Richard III – a tragic history with a very human ‘villain’

At my previous school, I taught Richard III as part of a comparative study with Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard. I was in the privileged position to select any texts I wanted to teach, and because I wanted to teach Orwell’s essays, it left me with Richard III as my Shakespeare option. Luckily for me, and my students, I loved it. Reading the play again over the last two weeks (I’ve been slack with my reading because the latest COVID outbreak in Sydney has distracted me), I feel like I was reading it for the first time. Why? Because of my reading of the Henry VI trilogy prior, and getting to see Richard in his earlier days and in a broader context. Given that Richard III is so well-known, I’m not going to bother with a plot overview like I did for the previous three plays. What I’m most interested in is how, dramatically, this play is quite a departure or evolution (dare I say improvement?) on Shakespeare’s early histories.

The Henry plays are surprising for how swiftly the plot moves and for how many characters traipse across the page/stage. The compression of time is so great that it feels like the action takes place over a very short period of time – maybe a few weeks – even though it is actually many years. Richard III, similarly feels swift (dramas like this documenting the rise and fall of a king have to compress time necessarily) but it also feels slow. Finally, Shakespeare is allowing himself time to unravel the private life (the interior mind I suppose the fancy thinkers would call it) of a character, and this, to me, is what makes this play so different. In the Henry plays I was impressed by the way Shakespeare juggled the different characters, showing sides both lamentable and likeable and thus making them inch their way towards being human (I actually thought of all the characters, Henry himself felt the most fully developed – having flaws, vulnerabilities, doubts, and being quite honest and authentic) and this was a sensible approach because almost all contributed to the life of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare’s monarch. But Richard is something else entirely. He opens the play talking directly to us, showing us his frustrations, anxieties, vulnerabilities, and his (immoral) desires. We know of what he has done leading up to this moment (his involvement in the death of young Prince Edward, and the killing of Henry VI) but our feelings about these deeds, before this play begins aren’t as negative as they will become. After all, he was working in the service of his king – his brother Edward who was considered more legitimate than Henry. What Shakespeare does, is he makes us question the morality of these actions (even if, as a servant of the king, they could be dismissed as reasonable?) and he shifts us towards a different view of how to determine right and wrong. I don’t argue this is a central theme of the play, rather I think the intrigue comes from how we are taken along with Richard, as his confidants, something not attempted in his earlier plays. For us, Richard isn’t a historical figure rushing from one fight to the next, avenging a king, he is a human being inviting us into his private thoughts, luring us to witness the way in which he quite ingeniously climbs his way to the crown.

Personally, I find the first half of the play the most compelling. Richard’s famous opening monologue is one of my favourite pieces from Shakespeare, as too is the incredible dialogue between Richard and Anne. It’s not just the quick dialogue between them – which at times is so formal and then so natural – but the stagecraft, with the body of Henry VI on stage bleeding from his wounds as Anne falls for Richard’s wooing. It’s so great, Shakespeare must have been super stoked with himself after writing that scene. Oh, and then Margaret! Honestly, having read the previous plays and knowing her story just makes her entrance and cursing so much more powerful. The conflicting feelings towards her are so well developed – it’s like Shakespeare is delighting in playing with us. How can we like her after what she did to Rutland and York? We can’t. Yet how can we not be moved by her incisive intellect as she describes and dooms everyone on stage? We must be. I love, love, love the scene with Richard and his mother. It’s soooo sad! Richard’s hurt is so evident, and his bewilderment at his own mother’s hatred and scorn clearly comes through. And yet you can’t feel anything but sympathy for her, given all she has lost to the English crown. Gosh, Shakespeare is good!

I do, however, find that some of the scenes are too stylised at times, lacking that authenticity and flow, that naturalism (is that the right word??) of Shakespeare’s later plays. This is evident in his scenes with the weeping women and children – all that formal, repetition and structured verse. Like, on stage it could look great, but it doesn’t work for me in terms of evoking an emotional response. The same can be said for the staging before Bosworth. Like, I get it – the setting up of the tents and the current vs future king being visited by the ghosts of those the former has killed, in terms of stagecraft it’s very cool, but I just feel that it slows the action too much. The first half is just so intense, the language moves so quickly, Richard’s wit dominates, he is an enormous figure right up until he becomes king, and then he just shrivels. We lose him after that, and everything becomes structured, formal, dry. Perhaps it was intentional, but I feel like if you compare it to a tragedy like Macbeth, where the energy and authenticity is sustained right until the end, I think it’s weaker for the diminishing of Richard. We don’t really get any real direct engagement with Richard after he is king – we miss out on a genuinely reflective soliloquy like we get from Macbeth after the death of Lady Macbeth. All we have is a little bit of anxiety and paranoia, a touch of self-pity after his nightmare, and a brief rush of confidence and self-awareness on the battlefield before he is killed. Also, I don’t like Richmond. He is boring and that’s all I have to say about him.

Richard III is easily one of my favourite plays, and it’s almost entirely because of the charismatic titular character. From Richard comes all of the other characters we come to know and love – hiding in his words we have hints of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear. I think the representation of women in this play also makes my review of it so positive – those women are badass! So far, having read the first four plays of my Collected Works, I think Shakespeare has done a great job representing women as fierce, intelligent, capable and really just as human as his men. So that’s my review of Richard III – it’s bloody awesome. My favourite quotes from the play are below.

Cursed the heart that had the heart to do it!
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence!

If ever he have wife, let her be made
More miserable by the death of him
Than I am made by my young lord and thee!

Dead Henry’s wounds
Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh.
Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,
For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty veins where no blood dwells;
Thy deeds inhuman and unnatural
Provokes this deluge most unnatural.

GLOUCESTER. Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.
ANNE. Some dungeon.
GLOUCESTER. Your bed-chamber.

Speak it again, and even with the word
This hand, which for thy love did kill thy love,
Shall for thy love kill a far truer love;
To both their deaths shalt thou be accessary.

Because I cannot flatter and look fair,
Smile in men’s faces, smooth, deceive, and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.

I cannot tell; the world is grown so bad
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.
Since every Jack became a gentleman,
There’s many a gentle person made a Jack.

Why strew’st thou sugar on that bottled spider
Whose deadly web ensnareth thee about?

I was born so high,
Our aery buildeth in the cedar’s top,
And dallies with the wind, and scorns the sun.

And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

Princes have but their titles for their glories,
An outward honour for an inward toil;
And for unfelt imaginations
They often feel a world of restless cares,
So that between their tides and low name
There’s nothing differs but the outward fame.

O, do not slander him, for he is kind.

When clouds are seen, wise men put on
their cloaks;
When great leaves fall, then winter is at hand;
When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?
Untimely storms make men expect a dearth.

Thus, like the formal vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word.

Since you will buckle fortune on my back,
To bear her burden, whe’er I will or no,
I must have patience to endure the load;

O, would to God that the inclusive verge
Of golden metal that must round my brow
Were red-hot steel, to sear me to the brains!

But I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin.

Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers?
Where be thy two sons? Wherein dost thou joy?
Who sues, and kneels, and says ‘God save the Queen’?
Where be the bending peers that flattered thee?
Where be the thronging troops that followed thee?

Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my hell.
A grievous burden was thy birth to me;
Tetchy and wayward was thy infancy;
Thy school-days frightful, desp’rate, wild, and furious;
Thy prime of manhood daring, bold, and venturous;
Thy age confirm’d, proud, subtle, sly, and bloody,
More mild, but yet more harmful-kind in hatred.

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.

Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls;
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe.

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