Friday, October 6, 2017

Richard III by William Shakespeare

And now for Richard III!

We last saw Richard of Gloucester, easily the most dominating and memorable character in Henry VI Part 3, crossing the line into villainy by murdering Henry VI himself, whom everyone in the Wars of the Roses can agree is personally a harmless and holy man (if a terrible king). As Richard III opens, peace has finally come to England--but Gloucester has discovered a terrible talent for war, and as a hunchbacked monster, he feels that the only good use for his talents in peacetime is to scheme, plot, and murder his way to the throne.

Never mind the fact that those standing in his way include both the brothers with whom he formed a "league inviolable" in the previous play. And those are just the ones he begins with.

This play is incredible, and I'm honestly a little amazed, because even though I've seen a number of productions of this play, none of them contained anything near the full text. And obviously none of them managed to communicate the sheer weight of backstory that hurls the play toward its ending. To experience Richard III the way it was always meant to be, you simply have to begin with Henry VI, Part 1 and work your way forward from there.

Why? Because the whole point of Richard III is that you can do evil today and maybe tomorrow, but sooner or later justice happens. Over and over again in this play, characters suffering trauma, humiliation, and death at Richard's competent hands are driven to acknowledge their guilt. For instance, take the Duke of Clarence. All the history plays are punctuated with breezy prison murder scenes. The Tower of London has assassins the way other castles have mice, to steal a simile from PG Wodehouse. But when the assassins arrive to collect Clarence, the scene is one long drawn-out battle of wits as Clarence attempts to awaken their consciences. The amazing thing? He very nearly succeeds. In fact, he succeeds with one of them (and Shakespeare takes his time in this scene to show the murderers wrestling with conscience). What ensures Clarence's death is that ethically speaking, he hasn't got a leg to stand on: every single plea he makes to God, to righteousness, and to divine justice condemns him. "How canst thou urge God's dreadful law to us/When thou hast broke it in such dear degree?" demands one of the murderers. Clarence has crimes of treachery and murder on his own conscience, and by the time his killers finally silence his pleas, we understand perfectly that divine justice has come for him.

And for everyone else in the victorious Yorkist camp, from the three York brothers who slaughtered Prince Edward to the retainers who stood by in silence without preventing it, to the women who simply enjoy the fruits of an unjust victory. York has won the battle against Lancaster. But this doesn't mean they were more righteous than Lancaster: both sides have committed atrocities. 

It simply means that their doom will be shocking, bloody, and completely unprecedented.

The play spirals to its conclusion in a succession of heavy dramatic ironies. Curses come home to roost, often upon the very people who pronounced them. Even Anne Neville, whom Richard woos and wins over Henry VI's bleeding corpse, acknowledges her complicity in her own destruction. Oddly, the play featuring one of Shakespeare's most fascinating and irresistible villains is also the one with the most brutally stark distinction between right and wrong.

Which brings us to Richard himself. The play is shocking in all sorts of ways. There's the body count, which includes two young children. There's the way that Richard masks his ambition behind a facade of affability and even piety. There's the fact that this facade is so badly cracked that most of the most important characters know he's a monster and yet fall for his manipulation anyway! But all these things pale in comparison to the shock of realising that in all his evil deeds Richard is acting as the agent of a just and longsuffering God. Nobody likes to think of Providence acting through the medium of insane murderers. 

Except Flannery O'Connor, I guess, God bless her.

Don't misunderstand me. When I say that Shakespeare makes Richard the instrument of God, I don't remotely mean that he should not be seen as a villain. On the contrary. Most stories with such a magnetic and fascinating villain protagonist wind up garnering all sympathy for the villain. Ahem, Milton. In the unforgettable wooing scene, Lady Anne makes this exact mistake, but it's as if Shakespeare is making fun of us. Anne is quickly disillusioned and unceremoniously murdered. So much for loving the bad boy. (As an aside, I relished Richard's outspoken misogyny in this play, which Shakespeare rebukes by using the Duchess of York, Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, and Lady Anne as a powerful but complex chorus to comment upon his crimes.) When Richard faces the future Henry VII in the final act, the battle comes as a breath of fresh air. After four play's worth (or even eight, if you count the Major Tetralogy) of murky grey-and-grey wars, we finally get an unambiguous moment of good versus evil. By this point, we can't wait to see Richard, the last man standing, get his just deserts.

Historically, of course, the battle of Bosworth Field was nowhere near as clear-cut. Richard III was probably not a villain, and Henry VII unheroically spent a good deal of his time imprisoning and slaughtering the last survivors of the house of York. In Richard III, Shakespeare presents a stirring bit of Tudor propaganda painting both the previous dynasties as hopelessly morally compromised. But he was a good enough storyteller to make it work.

Richard III is without a doubt the best play in the Minor Tetralogy, and a more satisfying piece of storytelling (in my opinion) than any of the Major Tetralogy except, perhaps, Henry V. The Tudor-propaganda aspects do become a little obvious in the final act, and unlike pretty much all the other history plays in either series, it is not subtle in the least. Henry V forces you to chew it over long after watching, while the themes and intent of Richard III are blatant and repetitive. But even with these shortcomings, I think that ultimately, it's my favourite.

I've seen three film versions of Richard III

I saw the Laurence Olivier film many years ago. I can't remember very much about it, but I do remember being captivated. Also, the violence is mostly kept offscreen, so if you want to share this play with the very young (which, why? WHY?) then this version is the one to go for.

Ian McKellan's 1995 production is brilliantly conceived but not particularly faithful, and should definitely come with a content warning. Updated to a nightmarishly gorgeous dieselpunk 1930s, it imagines Richard as a fascist dictator, which would suit the play even better if most of Richard's most fascist moments hadn't been edited out. At just over an hour and a half, this version cuts out a huge amount of the dialogue and everything to do with Queen Margaret. The result is sleek, fast-paced, blackly humorous, and almost completely detached from the backstory, which also detaches it from its own theme. It's stylish, but it leaves many of my favourite moments on the cutting-room floor.

The Hollow Crown production starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role is the only one of these films that includes Queen Margaret, and therefore the only one that comes with the important backstory attached. Cumberbatch has the time of his life as Richard, but the cutting-down of the play compromises some of the most important and memorable scenes, especially Clarence's death and Anne's wooing. On the other hand, Judi Dench and Sophie Okonedo absolutely own every scene they're in, and the film does a very smart job of utilising Queen Margaret in several more scenes than the play, strictly speaking, demands. It's a reasonable, but not an inspired, production.

You can find Richard III on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg and Librivox.


Melanie said...

Henry VIII is even heavier on the propaganda (not surprisingly).
I enjoyed reading these Shakespeare reviews, thanks!

Suzannah said...

No problem! I'm actually planning to tackle HENRY VIII as well as KING JOHN before too much more time elapses, just so I can say I've read all the histories. Thankfully, Shakespeare could turn propaganda into a decent story, so I'm hoping HENRY VIII is a good read...

Anonymous said...

Must say, I never liked Shakespeare when I was at school. In school, I just used the discounts by edubirdie to purchase paperworks when I faced with English literature. I realized all the beautifulness of his works only when I grew up enough.


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