‘Uneasy lies the head’: Shakespeare in recent films

I’ve just seen two very different films, both of which cite a line from Shakespeare’s 2 Henry IV – and this made me think about the very different uses to which Shakespeare can be put – in popular culture, and in acdemic writing too. The movies were The Queen (dir. Stephen Frears) and The Departed (dir. Martin Scorcese); the shared line was a version of ‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ (2 Henry IV 3.1.31).

In Shakespeare’s play, the wearied King Henry, wearing – so the 1600 quarto text stage direction tells us – his nightgown – soliloquises (or is it? there’s a Page present in the the Folio text, but the 1600 text tells us the king is ‘alone’) about the cares of office. In particular he addresses sleep – ‘thou dull god’ – who ‘li’st with the vile/ In loathsome beds’ but ‘leav’st the kingly couch’. Like other theatrical royals before and after him, including Macbeth, Hamlet, and Henry V, that is to say, Shakespeare’s Henry IV identifies the particular burden of the king as insomnia, just as he anticipates a dramatic trope of ruler-in-nightwear (see Julius Caesar and Hamlet for other examples). How nice it must be, the sentimental logic of the speech goes, to be one of the ‘vile’ or ‘happy low’, snoozing on demand, rather than suffering as one of the pampered upper classes. It’s hard to know how audiences of the play would have reacted to Henry’s self-pity.

In The Queen the line serves as the epigraph for a film enormously supportive of, and deferential to, the British monarchy. Frears encourages us to see the Windsors as a family – limited by an upbringing stressing self-control, to be sure – but a family beset by the cares of their position in the hostile aftermath of Diana’s death.  It’s hard to the monarch, the film says – give them a break – sympathetically recasting the royal family’s darkest hour. Frears’ view of the domestic life of the Queen  is an interesting one. On the one hand the Queen occupies rooms of staggering formality and perpetuates risible rituals of politesse. When newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie Booth have their first audience with her, they have to back out of the room awkwardly after the interview having been told that no-one turns their back on the Queen. On the other hand, she spends a good deal of time watching television, arguing with Philip over the remote control, and, like Henry IV, we see her in her nightie, when the shocking news of the accident in Paris is brought to Balmoral. This is the Queen as a real person, albeit an airbrushed, fantasy Helen Mirren version. Shakespeare serves here to give empathetic authority to an interpretation of the cares of office in a film which is nostalgically positive about the pecularities of constitutional monarchy.

The other film also shows us its leader figure in deshabille: Jack Nicholson, as the godfather figure Frank Costello, is featured in one scene wearing that boxer-style silk dressing gown tied with a cord,  hands plunged into the pockets, in the favoured posture of post-coital tough-guy. Costello’s cynical persona is well-suited to a version of the Shakespeare line: ‘hey,’ he calls, tapping his head, ‘heavy lies the crown’. Costello’s violent rise to power has its own inevitable trajectory (look away now if you don’t want to know what happens at the end of the film) as he is finally beaten in a major warehouse shoot-out. What’s interesting about The Departed is its repeated paralleling of the law-enforcement agencies and the gangsters, and, in a riot of graphically depicted violence, it’s difficult to maintain any moral distinction between the two. Costello is killed, that’s to say, but the sense is that other mobsters will take over. Its citation of Shakespeare is amoral: it references a political system not of inner human beings, as in The Queen, but of ambitious and interchangeable protagonists, in which the attributes of power are accompanied and maintained not by soliloquies on sleep but on being awake to enemies.

Of course, this contrast is one familiar to Shakespeareans and to rival accounts of the history plays. Are they, as Jan Kott famously suggested in Shakespeare our Contemporary, ascending and descending a great staircase of power, in which violence checks ambition and is then checked by ambition in its turn, and a revolving circus of identikit royal characters hack out their own histories? This would be Costello’s Shakespeare in The Departed. Or are they, as E.M.W. Tillyard expressed it, a long teleology of guilt, expiation and restoration in which the providential reign of the Tudors is signalled and finally enacted? While Frears doesn’t go so far as to suggest the Windsors’ rule is providential, he does encourage the audience to think it benign and morally consistent.

I prefer, constitutionally (I mean it in its personal sense, rather than as a referent to the unwritten political ordinances of my country), the idea of a cynical Shakespeare whose vision of kings is closer to Kott’s than to Tillyard’s. I enjoyed The Departed more than The Queen. But I’m struck by the way that extensive debates in Shakespeare scholarship can be seen in miniature in these two cinematic citations.


See also: “Film as the New Shakespeare and Film on Shakespeare: Reversing the Shakespeare/Film Trajectory“, Deborah Cartmell (De Montfort University), Literature Compass 3.5 (2006): 1150–1159, doi:10.1111/j.1741-4113.2006.00375.x

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