HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has won acclaim for its portrayal of a gritty, violent fantasy universe filled with warring families and political betrayal, where even main characters are not immune from a sudden, grisly death. However, England’s real-life history is actually just as shocking and violent, and the infamous Wars of the Roses more than match the level of betrayal and scandal found in “Game of Thrones.”
Shakespeare dramatized this bloody period in his plays “Henry VI” and “Richard III,” which were adapted by the BBC and released earlier this year as “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Judi Dench, and a number of other prestigious actors. It’s shot as a film using actual sets such as castles and battlefields, rather than as a traditional stage play. It’s a lavish, well-acted dramatization that’s perfect for any fan of history, Shakespeare, or medieval period dramas like “Game of Thrones.”
Confession time: I haven’t always been a big Shakespeare fan. I had to read a couple of his plays in high school and didn’t enjoy them at the time. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate his works a lot more, and I’ve found watching Shakespeare instead of simply reading it takes it to a different level. Hearing the dialogue and seeing the actors’ expressions made the plays more understandable for me. A friend of mine recently loaned me “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses,” and it’s one of the best Shakespeare dramatizations I’ve seen. Even if you aren’t a hardcore Shakespeare fan, it’s still worth a watch.
The Wars of the Roses were actually a somewhat confusing period in England’s history, with a lot of political maneuvering and plotting. To simplify the plot, at the time of the plays there’s some debate about who should be the rightful king of England. Henry VI (be warned, there’s a lot of Henrys here) leads the house of Lancaster, and Richard (there’s a lot of Richards too) leads the house of York. Nobles express their loyalty to either side by wearing either a white rose (York) or red rose (Lancaster). This conflict leads to a devastating civil war, and there is conflict even amongst the allies in the two houses. Since people often switch sides, you’re never quite sure who to trust.
Benedict Cumberbatch leads the cast as Richard III, the son of Richard of York who initially allies with his brothers but later schemes against them to take the crown. He’s not really a good guy (as least according to this historical interpretation), but he’s fascinating to watch. Another favorite character was Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, played by Hugh Bonneville (best known as Lord Grantham from “Downton Abbey”), one of the few characters who is actually trying to do the right thing. Seeing the plays made me want to read more about these historical figures, to see what actually happened versus what may have been embellished or altered for the plays. Supposedly there’s some debate about just how evil Richard III really was, and some scholars argue he has fallen victim to revisionist history.
I feel that Shakespeare’s tragedies, such as “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar,” and his comedies, like “Much Ado About Nothing,” sometimes get more attention than his historical plays. The names don’t automatically sound super interesting to modern audiences: “Richard II,” “Henry IV,” “Henry V,” “Henry VI,” “Richard III” (I told you there were a lot of Henrys and Richards). However, the themes in these plays are still quite relevant. We still have politicians plotting and scheming and trying to gain more power, and we don’t always know which side is worthy of our trust (if either).
I learned “The Wars of the Roses” is actually the second part of the BBC’s “The Hollow Crown” series (though it can still stand on its own). I’m looking forward to checking out the previous plays, which star Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons.