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.
There’s a lot of unjustifiable hate out there for Titus Andronicus, I think.
Jonathan Bate introduces the play by saying that:
‘Even those who have approached Titus in a spirit of scholarly enquiry rather than critical judgement have been prejudiced by their distaste for the play […] nearly all scholars suppose that it is a very early work, a piece of crude and embarrassing juvenilia. I believe that every one of these arguments is wrong.
I’m with Prof. Bate. This was a rollercoaster ride. Although it does sketch issues we’ll see fleshed out in Lear and other ‘greats’, it’s a remarkable Revenge play, with a strong tragic journey and an utterly evil villain that surpasses any other I can readily think of. It also spoke strongly to me about public service, and the rewards thereof – especially for our armed forces.
So here’s my soundtrack album for the play. What’s missing?
BRADBROOK, MC: Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1969)
The Boar’s Head Bookshelf uses Isaac Newton‘s famous ‘standing on the shoulders of giants‘ quotation to acknowledge the part that every book I read has in shaping my ideas about Shakespeare. Occasionally, I read a book where the ideas are camouflaged by a ponderous, lecturing (in the worst sense of the word) style, and this is one of them. (A shout-out to the massively disappointing Frank Kermode on this point, too) When I read authors like David Crystal, his – pardon the pun – brilliant style makes the ideas shiny, fresh, exciting. Kermode and Bradbrook are similarly huge beasts, but their home is the Jurassic period, not the 21st Century. I’m slightly taken aback by that statement, given I devote myself to a writer who has been dead for over 400 years: oh, the irony, I hear you say …
Anyway, Bradbrook HAS got something interesting to say when she’s not hectoring us or making massive assumptions about our knowledge:
(subtitled, far too obviously for the UK football fans amongst us, ‘who ate all the pies?’)
I warned you! I WARNED YOU! Did I warn you?
Yes, I did. And so did Francis Bacon. And Jonathan Bate. And Fredson Bowers. We all said that revenge was likely to spiral out of control, because once you lose your faith in the law, and in divine justice too, all bets are off. And because every stroke in the ‘rally of revenge‘ is that much harder, has that much more spin on it than the last. Let’s mix our metaphors again: in this particular poker game, someone, eventually, is going to see your stake and raise you with everything they’ve got, not caring any more whether they win or lose. The chips, and what they represent, are suddenly and utterly unimportant …
I won’t hypocritically pretend that Sir Peter Hallwas a friend or indeed someone I knew very much about. I might have been to one of his productions over the years, but for most of the time it’s not been the sort of thing I took careful note of – let’s face it, I was probably under 10 when I saw my first Shakespeare. It would be churlish, though, on a blog like this not to mark his passing. He’s one of those people whose life influences yours at one remove …
Secular authorities had (and still have) every investment in discouraging revenge. If citizens perceive that the law no longer serves them, then we get the kind of situation that Francis Bacon famously warned of:
‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice’
And this is a point that Jonathan Bate develops, quoting Fredson Bowers:
Private action undermines the authority of the state:Elizabethan law felt itself capable of meting out justice to murderers, and therefore punished an avenger who took justice into his own hands just as heavily as the original murderer.The authorities, conscious of the Elizabethan inheritance of private justice from earlier ages, recognised that their own times still held the possibilities of serious turmoil; and the were determined that private revenge should not unleash a general disrespect for law.
Act IV however adds the dimension of the breakdown of DIVINE justice to the individual’s decision to subvert the legal process.