Kenneth Branagh is the only Benedick; anyone else is just mouthing the lines. That’s what comes of having seen his Much Ado About Nothing at a very formative age. Even with the story reconfigured, as in the BBC Shakespeare Retold series, while I adore Damian Lewis’s take, it still looks odd to me.
I’m having this issue with a history play at the moment. Over the summer, the BBC released The Hollow Crown, a tetralogy spanning Richard II, both the Henry IVs and Henry V. Despite the fact that Shakespeare’s history plays have never really been my thing (I tend more towards the weird stuff), I was always going to watch these productions: Tom Hiddleston plays Prince Hal/Henry V. Now, he does a magnificent job, as does everyone on the cast and crew, but for me, someone else stole the show. Thanks to Joe Armstrong, I’ve become a total Hotspur fangirl.
Harry Percy came along for me at the right time, in the right performance, and I can’t get enough of him. I love his ferocity, his authenticity, his nonexistent threshold for nonsense, his complicated relationship with his wife. I’m fascinated by how much Hal steals from him when he becomes king: his sense of honor, his righteous anger, his boldness in the field, even “We few, we happy few,” all of these are echoes of gallant Hotspur. Harry Percy is also a train wreck: he was just never going to live that long. But to me, his fervor is both intriguing and intoxicating, and the fact that he very nearly wins the day at Shakespeare’s Shrewsbury compounds my interest.
It’s no secret that Shakespeare played fast and loose with facts in his works. The actual Harry Hotspur was not a contemporary of Harry Monmouth’s, but of his father, Henry IV. He didn’t fall in single combat with the Prince of Wales but was, in the grand tradition of Harold Harefoot at Hastings, shot through his visor with an arrow when he lifted it to get a breath of fresh air. His wife’s name was Elizabeth, not Kate — though to be fair, that hardly stops anyone from calling women Kate in other plays. And yet there’s just something about the characters from the play. Shakespeare’s version of Hotspur is so vivid, even a great figure in his own right like Harry Percy can find it hard to compete.
It’s messing up my expectations, though. Reading fiction that hews to historical facts is proving a baffling experience. I’ve tracked down two novels that center on the Percy family and the events that The Hollow Crown covers. One is A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury by Edith Pargeter, better known as Ellis Peters, author of the Brother Cadfael mysteries. The other is Lion of Alnwick, first in a trilogy by Carol Wensby-Scott. Pargeter’s book is heavy on politics and military history; Wensby-Scott isn’t writing a bodice-ripper, but her text is unappealingly hostile to women, who seem to achieve agency by being horrible to each other, having children and competing for the attentions of men.
Lion of Alnwick, so far, focuses more on Henry Percy, First Earl of Northumberland, who is Hotspur’s father (confusingly for readers of Shakespeare, called Hal in the book). But Pargeter’s Hotspur is recognizably related to the man Shakespeare portrays. Though he is a skilled diplomat and restrained in temper, the narrator constantly calls attention to how open and unmasked and vibrant Harry Percy the man is. He has an effect on people by knowing who he is and not caring who doesn’t like it. Any Hotspur must be made of magnetism/dynamism/charisma/self-certainty, it seems; Hotspurs must also only talk in paragraphs, and Pargeter obliges us on that front too.
It still doesn’t feel right, though, and I get restless when I try and read these books. Turns out I don’t want more adventures featuring Harry Percy, I want more adventures featuring the cast of Shakespeare’s plays. Is it just because Shakespeare (or Joe Armstrong) showed me Hotspur first? Is it just because this text is Shakespeare?
Part of me wonders if Shakespeare’s version of events is more appealing because the end is easier to stomach. Henry IV Part 1 gives Hotspur a valiant fight scene and some poignant last words; his enemy who slew him mourns his passing (though he also lets Falstaff violate the body and cart it around like “luggage”). The truth, at least per Wikipedia, is much grimmer:
Prince Henry, upon being brought Percy’s body after the battle, is said to have wept. The body was taken … to Whitchurch, Shropshire, for burial; however, when rumours circulated that Percy was still alive, the King “had the corpse exhumed and displayed it, propped upright between two millstones, in the market place at Shrewsbury.” That done, the King dispatched Percy’s head to York, where it was impaled on one of the city’s gates; his four quarters were sent to London, Newcastle upon Tyne, Bristol and Chester before they were finally delivered to his widow. She had him buried in York Minster in November of that year. In January 1404 Percy was posthumously declared a traitor, and his lands were forfeited to the Crown.
This scenario makes my blood run cold. For all that I enjoy certain kinds of body horror (Innogen and the Hungry Half is all about doppelgangers and psychology), I’m not good with bodies. I’d read fiction about Lady Percy receiving the ruined, piecemeal corpse of her beloved husband, though; that sentence, “She had him buried…”, somehow speaks volumes that bear exploring. But I haven’t found that story, and I’m not sure it’ll be in A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury or Lion of Alnwick.
It doesn’t seem fair to dismiss Pargeter or Wensby-Scott for not being Shakespeare. Still, I may have to wait until The Hollow Crown is out of my system to try their books again. That may be a while — have I mentioned that it’s giving me novel ideas? Yet it makes sense to me, when I think of Shakespeare’s Hotspur in light of what I’ve learned from improv. That Harry Percy, meant for two hours on a crowded stage, is a raw nerve of unfiltered emotion and passions — terrible to live with as a real person, true, but for the drama, incomparably gripping. No wonder I want more of him — and if I can’t find more, apparently I plan to make it.
I guess there are worse fates.