by Dennis Abrams (with a little help from Jeanne Badman)
No more waiting, let’s begin King Richard the Third, Here is a brief paragraph from the Introduction by Robert Maslen from the 1994 HarperCollins edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare:
“Richard III is Shakespeare’s most exuberantly self-promoting villian. The charm and skill with which he perpetuates his atrocities has made the story of his rise and fall one of Shakespeare’s biggest successes on page, stage and screen. There is no record of the play’s reception on its first performance (in about 1592-3), but it was frequently reprinted and often alluded to. Its popularity was confirmed when Colley Cibber produced his bowdlerized version, which held the stage from 1700 until Laurence Olivier adopted parts of it for his film of 1955.”
Here is a poster promoting an 1884 stage production of Richard III featuring the actor Thomas Wallace Keene.
From Tony Tanner’s Prefaces to Shakespeare:
“Edward IV reigned for quite a long time – some twenty years in all. When Henry VI finally died (he was murdered) in 1471, Edward was at last secure and undistracted on the throne; and for the dozen years until his death he was quite a popular king reigning over a stable and recovering England. I mentioned that Hall had a different epithet for the reigns of each of the kings he deals with, and it is worth noting that ‘The troublesome season of King Henry the Sixth’ is followed by ‘The prosperous reign of King Edward the Fourth.’ There is nothing of this in Shakespeare, and he lets all Edward’s good kingly years quickly drop away. Shakespeare’s Edward performs effectively only two significant acts – he capitulates shamelessly to his lust for Lady Grey and marries her, and, near the start of Richard III, he dies. And that is all. This is seldom commented on, and, indeed, it is hard, now to imagine an Edward IV coming between Henry VI, and Richard III. Yet it is worth a moment’s speculation. Perhaps Shakespeare found Edward dramatically uninteresting. But we can be certain that he wanted nothing – for example, a tolerably successful pragmatist – to get in the way of the dramatic contrast between the two extreme types engendered by the wars – meek martyr Henry, and monster Machiavel Richard. At the start of Richard III, Henry VI is finally dead and, as if immediately following this (in fact it was ten years later), Richard takes over centre-stage, and starts to run literally everything. And there is one more consideration. If Richard was just a singularly nasty historical interruption (to a decade of peace and recovery under Edward), rather than the culmination and final flower of a long-gathering evil (as Shakespeare wants us to feel), then Richmond is less the agent of God, finally bringing peace and reconciliation, and, frankly, more just another Machiavellian, moving in to take over a land in a mess. For all sorts of reasons, Shakespeare does not want his tetralogy to conclude on such a note. His Richmond is part of a larger pattern. But, as we contemplate the triumphalist end, it might be worth remembering that the other, less providential, account was probably nearer to the truth of the matter.”
From Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All:
“The cultural power of Shakespeare is well illustrated in the case of Richard III, a play that established its central character as a compelling social and dramatic type, and an unforgettable physical figure. Shakespeare’s Richard is the creation of a powerful political as well as dramatic imagination. The historical Richard of Gloucester was not a hunchback, he did not have a withered arm, he was not in all probability born with a full set of teeth, and he was almost certainly not carries for two years in his mother’s womb. At least, there is no contemporary evidence to support these allegations. They are all developments of Tudor political culture. But they come down to us in the main not through chronicle history but through theater, and they far surpass the historical ‘truth’ in vividness and persistence.
