugh Bonneville, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Cumberbatch and Judy Dench are only a few of the great actors that grace this adaptation.
The show aims at bringing forward and highlighting the ethical and political dilemmas of power found in Shakespeare's historical plays. And it does a pretty good job of it.
By exploring the chain of events that led to the so-called Wars of the Roses and the conflict itself The Hollow Crown digs deep into the nature of power and its effect on men as well as the cyclic nature of violence and unrest whilst posing a fairly straightforward yet tricky question: what makes a good king?
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;
— Richard II, Act 3 Scene 2
POWER IN A PROP
So, if you are going to focus on power and kingship and, more specifically, the different forms it takes, what do you use as visual shorthand for those different approaches to kingship? Well, the crown, of course. The crown as an object stands as the symbolic representation of the king's power.
And as such, it becomes the central visual element in the show, and, therefore, the most important element of the design department.
So, through the different crowns created for each of the six kings whose reigns the show covers, the prop department works hard to encapsulate the ethos and ideology behind every one of these kings and his approach to his responsibilities as a monarch.
THE CROWN STANDS FOR THE KING
1. RICHARD II
The story starts with Richard II, the boy king that succeeded the mighty warrior king Edward III, who has grown to be a spoiled and vain man. He proceeds to vanish his cousin Bolingbroke from England and seizes his title and lands to have money to squander in his nonsensical war in Ireland. Later on, Bolingbroke returns to England and rallies support from the nobles to get his birthright back. In the end, he deposes Richard and crowns himself king, staining his hands with Richard's murder in the process.
With this brief reminder of the plot out of the way (also, I refuse to tag a spoiler alert for a play that's at least 500 years old), let's ask ourselves what does Richard's kingship stands for? And to answer it, you need only look at his crown.
Richard's crown is a ceremonial object; big, heavy and deeply impractical. It is also heavily ornate; profusely decorated with pearls, rubies, and other precious stones. It's closer to a ceremonial relic than a practical object.
All in all, it is a pompous object that wants to command admiration and respect. It begs to be revered. Much like Richard's take on kingship.
To Richard, the king is closer to a divine figure to be looked at and admired than a political player. Having inherited the throne from a long line of kings, he firmly believes that he is king by divine right and that his office is a sacred duty that only himself can take on. And because of it, he can do no wrong, for he is God's envoy on this Earth and what he does and says comes directly instructed by God.
It's only logical then, that the first two images we see are a religious representation of Christ on the cross and, immediately after, Richard sitting on his throne, presenting himself like an effigy of a Saint.
So, clearly, for Richard, the office of the King is not about duty but about right. He doesn't have to do anything, just being is enough.
So, when his crown becomes disputed by his cousin, the fierce warrior Henry Bolingbroke, it becomes a literal struggle for the crown as an object and as a symbol.
On the one end stands Richard's divine right, on the other, Bolingbroke's just cause. And in the middle, Richard's crown.
Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.
Now mark me, how I will undo myself;
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duty's rites:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;
My manors, rents, revenues I forego;
My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!
God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!
— Richard II, Act 4 Scene 1
In the end, Bolingbroke is crowned as Henry IV and Richard ends up like a distorted Christ-like figure, murdered in his cell.
And so, Bolingbroke, a mere noble, usurps the divine crown to which he has no claim. It is only logical then that the crown that looked so elegant on Richard looks ill-fitted and almost ridiculous when Henry wears it.
It looks awkward on this rough and uncouth warrior. Divine kingship and its inherent pomposity could not possibly fit him because he can never rule by divine grace. His rule and his kingship are human-made.
2. HENRY IV
The second and third episodes of this miniseries focus on an old and weathered Henry IV, who after years of bloody strife with his nobles worries over his son and heir, Prince Hal (Henry of Monmouth), and tries to prepare him for ruling. All the while his failing health and a northern rebellion ail him and threaten the kingdom.
Henry, as we meet him here, has spent most of his years on the throne fighting the rebel nobles which don't seem to accept the legitimacy of his crown. And the struggle shows on his weathered face. But that weariness also shows on his crown.
In it, there is no trace of the precious stones that decorated Richard's crown. The naked metal looks closer to a helmet for battle than a glorious and divine object. It is also considerably smaller and more practical, clearly made to wear in battle.
