Richard III: Back to the Car Park
I admit I liked The Tragedy of Richard III because Richard, Duke of Gloster, soon in the play to be King Richard III, was so bad. Regardless of who he was up against, you could root for his opponents and enemies—they were always at least a lesser of evils.
His ambition, his Machiavellian maneuverings, his feigned and sometimes believed familial loyalty and love, his phony self-deprecation at his own physical disabilities and supposed personality “shortcomings,” his “courtship” and marriage to and then murder of the widow of a man he earlier had murdered present a man who is beyond redemption. Yes, in the end, there are faint traces of regret (“My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, and every tongue brings in a several tale, and every tale condemns me for a villain”), but I’m inclined to think his sorrow only applies to getting caught, not remorse for what he did. He reveals no sign of a fundamental change of heart, but remains true to his awfulness. He declares in the end, “I have set my life upon a cast, and I will stand the hazard of the die….” He chooses a villain’s role to the end.
Certainly his last cry shows no regret, just continued demands for personal success: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” A changed soul would have uttered something like “Oh, regret! What have I done! If only the kingdom had been vouched safe with Henry VI who I murdered in the Tower or with my dear brother Clarence who I had murdered in the Tower or with my lovely nephew who I had murdered in the Tower.”
Even Richard III’s mother witnesses against his character: “Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my hell. A grievous burden was thy birth to me; tetchy and wayward was thy infancy; thy school-days frightful, desperate, wild, and furious; thy prime of manhood daring, bold, and venturous; thy age confirm’d, proud, subtle, sly, and bloody, more mild, but yet more harmful, kind in hatred: What comfortable hour canst thou name that ever grac’d me in thy company?” (Not what you want your mother to say about you, even while you’re a teenager.)
This is a play of curses. The controlling Queen Margaret, widow to murdered Henry VI, early on curses just about everyone for what they did to her murdered husband and son. Richard’s mother, after telling Richard how horrible he is and being tutored by Queen Margaret in the art of cursing, curses him with death in the coming battle or she “with grief and extreme age shall perish, and never look upon thy face again.” And if those curses can’t erase hope from Richard’s heart, a handful of his victims come back to haunt his last night with confidence-weakening curses. The curses work as he dies in battle (the historical Richard was the last English monarch to die in battle).
Richard III is the perfect fruit and culmination of the War of the Roses and the murders and constant conspiracies between the Lancaster and the York branches of the Plantagenet family: All for control of the disputed crown. Richard’s “deformed” body is a reflection of his deformed character. Any loyalty and restraint of past generations is absent in Richard. He’s not driven by family claim, but only by his own lusts. He plots and kills Yorks and Lancasters indiscriminately because they are not Richard. He is his crazed ambition for the throne. And this monster, a byproduct of years of conflict, causes the implosion of any royal prerogatives of either family, leaving the way clear for the the Tudors to claim the crown.
The Tudors, of course, were important to Shakespeare as it’s final reigning monarch was Elizabeth I, the Bard’s queen. Shakespeare includes praise for the family, I’m sure just to please Elizabeth I, when the ghosts of Richard’s murdered nephews pray for Richmond, who becomes the first reigning Tudor as Henry VII and Elizabeth’s grandfather. The night before Richard’s last battle, they pray for his enemy and successor, “Sleep, Richmond, sleep in peace, and wake in joy; good angels guard thee from the boar’s annoy! Live, and beget a happy race of kings!”
Over the pond, less happy associations tie Richard III to the American Civil War. John Wilkes Booth made his stage debut at age 17 in a Baltimore production of Richard III and took on the title role in early April 1863 at Washington’s Grover’s Theater (now the National Theater). According to Ernest B. Furgurson’s Freedom Rising, “The papers reviewed Booth’s performance with near ecstasy. The dashing actor’s ‘youth, originality, and superior genius have not only made him popular but established him in the hearts of Washington people as a great favorite’….” Two years later, almost to the day, whether inspired by Shakespeare’s murderous, conspiring Richard or his conflicted assassin Brutus from Julius Caesar, Booth killed Abraham Lincoln and fell permanently from his exalted station of “great favorite.”
I had an interesting experience in reading the play. From the first line of the play, I heard Richard’s voice in the tones of British actor Ron Cook. I don’t usually hear character voices in any particular voice and couldn’t figure out why Cook’s voice volunteered uninvited for the role. Out of curiosity, I looked Cook up and learned that he played Richard III in the 1983 BBC version of the play. I must have seen it sometime in the past and subconsciously decided his voice pitch-perfect for Richard III.
