Did Shakespeare use visual effects?

Stagecraft has a fascinating and interesting history. The way we portray spectacle on stage has changed a lot since the advent of television and movies, which utilize computers and animatronics, etc. to create impossible things that could never be is shown live. In a way, the pre-recorded nature of film and TV gives theater practitioners an advantage because the more clever they are with their stagecraft, the more impressive it is for the simple fact that it is live- happening right now in front of an audience.

What I want to do with this post is to speculate whether, with the technology of the time, if Shakespeare could have used some kind of visual spectacle to portray otherworldly creatures, such as the ghosts in Hamlet and Macbeth

The conventional wisdom

Contemporary accounts of the Globe theater mention two trap doors, one in the ceiling for angels and gods, and one in the floor for ghosts or devils.

Most books I’ve read on Elizabethan stagecraft say that the theaters of this era were very minimalistic in design. They had trap doors, they had galleries, they had a primitive flying rig, and they had music and some simple sound effects, but most of the experience was watching the actors, their costumes, their bodies, and hearing their voices hence ‘audience’- audio, “To hear.”

Professor Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University explains the way the ghost probably haunted the Globe Theater in 1600.

We are told there wasn’t much visual representation of spectacle and fantasy on Shakespeare’s stage, which which is is odd because there are some pretty fantastical elements in his plays, especially Hamlet and Macbeth, where the former calls for a ghost and the latter calls for a ghost, witches, and a literal goddess to appear on stage. How may one ask, was this achieved back in Shakespeare’s day, the late 1590s and the early 1600s? The conventional wisdom is that the ghosts in Hamlet and the ghost in Macbeth came through a trap door in the stage known as Hell.

If you’re you go to the Globe now you can see this actual trap door being used. It used a primitive pully system to open up in the middle of the floor. The ghost would ascend to the stage through a small step ladder. Hamlet’s father’s ghost is described as wearing a suit of armor and being very pale. Banquo’s ghost is described as having long hair dappled with blood.

Banquo’s ghost appears during a banquet in Macbeth’s honor. Based on this hypothesis it’s likely that a banqueting table was brought out into the middle of a stage to conceal the ghost, to make it more of a surprise when it ascends onstage through the trap door, but the effect to modern taste would be rather dull. However impressive the performance, this cannot stand up to the stunning nature of visual effects using computer technology, motion capture, et cetera. I wanted to see if there are any Elizabethan theatrical illusions that would still have been accessible to Shakespeare back in the 1590s.

Idea #1: A Smoke-monster ghost?

My research began with this video from the YouTube History Channel Atun-Shei Films, where the author traces the history of film, (both as photography and film as a projection). He cites at the start, an incident in 1536 where a supposed necromancer appeared to conjure a ghost for an unsuspecting rube. According to The Lives Of the Necromancers, the solution was achieved by creating huge clouds of smoke within the theater space, (which was the Colosseum) and then using a primitive camera obscure to project a frightening image Into this space.

Sketch for an early camera obscura, dated 1544 by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Camera Obscura is a term is it Latin for dark chamber the principal had been discovered for century had existed for centuries bit is for centuries but only in the 1530s this was the 1st recorded example of it being used to create a theatrical illusion.

The question is, could Shakespeare’s company have performed the same illusion with the technology of the day? Honestly, I find it rather unlikely that Shakespeare’s audience would’ve put up with huge clouds of smoke in a wooden amphitheater. Still, the fact remains that primitive projection technology existed back in Shakespeare’s day, which means a director could reasonably implement it in a production of Hamlet or Macbeth, even under the constraints of Original Practices.

Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth

So the question remains, is there a visually striking way to represent the ghosts that could actually work in Shakespeare’s theater. My first idea is…

Idea 1: Glow In the Dark Paint

Paul Scoffield as The Ghost in Hamlet (1990, dir. Franco Zefirelli). Notice that he appears to glow pale blue.

