Richard the Third

If Henry 666 was about the plight of a purely good man surrounded by evil, Richard III is the inverse: the journey of an evil man surrounded by gullible goodness.  It is the story of an ugly man who desires nothing more than to be the leader of his country, yet distrusts every single person around him as much as he deceitfully works his way into their trust.  In the end, the machinations of Richard’s mistrust are what prove his undoing.  So, to continue my tradition of comparing these British kings to American Presidents, I give you:

Tricky Dick

However, in all seriousness, this is a fascinating play to read following the events of Henry 666.  In those plays, we get to actually see the “winter of our discontent” in bloody civil war.  When he talks about “when men are ruled by women,” we have seen that relationship with Queen Margaret.  We actually see how far this kingdom has come through discord, and why the nobles are so eager for peace.  And, most importantly, see how someone of his warlike disposition could live without suspicion among his brothers Edward and Clarence.  Among his brothers, he was always the most dreadful and vicious in war, though they all committed acts of violence.  And that violence, having served the winning side, is viewed as heroism among his peers.

In Henry VI Part 3, we see Richard stab the peaceful old king to death, and then continue abusing the corpse just to be sure.  That image is lost on anyone seeing Richard III out of context, and it is lost on the peaceful minds of everyone in King Edward’s court.  Only Margaret remembers the violence that Richard has wreaked, and she rips through the play to curse everyone for her loss.  She did some horrible violent things as well, but she remembers them all too well when everyone else has forgotten.  So for them, and all of the audience members who may not know at all, she serves as a harrowing reminder for what Richard actually is.  In her grief, she curses everyone present that they will suffer for the death of her son.

"Thou elvish-markt, abortive, rooting hog! Thou that wast seal'd in thy nativity The slave of nature and the son of hell! Thou slander of they mother's heavy womb! Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins!"

And then, as randomly as she entered, she leaves.  Seriously, it’s random.  Last we heard, she was exiled back to France, and even Earl Rivers awkwardly muses, “I wonder why she’s at liberty.” Later on, she emerges from the shadows like a hag from the sewers outside the palace and reveals to us that “Here in these confines have I slyly lurkt To watch the waning of mine enemies.” One by one, the characters that Margaret cursed are led to their deaths, and as they die each one remembers the crazed old woman’s words.  It’s like this became the model for teen slasher movies.

But it’s still fascinating to see how well Richard is able to manipulate his way into power, playing all of the sides against each other and all the while seeming like a good Christian.  At one point, Richard even falsely accuses his enemies of witchcraft, blaming his withered arm that he possessed from birth on a curse from his enemies.  Shakespeare actually spends a lot of time on this point, criticizing the evil of men who use God as a shield for their evil actions.

“And thus I clothe my naked villainy With old odd ends stol’n out of holy writ; and seem a saint, when most I play the devil”

Here, Henry VI offers more insight to how Richard learned his tricks.  The persona of devout Christian is ripped completely off from Henry’s holiness.  Furthermore, I can’t help but think his seduction of the widow Anne was carefully modelled after the creepy forwardness of his brother Edward’s seduction of the widow Grey in Act III scene 2 of Henry VI part 3.  It is shortly after this scene in the last play that Richard turns to the audience first time and confesses his motives: “I can add colors to the chameleon; Change shapes with Proteus for advantages; and set the murderous Machiaval to school.  Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?  Tut, were it further off, I’ll pluck it down.”

Richard III is simply the succession of events reaching the natural conclusion of his intent and means.  He promises Buckingham an earldom for his services, but has the Duke killed as soon as his use is done.  The young princes are kept away from their family and smothered to death by faceless murderers.  Soon, even the audience that he playfully brought in on his plans is cut out.  One of my favorite scenes in this play is Act IV scene 4, where Richard asks the former Queen Elizabeth to woo her daughter’s hand in marriage for him.  It is, of course, one of those scenes that you could easily cut from the play.  But it is a beautiful illustration of Richard’s corrupt character.  Now that he is King, and his Queen Anne has died off, he is looking for another woman to take into his ill shaped bed.  Eventually, he convinces Elizabeth to move her daughter on the promise that her love will sooth his nature and maintain peace.  After all, there are no more bodies standing between him and his throne, and the scene plays so long and sincere that the audience could even be taken in if done right.  But as Elizabeth leaves to do as he asks, he turns to us and grins, “Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!” We never see the marriage, and it does not affect the trajectory of his fall, but it is fascinating to see how well the character can act.

