**Side note: Bear with me, y’all. I got really excited and just kept writing. Doubt that future posts will all be this long.**
Why This Play?:
I had never read nor seen this one, which is strange because it’s so freaking famous. I have a mental block over most of the history plays, somehow thinking that if I don’t know enough about the War of the Roses then I’m not going to have any idea what’s happening. [All you really need to know about it for now – two families, Lancaster and York, spent decades trading the crown back and forth and killing each other to do so.] Tudor history I’ve got down, but the generations leading up to that? Not so much.
Earlier this year, I got turned on to a free educational site called FutureLearn. It partners with British universities and leading experts in all kinds of fields to produce massive online open courses. A few weeks ago, I started a course through University of Leicester called England in the Time of King Richard III, and I’m still working on it. Sounded interesting to study the life and times of the infamous hunchback king (it is). And it seemed like a logical place to start with this Shakespeare project, since I’m knee-deep in that world already.
Stupidly enough for me, Richard III is the very last of a series of the Bard’s plays on the War of Roses (Richard II kicks it off, then all 6 varying Henry plays in between). So I’m sort of starting at the end and will have to work my way back. *shrug*
SO MUCH. Get ready to confuse all your Richards, Edwards, and Henrys – there are heaps in this play.
We start with Edward IV as king of England. It’s crucial to know he (a York) won the title battling it out and killing the last king, Henry VI (a Lancaster) as well as the Edward, Prince of Wales. Edward IV’s two bros, George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester, helped him out with all the killing and throne-taking. Richard secretly wants to be king. As youngest brother to the king, he’s pretty removed from his goal. But he’s willing to be all kinds of nefarious to get there.
Sickly Ed IV has imprisoned the middle bro, Clarence, due to some crazy mistrust. Ol’ Richard puts through a secret order to have dear trusting Clare killed, then acts all surprised and concerned when he delivers news of the death to the king. Ed IV, who had been thinking about releasing Clare, is completely overwrought and dies in the depths of despair. Oh, and in the midst of all this, Richard has somehow, completely strangely, managed to woo Lady Anne – she’s the widow of the Prince of Wales that Richard had killed to help Ed IV get the crown – even though she spit in his face and cursed him. He’s doing a bang-up job of playing the saint when he’s really the devil, all through his language rather than his actions. As a mother of two, I personally would be kind of proud if my children would “use their words” as well as this guy does.
Ed IV leaves behind Queen Elizabeth, a daughter, and two sons who are now in line for the throne. The majorly grieving widow commiserates with the Duchess of York (the king and Richard’s mama, who’s also bummed since she’s just lost 2 sons and she suspects the remaining one is totally evil). Also, a seriously badass former queen, Margaret, is still skulking around the current royals, and she curses everyone for playing a part in the downfall of her husband (Henry VI). Richard enlists his cousin Buckingham to help keep the train to Kingtown running. These two are seriously good actors, and they charm people left and right – the ladies (Anne, Queen Liz, the Duchess, and Margaret) are the only ones not buying their bullshit. But it’s too little too late, because Rich & Buck have executed secret orders to get other sneaky dudes to murder Ed IV’s two young sons (and a bunch of the Queen’s relatives and some of Rich’s own followers, for good measure). With no one left to step up, Richard is finally king.
The problem is, he sucks at holding aboveboard power. He pisses off Buckingham by not giving him the earldom Richard had promised for helping put him on throne. He has Anne (who’s now his wife) killed. And he engages in an ultra-creepy argument with Queen Liz to help him convince her young daughter to marry him – all so he can make sure that any future York descendants would be purely his own. Naturally, the people are uneasy and ready to revolt.
The Queen’s not having this matchmaker business. She whisks her daughter away and joins up with other mutinous nobility who all want a young soldier stud (and distant Lancaster) named Henry of Richmond to be king. Everyone readies for battle, and all the ghosts of the deceased come back to haunt Rich and bless Henry while they sleep. They go storming into battle the next day – Henry kills Richard, and the people rejoice. Henry of Richmond (distant Lancaster) is now all set to marry Ed IV and Queen Liz’s daughter (the last of the York line). He becomes King Henry VII, thus ending the War of Roses and starting the Tudor Dynasty. Huzzah for England!
