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All hail the Prop in... The Hollow Crown. Part II

In the first part of my detailed analysis of the evolving design for the crown in BBC's The Hollow Crown (here), I covered the whole first season and the designs for Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V.

In this second part, therefore, I'll continue this analysis by covering the second and last season of this Shakespearean adaptation, which includes the plays of Henry VI Part I, Part II and Part III and Richard III. So, without further ado, let's dive in.

4. Henry VI

The second season covers the infamous chain of events known as the Wars of the Roses and it begins with Henry's infant son all grown up. Shakespeare's work covers, throughout three plays (which are condensed to two in the show), the tumultuous civil unrest throughout Henry VI's reign and his eventual fall from grace.

Henry, as portrayed by the Bard, is a meek young man that despises conflict and prefers to pray than to rule. He is this naive, childlike man who is so pure in his innocence that he fails to realize the dangerous ambition of his nobles and his wife.

On top of that, he has the ill luck of having to follow in the footsteps of his father, Henry V, a man revered by nobles and peasants alike for his strength, charisma, and determination. A man whom young Henry will never be able to be.

This very clearly reflected by Henry's use of his father's crown, even though it always looks too big for him. It looks as if it's about to swallow him whole.

It is also noticeable just how often Henry literally holds onto the physical symbols of power (the orb, the command scepter, the crown) in order to look kingly in a clear attempt to compensate for his character flaws.

This puts him in direct visual opposition to his father's visual style, as he often avoided the use of those symbols, not needing to remind people of his status. A fact that further reinforces the idea that young Henry is but a pale reflection of the king his father was.

It's because of Henry's VI inability to inhabit and execute the power of Kingship that he highlights all the paraphernalia around his seat of power as if hoping it will be enough to convince his nobles that he is up to the task. This is also noticeable in how the throne room has been redecorated. The naked elegance of his father is gone in favor of a regal style that reminds us of Richard's pomposity. His only merit to the crown is that he is the son of an anointed king.

That overcompensation becomes laughably explicit in his coronation, where he appears wearing an even bigger crown that looks ridiculous on his brow and childishly holding the orb and scepter whilst looking dwarfed by his two uncles.

In fact, such is his weakened will to rule that, more often than not, it's his queen, the strong-willed Margaret of Anjou (one of Shakespeare's most intriguing and interesting female characters), who wears the real crown.

It's in her that real Royal Power seats. She rules over Henry and she rules over England. So let's have a look at her crown; the real crown.

Hers' is a large and obscenely ornate crown, the radical opposite of Henry's VI crown. This golden masterpiece is decorated with large pearls and rubies and other precious stones. And so it stands as a perfect reflection of her approach to power.

She believes in divine right, just as Richard II did. And she believes in her husband's (and therefore hers') divine right. That means that ruling, for her, is not a duty, but a right. Something that no one can question. And with that view, comes an arrogance and gluttony for power that pretty much defines her character.

What shall King Henry be a pupil still
Under the surly Gloucester's governance?
Am I a queen in title and in style,
And must be made a subject to a duke?

— Henry VI Part II, Act 1 Scene 3

And it's in the face of Henry's inability and Margaret's desire for power that Richard of York rises as a threat to Henry's Crown. Because, if Henry is not fit to be King, somebody else should.

This train of thought might label him a traitor, and in Margaret's eyes, it does. But Shakespeare heavily underlines that he is only following the dangerous precedent set by Bolingbroke by deposing Richard II. And so it all harkens back to that original sinful act.

In Richard, Duke of York, we find a figure that mirrors Bolingbroke himself. He is a capable leader and he is above all a warrior. Also, Shakespeare heavily underlines that his acts are born out of a sense of duty to England and not a traitor's heart. This is shown, through visuals by the fact that despite his claim to the throne, he never chooses to use any royal regalia, instead always appearing in a soldier's garb.

This places him in literal visual opposition to Henry, who not only abuses those symbols of power (constantly hiding behind them) but who also generally avoids military garb and who looks totally ridiculous in it when he actually has to wear it. He is closer to a monk, with his usual drab brown tunics than to a warrior.

