Having recently read Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy, I decided to just continue on into the next play, the overwhelmingly popular Richard III. After all, it is pretty clear that this sequence of histories was probably conceived of, if not performed as, a tetralogy. Indeed, I found Richard III a whole lot easier to follow, with respect to nuances and thematic links, after having freshly read the three previous plays.
I've seen a number of productions of Richard III over the years, including the famous Ian McKellan version that the National Theatre toured back in the early nineties. However, I haven't actually sat down with the text for a long time.
Wow, it is amazing just how much is cut from most productions. And with good reason. I found that I was starting to scan forward at times.
For instance, in Act III, Scene IV, Hastings has just been sentenced to death by Richard. After Richard, (now the Duke of Gloucester,) leaves, Hastings laments for lines, but then is interrupted the henchman Ratcliffe, "Come, come, dispatch, the Duke would be at dinner. Make short shrift, he longs to see your head." It's a little joke, the type of which Shakespeare employs throughout his canon - In Hamlet, Polonius interrupts the players with "This is too long."
But Hastings keeps going on for a bit more here, and has to be hurried along by another henchman. Even some of the larger and more famous set pieces, brilliant as they are get a little arduous - the wooing of Lady Anne, the political seduction of Elizabeth...
Although I am trying to just put down my own thoughts in these posts, I was curious as to the thoughts of different critics.
The critics Mark Van Doren and Harold Bloom have two almost contrary views of the play - outside of Richard. Van Doren views the stately, declamatory language of the women and the court to be the necessary backdrop for the more earthy and sinuous Richard. The neat image he uses is that of a snake along the white, stately wall of the palace.
Bloom seems to see the rest of the play, outside of Richard's presence, as rubbish. In fact, he calls the play "an actress's nightmare," - citing the hard-to-pull-off scene where Elizabeth, Margaret and the Duchess of York talk of their situations in highly stylized and repetitive lines.
For my part, I was struck by how fast this play leaps out of the gate. In very short order we have Richard's famous opening monologue, the seduction of Lady Anne and, very soon after that, the murder of Clarence, including his famous dream, which most critics admit can rival almost anything else in Shakespeare.
I actually thought this scene from the film version of the Ian McKellan Richard III was a a highlight:
Richard III recalls the court conspiracy atmosphere of Part 2 of the Henry VI trilogy. It is where Richard is in his element. Really, the other characters don't stand a chance against him to the point where he starts separating them from their heads left and right. Unless they can dutifully play the part of their designated chess piece, they are cast from his Machiavellian board. All the better for him to concentrate.
When Lord Buckingham, who has been Richard's faithful conspirator, asks about receiving an earldom he was promised, he finds that he has literally outlived his usefulness.
BUCKINGHAM: My lord, your promise for the earldom,--
KING RICHARD III:Richmond! When last I was at Exeter,
The mayor in courtesy show'd me the castle,
And call'd it Rougemont: at which name I started,
Because a bard of Ireland told me once
I should not live long after I saw Richmond.
BUCKINGHAM: My Lord!
KING RICHARD III: Ay, what's o'clock?
BUCKINGHAM: I am thus bold to put your grace in mind
Of what you promised me.
KING RICHARD III: Well, but what's o'clock?
BUCKINGHAM: Upon the stroke of ten.
KING RICHARD III: Well, let it strike.
BUCKINGHAM: Why let it strike?
KING RICHARD III: Because that, like a Jack, thou keep'st the stroke
Betwixt thy begging and my meditation.
I am not in the giving vein to-day.
BUCKINGHAM: Why, then resolve me whether you will or no.
KING RICHARD III: Tut, tut,
Thou troublest me; am not in the vein.
Here I will agree with Harold Bloom's observation that our private counsel with Richard actually intensifies our own fears - after Buckingham is dispatched, we feel at any moment Richard could turn to the audience and proclaim - "I've had enough of them - off with their heads!"
The ending of the play seems rushed, and a little foreign to what has come before, but only in isolation from the rest of the Henry VI cycle. Suddenly, near the end, we are back on the battlefields that are so familiar from the first three plays. Richmond's closing orations and other references feel more complete and make more sense as a closing of a circle started in Henry VI Part 1. For instance, Richard noting the Sun is not only a reference to his joke about the "Son of York", but echoes back to the image of the three suns/sons of York in another Henry VI play. Richmond references sons and fathers dying in battle - a theme that runs throughout the first plays.
Richard, however, seems a bit out of place and lost on this ground. He is less convincing on the field, and perhaps Shakespeare knows that. After all, he doesn't give the villain much to do there before Richmond does him in quickly. The rascal knows he's getting the hook, and he probably always knew it. But his creator at least lets him cavort wildly through most of the play before the ship of state is righted and "glorious summer" returns.