I want to talk about Shakespeare as a writer of historical fiction. If you saw the remarkable BBC2 mini-series The Hollow Crown (Richard the Second, Henry the Fourth, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry the Fifth) in July, you might be more or less aware of how he took historical facts and bent them into the shape required for his drama.
For example, Henry Percy (Hotspur) and Prince Hal were not contemporaries. Percy was born in 1364 or 1366, the man who would be Henry V in 1386. It was his father, Henry lV (born 1367), who was more nearly Hotspur's contemporary. But it makes a much better story to have the old king of the middle two plays in this history cycle - the second Shakespeare wrote although the events date from earlier than in the first tetralogy - worrying about how different his scapegrace son is from the fiery warrior of the north.
Many other characters are changed or combined from their historical equivalents and I certainly don't expect anyone, not even Shakespeare, to be as interested in the Plantagenets as I am. Suffice it to say that when Edward, Duke of York, says in Henry the Sixth, that "Edward the Third had eight sons," he - and Shakespeare - is simplifying!
But there is a book that will sort you out beautifully and it is by John Julius Norwich. I can't recommend Shakespeare's Kings (1999) too highly; he takes each play (including the doubtful Edward lll) and sets out the historical facts before showing how and what Shakespeare changed.
But back to The Hollow Crown. It was beautifully produced, costumed and acted, yet the first three plays were watched by an audience of only 800, 000 - "we few, we happy few" as one reviewer put it. I can only hope that iPlayer, catch-up TV and foreign rights will eventually boost those numbers considerably. I can remember John Barton's Wars of the Roses on TV and The Hollow Crown was a worthy successor.
Ben Whishaw played Richard the Second as a cross between Michael Jackson (complete with pet monkey) and Jesus Christ. That was fine by me but the addition of Saint Sebastian into the mix diluted the Christ-symbolism.
And here the director decided to add a bit of historical fiction of his own. Rupert Goold, to satisfy his own vision of the piece, took a step too far. In the play the deposed Richard is killed by Sir Pierce (pun intended?) of Exton, a character apparently invented by Shakespeare. The likely version is that the king was starved to death in his captivity in Pontefract Castle (or The Tower of London, if you are Rupert Goold).
This invention probably made the director think he had carte blanche to reinterpret the murder any way he wanted. But to give the deed to Aumerle was crass in the extreme. And having it done by crossbow was just so that he could underline the homo-erotic Saint Sebastian imagery he had spuriously introduced.
Aumerle (or Aumale) was the second Duke of York and cousin to both Richard the Second and Henry the Fourth. His closeness to Richard made him a conspirator against the new king but he repented. Nevertheless, it is absurd to think he would have chosen to show his loyalty by assassinating the deposed one.
At least, I think so! Which means I can accept some tampering with historical facts but not others. I suspect we all have our limits.
In the second play, Henry the Fourth had transmuted from Rory Kinnear to Jeremy Irons, a magnificently hollow-cheeked monarch, already racked both with the illness that would kill him and by guilt over the deposition and death of his cousin.
Prince Hal, later Henry the Fifth, was played by Tom Hiddleston, who is surely in line for a BAFTA.
It was a masterly performance of Falstaff, but I was surprised to see comments on Facebook about his being "an unpleasant character"! Of course he was - that was part of Shakespeare's point. Too many people misunderstand him as just a fat, jolly Lord of Misrule and forget that he corruptly accepts payment to let recruits off the muster for the wars, steals money from supposed old friends and consistently bad-mouths his supposed young friend Hal.
And yet, and yet. Doll cares for him and Mistress Quickly's account of his death in Henry V is always truly moving. And I have never found the rejection scene in Henry lV Part Two as painful as it was played by Russell Beale and Hiddleston.
There was so much too admire in these productions that the odd blemishes diminish to quibbles. I wish they hadn't cut the bits in Richard the Second that explain why Bolingbroke and Mowbray were fighting at the beginning and why the king banished them both.
But there was one omission by Thea Sharrock, the director of Henry V, that was extraordinary. Henry's order to kill the French prisoners leaves a very unpleasant taste (see John Sutherland's essay "Was Henry the Fifth a War Criminal?"). But to leave out the French murder of the boys who were pages and squires to the English army at Agincourt!
"Kill the poys and the luggage!" says the Welsh captain, Llewellyn and I shall never forget how Jonathan Slinger delivered it in the RSC History Cycle at Stratford. Sharrock seems to have cut it just in order to have the Boy (perhaps the same as Falstaff's Boy) grow up to be John Hurt, the Prologue.
What did you all think? Did the directors tamper too much with Shakespeare? Did Shakespeare tamper too much with Plantagenet history? Was Henry the Fifth a war criminal? Am I too picky? Do you have a crush on Tom Hiddleston? All answers welcome.