Ever since the original BBC adaptation the first four in Shakespeare’s series of eight Plantagenet History plays, I have been hoping that one day they might move onto the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. His aptly known ‘Wars of the Roses’ sequence. Yeah, I confess, these little known works of the bard are among my favourites, even though at more than 6 hours in length making it through all three parts of Henry VI requires some concentration and commitment.
In a way I was delighted to see that this series was finally on the way, although I had reservations when I heard about casting choices and the content. I still don’t think they should have cut the three parts of Henry VI down to only two. I watched the premiere of the much-anticipated new series last night (yeah we know, cashing in the massive resurgence of interest in the Wars of the Roses and all that)- and all in all, I was left rather disappointed.
To me the whole thing seemed disjointed, rather rushed and just not put together well. Cutting out over a third of the material from the original plays is pretty savage, and I think a lot has been ‘lost in translation’ so to speak. Take the curious decision to start the second scene with Richard of York visiting his dying Uncle Edmund Mortimer- who lays out his claim to the throne with a family tree ready to hand and then York hastily explaining it to Warwick and Salisbury. They basically spliced together two scenes from two separate parts of the plays, and put them right at the beginning.
Okay, so it might be argued this scene was necessary to put York’s later actions and the Wars into context. Yes, but here’s the thing. It misses out the background and context of these scenes themselves which was important in itself. The thing about York in the plays is that he does not show his hand hand and openly claim the throne until the very last-minute, when things are getting heated and he’s sure of the loyalty and support of his comrades. Which pretty much follows the historical reality that York did not press his claim until the year of his death.
...and that scene with Mortimer in the Tower. Well its all about context too. It from Act II Scene V of Henry VI Part One, following the famous garden scene when the characters pluck white and red roses from the bush. In the original play it has nothing to do with claims to the throne. Rather if follows Somerset and York who had been embroiled in a legal dispute, and ask their fellows to decide between them. It was an argument that got out of hand because Somerset called Richard of York a ‘yeoman’. Basically, saying that because his father was executed for treason, his blood was corrupted and he was no better than a commoner. York got a bit upset, the swords came out, and the others had to intervene to prevent things getting really nasty.
Its only after that York goes to see Uncle Mortimer- and then asks him about the events surrounding his father’s execution. Yeah, fair enough people are throwing it in his face and he wanted to know- and that’s when the whole matter starts to come out. From that point on, pretty much, York thinks himself wronged, has it in for the House of Lancaster, and comes to fancy himself as the heir to the throne. Now this is all very much after all the action in France, and the rise of Joan of Arc- not before. In fact, in this version the war in France is relegated to little more than a few minutes Joan of Arc, Margaret of Anjou- Talbot gets killed- and then its back to England. John Duke of Bedford is not even in it. That is what I call a travesty. Totally ignoring the role and career of Henry V’s other brother.
But that was not my only problem. It’s not just context and basis of the character’s actions that is lost with the BBC’s editing. It’s also much of the sense, tension, conflict and interactions between characters of the original play. The bitter rivalry between the
Bishop of Winchester and Gloucester is not there. Nor is much of the early action with Suffolk. Suffolk is present, but he does not do much. Instead his character is curiously amalgamated with that of Somerset to the point that in one place Somerset was called William. Yeah, that might sound pedantic, making a big deal about getting a name wrong but it shows how the two characters are confused. Suffolk’s name was William de la Pole- Somerset was Edmund Beaufort. Two very different characters who have very different roles. Somerset was really just York’s foil in the original play, but it was Suffolk that stole much of the show, and drove on most of the action.
Then there was the downfall of Gloucester. That’s all from Part II and its depicted as a pretty complicated affair involving all the major characters scheming and conniving to bring about Good Duke Humphrey’s demise. Suffolk is the main player, the one who actually has him ‘bumped off’, not Somerset and he’s not in bed with Margaret of Anjou in the meantime. Yeah, that totally unnecessary bedroom scene was not in the original play. It was thrown in for er, ‘good measure’ by the Beeb to show how ‘corrupt’ Somerset and Margaret supposedly were. Not that there’s a shred of evidence Margaret ever had an affair with Somerset, or anyone for that matter. That was Yorkist gossip from much later spread to destroy her reputation.
Which brings us to the final point. For some undiscernible reason York is removed from
much of the intrigue and scheming in the BBC adaptation. He is not involved in Gloucester’s demise, and is positively horrified by the whole thing. Not so in the original play. There he’s very much in the centre. He’s every inch the Machiavellian schemer, pretending loyalty whilst planning to bring down the whole regime and conniving with the others against Gloucester. His ambitions and intents are spelled out in masterful soliloquies. None of that is present in this version. I for one have a nasty feeling that this is all done with the intention of exonerating York- making him out to be a sort of righteous and moral hero in the making. He is almost the innocent on the sidelines, who is driven to rebellion only by the injustice and corruption around him.
Its seems too much like the overly simplified ‘Yorkists good, Lancastrians bad’ idea which is becoming rather too prevalent in the popular view of the Wars of the Roses. That is not something this historian is comfortable with because the whole thing was a lot more complicated and messy then that. There was greed, ambition, selfish intentions, bad blood and violent misdeeds on both sides. Neither was Lily white but neither was entirely evil either….and that was part of the genius of Shakespeare. He often did a great job of portraying the complexity of history, and the subtleties of its human agents.
All the characters have their own intentions, motivations and ambitions. They weren’t cardboard but outs who went around doing this that and the other simply because they were bad (unless one counts Richard III in the later parts but that’s a different story). One could feel sympathy even for the antagonists like York. Sadly, the makers of the latest version have lost sight of this, at the expense of audiences unfamiliar with the original plays.