I’ve been watching The Hollow Crown on BBC2 – Shakespeare’s first four ‘history plays’, Richard III, Henry IV parts one and two, and Henry V, adapted for film.
Part historical document, part pro-Tudor propaganda, part action movie and part comic romp, Shakespeare’s history plays have a good claim to be the first blockbuster entertainments in the English language. So it’s only fitting that they spawned one of the first blockbuster sequels, Henry IV part two.
Despite the shared title, part two is not only a completely separate play, but one written as an afterthought, capitalizing on the success of the first part. The action of the first play – hostility between the King and the powerful Earl of Northumberland erupts into rebellion, and is ultimately played out through their sons – is already concluded, and part two has to scrabble for new plotlines, new characters, and a new problem for its central character to confront and solve. In other words, it’s as much a true sequel as any Hangover, Iron Man or Men In Black movie.
So, let’s take this chance to learn from the best. What does Shakespeare have to teach us about writing sequels?
He finds a new problem for the hero. Despite the title, King Henry IV isn’t the protagonist of either of the plays bearing his name. (If you’re really interested, I think in part one the King is one of the antagonists and Falstaff is the Attractor, and they swap roles in part two. But you could take different views on that.)
No, the protagonist is his eldest son, the mercurial and often brutal Prince Hal.
In part one, Hal is torn between the somber duties of a prince in a kingdom beset by rebellion, and the life of debauched enjoyment that his title and riches could buy him. He begins part one as a dissolute wastrel, but ultimately, he shapes up, goes to war, defeats the enemy and proves himself a worthy prince. An excellent character arc for the protagonist of a story.
So what’s Hal’s arc for part two? Rather than scrabbling for a new problem to give him, Shakespeare cleverly extends the same character arc, but increases the scale of the test. The kingdom is still beset by unrest, Hal’s hangers-on are increasingly arrogant and out of control, and the King is dying. Hal has learned how to be a prince: now he must learn how to be a king, what’s at stake is not only his life but the peace and wellbeing of the entire country, and he’s rapidly running out of time.
Shakespeare gives the audience what they want. From contemporary writings, it’s pretty clear that the real star of Henry IV part one was Sir John Falstaff. Everyone loves an over-sexed, thieving, lying drunkard, especially when played for laughs but with a tragic undertone. Falstaff is a doomed man, fighting the tide of time: an old man pretending he’s still a young roisterer, penniless but living the high life, a crafty coward in a time of war.
Understandably irresistible – and the focus of part two changes considerably to foreground this hugely popular character. Falstaff has his own plotline, some big comic and tragic scenes, and is given his love interest and his own antagonist in the form of the Lord Chief Justice. (Incidentally, Falstaff’s popularity doesn’t end with this play. He’s heavily referenced, though not seen, in Henry V, and much later, is the star of his own comedy, The Merry Wives Of Windsor. See, comedy vehicles existed before Hollywood too!)
But he doesn’t forget what the story’s really about. As much as the audience love Falstaff cracking jokes and running rings around the law and decency, this play is about the development of Hal from prince to king, and Falstaff is actually only a means of showing that development. Shakespeare gives Hal enough stage time to work through his internal transformation, and even ratchets up the tension by making everyone and anyone doubt Hal’s fitness to rule England – especially his own father.
He’s not afraid to mix tragedy with triumph. It must have been tempting to engineer some kind of convoluted compromise that would enable Hal to become a wise king and still retain a friendship with the old rogue Falstaff. But given the play’s view of kingship – a burden, a sacrifice, something that sets you apart from other men and the simple pleasures they enjoy – that simply can’t happen.
Because sequels are conceived largely to keep the audience (and the studio’s accountants) happy, it’s very easy for the artistic integrity of the original movie to get lost in the mix. If everyone loves a happy ending, they should get one, right? Even if you’re making Titanic 2: The Lifeboat’s Story?
Shakespeare says no. The story must have its own integrity. He’s true to the world of his play, sending Falstaff into banishment, and even briefly to prison – because as much as the audience might want a happier conclusion, they wouldn’t believe it if it was given to them.
Good lessons there. Have I missed any? What else can we learn about sequels from the (probable) greatest writer who ever lived?