Glow-in-the-dark paint wasn’t invented until 1908, but there are some rocks that naturally glow such as hackmanite and phosphorus.

https://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-have-figured-out-how-this-natural-stone-glows-in-the-dark/amp

Theoretically, Shakespeare’s company could have crushed this rock into a powder and made it into a paint that glowed onstage. There is precedent for this- in The Hound Of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes discovers that the terrifying ghost-hound is merely a large dog painted with phosphorescent paint:

In mere size and strength it was a terrible creature which was
lying stretched before us. It was not a pure bloodhound and it
was not a pure mastiff; but it appeared to be a combination of
the two–gaunt, savage, and as large as a small lioness. Even
now in the stillness of death, the huge jaws seemed to be dripping
with a bluish flame and the small, deep-set, cruel eyes were ringed
with fire. I placed my hand upon the glowing muzzle, and as I
held them up my own fingers smouldered and gleamed in the darkness.

“Phosphorus,” I said.

“A cunning preparation of it,” said Holmes, sniffing at the dead
animal. 

Doyle, Part IV.

Though this paint would potentially make a terrifying effect, this would be impossible at an outdoor theater during the day. This makes it unlikely that Shakespeare used glow-in-the-dark paint at the Globe, as most of the performances took place in the afternoon. That said, both Hamlet and were written just at the point in which Shakespeare’s company was in the process of acquiring an indoor theater, the Blackfriars.

The Blackfriars and Shakespeare’s stagecraft

Almost all of these ideas would depend on Shakespeare having access to a theatre in which he could control the lighting. As you can see, the Blackfriars was lit with candles and its indoor nature meant that performances weren’t dependent on sunlight. Greg Doran, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company has theorized in the past that maybe while his company was preparing to move into the Blackfriars, Shakespeare was changing his material to make it both literally and figuratively darker.

In the reconstructed Blackfriars, (where I studied and interned for three years), there is a trap-door and flying rig like the Globe, so the conventional trap-door ghost can and has been utilized there. I would also argue that in the Blackfriars unlike the Globe, there was a chance for more variety of theatrical illusions- perhaps a smoke projection, magic lantern, or even…

Idea 3: A Pepper’s ghost

A Peppers Ghost is a stage illusion that dates back to the 19th century. It uses the principle of refracted light to project the image of a ghost on top of a piece of glass. This image will appear translucent and could be very impressive to an audience at the Blackfriars! As you can see in the diagram below, the actor could be under the stage in the trap door standing in front of a mirror, and the glass sheet could be used to project his image to the audience. The only concern would be that this could limit the blocking of the other actors, and it might not make the ghost visible to the audience members in the upper galleries, but it would still be an impressive visual effect that uses scientific principles known in the 17th century.

Pepper's ghost diagram
Pepper’s ghost diagram.

Pepper’s Ghost illusions are still used frequently in theme parks, trade shows, and concerts where singers interact with “holograms.” As a special Halloween treat, (or trick as the case may be), I’ve included a video that will allow you to make your own Pepper’s ghost at home. If you choose to make one, leave me a comment!

So, in conclusion, though we are taught that Shakespeare’s theater often reveled in simplistic theatrical designs, I personally think that there is more room to explore low-tech theatrical illusions like these, especially at companies like the Globe Theater and the American Shakespeare Company, which pride themselves on using Shakespeare’s original staging practices. Live theater has dodged giving up its ghost for 2,000 years by exploring the limits of live theater through movement, voice, story, music, and yes spectacle. I think theater practitioners, even Original Practitioners should keep innovating new kinds of spectacular means to keep creating fresh interpretations of Shakespeare, that still keep within the spirit of the play’s original time and place.

Bonus: If you want to learn more about the stage illusions of Shakespeare’s company, click here to listen to That Shakespeare Life Podcast with Cassidy Cash. In this episode, she interviews theater professor Frank Mohler, who describes how thunder and flying effects were done in the 17th century, using records of the period, and his own experimentation.

Shakespeare: The Animated Tales- “Macbeth”

This is a 30 minute cartoon version of Macbeth originally produced for the BBC in 1992. It features Brian Cox  as the voice of Macbeth (before he was the voice of McDonald’s), and Zoë Wanamaker as Lady Macbeth (before she was a witch who teaches at Hogwarts).

I like the way it portrays the horror imagery of the play in sort of a European-manga animation hybrid. Admittedly, there are better ones in the series, but this one is still pretty neat.

DVD box art for “Shakespeare the Animated Tales.”

To check out other episodes in the series, view this playlist:

Great classes are available December 1st.

Scehdule

Class Descriptions:

Basics Of Stage Combat:  Students will learn the basics of safely enacting a fight onstage, in preparation for a Shakespeare play. We will also learn about the history of sword fighting in the military and the duel.

