“Welcome destruction, blood and massacre./ I see, as in a map, the end of all.”

Richard III

Act Two

By Dennis Abrams


Act Two:  Having ordered Clarence’s execution to be revoked, Edward is recovering when Richard coolly announces that he has been killed after all.  Everyone is (naturally) appalled, and King Edward, (Richard and Clarence’s brother) dies shortly afterwards.  When Richard and Buckingham imprison Lords Rivers and Gray (Queen Elizabeth’s family), she decides to seek sanctuary with her youngest son, the Duke of York.


In this post, since the play is such a work for theater, and such an actor’s play, I’d like to examine the play’s performance history.  Richard III is unusual among Shakespeare’s plays in that it has been almost continuously on the stage – in one form or another – ever since it was written.  The first quarto of 1597 describes it as having been “lately acted” by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and it survived the transition to the indoor Blackfriars theatre in 1609.  The play was, obviously, a star-vehicle form its inception:  Richard Burbage, thought to be the greatest actor in the company, created the part of Richard; and it was taken by Ellyaerdt Swanston in the next-generation King’s Men.  It remained in the repertoire, and was performed at court before Charles I and his French wife, Henrietta Maria – both of whom had a strong interest in the theater – in 1633.  And more importantly, it didn’t die after the reopening of the theaters in 1660:  several performances are recorded, though it was apparently not popular, despite productions which strongly played up Richard’s apparent resemblance to the not-lamented Oliver Cromwell.

But it was in 1700 that the play took off when enterprising actor-dramatist Colley Cibber put together an adaption that would become the most popular play on the English stage for the next two centuries.  In 1793, the great editor George Steevens praised Cibber’s ‘reformation,’ asking, “what modern audience would patiently listen to the narrative of Clarence’s Dream, his subsequent expostulation with the murderers, the prattle of his children, the soliloquy of the Scrivener, the tedious dialogue of the citizens, the ravings of Margaret, the gross terms thrown out by the Duchess of York on Richard, the repeated progress to execution, the superfluous train of specters, and other undramatick incumbrances…?’  Indeed, none of those ‘incumbrances’ have escaped cutting in many modern “Shakespearean” productions.  The stage life of Cibber’s text, as itself as the basis for acting editions and as an ongoing influence, is far more than just a historical oddity.

By 1740, Cibber’s Richard III had been staged eighty-four times, playing virtually every season, sometimes in two or three different houses simultaneously.  The play won high praise for clarified exposition and purpose, far speedier playing time, simplified casting and action that builds to a rousing final battle.  For audiences who might not be familiar with Shakespeare’s earlier histories, it provided scenes from 3 Henry VI.  (This device was utilized in Ian McKellan’s film Richard III, which opens with a caption – ‘Civil war divides the nation.  The King is under attack from the rebel York family, who are fighting to place their eldest son, Edward, on the throne.  Edward’s army advances, led by his youngest brother, Richard of Gloucester’ – followed by Richard Killing Prince Edward and Henry VI.  Cibber would undoubtedly have approved.)

As we’ve seen Richard dominates Shakespeare’s play, but Cibber cut out of the play Margaret, Clarence and his children, the two Murderers, Hastings, King Edward, the Citizens and more, reducing the play by half and making it completely a star vehicle for whichever actor was playing Richard.  In addition, Richard gains seven new soliloquies (editions differ), and speaks 39.9% of the lines (vs. 31.2% in F.)  By pitting Richard against ‘a smaller range of innocent victims whose pasts have been wiped clean,’ (Jowett), Cibber manages to eliminate ‘history coming home to roost’ but also reduces confusion arising when characters harangue each other about events that pre-date the play.  Remaining characters are often helpfully identified in dialogue.  And even today, productions virtually always cut the cast and resort to narrative summaries, genealogical charts or color-coded clothing to identify factions and families.  Margaret is generally back, but Olivier’s film, McKellen’s film, and even Antony Sher’s acclaimed touring production of Richard III did without her.  Clarence’s children, the Citizens, and Queen Elizabeth’s extended family still frequently go missing.

Cibber added passages from 3 Henry VI, Richard II, Henry V, and 2 Henry IV, hundreds of new lines, new incidents, new pathos and new emphases.  His Richard abuses Lady Anne, fights an extended combat, delivers a rousing death speech (what actor doesn’t want to deliver a rousing death speech?), and enjoys a eulogy.  The play’s ambiguities suddenly vanish.  Queen Elizabeth explains herself as ‘seemingly’ complying with Richard’s suit ‘to let my Child escape.’  Richard’s somewhat obscure mock wager, his ‘dukedom to a beggarly denier’ (1.2.254), becomes a crude boast, “My Dukedom to a Widows Chastity’ – a somewhat dumbed-down translation which for some reason Olivier kept in his version.  With a diminished cast, Cibber’s Richard is no longer a game-player who twits and mocks the Queen and family, the pious pitier of Margaret or the conniving trapper of Hastings.  He loses his aristocratic haughtiness, trading his boasts about high birth for self-pity and worries about being unloved and misunderstood.  (Again…actors love to play misunderstood characters.)

