PTS read-through: Richard III, Act II, scene i
June 27, 1996. George Street, Luton, at a bus stop opposite the town hall. Genuinely nauseous to the verge of throwing up. Could I have torn my eyes up from the book I was reading, I would broadly have seen the image below …
But I couldn’t.
THIS is the potential power of literature. We know the words to a million songs, and can recall them after decades, but how often do we remember where we were when we first heard them?
This was my first read of the fourth monthly-instalment of Stephen King‘s The Green Mile: bought, as the others were, on the day of publication. It was (self-evidently) a memorable experience, gulping down just shy of 100 pages in under two hours and then being forced to wait another month for the next instalment. In this case, I’d bought the book and was reading it on the way home, and thence to work on a late shift.
‘The Bad Death’ is a phrase that’s been knocking around in my mind since I first read this scene. In the King version, the spiteful and bullying megalomaniac, Percy Whetmore, gets revenge (remember, payback AND more) on the eponymous Eduard by sabotaging his execution, by electric chair, in the most horrific way. Some of you will want to watch, again, the scene as directed by Frank Darabont. Perhaps I should rephrase that: ‘be curious about’, not ‘want to watch’ …
Edward IV is on a Death Row of his own. In his case, and with typical EMP regard for what happens next, he wants to expiate his sins and make peace with God before he goes:
‘more in peace my soul shall part to heaven,
Since I have made my friends at peace on earth.’ (II.i.5-6)
He might hear the flap of vulture wings, but it’s counterpointed by the yapping of hyenas and the occasional roar of a lion, perhaps: the approaching feeding frenzy could easily get out of control. I think Edward’s perfectly aware of the danger to his legacy, his sons, and this pious-seeming behaviour is coincidentally a pragmatic attempt to preserve the dynasty too.
What follows are several of what I’ve come to regard as those ‘begging for a thunderbolt‘ moments: the general rule is that when someone says something along the lines of ‘may God strike me down if ___‘, God is indubitably going to take them at their word before the play’s end …
If any of these are remotely poignant, perhaps it is Buckingham’s:
‘… God punish me
with hate in those where I expect most love.
When I have most need to employ a friend,
And most assured that he is a friend,
Deep, hollow, treacherous and full of guile
Be he unto me. This do I beg of God’ (II.i.34-39)
You know what, Buckers? He’s listening … and you’ll realise that at V.i.16:
‘This is the day, which, in King Edward’s time,
I wished might fall on me’
I say poignant because at some stage, maybe not just yet, I’m going to have to discuss my theory that Buckingham quite fancies Richard …
Everyone swears. Of course they do. We’re all friends again. As an interesting aside, I asked my class last year (13-14 year olds) about death-bed promises. Several declared they wouldn’t make them, even to ease someone’s passing, and a small majority felt it ethically justifiable to break them …
Enter Percy Whetmore, oops, I mean Richard …
In his quest for the throne, he’s where he wants to be. Edward has indeed outlived Clarence, and is about to leave Richard as Protector to two young lads who mostly need protection from him. So, there’s no real need for him to announce Clarence’s death except spite, is there?
‘Who knows not that the gentle Duke is dead?’ (II.i.80)
I suspect that anyone on their death bed is likely to regret the killing of a brother, even one who was thought to have plotted against him – dying will probably give you that sort of perspective.
Richard is deliberately twisting the knife, making it clear that it was Edward’s order that killed Clarence, and causing the kind of recriminations and strife that Edward so feared. But the Eduard Delacroix moment comes in with the arrival of Stanley, begging for the life of a servant who had committed murder. Like a man whose soul is on fire, he rages at the assembled factions:
‘Have I a tongue to doom my brother’s death,
And shall that tongue give pardon to a slave?’ (II.i.104-105)
It’s the begining of a remarkable sequence, reminiscent of the passion and anger of John of Gaunt’s ‘this sceptred isle’ speech in Richard II. Always sensitive to patterns of question marks, I counted seven, indicators of disbelief, fury and the dawning realisation that he is going to meet his maker with the mark of Cain upon him – the ‘primal eldest curse’ that Claudius so fears in Hamlet …
‘Oh, God! I fear Thy justice will take hold
On me, and you, and mine and yours for this.’ (II.i.132-133)
He leaves the stage, and the world, in the worst possible circumstances. A bad death indeed …
All line references are to the Arden Third Edition, ed. James R Siemon.