Trailer for Basics of Stage Combat.

My daughter really enjoyed taking this class. She was actually able to use her sabre and try out her routine on her father. Paul is quite knowledgeable about Shakespeare and made the class really fun by teaching a fight scene from Romeo and Juliet. It is amazing watching her practice with Paul over Zoom. I hope Paul will have. more combat classes, it is a different way to learn Shakespeare.

IB, Parent

An Interactive Guide To Shakespeare’s London (New Class)

A virtual tour of Shakespeare’s London will get kids to interact with the culture of Elizabethan England.

Class Experience

To teach kids about the Elizabethan era and the background of Romeo and Juliet, The Instructor will interact with the class (via pre-recorded videos), pretending to be Shakespeare. The class, pretending to be actors in Romeo and Juliet, will get a virtual tour of The Globe Theater, Hampton Court Palace, and a virtual visit to an Elizabethan doctor's office. This activity is an immersive way for them to learn about the period, how it relates to the world of the play, and how Shakespeare changed theater.

The class will take the form of a guided WebQuest activity.  First, the students will get a worksheet that has a series of fill-in-the-blanks about Elizabethan society (below). The students will fill out this worksheet based on a Nearpod and in conjunction with a website I’ve made, https://sites.google.com/nebobcats.org/visit-to-elizabethan-london/home?authuser=0 
Both the Nearpod and each webpage will have a virtual tour, a video, and text explaining some aspects of Elizabethan life. Before they go to each location, I will give a short introduction via prerecorded video:

Wizard Science

In this one-hour course, your child will discover the enchanting world of science through a series of magical experiments. Learn about such topics as Astronomy, Static Electricity, chemistry, and optical illusions.

What was Christmas like For Shakespeare?

In this one-hour course, students will learn and play games that will explore the history behind Christmas traditions. We will also discuss the themes, characters, and famous quotes from Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night.”

Special Discount for My online “Macbeth” course

Since “Macbeth” is my Play of the Month, I’m offering a discount for my online class on the play. You can get $5 off my class “Macbeth: An Immersive Learning Experience” with coupon code HTHES6G3YH5 until Nov 4, 2022. Get started at https://outschool.com/classes/macbeth-an-immersive-learning-experience-xGKHeHgH and enter the coupon code at checkout.

To learn more about the class, watch the trailer above, and read my description of the escape room:

Intro to Macbeth, “The Scottish Play”

For the spookiest and most cursed month of the year, I’ve chosen Shakespeare’s Macbeth as my play of the Month for October because it’s full of witches, ghosts, and other supernatural creatures. It also shows the terrible effects of fear on people’s minds. Plus, as I explained in my post on Shakespeare and Halloween, most Halloween witches would be all but silent without Macbeth’s witches.

Pages

Play Of the Month: Macbeth

Posts

  1. Crafting A Character: Macbeth
  2. The Witches Of Macbeth
  3. Spooky Shakespeare Stories: The Voodoo Macbeth
  4. Macbeth Escape Room
  5. Sleep No More Review

Podcasts

  1. The Curse Of Macbeth: https://open.spotify.com/episode/7L7cPUX7sl27ByinuBdftv
  2. The Dark History of American Witch Hunts: https://open.spotify.com/episode/3kJzGIa6Bk0MBFVlm30FDr

Videos

How did Hamlet’s Father Die?

I’m helping to direct a young actor playing Hamlet and we’re going over the “O That This Too Too Solid Flesh” speech. Going over the text, it occurred to me: what happened to Hamlet’s father?

Shakespeare makes it clear that Claudius poisoned Hamlet’s father with a vial of poison that he put in the king’s ear:

Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body. Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 796-805.

The Ghost calls the poison “cursed hebannon,” which fis a poison that Shakespeare made up. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s original source for Hamlet makes no reference to poisoning, but that the king was stabbed in front of his own court. I think Shakespeare might have changed this simply because Queen Elizabeth was concerned about assassination herself, and Shakespeare didn’t want to make it look like he approved of assassination. Then again, maybe he changed it so that the murder didn’t seem like a repeat of Julius Caesar, (which Shakespeare’s company performed the year before Hamlet, (Source: New York Times, 1982).

The Ghost describes how, when the poison went through his ear canal, he experienced violent swelling, sores, and unimaginable pain. He actually compares himself to Lazarus, Jesus’ friend in the Bible who died of leprosy.

