Failure, Succession, Success

PBS’s ‘Great Performances: The Hollow Crown’

Political leaders often seem like an alien breed of humanity. They voluntarily give up privacy. They willingly fritter away their lives at fundraisers. They abandon sincerity and logic in favor of expedient posturing. They usually have an overactive schmooze gland.

But the truly successful statesman is not a breed apart—or so one might conclude after watching The Hollow Crown, the marvelous quartet of new Shakespeare films airing through October 11 on PBS, as part of the Great Performances series. A suspenseful and lyrical dovetailing of four of the Bard’s history plays—Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V, which tell a single story—this de facto miniseries is fast-paced, accessible, gorgeously cinematic, and packed with riveting performances. Through bold visual choices and some subtle textual editing, the series foregrounds Shakespeare’s musings about populism and the qualities that make a great leader.

These themes gain resonance in the miniseries format, as parts of the overarching story amplify and contextualize each other. To begin with, we get the decidedly not-great leader. In Richard II (which airs on September 20), Ben Whishaw plays the king as the epitome of flaky...

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.