7. Richard III
I’m seven weeks into my challenge to read a Shakespeare play a week and this is the first week where I have felt like I was truly reading the work of the great William Shakespeare. From the moment Richard III starts, with that wonderful ‘winter of our discontent’ speech, you feel like you’re with a different class of writer to all the previous work. As I’ve said in previous blogs, it’s not that we don’t seem glimmers of this before, but Richard III feels like the first complete Shakespeare play.
For starters, Shakespeare gives us a truly captivating central character in Richard. We are welcomed into his mind from the very first speech of the play and he carries us through his tricks and murderous deeds. He is evil but he is also funny, charming and quick witted. He’s also the character that we’re closest to, that confides in us and we spend most time with. As an audience, we can’t help but indulge the villainous ambition that resides somewhere in each of us – for some it is buried deeper than for others! His character arc is so expertly drawn too. From charming and scheming underdog, through the various plots to remove the obstacles in his path, to the paranoid and conscience-ridden tyrant. In contrast to the Henry VI plays that precede it, Richard III has a super clear narrative structure, Richard is at the heart of it and it culminates in the single climactic battle at Bosworth.
Something that struck me on this reading, that hasn’t occurred to me before (either reading or viewing), is how well integrated the supernatural themes are within the story. Whenever I’ve seen it before, I’ve felt like the prophetic ramblings of the deposed Queen Margaret were slightly out of place and that the visitations of the ghosts before the battle at the end were a bit contrived. But on this reading, I felt that this sense of fatalistic inevitability, of divine punishment for all the sins of the Wars of the Roses, is a central element of the play, that probably should be given more weight in productions. I also hadn’t registered before the number of ghosts that appear at the end – essentially anyone who Richard had a hand in killing appears to curse him before Bosworth Field. I think in most productions, they cut down the number of ghosts – when I can’t help feeling there would be immense power in seeing the stage populated with the ghosts of Richard’s murdered victims. This is also a crucial moment in joining the dots back to Margaret’s prophesy. Essentially if you have her prophesy, I think you need all the ghosts to be there at the end, in order to make sense of each.
My one gripe with the play is that the women, on the whole, do a lot of lamenting. With the exception of a couple of sublime scenes (thinking Richard’s wooing of Anne beside the corpse of Henry VI, and then his attempts to secure a match with the daughter of the deposed Queen Elizabeth), there’s a lot of passive bemoaning the loss of husbands or sons and cursing the villainy of Richard. In many ways, I can’t help feeling these scenes would ring truer to a modern audience if the text was severely cut back and the women could express their emotions almost entirely physically. It would be great to find inventive ways of bringing the women more into the think of the action, and I’m sure that could be achieved successfully with a bit of experimentation. Queen Margaret could almost be on stage the whole time, overseeing her revenge on the whole of the rest of the cast.
In short, this really is a great play and one that I would love to work on. You need a super strong cast – in particular a brilliant Richard – but the text is the most truly ‘Shakespearean’ yet and it is no surprise that it is as famous as it is.