And with a sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body. Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 807-811.

Detail from “The Raising of Lazarus” by Rembrandt c. 1630

Sadly, Leprosy is still prevalent in third world countries so its symptoms are still very well understood: CONTENT WARNING: DISTURBING IMAGES IN THIS VIDEO

The poison is made up, but could such a poison actually exist? I found a wonderful article from the Journal of ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat), where the author John Riddington Young posits the kinds of real-world poisons that might have this horrific effect on Hamlet’s father.

What actual poison was used? Shakespeare states, “the juice of cursed Hebenon” [6] but sadly, there is no such drug. Did he mean hemlock, or perhaps henbane? Laurence Olivier actually substitutes the name hemlock in his 1948 film. Belladonna, aconite and nicotine have all been suggested, but the most likely culprit is taxine from the yew tree. It is a deadly poison and its Old English name was heben. Shakespeare would certainly have known of it; he says in Richard II, archers bend ‘their bows of doubly fatal Eugh’ [7] (implying that apart from the arrows killing foes, there is an intrinsic toxicity in the wood).

JOHN RIDDINGTON YOUNG:
“History of ENT – Murder most foul, strange and unnatural”

I found a case study of a real case of Yew poisoning that emphasizes that it is incredibly fast-acting, “Fast as quicksilver”, that it can be misdiagnosed as another poison (like a snake bite, as Claudius later claims), and that it has no known antidote, the perfect way to kill a king:

. The taxine alkaloids (for example, taxine A, 2-deacetyltaxine A, isotaxine B, 1-deoxytaxine B) derived from p-dimethylaminohydroxycinnamic acid are the effective poisons of the yew [1]. In chemical terms, the compound is structurally related to veratrine, and the presence of an unsaturated lactone group makes this group of alkaloids similar to digitalis. Poisoning with the latter may be falsely diagnosed during a toxicological examination. Cardiac disturbances after intoxication by yew are ascribed mainly to the alkaloids paclitaxel and taxine B, affecting sodium/calcium permeability in cells [2]. The taxine alkaloid is absorbed through the digestive tract very rapidly, and the signs of poisoning manifest themselves after 30 to 90 minutes. An infusion made from 50 to 100g of needles is considered to be fatal [35], as no antidote is known.

Vališ, M., Kočí, J., Tuček, D. et al. Common yew intoxication: a case report. J Med Case Reports 8, 4 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1752-1947-8-4

So if you are playing Hamlet, in addition to the sadness and anger you feel after losing your father, you could also feel revulsion and pity at the painful, disgusting and cowardly way he was murdered. Truly, “MOST FOUL STRANGE AND MOST UNNATURAL.”

Remembering Kevin Conroy or: Is Batman “Hamlet?”

I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of actor Kevin Conroy, world-renowned as the voice of Batman and Bruce Wayne on Batman The Animated Series, the Arkham Asylum games, and many others. Conroy is definitely my favorite Batman, and as I and many others have said before, there are Shakespearean tropes in the Caped Crusader. From the very beginning, Conroy drew inspiration from a particular Shakespearean play, the melancholy prince, dressed in black, who seeks to revenge his father’s murder: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:

I did a cold audition, I had never done an animated voice before. I said the only exposure I’ve had is the Adam West show from the 60’s and they said “NO! NO! NO! That’s not it.” I said ZIP POW POP and they said “NO! It’s, think film noir, think the 40’s New York. Think dark, think a kid who just watched his parents get murdered and spends his life avenging their deaths and he lives in the shadows. He’s got this dual personality and he’s never resolved this torture of his youth. I said you are telling the Hamlet story, this is heavy stuff. And he said yeah, no one has ever said that before, but yeah I guess it is. This is like a classic archetypal, Shakespearian tragedy. So I just used my theater training and put myself into that head (Batman voice) And I got into this very dark place and came up with this voice. (Regular Voice) And as I did it I saw them all running around in the booth. And I thought well either I did something really bad or something really good because I hit a nerve, I know I hit a nerve. And they came out and they said well we’ve seen about over 600 people and how would you like to do the part?

