Shakespeare And His-Stories..!
Screen Adaptations Of The Bard's Historical Plays
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
- Henry IV (Part II)
This is the concluding post in a series marking Shakespeare's 400th death anniversary, which started with noteworthy screen adaptations of some of his important tragedies (To Weep Or Not To Weep...Part I and Part II) and comedies (All The World's A Laugh... Part I and Part II). And here we will look at some screen interpretations of the Bard's chief historical histrionics.
As per experts, Shakespeare's historical plays consists of ten works: King John, Richard II, Henry IV – Part I and Part II, Henry V, Henry VI – Part I, II and III, Richard III and Henry VIII. Of course he did not write them in the above order, but the sequence is chronological in that it covers the rein of several English Kings spread over four centuries (twelfth to the sixteenth century).
Scholars have further divided the plays into two tetralogies, the first comprising of the three Henry VI along with Richard III and the second consisting of Richard II, Henry IV – Part I & Part II as well as Henry V. The later is usually referred to as the Henriad (a term derived from the classical epics), though this is debated and some experts include even the former four plays. The reason for mentioning this is that most of the cinematic and television adaptations are based on the tetralogies / Henriad.
And one of the most ambitious television adaptations ever and certainly the most at the time of its release was “An Age of Kings” (1960). A fifteen-episode version of eight of the histories from Richard II to Richard III, it was a tremendous commercial and critical success winning the British Guild of Directors' Excellence in Directing award.
Then in 1965, BBC adapted to television a very successful play, 'The Wars of the Roses', which was based on the first historical tetralogy (Henry VI – Part I, II, III and Richard III). The story focused on a series of wars between the Houses of Lancaster and York for the throne of England. This production too was hugely acclaimed and well received.
And Orson Welles' “Chimes at Midnight” (1966) is based upon Sir John Falstaff, a fictional character who appears in both the Henry IV plays as well as Henry V. The theme of the film is betrayal and the story is an amalgamation of Henry IV and V, Richard II as well as The Merry Wives of Windsor. Welles considered this his best and his favourite film.
One of the most interesting interpretations is “Theatre of Blood” (1973), a horror comedy by Douglas Hickox. It stars Vincent Price as an actor who considers himself as the finest Shakespearean actor ever. But when he is not awarded the critic's choice for best actor he decides to revenge his humiliation by killing the reviewers who gave him low ratings and bases each of the murders on a Shakespearean death scene. For instance he executes a critic using electric hair curlers while narrating a scene from Henry VI – Part 1, where Joan of Arc is condemned to be burnt.
“My Own Private Idaho” (1991) by Gus Van Sant is loosely based on Henry IV – Part 1 & Part 2 as well as Henry V. It is the story of two friends, played by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, who are gay prostitutes. Phoenix received several awards for his performance including at the Venice Festival.
And in 2012 BBC produced “The Hollow Crown”, a television series based on the Henriad. Directed by Rupert Goold, Richard Eyre and Thea Sharrock, it won a BAFTA for Leading Actor and Supporting Actor, and one of the episodes, “Richard II”, was nominated for Best Single Drama.
A continuing series based on the first tetralogy was recently aired. Directed by Dominic Cooke, it stars Benedict Cumberbatch as King Richard III.
Among all the historicals, Richard III has had the maximum number of stand-alone screen interpretations, including:
- “Richard III” (1995) by Richard Loncraine, which is based on a stage production and transposes the story to a fascist Britain during the 1930s.
- “Looking for Richard” (1996), a documentary by Al Pacino which is also his directorial debut. It includes several scenes from the play, explains the story along with the historical references and interprets Shakespeare's relevance in contemporary culture.
- And the first cinematic version of Richard III, which was made in 1912 by André Calmettes and James Keane. Lost in the early 1920s, a print was found in 1996 and restored by the American Film Institute. It is possibly the earliest surviving American feature and the first feature-length Shakespearean version to be made.
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
- Richard III
Which is your favourite Shakespeare play and your favourite screen adaptation across all genres..? After all he must not have intended them as comedies or tragedies or histories but as works of entertainment... Share with us in the comments below.