Ponytail Shakespeare read-through – Richard III (Act I, scene i)
Larger than life. One of a kind. Brash on the outside, to mask an inner vulnerability. The ultimate showman, whose memory lives on long after his death. Freddie Mercury is all these things, too …
I’ve arrived at Richard III, the first play in my read-through that I know well, with a sense of awe, almost a fear of not doing him justice. Unusually, I’m as tentative as I might have been had I met him with a pathetic autograph book in my hand (or Mercury, whose death in 1991 touched me as few other celebrity deaths have: Prince and Sir Terry Pratchett are the only others that I register, emotionally). My relationship with Richard grows more obsessive and complex every time I teach him, and my recent book-buying seems unconciously centred round the historical Richard and the major players in his accession and downfall. I’ve also realised there is no way I can do this in the usual 1,000-ish-words-per-act format, so all I’m going to do is try to avoid 1,000 words-per-scene, if I can.
How has Shakespeare done this to me?
Uniquely Richard III begins with a soliloquy – that soliloquy, in fact. In the other tragedies our hero is introduced to us at one remove – it always takes a while for him to appear on stage. Nowhere else in Shakespeare’s works can I see a soliloquy by the main character opening the play, neither. It lets us see the man for ourselves, without any intermediary report to influence us or distance us from the hero’s innermost circle.
And Richard does seem one of a kind when it comes to soliloquy. His previous one almost overshadows 3 HVI, but this one outdoes even that, I think. I once read somewhere that students should imagine we were the speaker’s best friend, and the character was confiding in us. Perhaps, but Richard is the only character who ever makes me feel I am on stage with him. I wonder if it’s significant that in every film production I’ve seen there is prolonged eye contact?
The thing about Richard’s soliloquies is that he is not simply speaking out loud, working through a problem, like Brutus or Macbeth do when thinking through whether or not to kill their respective victims, or even when Hamlet ponders suicide.
Richard speaks to me – he speaks to us.
Just like the best singers make us feel like they are singing to us, even in a crowd of thousands. I think Doug Seale nails it:
“It is Richard’s sense of humour, his wit, and his obvious delight in his own wickedness that has made him a popular, almost likeable character for over three hundred years. Audiences do not laugh at him […] they laugh with him.” Doug Seale
Richard kicks off with a series of juxtapositions between then and now, accentuating the differences between the Wars of the Roses and his brother Edward’s reign. So far, so conventional, and this is how Ian McKellen plays it, as a triumphal post-prandial speech. But the first sign, perhaps that something is wrong comes in the personification of ‘grim-visaged War’, and the oxymoronic suggestion that:
‘He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.’ (I.i.12-13)
… and this line is broken, in that version, by McKellen leaving to take a sardonic piss. Elsewhere, in the Hollow Crown, Benedict Cumberbatch gives the last word the full scornful plosive treatment.
What’s the problem for Richard? Perhaps it’s not dissimilar to things I touched on in Titus Andronicus‘. Richard is a fighter, he is in fact ‘grim-visaged War’, bloodthirsty from the off and willing to do the jobs that others didn’t want to do during the wars.
But now he’s home. And unwanted, unneeded, unattractive.
Here’s the crux. His famously handsome brother might be reaping the rewards of peace, but he gave a clue – as early as line 4, when the word ‘bosom‘ disrupted the iambic metre – what the problem really is.
Thomas More, one of Shakespeare’s sources, compares Richard to Edward and George. He was, it seems:
‘ […] in wit and courage equal with either of them, in body and probity far under them both: little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left sholder much higher than his right, hard-favoured of visage and such as is in princes called warlike, in other men otherwise. He was malicious, warthful, envious, and, from before his birth, ever froward. It is for truth reported that the Duchess his mother had so much ado in her travail that she could not be deliverd of him uncut, and that he came into the world […] not untoothed.’
This is the crux of the matter for me. In Late Medieval and Early Modern times, his appearance would be, as my students are tired of hearing, ‘an external manifestation of inner evil‘. (TM) Thus, there is no bosom, no ‘wanton ambling nymph’ for our hero.
If only he had somebody to love, I believe things would be very, very different. As Freddie Mercury sings:
(Take a look at yourself) Take a look in the mirror and cry (and cry),
Lord what you’re doing to me (yeah yeah)
And I’ll maintain this right up until the end of Act V and beyond. Richard is a morally-neutral creature, like Frankenstein, like Caliban, who has been denied companionship on the basis of his looks. If the world told me, from the word go, that I was determined (in the sense of ‘made’) to be a villain, of course I would be determined (‘resolved’) to fulfill my destiny sooner or later. Wouldn’t you?
Most frustratingly of all, and perhaps this is where my sympathy arises, Richard is being judged on an accident of birth which he has no control over – look at the verbs in the second part of the soliloquy: ‘stamped‘, ‘curtailed‘, ‘cheated‘, ‘deformed‘, ‘unfinished‘, ‘sent‘. There is no agency, no choice in all this. And, who hasn’t looked in the mirror and found something to curse about the reflection they see – something they were born with?
So, I’d suggest that Richard’s turn to the dark side is natural, understandable, almost forgivable. If, in previous plays, I likened him to Darth Vader, then his journey is complete. Now for the fun …
The soliloquy makes us a fellow conspirator in Richard’s plans: again, the way I look at this with students is that it creates an immediate sense of dramatic irony that is sustained by later soliloquy. For the first half of the play, right up until when he is crowned, we have to snigger with him, as Doug Seale says. And I enjoy using the BBC DVD version, starring Ron Cook (1983) in class. He has a twinkle, real exultant mischief, in his eye that makes me think there’s a devil dancing inside his brain. When I first taught Richard several years back, I used this version – students I have met since then say that their memory of the play was of me laughing at Richard’s antics.
This dramatic irony is heady stuff. Confronted by his hapless brother, I’ve got to stifle giggles when Richard says:
‘We are not safe’ (I.i.70)
‘this deep disgrace in brotherhood
Touches me deeper than you can imagine.’ (I.i.111-112)
The giggles need stifling in case Clarence hears me …
One last performance moment needs mentioning – when Richard, alone again, says:
‘Simple, plain Clarence, I do love thee so
That I will shortly send thy sould to heaven,
If heaven will take the present at out hands.’ (I.i.118-120)
This short soliloquy is absolutely owned, with wit and self-deprecating humour, by Benedict Cumberbatch in The Hollow Crown.
Perhaps I should try to add some balance. If there’s a bad aftertaste to the fun, it’s Richard’s misogyny when he speaks to Clarence. Again, whilst I can’t condone it, I can only hazard speculation at the number of times the poor sod – the play Richard and the real one – must have been looked at with disdain by women.
You see, I can’t quite do it – it takes just 31 lines of blank verse for Shakespeare to get me completely, utterly, on Richard’s side.
Paul Kendall (ed.), Richard III: The Great Debate, including Sir Thomas More‘s History of King Richard III and Horace Walpole‘s Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III (The Folio Society: London, 1965)
John Julius Norwich, Shakespeare’s Kings (Penguin: London, 2000)
Doug Seale in Introductions to Shakespeare (ed. Charles Ede) (The Folio Society, London: 1977)
James R Siemon (ed), King Richard III (The Arden Shakespeare: London, 2009)