Shakespeare lived and wrote during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the granddaughter of Henry Tudor, the Richmond of Richard III, who would become Henry VII. A dramatic work about the rightful succession of the Tudors, and the end of the reign of the Plantagenets, necessarily benefited from any account of the last Plantagenet king as a monster unworthy to rule. Thus the usurpation of Henry Tudor became, retrospectively, not only an honorable but also a ‘legitimate’ act, rescuing England from the grasp of an allegedly deformed and scheming tyrant. The historical accounts of Richard’s deformity and monstrosity thus date not from his own historical time but from that of Henry VII. The raw material for Shakespeare’s Richard can be found in works like Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historia, an ‘official history of England’ commissioned by Henry VII, and published in 1555, or Sir Thomas More’s History of Richard III, posthumously published in 1543, eight years after More was beheaded. More had refused to acquiesce in another interested rewriting of history, the Act of Succession that declared Henry VIII’s daughter Mary, by Catherine of Aragon, a bastard and vested the succession of the English crown in Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn. More called Richard ‘little of stature, ill-featured of limb, crook-backed…hard-favored of visage,’ and therefore – as if character followed from physical form – both deceptive and cruel. Portrait evidence from Richard’s own period does not bear this out, and many historical chronicles attest to his admirable qualities as a soldier and leader – all elements discernible in the Richard of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2 and Part Three. But the chronicles also attest to Richard’s ambition and ruthlessness. Tudor accounts of his villainy are not so much made up out of whole cloth as they are embroidered.
Nonetheless, Richard’s charm, the especially the charm of Shakespeare’s Richard, has been such that whole societies have sprung up to defend him. The Richard III Society was founded in England in 1924, and its American counterpart, Friends of Richard III, Incorporated, included actresses Helen Hayes and Tallulah Bankhead and surrealist painter Salvador Dali as charter members. Mystery writer Josephine Tey published a novel called The Daughter of Time, in which a detective, temporarily hospitalized and bedridden, reopens Richard’s case with the help of an eager-beaver researcher, and discovers that the well-known story was largely the product of Henry VII’s Tudor propaganda. (The novel’s title comes from the proverb ‘Truth is the daughter of time’ [Tempora filia veritas], familiar in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and used by Johannes Kepler and Desiderius Erasmus, as well as by Sir Francis Bacon in his Advancement of Learning. The novel’s publication date, 1951, suggests that Tey may have been thinking of more recent propaganda campaigns, from the Cold War, as well as of the distant Wars of the Roses.)” [MY NOTE: Tey’s book is highly recommended.]
And finally, from Harold Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare
“Richard III, from beginning to end, is marked by juvenility and genius. Nothing Shakespeare ever wrote was apparently done with more gusto. The destructive energy of Richard himself is a measure of the constructive energy that went into his making. The zest of the poet in fashioning his villain-hero accounts for our zest in following his machinations. Except toward the end, there is little evidence, as there is in Macbeth, that the author was awed by his own creation. What we feel is a sense of triumph in power, an exuberance of invention and excess of wit accumulating into a tidal wave of theatrical effect.”
Selected Film Versions
1911: Richard III, available as part of the British Film Institute’s Silent Shakespeare. Yes, silent Shakespeare seems to be a bit of an oxymoron, and the film is a 23 minute condensation (Olivier’s 1955 version, slightly abridged, runs 161 minutes), yet…star Frank Benson’s portrayal of Richard is something to behold, an introduction to a style of acting in which a single gesture can illuminate countless lines of dialogue.
1955: Probably the most famous version, starring Laurence Olivier as a simultaneously repellant and irresistible, Richard, Ralph Richardson as the Duke of Buckingham, John Gielgud as George, Duke of Clarence, and Claire Bloom as the Lady Anne, it is, despite cheesy costumes and wigs, a must-see, as Olivier, as both star and director, leads the audience to a clear understanding of the play and of Richard.
1989: Sir Ian McKellan as Richard, Annette Benning as Queen Elizabeth, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey, Jr., Nigel Hawthorne, Maggie Smith, and Kristin Scott Thomas star in this fascinating version of the play, set in an alternative Fascist England setting.
1996: Looking for Richard: Part performance, part analysis of the play, part documentary about the making of the play, this film, starring and directed by Al Pacino, also stars Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, Penelope Allen, Kevin Spacey, and Estelle Parsons. Pacino’s obsession with the play and the character make this well worth your while.
Our next reading: Richard III, Act One.
The next post, and Dennis’ return: Sunday evening/Monday Morning
Dive in and enjoy yourselves. Have a great weekend and a great read.