Kevin Conroy

It makes sense that Conroy would use Shakespeare to flesh out Batman. He was a veteran of the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, and performed in Hamlet several times. He even played the prince himself for the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1984. Yet I don’t think Conroy’s decision to make Batman a sort of modern-day Hamlet was entirely based on just his past experiences with Hamlet.

“Batman is basically the American version of Hamlet,” Affleck said. “We accept that he’s played by actors with different interpretations.”

Ben Afleck, Entertainment Weekly, 2015.

Batman and Hamlet are basically Revenge Tragedies; age-old stories that began with Oedipus Rex and the Orestia in ancient Greek plays, where a hero must lift a plague on his society by avenging the death of a parent (usually the father). This kind of play was very popular in Shakespeare’s day and included a host of others such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, The Spanish Tragedy, Locrine, The Dutchess of Malfi, and later The Revenger’s Tragedy.

But Hamlet, like Batman, is an avenger. He didn’t make Denmark rotten. That was Claudius, and if Claudius self-punished like Oedipus, Claudius would be a tragic hero too. But Claudius is just a garden-variety villain, and so Denmark needs a hero to set things right. Enter Hamlet. He’s “tragic” only in the sense that he dies, and since he dies after completing his heroic mission, he dies triumphant. But unlike the deaths of Claudius, Oedipus, and Macbeth, his death isn’t necessary to restore order. It’s just an epilogue.

Chris Gavaler, The Patron Saint Of Superheroes. “Something is Rotten In the State Of Gotham.”

As this clip above indicates Hamlet is unique among revengers because his conflict doesn’t come from the machinations of his villain; he’s stopped by his own internal conflicts. Batman is more active than Hamlet, but he also wrestles with internal conflicts and Conroy plays these conflicts with a lot of subtlety and nuance. To illustrate this conflict, let’s look at some great clips from the series!

Batman admits he wanted Revenge: “The Curious case of Hugo Strange”

In this episode, Dr. Strange (not the Marvel Superhero), uses a dream-reading machine to try and blackmail Bruce Wayne, and inadvertently discovers his secret identity. Not only does this episode dramatize Wayne’s literal worst nightmare, (someone figuring out who he is), it also touches on the pain of his past and how even though now Batman is a deputized agent of the law who never kills, he began as an angry, vengeful vigilante, like Hamlet:

I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse
me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.
I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more offences at my
beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give
them shape, or time to act them in.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene i.

Batman’s Conflict With His parents.

In this clip from the animated movie Mask Of the Phantasm (1993), a pre-Batman Bruce Wayne feels a conflict between his obligation to avenge his parent’s death, and his budding romance with Ms. Andrea Beaumont:

One can almost sense an Ophelia- Hamlet-like conflict where Bruce knows his quest to avenge will consume him, and leave no time to pursue romance. In all revenge tragedies, the hero has to avenge alone, or at least without the support of a spouse or partner. Hamlet also makes the choice to cut Ophelia out of his life, though it’s not clear why. It could be he’s worried that Claudius will harm her, it could be he’s worried she’s compromised since her father tried to spy on him, or it could simply be that he doesn’t trust her. It’s up to the actor and director to “Pluck the heart of Hamlet’s mystery.”

Royal Shakespeare Company Text Detectives discuss the possible interpretations behind the “Get Thee To a Nunnery Scene.”

Eventually though, the choice is made for him, and Bruce Wayne completely commits to his quest to battle the crime in Gotham, as this epic scene from “Mask of The Phantasm” shows:

Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene v.

Hamlet and Batman’s Demons

The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil; and the devil hath power
T’ assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.

Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii.

What’s truly unique about the animated version of Batman is that it’s the only one that takes time to show Batman’s complex relationship with the ghosts of his parents. As previously discussed, Bruce Wayne’s desire to revenge their death and to punish the wickedness of Gotham is what spurs him to keep fighting as Batman, but he also wonders many times if he’s doing more harm than good. He’s also tempted to forget them and try to lead a normal life, like in the episode “Perchance to Dream,” (which itself is a quote from Hamlet). Above all, the animated show knows that, since children are watching this show, they will connect with Batman’s fear of not living up to his parent’s expectations, a fear to which every child can relate.