This is Edwin Booth as Richard III. History books would have remembered him as the greatest actor EVER, but instead his jackass brother had to assassinate Lincoln.

Acting and the theatre are huge motifs in this play, and  – more than the previous three that Shakespeare wrote – it is very aware of it’s own theatricality.  The characters onstage are described as “beholders of this tragic play,” Margaret mocks Elizabeth as “A queen in jest, only to fill the scene,” and the priests that Richard surrounds himself with are called “props” by a knowing observer.  So the relationship between Richard and his audience is crucial.  He is unsympathetic to begin with, and so must endear the audience to his struggle for us to even care about the story.  He manipulates those around him to give him the crown, so he does not have to take it; and he manipulates us to watch him and perhaps even revel in his slaughter, the way Margaret revels in the deaths of her enemies that are not entirely guiltless.  But by the end of the play, it seems like even we have outlasted our usefulness because he won’t speak as much to us anymore.

In the end that tactic of abusing someone once they are no longer useful is the only reason he is defeated.  He holds Lord Stanley‘s son hostage, to ensure Stanley’s loyalty in battle.  But Stanley still refuses to send reinforcements, knowing that Richard will not be in any position to command the execution of his threat.  On top of this army’s maneuvering are the scores of angry dead.  Among the ghosts who appear are characters from the previous play, and even “Holy Harry” will condemn Richard for his actions.  The staging is actually quite interesting, since it involves the sleeping quarters of Richard and his enemies to be onstage in the same scene.  But this merely adds to the theatricality of the play, and helps remind us that we are observing a heightened reality.  The truth of the drama comes from how characters relate to each other, not the world itself.

And among these terrifying theatrical displays, we find Richard confronted by his own conscience.  Haunted by his dream of those hateful dead that he killed, he is forced to confront who he really is before the battle begins.

In the end, he dies an unimpressive death.  His horse is killed from under him, and he is forced to trudge around the battlefield on foot.  The famous line, “My kingdom for a horse!” turns out to be his last line, and he is killed onstage in battle, and given no more lines.  Unable to act, he ceases to be.

Richmond, the leader of the rebel army and the kid that Henry VI once prophesied to be king, emerges as the victor.  Though he has not been a powerful figure throughout the play, he announces absolute peace and promises order to England.  He will be crowned as Henry VII, and since his life is not interesting enough to garner it’s own play, I assume his reign was indeed peaceful.

Google Search - "did you mean: Henry VIII?"

With that, I think I am in the mood for a proper comedy next.  I am going to jump ahead to As You Like It because, aside from it’s general ability to cleanse the palate of all this bloodshed, I am very familiar with it.  The kids are all coming back to school this week, and I have extended hours working at the bookstore.  Something easy and familiar will do me some good this week.  But before I go, let’s have another good string of insults from Queen Margaret, this time directed at Richard’s mother:

“From forth the kennel of the womb hath crept A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death: that dog, that his teeth before his eyes To worry lambs, and lap their gentle blood; That foul defacer of God’s handiwork; That excellent grand tyrant of the earth that reigns in galled eyes of weeping souls – Thy womb let loose, to chase us to our graves.”

Also, I feel obligated to mention that Richard is a hunchbacked murderer just like Mr. Punch...

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  1. […] much else for Shylock to do other than crawl up and die.  I’d prefer to think of him as a Queen Margaret sort of character, rising from the sewers to enjoy the demise of his enemies.  It would provide […]

  2. […] souls, was common in Shakespeare’s era, and is certainly echoed through much of his work.  Richard III is a good example of that echo, though he is a mortal king, freakish but not literally a demon.  […]

  3. […] In the Fall comes our most ambitious project yet: The Trojan War, an original piece that is edited together from Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripedes, Troilus and Cressida by Shakespeare, and Trojan Women by Seneca, as well as other poets including Statius, Virgil, and Homer.  The name of Achilles, greatest soldier of all time, is used and misused by the armies of Greece to fight their war in Troy.  This brilliant new text, hewn together from the lyrical language of classical masters, tells the story of the Trojan War from beginning to end, with Achilles at the center.  We are excited to use the downstairs space of Underground Wonder Bar, which Chicago theatregoers may recognize from Wayward Production‘s celebrated run of Richard III. […]



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