All Crowns are Hollow: The scheming and backstabbing politicians of today would do well to ponder the fate of Shakespeare’s Kings

“…For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a King
Keeps Death his court…”
Richard II – Act III, Scene 2
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Shakespeare’s plays are full of lessons for contemporary politicians – especially, perhaps, the history plays like Richard II, the tragedies such as Macbeth, and the Roman plays including Julius Caesar.
There’s one lesson that pops up time and time again, and I’ll present it as a question: “Are you really sure you want to be King?”
Because kingship in Shakespeare’s plays is almost always presented as a poisoned chalice – quite literally so, at the end of Hamlet.
Very few of the kings in Shakespeare ever get to do any actual ‘kinging’. Instead they fight tooth and nail to get to the throne – often committing heinous crimes like murder in the process – and then they die.
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Looking back at these plays from a distance of 400 or so years, it seems clear that what Shakespeare is doing is helpfully pointing out that the English system of monarchy doesn’t work very well. In fact it’s susceptible to complete breakdown, and when that happens we get a civil war – which is bad news for absolutely everyone.
Don’t believe me? Well, Here’s how Shakespeare depicts the fate of all the English kings between a relatively short period of 1400-1485:
Richard II – allegedly murdered.
Henry IV – dies stricken by guilt and fear.
Henry V – dies young, bequeathing legacy of chaos.
Henry VI – allegedly murdered.
Edward IV – allegedly murdered.
Edward V and his brother (the Princes in the Tower) – allegedly murdered.
Richard III – killed in battle.
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Not to mention all the other many and various Yorkists and Lancastrians with viable claims to the throne or legitimate places in the succession who are either murdered or meet their demise in battle.
One suggestion that emerges here is that maybe it’s better for a nation to be at peace and for society to tolerate a certain amount of hooliganism or anti-social behaviour (characterised by Prince Hal, Falstaff and their cronies in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2) than to embark on wars of conquest (Henry V) that deliver short term glory but ultimately bring disaster (Henry VI).
As suggested above, Shakespeare seems to truly hate and fear civil war. If you read the ten history plays as a sequence (starting with King John and ending with Henry VIII), the dominant emotion is often grief. Some of the most powerful speeches, whether by queens or commoners, are those which mourn the deaths of cruelly slaughtered loved ones. In Shakespeare there is rarely any upside to such butchery.
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The challenge of kingship, Shakespeare suggests, is about the careful control of volatile factors in a world where an alpha tyrant (Richard III) is just as likely to fall as a watery weakling (Henry VI). Perhaps, ultimately, the definition of a successful king is one whose reign wasn’t interesting enough for Shakespeare to write a play about.
Of course, it’s always perilous to mix up Shakespeare’s heavily fictionalised history plays with the actual history of England, but while we often think of the Tudor period that followed 1485 as being less volatile, it seems that these dysfunctional patterns of monarchy continued right through the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.
There was war with France and Scotland in the reign of Henry VIII, the shattering effect of the Reformation – and notoriously he had two of his six queens executed. Edward and Mary both died young, having continued to stoke the fires of religious conflict. Elizabeth’s reign was blighted by the threat of Spanish invasion and numerous assassination plots, including one which led to her executing her rival, Mary Queen of Scots.
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(And in a plot twist that even Shakespeare might have considered a bit unlikely, James the VI of Scotland ended up succeeding to the throne of Elizabeth – the very same woman who’d had his mother executed.)
Shakespeare, remember was born in 1564. In a little over 17 years prior to his birth England had no less than four monarchs. Five, if you include the ill fated ‘nine days’ Queen’, Lady Jane Grey.
And a quarter of a century after Shakespeare’s death, there was of course another civil war. And this one ended with the beheading of a king, Charles I, in a scenario with grim echoes of Macbeth.
The odd thing is that Shakespeare worked for Charles’ father, James VI and I, for whom he wrote Macbeth. If the young Charles ever knew of Shakespeare and his works, it seems that – to his tragic cost – he ignored their lessons.
Images from The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, courtesy of the BBC.

