Shakespeare’s history plays: Precursor to the film franchise?

William ShakespeareAhh, the film franchise.  A popular film with interesting characters and a decent premise soon spawns a sequel, then becomes a trilogy, and so on, until it becomes unprofitable, unpopular, or both.  If the franchise is based on a book series, every effort will be made to keep the money factory running as long as possible, thus the recent trend of splitting up films into “part one” and “part two.”  But before we get too irritated with Hollywood, we ought to remember that story franchising is nothing new.  There is no better example of this than William Shakespeare’s history plays, which collectively show the burden of leadership against the bloody backdrop of murder and warfare.

The whole point of a sequel (or series) is to continue the story, each installment reinventing itself with variations on the same theme.  The characters we know and love are back again for an encore, and our familiarity with the previous story enriches our experience of the newer one.  Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Henry V (1989) served as my introduction to Shakespeare’s history plays.  It included a short flashback of Prince Hal and Falstaff from Henry IV, Part I, hinting at a bit of backstory that was almost a tease: “If you REALLY want to know what’s going on, you’ll need to read the other plays.”  Henry V is a good play all on its own, but it becomes a great play in part because of the emotional weight of everything that came before it.  To really appreciate Henry V, you would need to go back to the beginning of Shakespeare’s franchise, rewinding past Henry IV, Part I and II, back to Richard II.

Henry V (1989) Shakespeare

Henry V (1989)

I recently had the good fortune to see David Tennant’s RSC production of Richard II (2013) at my local movie theatre.  It’s a lengthy film that includes an intermission at the 2/3 mark–there were two people sitting a few rows ahead of me who didn’t know that there was more to the story and mistakenly left before the end.  For those who want a more streamlined version of the play, The Hollow Crown (2012) DVD box set includes a visually stunning version of Richard II starring Ben Whishaw.

The Hollow Crown is packaged and presented almost exactly like a Hollywood style franchise.  The outer cover of the box set features a shadowed half portrait of each of the three main actors (Whishaw, Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston) that looks almost like a theatrical poster.  Much like Branagh’s Henry V, the shift from stage to screen has allowed the director to show audiences the landscapes that would otherwise be left to the imagination: a ruined, burned out castle, the stately, artificial beauty of the palace gardens, and a wide, sandy stretch of beach, lapped by a cruelly indifferent ocean.  This last setting is used to full effect–the waves erase Richard’s name from the sand, just as Bolingbroke’s army destroys the king’s hopes and illusions of power.  This version of Richard II incorporates a good deal of symbolic Christ-imagery throughout the film.  The monarch’s commissioned painting of Jesus reappears once as near-farce (when Richard surrounds himself with a gilt halo and cut out angels) and later, in the flesh. It also chooses to downplay Richard’s role in his own downfall by eliminating some of the early political scenes, including a rather important funeral that serves as the opening moments of the Tennant version.

Richard II (2013) Shakespeare

Richard II (2013)

The RSC production lacks the sweeping visuals of The Hollow Crown but it more than makes up for it with the quality of acting.  This version of Richard II is fascinating to watch because of the fine line it treads between comedy and tragedy. There are several unexpected, laugh-out-loud moments that are quickly followed by scenes of heart rending pathos. The transition between moods never feels jarring or abrupt–the lighter moments are woven in so deftly that it feels perfectly natural to smile even as one’s eyes are filling with tears.  A single kiss tips the emotional balance of the entire play, and the way that one gesture electrifies everything that follows gives the Tennant version a slight edge over The Hollow Crown.  Its longer running time enables viewers to gain a much clearer picture of the political world of the play, and as a result, the characters seem a bit more developed, a bit more complicated.  The last seconds of the RSC production are chilling, and in many ways, it is the perfect introduction to Shakespeare’s great franchise, the history plays.


Dawn Oshiro is an English composition lecturer and “aspiring novelist” whose two passions are film and literature. One day, she hopes to remove the air quotes and the word “aspiring” and actually publish something. You can check out her (non) progress at her blog:

5 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s history plays: Precursor to the film franchise?

  1. Great article and couldn’t agree more…also agree with above commentator about Chimes at Midnight. Also recommend Ian McKellen as Richard III, with 20th century fascist overtones.

    What I find truly interesting about the histories franchise is how some of the plays were written/performed out of historical order (although not terribly far apart in some cases): Henry VI series and Richard III written years before Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, and the character of John Falstaff (from Henrys IV and V) brought back in Merry Wives of Windsor.

    Will have to search out Tennant’s Richard II.

  2. You are spot on about the serialisations by Shakespeare, leaving the audience wanting more. We do have to remember that much of that audience was unsophisticated, and some of the theatrical productions at the time always included sword fights, and representative battles, for the benefit of entertainment, rather than accuracy. I really enjoyed ‘The Hollow Crown’ on TV, another example of TV production challenging film quality (see previous article by James). But then, I have not seen David Tennant in Richard ll, so will happily take your word that it is better.

    I studied Henry lV parts one and two at school in the 1960’s, and they are great, interwoven stories. I (yet again) recommend the film ‘Chimes at Midnight’, for an earlier version, with Orson Welles majestic as Falstaff. You can watch the whole film on this site.
    Thanks for an interesting article Dawn, and regards from Norfolk. Pete.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Pete! I really need to see “Chimes At Midnight” since I am also a great admirer of Orson Welles. I used to force my students to watch (and write an essay) on “Citizen Kane” back when it was at the top of the Sight and Sound poll. I’m a bit sad now that “Vertigo” has bumped it from the #1 slot.

      Both versions of “Richard II” are excellent, and it’s worth seeing both just to marvel at the way the exact same lines end up creating completely different moods. The ending of the Tennant version is so powerful but I don’t want to spoil it too much in case you have the chance to see it.

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