What’s clear is that while Cibber read Shakespearean sources and preserved Shakespearean text (going so far as to print Shakespeare’s lines in italics and paraphrases within inverted commas), his Richard is thoroughly and completely indebted to the theater.  Samuel Sandford, who had once played Shakespeare’s Richard, provided the inspiration.  His “low and crooked person’ and limited range provided a stark counterpoint to the multi-faceted performance of Burbage.  Indeed, this caricature perhaps inspired Cibber’s version of the wooing scene.  Where Shakespeare’s decisive Richard proud of ‘close’ intents pops up abruptly, faces down armed men and bowls Anne over, Cibber’s Richard mopes about, commenting and eavesdropping.  He finally musters up enough courage to approach Anne, only to ‘retire’ and listen in on her laments before – finally – moving towards her, consoling himself that though ‘perhaps’ his form ‘will little move her,’ his “tongue shall wheedle with the Devil.’  Initially, he, unlike Shakespeare’s Richard, reacts rather than acts, while Cibber’s Act 4 is another story, and most actually thought it better than Shakespeare’s.

But, if Cibber remade Richard to use Stanford’s qualities, it was a very different actor who became “the” Richard – the legendary David Garrick.  In Cibber’s earlier acts, Garrick displayed nuances that are still seen in the Richards of today who emphasize the character’s uncertainty, vulnerability, self-pity, and painful self-awareness.  From Cibber’s final acts, Garrick built a character, a hero, who dies grandly, as Richards would continue doing even when translated back into Shakespeare’s less supportive play.  Cibber’s Richard neither forgets himself, strikes his messenger, nor drinks; his ‘stern Impatience’ permits little time for conscience, pity, love or self-hatred.  At Bosworth (Act 5), he ‘starts’ awake, proclaims ‘O Tyrant Conscience! how dost thou afflict me!,’ but instantly resolves:  ‘No,  never be it said,/That Fate it self could awe the Soul of Richard,/Hence, Babling dreams, you threaten here in vain:/Conscience avant; Richard’s himself again’) (Cibber, 5.5.82-3).  He dies proclaiming:  ‘let one spirit of the First-born Cain/’Reign in all bosoms,’ and Richmond laments his ‘aspiring Soul’  Garrick made the pathetic wheedler of Cibber’s first acts more sympathetic; his concluding heroics helped to make him a Romantic hero.

On October 19, 1741, Garrick’s Richard III changed Cibber’s play – as well as Shakespeare’s forever.  This Richard would be the first of over one hundred the Garrick would play over the next thirty-five years.  Praised for replacing ‘ranting, bombast, and grimace,’ with ‘nature, ease, simplicity, and genuine humour,’ Garrick’s Drury Lane performances doubled normal house totals and made Richard III a popular staple; acting texts until the twentieth century largely derived from his performances.  Indeed, Garrick refused to revive Shakespeare’s play.  HIS suffering protagonist suited the period’s demands for ‘sympathetic imagination,’ and emphasized ‘ fluctuation of mind.’  Garrick conveyed that “Kings themselves’ by their ‘sympathizing Souls…were Men, and felt like the rest of their Species.’  His Richard, ‘galled and uneasy’ about a deformity that ‘hurts him,’ prompted Elizabeth Griffith, who rejected ‘chearful’ villainy as possible, to admit that evil might originate with jealousy and to admire the play for arousing ‘compassion for the misfortune, even while…raising an abhorrence for the vice, of the criminal.

Garrick’s final scenes, melancholy and grand (when you read Act 5, ask yourself if they should be “grand”), foreshadowed the nineteenth century’s Byronic Richards.  His ‘sublimely horrible’ tent and death scenes made novelist Fanny Burney shudder, even as she ‘glow[ed]’ with moral ‘indignation.’  To convey ‘the Terrors of an Imagination distracted by conscious Guilt,’ Garrick added pauses and gestures:  rising up from his bed, grasping a sword, he began “Give me another Horse:..;’ paused midline, came forward to cry out again, with dismay on his face, ‘Bind up my wounds!’; then dropped to his knees on ‘Have mercy, Heaven.’  This is not Cibber’s Richard – and it’s far from Shakespeare’s – but generations of theater goers embraced it.

After Garrick, three Richards dominated the stage into the early nineteenth century:  John Philip Kemble, George Frederick Cooke, and Edmund Kean.  All three left their mark on the role.  Both the Covent Garden and Drury Lane theaters, both rebuilt first in the 1790s and again in 1808-9, were greatly expanded, making the subtle gesture impossible to convey.  Garrick’s Drury Lane had allowed for suppressed smiles, passionate glances and whispers, but in 1826 ‘extravagant gesture’ and ‘excess of rant’ were called for.  Cooke and Kean provided excess and extravagance; Kemble was more austere.