Photo Essay: One of the stars of the acclaimed Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy, multi-talented Jade Anouka talks us through an action-packed gallery of images by photographer Helen Maybanks

Images by Helen Maybanks

Henry IV
Jade Anouka as Hotspur in Henry IV.

“This is actually during a scene change in Henry IV. Karen Dunbar live DJs throughout the show. But she is in the next scene so I take over the decks at this point.”

The Tempest
Jade as Ariel in The Tempest.

“During the song ‘Come Unto These Yellow Sands’ in The Tempest. The whole company perform the song with a mix of instruments including guitar, drums, harmonica and trumpet. Joan Armatrading composed the music for Shakespeare’s words. At this point I am rapping – our director got me to write some spoken word for the show to help bring moments up to date. As a poet, I relished the opportunity.”

Julius Caesar
Jade as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar.

“In Julius Caesar I begin Mark Anthony’s ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech face down with the rest of the company/Romans pointing guns to my head. From this completely vulnerable point, it is amazing how Shakespeare’s words can move the crowd to follow Anthony.”

Henry IV
As Hotspur in Henry IV.

“This is Hotspur in an early scene of Henry IV. He is talking to the King, explaining that there was a misunderstanding, and at this point he is asking not to let this misunderstanding get in the way of their relationship.”

Henry IV
The Earl of Douglas (Leah-Harvey) spars with Hotspur in Henry IV.

“Hotspur recruits The Earl of Douglas to his side, and in this moment they are sparring – a sort of test or initiation to make sure Douglas is up to it. He proves he is more than capable!”

The Tempest
As Ariel in The Tempest.

“As Ariel, here I am performing another of my penned raps. This is in place of a rhyming couplet that Shakespeare wrote about how fast and efficiently Ariel says he and his sprites will fullfill Prospero’s tasks. I wrote a version, and it is performed just before the wedding.”

Henry IV
Prince Hal (Clare Dunne) battles Hotspur in Henry IV.

“Here is an action shot in the big fight and only meeting of Prince Hal and Hotspur in the play. They are forced to fight to the death in order to win the war. It starts off as a stylised boxing match and descends into a grapple where a knife gets involved. I loved doing the stage combat! Thanks to Kombat Kate for choreographing.”

The Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy at King’s Cross Theatre runs until 17 December.

All performances of Julius Caesar and The Tempest, and all Trilogy Days are sold out. There are a limited number of tickets available for Henry IV on 13 December.

Go here for more information and tickets.

Is Shakespeare to blame for modern-day prejudice against people with skin problems?

Some experts are saying that Shakespeare may have handed down a fear of skin lesions along with his literary legacy.

In Elizabethan times, warts, sores and blisters were harbingers of contagious diseases such as plague, syphilis and smallpox, so the fear of them was well founded. But in a world of modern medicine such persistent distrust and dislike is unwarranted and often harmful to individuals.

But can the Bard be blamed for this?

From King Lear’s denunciation of “Thou are a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle” to the constant abuse heaped upon Henry IV‘s Bardolph for his nose like “an everlasting bonfire-light”, Shakespeare has no lack of skin condition-derived insults.

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Nina Goad, a spokesperson with the British Association of Dermatologists, believes that these barbs have perpetuated discrimination against those with skin problems.  Speaking with the Telegraph she said, “Nobody is suggesting that we edit Shakespeare but maybe we should ensure that new films and books don’t reinforce this stereotype”.

The paper “Is Shakespeare to blame for the negative connotations of skin disease?” presented at BAD’s annual conference says that while Shakespeare “may not have accepted Elizabethan society’s negativity towards skin disease, it can be argued that his success has led to its perpetuation”.

Scholars have been quick to defend the Bard.

“Has any writer in history ever suggested that the symptoms of skin disease are attractive?” Professor Michael Dobson, director of Birmingham University’s Shakespeare Institute, asked the Telegraph.

Read more on this subject here.