Greetings, my dear strangers!
Yes, I realise that April is traditionally considered Shakespeare Month, but I’m going in a bit early with this. Let me start off by saying that I’ve never been a great fan of the Bard. That’s not say I don’t like his works, simply that he was never one of my favourite authors and that I’ve seldom given his works more than 3 stars. Maybe that’s because I was born in an era when understanding and appreciating his genius has become more difficult than ever, maybe because I’m simply not up to par with that level of literature. Whatever the reason, during my Shakespeare month, I plan to write honest reviews in which I’ll give a bit of historical context, present a few deeply ingrained notions and widely accepted interpretations of his works and my most candid opinion. I won’t lie or say that I liked a play I didn’t like, no matter how highly acclaimed it may be. Therefore, true to my word, I give Richard III three and a half stars (out of five).
Richard the Third is one of Shakespeare’s most widely read historical plays. Historical may be a treacherous term here, as the famous playwright was heavily influenced by another, earlier work of art which demonised Richard. Moreover, he lived and created during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a descendant of the king who’d defeated Richard in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field and could hardly write nice things about him, regardless of his own opinion. Furthermore, the great Tudor myth played a huge role at the time, which may have prompted Shakespeare to further embellish the monarch’s sordid deeds. History remembers Henry III as a ruthless tyrant, mostly due to his presumed involvement in the killings of two young boys with claim to the throne, but once things are put into perspective, we realise that Henry was no worse and no better than the preceding and subsequent rulers.
Anyway, during the first few acts, Richard’s character can widely be interpreted through the medieval character of Vice, a one-dimensional character originating in the medieval drama which had, by Renaissance, developed into two archetypes – the mischievous prankster and the embodiment of evil. You can guess which version Richard represents.
Using his physical repulsiveness and deformity as a cause and an excuse for his behaviour, Richard from the very first lines lets us in on his wicked plans to take over the throne. His speech makes us his accomplices, his spectators, his confidants. His demeanour completely changes once he’s around other characters, notably his brother Clarence, whom he tries to console and comfort, even though we, the audience, are well aware that Richard is in fact to blame for the existing bad blood between his brothers and Clarence’s subsequent imprisonment in the Tower of London.
Throughout the play, Richard manages to break many characters. He bends them to his will almost effortlessly, it seems. After his ascension to the throne, Richard mainly uses violence and unhidden terror as a means of dealing with his opponents. However, during his climb to power, he primarily relies on his superior language skills, even though he doesn’t shy away from violence and atrocities either. Many readers feel that certain characters whom he deceives, such as Lady Anne, his brothers and Queen Elizabeth are simply too obtuse to see through his lies and schemes. Perhaps they are, especially from our modern viewpoint. But, let’s not forget that these characters do not have the same insight into Richard’s private thoughts as we, the audience, do. Those lines depicting his sly victories are put there for a reason. That reason is not to make other characters appear foolish, but to convince us, beyond any doubt, that Richard is indeed a supreme orator and that his most powerful tool is his golden tongue.
Even though Richard can be interpreted as an extension of the medieval Vice for the better part of the play, he evolves into a somewhat more complex character during the final two acts. We see panic, paranoia, maybe even remorse developing within him and it all starts to form the minute he places his arse upon the throne. That’s when another earlier notion creeps into the play, the notion of Fortuna, the Goddess of Fortune, in whose hands a wheel can be found. She is tasked with perpetually turning the wheel of fortune, so that those once mighty fail and, vice versa, those once on the bottom prosper. This continual cycle can best be spotted in the literature preceding the Renaissance, most notably in Beowulf whose steady rise quickly begins dropping once he reaches the top, the imaginary ceiling that no hero, no matter how honourable, strong or vile may transcend. At least, not without some heavy repercussions. And, the higher they rise, the harder they fall.
One of the most interesting characters in the play and the one I was deeply disappointed not to see whilst watching the movie version last night, is Margaret. She is not a very active character, per se, yet she does our foreshadowing for us. Her character can be described as this bitter, lingering creature of sorrow and wrath, skulking about the hallways of the castle, murmuring heavy words under her breath, forced to live with the murderers of her kin. Her curse in the early acts of the play comes to fruition later on, so much so that the other two women who’ve experienced Richard’s brutality ask her to teach them the art of cursing as well. Hers is a lingering presence of great danger. Her words, at first dismissed as rants of an embittered old lady, soon prove to be extremely potent, capable of overpowering kings, taking down entire dynasties and even changing the course of history… within the limits of literature, of course. However, even though her character proves to be powerful and dangerous, she is still a creature that invokes pity, for her life has now been reduced to a lonely, desperate, morose existence.
Finally, a few thoughts on the movie. I saw Richard the Third last night and I highly recommend it. This is the 1955 version, starring Laurence Olivier, an amazing Shakespearean actor. I’m a visual type and watching the movie helped explain some scenes a lot more clearly. While reading the play, I was left puzzled by Lady Anne’s quick and sudden defeat, yet the movie portrayed a very convincing seduction scene that leaves no room for doubts as to Richard’s highly advanced oratory and manipulation. Mr Olivier acts with such an ease, it almost seems like this evil, tyrannical frame of mind comes naturally to him. He relishes in his own wickedness, unapologetically and convincingly. He frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the audience during Richard’s soliloquies and with a sly smile informs us that his eyes bear no remorse in them. Another powerful scene is when Richard is on the battlefield, crying that he would gladly exchange his entire kingdom for a horse and a better chance of survival.
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