Was Richard III as evil as Shakespeare creates him? Of course not, and the king has received lots of good and counterbalancing press in the last year with the discovery of his body under a parking lot and the plan to rebury him more appropriately. Nonetheless, in honor of the Richard III that Shakespeare created and as a present to the Bard for his 450th birthday, I say send the king back to the parking lot! Rebury him there in March 2014.
Note added September 3, 2013: And now we know why the King was so nasty. His stomach hurt from the parasites.
Words that come to mind after reading The Tragedy of Richard III: the destructive cost of unbridled ambition and conflict.
Quotes I liked (for various reasons):
Richard: Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York
Richard: Since I cannot prove a lover, to entertain these fair well-spoken days,—I am determined to prove a villain.
Richard (on the chance of being king): I had rather be a pedler: Far be it from my heart, the thought thereof!
Queen Margaret: They that stand high have many blasts to shake them; and if they fall they dash themselves to pieces.
Buckingham: Curses never pass the lips of those that breathe them in the air.
Queen Margaret: Remember this day, when he shall split thy very heart with sorrow, and say, poor Margaret was a prophetess!
Richard: I cannot blame her: By God’s holy mother she hath had too much wrong; and I repent my part thereof that I have done to her. Queen Elizabeth: I never did her any, to my knowledge. Richard: Yet you have all the vantage of her wrong.
1 Murderer: What art thou afraid? 2 Murderer: Not to kill him, having a warrant for it; but to be damned for killing him, from the which no warrant can defend me.
2 Murderer: Some certain dregs of conscience are yet within me.
2 Murderer (Speaking of conscience): I’ll not meddle with it,—it makes a man a coward; a man cannot steal, but it accuseth him; a man cannot swear, but it checks him; a man cannot lie with his neighbor’s wife, but it detects him: ’tis a blushing shame-faced spirit that mutinies in a man’s bosom, it fills one of obstacles”
2 Murderer: A bloody deed, and desperately despatch’d! How fain, like Pilate, would I wash my hands of this most grievous guilty murder done!
Catesby: (I’m quoting it totally out of context): It is a reeling world indeed, my lord; and I believe will never stand upright..
Catesby: ‘Tis a vile thing to die, my gracious lord, when men are unprepar’d, and look not for it.
Hastings: O momentary grace of mortal men, which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
Richard: Know’st thou not any whom corrupting gold would tempt into a close exploit of death?
Richard: Fearful commenting is leaden servitor to dull delay
Duchess of York (Richard’s mother): Dead life, blind sight, poor mortal-living ghost, woe’s scene, world’s shame, grave’s due by brief abstract and record of tedious days, rest they unrest on England’s lawful earth.
Queen Margaret (to Duchess of York): From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept a hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death
Queen Margaret: Forbear to sleep the night, and fast the day; compare dead happiness with living woe; think that thy babes were fairer than they were, and he that slew them fouler than he is: Bettering thy loss makes the bad-causer worse; revolving this will teach thee how to curse.
Duchess of York: Patiently hear my impatience.
King Richard III: Harp not on that string, madam; that is past.
King Richard III: Plead what I will be, not what I have been; not my deserts, but what I will deserve
Buckingham: Remember Margaret was a prophetess.—Come sirs, convey me to the block of shame; wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.
Stanley: The silent hours steal on, and flaky darkness breaks within the east.
Stanley: That which I would I cannot
Ghost of Buckingham: In terror of thy guiltiness!
Richard III: I shall despair. There is no creature loves me; and if I die no soul shall pity me: Nay wherefore should they,—since that I myself find in myself no pity to myself?
Richard III: The selfsame heaven that frowns on me looks sadly upon him.
Richard III: Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls; conscience is but a word that cowards use, devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe: Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law. March on, join bravely, let us to’t pell-mell; if not to heaven, then hand to hand to hell.
Richmond: We will unite the white rose and the red:—Smile heaven upon this fair conjunction, that long hath frown’d upon their enmity! What traitor hears me, and says not Amen? England hath long been mad, and scarr’d herself; the brother blindly shed the brother’s blood, the father rashly slaughter’d his own son, the son, compell’d, been butcher to the sire; all this divided York and Lancaster, divided in their dire division,—O, now let Richmond and Elizabeth, the true succeeders of each royal house, by God’s fair ordinance conjoin together! And let their heirs,—God, if thy will be so,—enrich the time to come with smooth’d-fac’d peace (Elizabeth I must have loved this part.)
Next Up: Henry VIII