There is an undeniable sternness to his crown, which seems as sullen and hostile as Henry himself. For him, the crown should be all might and no show. And that trickles down to his court, making it a rather glum and lackluster place.
His court is not a divine place, but a barren man-made cemetery. Away has gone the bright colors of Richard's court and the divine effigies that decorated the throne room and all that's left is an old man on a chair with a metal crown that shines not as much as it should.
He actually looks uncomfortable sitting on the throne. And a great way to reflect that is that he avoids wearing the crown whenever he can, even during meetings with his council. Something that Richard never did.
Also noticeable is the fact that he never wears his crown without his bobble hat, a piece of cloth originally invented to prevent medieval helmets from scratching the wearer's head. This serves not only to drive home the idea that he is a soldier more than a king but also to reinforce the idea that he is not made to wear a crown, as he needs to protect his head from it.
In this case, just like with the previous episode, the crown also ends up becoming a literal and physical incarnation of the themes of the play during the final scene between Henry IV and Prince Hal, where the old king passes on his crown to Hal and thus finally sets right the illegitimacy of the act by which he achieved it.
For all my reign hath been but as a scene
Acting that argument: and now my death
Changes the mode; for what in me was purchased,
Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort;
So thou the garland wear'st successively.
— Henry IV Part 2, Act 4 Scene 5
It's precisely in Hal where we find the only character in the play that breaks the tone and pattern set by old Henry in his court. He wears bright royal red and embraces the regalia of kingship in a way his father never did.
Because in the end, he can be the king old Henry could never be; simply because in his ascension to the throne there is no illegitimacy. He is the oldest son of the ruling king. He is observing the rules.
Accordingly, note how his father's crown fits him perfectly (unlike how ill Richard's crown fit Henry) but, more importantly, Hal also looks comfortable in the paraphernalia of kingship as Richard understood it.
So, in Hal's coronation, the order is set back in place. In his figure, rises a synthesis between Richard's divine and legitimate kingship and Henry's unlawful yet righteous one.
3. Henry V
The last episode of the show's Season One focuses on young King Henry V and his enterprise to reclaim France. It is a joyful work that praises England's warrior king who managed to reconcile all the English noblemen by giving them a common goal to fight for: France.
As we meet him again, there seems to be no trace left of the young vandal that spent his time in a London tavern drinking and enjoying the company of ruffians and lowborn men. Here we find a young King full of vitality and energy that seems to be able to drive the spirits of every man in England. And his sight is firmly set in France: on finishing what his great-grandfather, Edward III, started there.
As for his crown, it's worth noting that he uses his father's simple crown. But this decision makes sense; he is, after all, continuing his father's line, and he is also a warrior king, so a more ornate crown wouldn't make sense on the battlefield.
So, if he maintains his father's crown, how does he differentiate himself from Henry IV? By how he treats his nobles. Long gone is the gloomy and gruff old man barking orders from his throne. Young Henry rides beside his men without much consideration for rank or marking himself as mightier or more important. His years of young folly galavanting amongst the common people have shaped him into a man that knows how to command men's loyalties by caring for them and considering them brothers.
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.
— Henry V, Act 4 Scene 3
And there lies his strength. That’s how he wins the French. It’s important to highlight that the French are led by a King and Court that reminds us very much, in style and substance to that of deposed Richard II and, therefore, he reminds us of his faults.
But how does all this translate to Henry’s design? Not only does he use a strikingly simple crown, but he also dresses in very simple clothes. Much more simple than those of his father. His Majesty is simply conveyed by the use of Red (which is the color of the English Crown) and through a splendid casting choice. And this certainly manages to communicate a bold determination and elegant practicality.
It is also worth noting that Henry V is the only play in The Henriad that doesn’t end with a literal and physical passing on of the crown. Instead, it ends with a peaceful yet tragic conclusion to this great figure of England's history and the foreboding sense that victory and greatness are but a fleeting glimpse of potential bound to vanish just as fast as it came.
King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!
England ne'er lost a king of so much worth.
England ne'er had a king until his time.
— Henry VI, Act 1 Scene 1
TO BE CONTINUED...
Click here to read Part II.
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