In the first season episode “Nothing To Fear,” the villainous Scarecrow exploits Batman’s fear of disappointing his parents by drugging him with a fear toxin, causing Bruce to hallucinate that his father is berating him and calling him a failure. Hamlet gets a similar ghostly chewing out in The Closet Scene:

Father’s GhostDo not forget. This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene iv

While The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father is mostly supportive in this scene, Hamlet worries many times in the play if Claudius is in fact innocent, and the Ghost is a demon sent by the Devil to get him to kill an innocent man, and thus damn him for eternity. This uncertainty is the same that Batman wrestles with, as he confronts his own demon-like apparition. Batman then defiantly responds to this fiendish hallucination with one of the most iconic lines in the series:

Only a consummate professional like Conroy with his grounding in Shakespeare in general and Hamlet in particular could portray such an iconic character. Many fans of Batman like me believe that Conroy’s portrayal was the peak of the franchise, and I feel fortunate that it came out when I was a child. I mourn Conroy’s loss, yet as Mr. Affleck mentioned in the quote above, like Hamlet, the character of Batman has many possible interpretations, and though Conroy will always be my favorite, I hope new and exciting interpretations will arise from the shadows in time, bringing this complex, Shakespearean character to a new audience.

“Good Night, Sweet Prince and flights of bat wings fly thee to thy rest.”

References

https://gizmodo.com/the-batman-hamlet-crossover-that-never-was-5876735

https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2008/jul/23/thedarkknightbatmanisaha

https://bleedingcool.com/movies/batman-as-hamlet-with-kevin-conroy-and-loren-lester/#google_vignette

Review: Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V

Since July is my month to celebrate Shakespeare’s Henry V, I’d like to talk about one of the most celebrated versions of the play, Kenneth Branaugh’s Academy Award Winning film from 1989.

The Concept

Clip from Sir Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944)

Like many directors trying to re-adapt an old story, Branaugh began by looking at Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1944 movie version of Henry V, deliberately inverting a lot of Olivier’s choices.

Olivier’s version has a framing device where the audience watches the play in a movie-set recreation of the Globe Theater, (since Henry V was probably the first play ever performed when the Globe originally opened in 1599). For the first 30 minutes, you are not watching a movie but a filmed play, albeit one where your fellow audience members are dressed in costumes from 1599.

Stage Olivier
Olivier as King Henry stands on a reconstruction of The Globe Theater in his 1944 film.

While watching the play within a movie, and seeing ‘audience members’ clap and cheer for Henry, and boo and hiss the French, you get a keen sense of the theatrical illusion of the play, and its importance to English patriotism in 1599. This makes sense since the film itself was commissioned by Winston Churchill to help raise morale during the D-day invasion in 1944.

While Olivier’s film is theatrical and patriotic, Branaugh’s is cinematic and introspective. His film opens on an empty movie set with the Chorus (Derek Jacobi), giving us a tour of the set. He laments that, even with all the cinematic wizardry of modern movies, this movie cannot capture the true glory of Henry V.

Derek Jacobi as the Chrous in Henry V

Branaugh’s performance as the titular king is also quite different from Olivier’s. While Olvier is jovial and charismatic, Branaugh’s King Henry switches between cold and calculating, to intensely passionate. This isn’t to say that his acting is bad; but that Branaugh’s King Henry is a self-conscious actor. The king changes his performance to suit the scenario he’s in: diplomatic and calculating in the throne room, demented and violent on the battlefield, calm and confident with his troops, and pious and merciful in victory.

When I studied the play in college, my teacher posited whether Henry V is a Machiavellian king, and I think Branaugh’s certainly is, in that he knows kingship is a job; one that requires the king to constantly playing roles to get what he wants from people- love, awe, respect, or fear. He’s so good at acting, he even teaches his soldiers how to act like fearesome warriors in his famous “Once More Unto The Breach” speech.

Branaugh in King Henry V

What really sets Branaugh’s movie apart from Olivier’s is the way he handles battles. Again, Olivier in 1944 wanted to raise morale during WW2, when British soldiers were actually invading France to supplant a tyrant. Branaugh in 1989, had seen the world’s response to the Vietnam War, and the decades-long violence in his home country of Ireland. Therefore his version literally takes a dim view of war in general.

Branaugh’s world is not colorful or cheerful- the council scenes are full of candlelit shadows. Branaugh’s fireside chat with his soldiers is a smoky, shadowy look into the terror of men who know they must fight and die tomorrow. Look at the excellent performance of Michael Williams (Judy Dench’s late husband), who takes the king to task while looking at the campfire, almost as if he can see the fires of hell, coming for the English:

King Henry (Branaugh), talks in disguise to the soldier Williams (Michael Williams)
Comparison between Olivier’s 1944 version, and Branaugh’s 1989 movie portrayals of the Battle of Agincourt.

