I shall despair; there is no creature loves me,
And if I die no soul shall pity me. (Richard III: V.iii) [a]
No matter how many times I watch it – with Y9, 12 and 13 classes, or alone – Benedict Cumberbatch can move me to tears, delivering what I think are the saddest lines in Shakespeare.
The saddest lines … by arguably the biggest villain?
The genius of Richard III is our relationship with him. And this is all about soliloquy. Shakespeare employs them as deftly as a brain surgeon wielding a scalpel.
In class, I pay a lot of attention to the masterful opening: how it enlists us to Richard’s cause. Lucky / unlucky A Level students end up watching five or six different versions: the main four films I use plus a couple of standalones by David Morrissey and anyone else who grabs my attention on Youtube. The Cooke (2016) and Howell (1983) versions do this best, starring Cumberbatch and Ron Cook respectively. Who hasn’t (especially in the social media era) looked in the mirror and felt dismayed by what they see there? Who hasn’t been tempted to flame someone, online or off, to make themselves feel better? Whose mind has never been clouded by ambition, by jealousy, by the frustrated conclusion that being good gets you absolutely nowhere?
I have walked a mile, and more, in Richard’s shoes.
Of course, and your mileage may vary, this bond doesn’t last forever. Whilst some of his career is ‘just what you have to do if you want to be king‘, as one class told me; some baulk early on at his treatment of Anne; most draw a line, as Buckingham does, at the death of those two youngsters. For me, it depends on which version I am viewing. But the relationship always changes. If nothing else, the soliloquies transform. As Richard descends into chaos he speaks less directly to us, and more to himself. Even in the most intimate portrayals, we find ourselves shut out, reduced from vicarious accomplice to disinterested, judgemental onlooker. Which is as it should be.
Tragic heroes need some kind of redemption. Without it, there is none of the regret or the realisation that ‘there but for the grace of God go I‘ that is catharsis. It’s a two-stage process: Like Macbeth, Richard goes out fighting bravely. But we won’t lament either death without that eleventh-hour epiphany of anagnorisis (or realisation) that reawakens our connection with these extraordinary characters. In both plays, this is achieved through moving, reflective soliloquy.
For those unfamiliar with the Richard narrative, it is the night before Bosworth and alone in his tent, Richard is plagued by the curses that Margaret of Anjou placed upon him earlier in the play:
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be whilst some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils! (I.iii) [a]
And what dreams Richard has had! All his victims have lined up to tell him to ‘despair and die’; they will be fighting on Richmond’s side in the morning. Thus, the scene is set, as Richard wakes, for his memorable anagnorisis.
Which bring me to this week’s QotW. Here’s what AD Nuttall has to say about it (this is the AO5 bit, students):
At the beginning of the play Richard determined himself a villain. Now, like Milton’s Sin looking at her child Death, he shrinks in horror from the thing he has made. Even the egoistic self-love of a Barabas – “I am my own best friend” – is a kind of love, and Richard’s loss of that self-love propels him simultaneously into a just appraisal of his real wickedness and a self-hatred that is not, as it might have been in another, the beginning of contrition but is instead stony, frozen despair. […]
When at last Richard says, ‘no creature loves me’, he is like a frightened child. […] The frightened child obtains no pity, from mother, lover, self – or even from us, as we watch. There is only fear. [b]
I pity Richard. And that is part of my complex catharsis when he dies.
[b] AD Nuttall, Shakespeare the Thinker, (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2007)