Check This Out:
- I used an amazing Sourcebooks copy of this play for my primary reading. It has all sorts of notes about past famous productions of the play so you could compare staging, interpretation, and where cuts to dialog were made. History plays require a lot more background knowledge than the other genres, so this was extremely helpful and interesting.
- I watched the Ian McKellan 1995 movie. They cut out my beloved Queen Margaret, which was disappointing but understandable as it’s a long play. The movie takes place in a version of 1930s England that’s gone fascist. It’s highly stylized and McKellan is devious and fun in the role.
- They (those mystical powers that be) found the real Richard III’s body in 2012 while digging up a parking lot in Leicester. He was reburied earlier this year. To maximize extreme levels of British, his distant relative Benedict Cumberbatch read at the service.
Thoughts and Themes:
- Overall, this is a thoroughly entertaining story. I’d love to see it live. Richard is fascinating, there’s plenty of good dark humor, and excellent insults abound (“thou lump of foul deformity” I.ii.57). Take the history with a grain of salt as Shakespeare, like any other playwright or screenwriter for “based on true events” stories, played up some things and invented others to tell a better tale.
- Richard is in every single way the complete prototype of the charismatic villain-as-protagonist character current audiences love. Without this play as the template, we wouldn’t have Walter White, Stringer Bell, or Frank Underwood. The audience/reader has great fun watching this character be so clever, so underhanded. We respect these men for their resourcefulness and ambition, even if we’re horrified with their means of obtaining power. But there’s a reason these characters don’t hold on to their power for long, and it’s a lesson learned in Richard III – being a covert jerk will get you to the top, but once the power gets to your head it all falls apart.
- Acts I and II show Richard engaging in very meticulous plotting. He is extremely patient and carefully sets up all his dominos. He’s a fine actor and is able to tell everyone around them exactly what they want to hear. But come Act III, the closer Richard actually gets to the crown, the more you can see his patience crumble, and his actions become more overt and erratic (the abrupt offing of his ally Hastings is the best example). All his earlier forbearance goes out the window once he wins the crown, and his decisions and actions come fast and furious. The pacing of the play matches that – Richard’s entrances and exists become more abrupt and there are more of them, the speeches are cut short more often as messengers interrupt with war news, he even starts breaking iambic meter (a device Shakespeare sometimes used to show moments of distress or upset). Less leisure to plot once you actually are in charge, I suppose.
- I cannot wrap my head around the problem of Lady Anne (more her situation than her character). Act I scene 2 is when she’s in full mourning for her husband and former king/father-in-law; she’s literally tailing Henry VI’s body to his interment. Richard bursts in and she’s utterly hateful to him – apropos since he killed her husband…but he sets about telling her that he was so in love with her from afar, he killed her husband to ultimately win her (which we know from his asides is utterly untrue). I am not fully able to comprehend why Richard even decides to woo Anne in the first place. The most logical guess is that by bringing her into his family fold, he eliminates any of her remote family from grasping at the crown. But I have a suspicion that Richard does it simply to prove to himself that he can. He makes all sorts of very self-deprecating references to his own physical disabilities throughout the play. I think this pushes him to use language as a controlling tool – no one expects any great shakes from him physically, so he loves to prove that he is smarter than everyone else, if only to himself. Perhaps wooing the impossible conquest is just another trophy to feel his own worth, no matter what he really thinks of her.
- I couldn’t help but think that a modern-day Richard III would be a stellar social media consultant. He’s all about spin, and making people feel at ease before he pulls the rug out from under them. He’d manage the Twitter account for, say, Koch Industries, smoothly and effectively telling pretty lies for an evil corporation while working his way to the top. Scary.
I adore Margaret, just for entertainment purposes. She’s this crazed former queen (how is she even still roaming the royal premises? how has she not been forced out???) who pops up at completely random times to tell everyone exactly how awful they are for killing Henry VI. She’s downright witchy, cursing just about every other character, then delighting when they all start dying off. And then anyone who gets a good speech in prior to their death is all “Damn, Margaret wasn’t fooling with this cursing business.” In Act IV, she's laughing at Queen Liz's misfortune, and despite that Liz asks for her advice on how to properly curse Richard. I’ll end it with this gem from Margaret, to Richard (I.iii.230-235):
Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,
Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell,
Thou slander of thy heavy mother’s womb,
Thou loathèd issue of thy father’s loins,
Thou rag of honor, thou detested—