In this quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, it was inevitable that the most keenly anticipated examination of the great dramatist’s capacity to rivet modern audiences would be The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses, BBC2’s version of the Henry VI trilogy and their successor Richard III. These plays bring Shakespeare’s survey of English history to the verge of the Tudor age in which he wrote them.

Stage versions of Shakespeare, of all shapes and sizes, have not been and will not be in short supply this year, in either London or the regions. But television promised to draw an audience of armchair viewers whose sheer magnitude would dwarf figures for theatre attendance. A million for the first night was whispered as a possibility. And such a figure, it was hoped, would include many who might normally lack the impetus, not to say the finances, to venture to see Shakespeare on stage.

Yet in politically and socially fractured Britain, the BBC faced a tough task in this bold venture. In that now seemingly far-off summer of love, 2012, in a UK buoyed up by national confidence, kindliness and a spirit of success reflected in London’s Olympic Games, its Hollow Crown I, consisting of Richard II, both parts of Henry IV and Henry V, had been an outstanding success. Its glittering cast and inspired directors (respectively Rupert Goold, Richard Eyre and Thea Sharrock) seemed to give the lie forever to any lingering notion that Shakespeare on screen was somehow dumbing down the product.

It would, in any event, have been a hard act to follow. Performances such as Ben Whishaw’s Richard II, Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff and Tom Hiddleston’s Harry, to single out but a handful, set individual benchmarks. But the problems for Hollow Crown II’s director were compounded by the intractable nature of the material provided by Shakespeare himself.

The directors of Hollow Crown I had held all the aces. Richard II contains, in the mouth of its eponymous protagonist, some of Shakespeare’s most soaring lyric verse. It always feels like something scarcely less than a miracle that, in a few short scenes, its author can transform an irrational, vindictive, thoroughly unlikeable creature such as Richard, into a Man of Sorrows who stirs our profoundest pity. From petulant boy he becomes the man who now utters those memorable lines that have come to stand for the cruel vicissitudes of power – and which give this undertaking its title:

within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp.

By the time we get to Henry IV, Part 2, Shakespeare’s verse and his sombre insights into life beneath the surface of merriment feel like those of a creative spirit standing on the verge of the great tragedies of his maturity. Falstaff, no longer the clown who has entertained us for so long, painfully faces his mortality: ‘Peace, good Doll, do not speak like a death’s-head, do not bid me remember mine end.’ And, from the mouth of such an insignificant character as Silence, we have the heart-rending utterance of poverty of expectation when he is asked to account for a rare moment of mirth that comes to him in his cups: ‘Who, I? I have been merry twice and once ere now.’ Shakespeare finds the deepest pathos in the most unlikely vessels.

The director of Hollow Crown II had no material of this calibre to work with. Set later in time than the events of Hollow Crown I, in the civil wars that succeed the death of Henry V, the plays were nevertheless composed a good few years earlier. Richard III, Shakespeare’s first ‘real’ play excepted, they have all the hallmarks of prentice work, and there is much evidence of collaboration. Bound far too closely to the chronicles from which they cull their contents, they demonstrate none of the dramatic flair we associate with Shakespeare. Much of their dialogue is bare of psychological interest; the verse often crude and clunky. They contain none of those intriguing minor characters whose aperçus at unexpected moments give Shakespeare’s plays their incomparable sense of lived life. They almost all lack a personality of enough dimension to anchor our sympathies.

None of this deterred director Dominic Cooke. He recognized that turbulent times called for a violent approach to directing. An age of chaos in which those aspiring to power, however dubious their legitimacy and brief their tenancy, took as their guiding principle ‘La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure’ would be presented on screen as such. Skirmish and pitched battle, conducted in mud and shouting, and fractious confrontations at a king’s court dangerously peopled by grudgingly deferential nobles armed to the teeth, set the first episode off at the rush. Cooke was wise not to waste our time plodding through the dross of the three Henry VI plays as separate episodes, but telescoped them into two. Something had to go, and that was the Jack Cade rebellion. One registered that only absently; it certainly didn’t undermine the architecture of the whole.

Sophie Okonedo made a striking Queen Margaret, ruthless as one might expect of a woman hauled over from France to be King Henry’s wife and bedfellow, provided that she is always available to occupy that of Suffolk (Jason Watkins), who has travelled to arrange the matter for his sovereign. Except that, here, Suffolk wasn’t Suffolk, a major character in the first two parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, and in history, but had morphed into Exeter (Ben Miles), a relatively minor one, who was given most of his lines. Why? It was irritating because unnecessary. But of course it didn’t seem to matter. The murder of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) in the Tower, his screams of agony ringing out in counterpoint to the Queen’s gasps of pleasure as she illicitly couples with Exeter/Suffolk, both episodes presented on screen simultaneously, was of a piece with Cooke’s cunningly effective direction.

By this time Hollow Crown II had made its point. Its first night, in May, was reportedly seen by more than a million people, apparently putting it up there with Ridley Scott’s Prometheus over on Channel 4, and exceeding its 2012 predecessor. And yet … we were still awaiting the entrance of the superstar Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous Richard III of Hollow Crown’s third episode. I’d admired immensely his Tietjens in BBC 2’s version of Ford Madox Ford’s novel Parade’s End. But has he some way to go as a Shakespearean actor? His Hamlet at the Barbican last year was no more than plausible, though admittedly the play was hampered by Lyndsey Taylor’s perverse direction. And now here, one felt he was over directed. The hunchback’s physical deformities did not have to be so overdone. He did not quite come to terms with the sheer venom that the role demands. The king’s harsh dismissal of the pleas of his surrogate in villainy, Buckingham (Ben Daniels), for due reward – ‘I am not in the giving vein today’ – should cut like the blow from a Russian penal knout. It didn’t.

Television did not have a monopoly on screened Shakespeare during this season of commemoration. Londoners, and visitors to London, had already had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the Globe Theatre’s ‘Complete Walk’, and dip into all or any of Shakespeare’s plays, as they wanted. On thirty-seven screens sited along two-and-a-half miles of the Thames from St Thomas’ Hospital Gardens to Potters Fields by Tower Bridge a series of continuously rolling short films, each made by a different director, explored aspects of all the plays over a weekend in April. These included key scenes either shot afresh on location, taken from Globe productions, or recovered from historic film archives.

The revelation in the heart of this imaginative venture was not so much its treatment of the already well-known and much-admired – but its offerings of glimpses into the lesser-known parts of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Henry VI benefited immensely from this thoughtful treatment. In a bitter breeze whipping along the South Bank we were transported to a moving scene of grief on the battlefield at Towton in North Yorkshire, where a father cradles in his arms the body of the son he has killed by accident, watched by the hapless King Henry (Alex Waldman), on whom it finally dawns that his vacillation has led to such an outcome.

A few screens along, as we crouched under the Golden Jubilee Bridge in a shower of rain, we were thrust into the very different ethos of contemporary Spitalfields, where Jack Cade (Neil Maskell) led his revolt against a backdrop of twenty first century London streets. Further on, in the windswept Bernie Spain Gardens behind the Oxo Tower, it was the turn of Falstaff (Toby Jones). In an ingenious compilation of speeches ranging over the two parts of Henry IV and filmed entirely in Southwark’s George Inn, Jones brilliantly expounded Falstaff’s philosophy of survival, as he lurched his way in search of the next drink.

It was intense fare. I took the entire two days to finish the Complete Walk. I ended it an undoubtedly wiser – if colder – student of Shakespeare.

Peter Davies is a journalist and literary critic whose publications from Greenwich Exchange press include studies on Milton’s Paradise Lost, William Blake and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.