In 2013, PBS thrilled history buffs and fans of the Bard with the Shakespearean miniseries The Hollow Crown, a BBC production that boasted Jeremy Irons and Michelle Dockery among its cast.
Beginning Sunday, PBS revives the tale with The Wars of the Roses, a trio of lavish, star-packed film adaptations focused on Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) and Richard III (Benedict Cumberbatch) that will air as part of its Great Performances franchise. The new additions illustrate the ongoing battle for the English crown — a medieval spectacle encompassing French rebellion, England’s civil war, the rise and fall of Joan of Arc, and other terrors that led to the notorious reign of Richard III.
“The common perception of [Henry] is as a weak, religious martyr,” Sturridge told reporters at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. “But this is … somebody who became king as a child, who never had a choice, never had a fight. I felt what you’re watching in the ‘Henry’ plays is his understanding of the role … [which] doesn’t involve strong action, because he is not quite sure who he is yet.”
Sophie Okonedo, who plays the young king’s ambitious wife, Margaret of Anjou, says that naiveté allowed for the emergence of “one of the great Shakespearean female roles, which is Margaret, because she wants to be king — I mean, queen. She gets to do all the things that the men normally do in Shakespeare.”
Roses director Dominic Cooke believes Shakespeare used this tempestuous historical period to examine what sorts of personalities are best and worst suited for leadership — a subject more compelling to the Bard than the actual nature of war. “Henry VI comes on the back of Henry V — Shakespeare’s ideal leader,” Cooke explains. “Then we get a period after his death where we get [three] phases of leadership. One is a young man who does not know how to respond to this battle-hardened group of lords that he’s trying to master. The next phase is a king who is incredibly hedonistic in Edward IV. And then we end up with a sociopath in power — a murderer. Shakespeare looks at how these different types of personalities get into power and what happens when they do.”
Hugh Bonneville costars as the first Duke of Gloucester, and Judi Dench plays Richard III’s mother, Cecily, Duchess of York.
The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses airs Sundays at 9/8CT through Dec. 25 on PBS. Here are the episode details:
Henry VI Part 1 (December 11, 9 p.m.)
The King is dead and England is in crisis. War rages with the French and divisions within the English court threaten the crown. Young Henry VI causes outrage by marrying Margaret of Anjou, forcing an unwanted truce; the scene is set for Civil War.
Henry VI Part 2 (December 18, 9 p.m.)
Bitter rivalries erupt into the Wars of the Roses. The feeble King Henry is overshadowed by Queen Margaret and her faction of Lancastrian Lords, his reign further undermined by disaffected nobles supporting the House of York. Battle and bloodshed ensues and the Yorkists triumph. Edward IV takes the throne, but his youngest brother Richard has his eyes firmly on the crown.
Richard III (December 25, 9 p.m.)
Richard, the most notorious of Shakespeare’s kings, manipulates and betrays his way through the court on a bloodthirsty and ruthless path to the throne. But after Richard’s defeat at the battle of Bosworth Field, the Houses of Lancaster and York—the red rose and the white—are united, bringing to an end the Wars of the Roses and long tumultuous period of civil strife.