I thought King Henry had resembled thee
In courage, courtship and proportion:
But all his mind is bent to holiness,
To number Ave-Maries on his beads;
His champions are the prophets and apostles,
His weapons holy saws of sacred writ,
His study is his tilt-yard, and his loves
Are brazen images of canonized saints.

— Henry VI Part II, Act 1 Scene 3

Actually, the only time we see him in a full battle plate, he spends the whole battle hiding in the bushes, horrified by the spectacle of death around him.

Once again, it's in Margaret that we see the real warrior behind the crown. When the occasion requires it, it is her that dons the armor and that fights with claws and teeth to keep his crown in place, first beheading treacherous Richard and later on facing off his fierce son in battle.

Though the effort is in vain, as Henry's mildness and weakness get the better of him when he decides to literally throw away his crown on the bloody waters of a creek. He relinquishes his divine right and chooses the path of least resistance; to surrender.

But, despite his refusal of the crown and Edward's, Richard's son, claims of it, he is still God's anointed king and, therefore, its only true claimant, much the same way Richard was. This is visually symbolized by the fact that they choose to have him die crowned.

This helps solidify the idea, by the end of the play, that despite his inabilities he still was, until his death, the rightful king of England, therefore marking Edward's usurping of the crown as an act that can only lead to disaster.

5. Edward IV

Edward IV doesn't even get the luxury of his own play in this sprawling epic of kings and kingship, my personal suspicions being that Shakespeare didn't much care for him, but he does become a rather necessary and unavoidable player both in Henry VI part II and Richard III.

Edward pursues the crown out of revenge for his father's murder at the hands of Margaret and eventually wins it due to his military talent. He, like his father, is a warrior above all. But, unlike his father, he is also lazy, lecherous and vain.

And all that can be clearly seen in his crown. He uses a deceptively simple crown; while it has no precious stones, it has the inside lined with plush red velvet. 

He might hide his vanity behind his warrior attitude, but it is still there.

It is also necessary to look at the crown he uses in his coronation, which is grander and more pompous than any other crown since Richard's II crown. Once again underlining just how vainglorious Edward IV is.

This leads us to the main issue with him: Henry VI might have been a weak monk, but Edward VI is hardly a good king. He is not legitimate and he is not righteous. He is but a vain brute who enjoys drinking, fighting and fucking. He is but a poor substitute for a real king.

And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

— Richard III, Act 1 Scene 1

So he ends up turning into a complacent king too blinded by his own vanity and triumph that he is unable to see his brother's murderous ambitions.

6. Richard III

Richard of Gloucester, whilst a featured character in Henry VI part III, is most well known as the central villain of the iconic Richard III, a play that not only serves as a masterful closure for The Henriad but has become famous in its own right.

Richard, as portrayed by the bard, is a cruel, cunning and ambitious man, whose inner evil deformities translate into an out monstrous hump. He is resourceful, uncompromising, and merciless in his pursuit of power. He is a manipulative monster.

As for his crown, it shows all this in a very simple manner: he uses all of his brother's crowns. Why? Because he knows that he needs to be seen as a legitimate continuation of the York line in order to ascend to the throne and remain there. So that simple show of continuity through his brother's crown (particularly considering that there are two legitimate children between himself and the crown) is a necessary political power play on Richard's part. It is a clever hint at his thought process and ambitions.

His need to reinforce his claim is also shown in how he covers himself in the symbols of power, much like Henry VI did.  Constantly clutching at the royal scepter and orb, and hardly separating from the physical crown.

In this sense, the main difference between Richard III and Henry VI is that whilst the latter hid behind these symbols, Richard clings to them.

Another important element cleverly weaved in his design is his mounting paranoia. His fear that he will be violently pushed out of power translates into him constantly wearing a chain mail or some sort of armor. He is constantly protecting himself from the long knives of the ghosts that chase him.

He, like Edward, is not rightful nor righteous. But whilst Edward, in Shakespeare's view, had at least done the good deed of ridding England of Margaret of Anjou, the She-Wolf of France, Richard had killed his older brother and murdered his two young nephews. Heinous acts that turn his reign into a plague upon England.

