Shakespeare's Richard III

2021-08-05 @Literature

Though among the most acclaimed of plays exhibiting one of the wickedest antagonists in literature, it didn’t meet my expectations. Then again, I didn’t feel as invested this time around, letting the dialogue simply drift by without a feel for the dimensions.

Perhaps I’ve become exhausted or with too much on my mind. Or perhaps I deliberately dropped focus knowing this would mark the last of Shakespeare’s plays I’d intended to read for a while. At this point, I covered them all short of three or four that I’ve no strong desire for. It all commenced with the Comedy of Errors fourteen months back and culminated with this.

It especially drew effort to read all the history plays leading to Richard. Unacquainted with the background, I read them chronologically, preferring the element of surprise. And it’s the order I’d recommend, though the independently placed King John you can read at any point.

Then imagining Richard III as a rewarding continuation of the slightly dragging three parts of Henry VI (which critically are deemed some of Shakespeare’s weakest), I actually enjoyed each of those the more! Again, that might owe to the superficiality of my reading.

But a little on the actual drama. Richard continues the tyrannous escapade already foreshadowed in Henry VI part 3. One of the fewer cases of absolute, unrelenting and unrepentant evil in all of Shakespeare’s works, the character inspires no sympathy.

There’s no unreliable narration, no ambiguity in the matter: an abundance of Richard’s soliloquies (more of these than I care to recall in any other play) unveil his true colors in full transparency to the audience.

In the earlier plays, however, his nature appeared less clear. In Part 2 of H-VI, Richard merely appeared a valiant and ferocious little tiger during the St. Albans conflict. Never mind that he would have been merely three years old in 1455 (and his brother Edward only thirteen), or that his battle prowess somewhat conflicts with the idea of his physical handicap. Where the dramas diverge from the source, I don’t particularly object.

But arriving at the present, Richard usurps the throne, having systematically orchestrated the death of everyone of precedence: his brothers - including King Edward IV, the King’s sons (the princes), the numerous friends and supporters that proved remotely detracting to his ambition.

Richard, along with his brothers, also earlier murdered the prior King Henry VI and his son, in cold blood, thus reaching the climax of the War of the Roses that marked most of 15th-century England (and dramatized in the three parts of Henry VI).

Thus Richard usurped the throne. And so had his brother Edward prior. And all the way back to Henry IV, Henry VI’s ancestor, the act which inevitably instigated the War of the Roses (the conflict between the major two feudal lines). Mostly every generation saw blood and deceit.

It’s a fascinating period of history actually. Britain held a 100-years-war with France, accumulated a powerful empire, managing local and international affairs alike. Then the inner political bickering eventually led to inner decay, the loss of all French territories they so long struggled to amass, and major civil strife.

Yet unlike the predecessors, Richard III seems to have arrived crooked straight out of the womb: that is to say, in every sense physical and moral. In fact, he openly entertains and even appears to embrace the deformity in the earlier soliloquies.

Speaking of ambition, where Richard lacks physically, he doesn’t seem otherwise too restrained. Early on, he effectively seduces into marriage the very widow of the Prince he and his brothers had openly murdered. Later in the play, he compels the former Queen - the widow of Edward IV (whose entire stock he also exterminated) into winning her daughter on his behalf, having long ditched the first wife.

The play is all about Richard. He dominates the dialogue, the soliloquies, the stage charisma (though the fictionalized ‘cameos’ of the Old Queen Margaret grab certain attention).

Consider this in contrast to virtually every other history play, the underlying monarch by far not the sole dominant force, if at all.

In Richard II, the future Henry IV appears at least as much as the King. In both parts of Henry IV, the Prince and Falstaff dominate the stage, among much other admirable cast. In King John (my oddly favourite of the lot), the Bastard steals the show. And the parts of Henry VI you might view a total antipode to Richard III: Henry’s direct involvement comes far and in-between, not to even appear until Act 3 of the first part.

There you have it. But speaking sincerely, R-III seems worth the investment. I’d also watched about a third of Lawrence Olivier’s 1955 film production, awestruck, thinking to myself: so that’s how one could deliver the haunting monologues! Then shortly I began to doze off …

Questions, comments? Connect.