Indeed, Kemble’s more restrained Richard influenced a generation of actors, including America’s own Edwin Booth; and his scholarly productions helped to promote period setting and costume.  Kemble’s ‘gentleman,’ with ‘ambition’ his ‘sole impulse’ and ‘stern valour’ his demeanor, downplayed Richard’s shall we say livelier aspects.   Critics complained about Kemble’s ‘uniform manner,’ while supporters praised his ‘sublimity’ and ‘moody defiance,’ calling it ‘impossible not to glory in such a sovereign, by whatever means he gained the title.’  Amoral admiration permeates responses in the years that follow.

The opposite of Kemble was Edmund Kean, the ‘quintessential Romantic actor,’ who had writers appreciating his Richard’s ‘genius, his mounting spirit, which no consideration of his cruelties can depress.’  Lord Byron enthused:  ‘He is a soul!…Richard is a man, and Kean is Richard’  In 1814, Thomas Barnes proclaimed that his ‘daring and comprehensive intelligence’ gave Kean’s Richard ‘the grasp of a giant,’ a ‘towering superiority’ prompting ‘awe’ as he pursues ‘his purpose careless of ordinary duties and ordinary feelings.’  One of my favorite writers on Shakespeare, William Hazlitt, called him ‘towering and lofty; equally impetuous and commanding; haughty, violent and subtle; bold and treacherous, confident in his strength as well as his cunning.’  This sublime ‘giant’ is far from Cibber’s wheeler or Shakespeare’s joker.  Contemporaries uneasily noted the moral distance separating such adoration from earlier reservations.

Kean had a triumph as Richard in America (1820 and 1825) and France (1828); it became his most often performed role and prompted imitation and expansion by, among others, two of America’s most influential actors, J.B. (Junius Brutus) Booth, who brought some of Kean’s qualities to America in 1821, and the American Edward Forrest, who played Richard in both America and England.  Booth alternated nights in Kean’s style and in his own.  And surprisingly, elsewhere in New York that year the African Theater Company staged Richard III for their first production, with James Hewlett as Richard.  The company included a young Ira Aldridge, who later toured the globe for decades as Richard.

It wasn’t until 1845 and 1849 that Shakespeare’s “Richard III” was performed for the first time in over 150 years, although Samuel Phelps cut the play radically to allow time for processions and spectacle, while adding lines from 2 and 3 Henry VI for pre-history.  The ‘new’ role of Margaret won acclaim but – despite remarkable stage effects (barges floated the aldermen onto the stage, all the ghosts appeared at once, etc.) it still failed to drive Cibber completely from the stage.  But by the end of the 19th century, most productions were at least more Shakespeare than Cibber.

Other famous Richards:

John Barrymore in 1920 was perhaps the first “Freudian” influenced Richard – his performance was, in part, said to be also influenced by the movements of a tarantula.  Both Donald Wolfit and Laurence Olivier in wartime England had the idea of parodying Hitler himself in the play:  But it was Olivier, whose startling personification of the hunchback, complete with false nose and wheedling, sanctimonious voice, whose performance became that against which all others were compared.

Alec Guinness played the role with a light touch; Marius Goring opted for subtle madness; Christopher Plummer presented a weary and neurotic Richard.  But the most successful break from the past came when directors John Barton and Peter Hall melded the Henry VI plays with Richard III in their highly acclaimed 1963 production of Wars of the Roses.  Ian Holm’s Richard was said to have the energy of a coiled spring, but in the grand scheme of things was just another monarch on the treadmill of power – a far cry from the performances of the 19th century.  Indeed, it was Peggy Ashcroft’s tragic Margaret the seemed to dominate the proceedings.

The list goes on:  Antony Sher’s crippled and charismatic spider (One person wrote “Sheer combined ‘unassuming tones’ with spectacular physical deformities.  With draping tunic, Sher resembled a six-legged spider from the front and a vulture from the side; his snake-like tongue flicked in and out relentlessly.  In the first half of the play, despite a grotesque hump and splayed legs, he moved with incredible agility on black elbow-crutches that performed as feelers to rub together when mentioning doing ‘naught’ with Mistress Shore, swords to cow the bearers of King Henry’s corpse, a phallic appendage to lift Anne’s dress, a scepter to ‘knight’ Buckingham and scissors for Hasting’s neck.  A world of stylization separates Burbage’s swaggering dagger-drawing or Kean’s hand-rubbing and peaks beneath Anne’s veil from this.  From his coronation onwards, Sher abandoned crutches to stagger weakly, to be carried, or to support himself on the scepter, a sword or a mace.”  Ian McKellan’s fascist tyrant.  Andrew Jarvis’s pinstriped, power-crazed and impeccably Thatcherite monarch.  Simon Russell Beale’s heavyweight, toad-like yet slightly camp Richard.  Kenneth Branagh’s “villain for the era of smile politics.”

I’m amazed (while not altogether surprised) and how Richard has been portrayed over the years, as each generation finds their “own” Richard.  Think about all of them as you read the play – aren’t they all aspects of Richard?


Our next reading:  Richard III, Act Three

My next post:  Sunday night/Monday morning.  In it, I’ll be taking a look at the role of the women and Queen Margaret in particular – was she “unnecessary” as Cibber seemed to think, or is she a central role in the play?


And enjoy your weekend.

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