The most striking difference between the two films is how both directors stage The Battle of Agincourt. Olivier’s is a sun-kissed charge on white horses. Branaugh’s is a grimy, mud-stained mess, overcast with a fog of moral ambiguity. Even though the English win, they are meant to question whether or not they have been fighting for a worthy cause. Even after the King proclaims victory for God and country, and the music swells with the gorgeous notes of Non Nobis Dominine (composed and sung by Patrick Doyle), Branaugh has a long tracking shot of all the bodies slain on both sides in the battle. This is the film in a nutshell- a wonderfully acted, exciting, cleverly done thrill ride, that still pulls back and shows the inherently grim and destructive nature of war, that defiles all it touches.

Non Nobis scene from Henry V

The Plot Of the Play

  • King Henry takes the throne in 1413 after his father dies. No one thinks he will run the country effectively.
  • The Dauphin (the French Prince) provokes Henry into declaring war with France, (thus allowing him to claim the right of his predecessor, King Edward III).
  • Henry fends off the French at Harfleur, despite the fact that they are shooting at him with cannons.
  • Henry’s army starts getting sick. Henry decides to start heading back to Calais 
  • The French raise a massive army and it marches towards Agincourt. Mountjoy the French herald warns Henry he will be annihilated and urges him to pay the French a ransom if he is captured. Henry refuses and marches his troops to battle the French at Agincourt.
  • Against all odds, Henry’s army defeats the French at Agincourt, with only about 30 English deaths, and over 10,000 French.

Henry and the French King make peace, and the play ends on a joyous celebration of peace and matrimony, though the Chorus also reminds us that once King Henry dies, his son will lose France and England will be torn apart by civil war.    

Historical Context

My Favorite Moments

I love Branaugh’s performance and his take on the Battle of Agincourt, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other performances and moments of the play.

  1. Armed Ultimatum: In this wonderful scene, we first see the overconfidence of the French, especially the hot-tempered Dauphin (Michael Maloney), who admits that he deliberately goaded Henry into declaring war because he wishes to personally fight with King Henry. His father the King, (played by Paul Scoffield) is a timid, melancholic individual, (historians often called him Charles the Mad), and he seems like an easily manipulated monarch, ripe for conquest by King Henry. We then see the imposing figure of the Duke of Exeter (Brian Blessed), who comes in full plate armor to warn the French that though the French outnumber the English, the English are a hardy and powerful people, and that King Henry will not stop until all of France is his.

Supporting Cast

Branaugh mainly casts his movies out of his Renaissance Acting theater troupe, which is why in almost all his movies you see familiar faces like Brian Blessed, Derek Jakobi, Richard Clifford, Richard Easton Michael Maloney, Paul Gregory and Geraldine McEwan. As someone who’s seen all of Branaugh’s Shakespeare movies, I get the curious sensation that I know these people, trust them, and find myself rooting for them since I saw them in other roles. Maybe Branaugh hoped his longtime viewers would be concerned for the lives of his “Band of Brothers.”

Welcome additions include Micheil Williams as Williams, as well as his wife Judy Dench as Mistress Quickly. These actors are just as home playing grubby common English peasants as they are playing kings and queens.

Emma Thompson and Geraldine McEwan sparkle onscreen as the French Princess Katherine and her maid Alice. The first time I saw the film, their French was so good, I didn’t believe it was really them! Likewise, the awkward wooing scene between Thompson and Branaugh (who were married at the time) is so charming, you forget all the violence and atrocities that happened on both sides earlier, and giddily enjoy their romantic banter.

My Reaction

In short, Branaugh created, at least for now, the definitive Henry V for our times. It is a world where war is not glamorous and rarely just. Where common men die and rich men survive, though they must carry their sins on their back,( just as Branaugh carries the young boy played by Christian Bale). Yet it is also a story about the power of great leaders overcoming adversity, caring for their subjects, and doing the best they can to bring peace and stability to their people.

Bonus: Here’s an interview with Branaugh about the process of creating the film:

Branaugh in an interview with Bobbie Wygant in 1989.