I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

— Richard III, Act 1 Scene 1

He is a man with no claim and no merits who murderously pursues power. He is a monster lurking in the shadows.

And, though nowadays it is quite well known that the Shakespearean Richard III hardly resembles his real historical counterpart, Shakespeare's character has grown beyond the historical figure and has come to represent the corruptive nature of power. He has become a stand-in for every man driven by ill-intended ambitions, by cruelty, and by immoral cunning. He has become the ultimate villain. And that is the real beauty of the character and what makes the play more relevant and timeless.

Against this evil tyrant, this unstoppable force of cruelty that is Richard, Shakespeare pitches a paladin of kingship in the figure of Henry Tudor (the future Henry VII and grandfather of Elizabeth I).

In him, we find a young man of noble blood that stands against injustice to reclaim Henry VI's crown. He is presented as humble and close to his men. He is, in a certain way, Henry V reincarnate.

This almost Messianic view of Henry Tudor is most than definitely inspired by the fact that her granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth, was one of the main investors in Shakespeare's work, just to be clear.

All of these traits are cleverly portrayed in his visual look in various ways. The most obvious is the fact that throughout all of the play (except at his own coronation) he is never shown to sport any visible symbols of power beyond flying the Lancastrian banner. His rightful claim to the throne is the only statement he needs to present in favor of his case.

Again, a legitimacy that Shakespeare takes for granted considering that his connection to the Lancaster bloodline is more than dubious. Henry Tudor was the descendant of a bastard child of Henry V's widow, not a direct descendant of Lancastrian blood.

So it is in him and Richard, really, that we most see the "fiction" aspect of all of this plays. By highlighting Richard perceived (by the Tudors) villainy, Shakespeare highlights Henry's heroism. By highlighting Richard's perceived illegitimacy to the throne, he justifies Henry's own right.

But I digress. Let's go back to his design. The other big trait that needs to be reinforced, is his connection to the figure of Henry V, which is quickly done by the frequent use of royal red and the simple and approachable style in which he is presented.

Both of these design choices help to establish a quick association between the two figures that easily point out who should win the crown in this case. Who is the good guy, if you will it.

In the end, Henry bravely defeats Richard, who loses his crown in the mud.

And thus order is set right again when a legitimate heir of Henry V (dubious legitimacy mentioned before) takes back the throne from the evil Richard of York and restores order and degree to the crown of England. A fitting end that also happened to set an ideological legitimation for the ruling Tudor family, thus serving a political end as well as its natural entertainment purpose. Thus reinforcing the idea that all fiction is political by default, a whole entire discussion for another day.


In the end, Shakespeare's intentions with this series of plays are crystal clear: to examine kinship and answer an age-old question: what makes a good king? Which he ends up giving a quite definitive question on his part: a good king is a kind king, yet strong. A king capable of defending the country, but also capable of showing love to his people and caring for them. A righteous king is an honorable man raised from amongst his peers to the divine duties of the Crown.

A very clear notion on the moral side of things. But on the theological side, Shakespeare claims that a good king should also be rightful in his claim. Otherwise, the divine order is unmade, and no matter how good the reason, chaos will ensue.

So, a good king must balance these two ideas. Divine right is but an empty vessel without human virtue. Much the same way as human virtue without the sacred state of divine right cannot hope to rule rightfully.

These deeply political ideas woven into this large, sprawling saga are reinforced at every turn by an incredibly thorough visual design that pulls no punches. In this visual design, the specific treatment and design of the crown become central to the understanding of the story and its deeper message.

The evolution of that prop throughout the two seasons of the show does more for characterization and thematic evolution than any part of the Costume Design, taking over the function the latter usually has.

As the physical and visual representation of the power of the monarchy, the varying designs of the crown are the perfect means to allow us to glimpse at how each of these six kings understands kingship and power and their varying flaws and virtues.


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  1. Great post. I just wish it was more about the costumes themselves.


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