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10 April 2006

Richard III (2003)

A Fully Dramatized Reading of William Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King Richard III (1592)

Vol. IV of The Complete Ark- angel Shakespeare by Audio Partners; David Troughton (Richard III), Sonia Ritter (Elizabeth), Philip Voss (Buck- ingham), Saskia Wickham (Anne)

The Wikipedia plot summary can be found here.

Review

As what is essentially the last part of the Henry VI story arc, Richard III is a difficult play when one approaches it cold. However, as I have worked my way through the Henry VI plays, parts One, Two and Three, since mid-February, I found these characters and their histories easily accessible. To arrive at Richard's door, I experienced all of his prequels - a very helpful, enriching prologue to an otherwise jumbled cast of dizzying complexity and interwoven alliances, betrayals, and ambitions.

Shakespeare's obvious ode to Elizabeth's lineage and her greatness as England's contemporary queen, as I mentioned in my reviews of parts Two and Three, continues here with the heroic arrival of Henry Tudor of Richmond - the eventual King Henry VII and Elizabeth's grandfather. The man who vanquishes the most hated villain of all (Shakespearian) history inevitably becomes the patriarch of the most venerable and esteemed ruling house in English history. The worse the villain, the most noble and worthy his vanquisher. And Richard is as nasty as they come.

So why, the standard question bears, are the women in this play so wishy-washy and subject to the sick charms of such a horrible, "foul bunch-backed toad"? I will give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt, trapped as he was in the mindset of a late 16th century male, that his portrayal of both Lady Anne Neville and Edward IV's widow, Queen Elizabeth (Woodville), demonstrated the relative powerless- ness of even the highest-ranking aristocratic women.

Sure, we'll give him that, and I have reason to be so generous. Richard is a scheming, wretched creature with keen observational and manipulative qualities... until he become king and starts to go mad with paranoia and plaguing guilt. He is not Shakespeare's voice; in fact, most of what comes out of Richard's mouth is as far away from Shakespeare's congratulatory, pro-Tudor aims as can be. Therefore, Richard's observations, particularly toward the last acts, must be treated with suspicion or as outright contradictions to Shakespeare's political observations.

In scene Act IV, scene iv, the tremendous, tense encounter in which Queen Elizabeth spars with Richard over the murders of her two sons and the future of her daughter, also Elizabeth, Richard says of the deposed queen: "Relenting fool, and shallow changing woman!" If this line is read as Shakespeare's voice, the tone is condemnatory and contemptuous. However, because King Richard can no longer be trusted as representing the author's opinion (if he ever could be), we can surmise that Shakespeare was sympathetic toward (or at least rationally forgiving of) Elizabeth's decision to let her daughter marry Richard (the girl's uncle), thereby securing Richard's hold on the throne.

Richard had just had Elizabeth's eldest two boys murdered. What fate could her daughter, as the next in legal succession, expect if she did not accept what was, essentially, Richard's offer of a stay of execution? Despite Elizabeth's title as the most powerful woman in the country, the lives of her children were subject to much more influential and relenting (masculine) forces. The choice for her daughter, then, was marriage to Richard - thereby becoming the queen herself - or death. What a choice! Richard scorned her change of heart as she relented to his proposition, but I think Shakespeare's intention was not so hard-hearted.

And, as an aside, we never see Elizabeth go through with her stated agreement to woo her daughter on Richard's behalf. She knows, or would be soon privy to the knowledge, that Henry Tudor of Richmond was arriving from France to defeat Richard's armies. The act of relenting, in the moment, may have been a tactic on her part to stay Richard's hand, temporarily, and wait for the cavalry that would ensure a safe future for her children. This, in fact, occurs; the historic Henry Tudor married Elizabeth York, a marriage that ended the War of the Roses and re-unified the ruling aristocracy of England. She became queen after all, as part of a more fortuitous (and less incestuous) match - a union that Shakespeare celebrated with great flourishes of effusive language.
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 fac'd peace
With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days!
The other of Richard's female conquests is Lady Anne, the widow to Henry VI's oldest son and intended heir, Edward of Westminster. In Act I, scene ii, Richard seduces Anne with a deceitful blend of tactics. But wait! He killed her husband and her father-in-law! What the hell?? Why didn't this chicky just kick the bastard in the balls? The problem of her submission to his proposal has been one of the central problems in Richard III ever since there have been historians and literary scholars to debate the issue.

However, if you take Shakespeare's position on aristocratic women as being one of abject practicality - these are women who have been trained from birth to accept the idea of arranged, political marriages - then Anne is not so changing. She is self-preserving. After all, her late husband was heir to the defeated Lancaster line. Her sister married Richard's older brother, George of Clarence, thereby joining the victorious York household. Think about Anne's prospects as the widow of a deposed heir, as the daughter of a man killed in the Roses conflict, and whose other family members had jumped ship for the safety of the ruling House of York? Who stood to protect her, provide for her, when all of aristocratic power centers on alliances and mutual benefit? When Richard came knocking - however much she may have reviled the prospect - she was a smart cookie for grabbing the only lifeboat looking to save her.

Had Richard been a normal guy, this would have been a good choice. Shakespeare has Anne killed at Richard's hand, although the historic record indicates that she most likely succumbed to tuberculosis. Ah well.. details! Who needs 'em? Certainly not The Bard.

Because I took such pains to learn the history behind these characters (sorry... history grad... hard to shake the habits), I was disturbed by Shakespeare's serious timeline issues. Everything moved at lightening speed. Some characters aged dramatically between the end of the Henry VI trilogy and the start of Richard III, while one lingering corpse had not yet been buried. Ew! And, come the end of the play, Richard's full-blown villainy is just too preposterous to be convincing. Lost is the sense of successful, genuine scheming that must have marked Richard's life to some extent, regardless of the historical basis for corruption and murder.

A brief note about the production: David Troughton, who played Richard in the second and third Henry VI plays, showed a remarkable amount of restraint during those previous incarnations - but screw it! This is the big show! His Richard is vile and icky throughout, with a demented sense of amusement with his own plots. Good stuff! But, apparently, the play's text remains a point of contention among scholars because my version, a complete collection of Shakespeare's plays from the mid-70s, revealed numerous textual differences from the audio dramatization (which used the Complete Pelican Shakespeare). The 30+ years of (mind-numbing) scholarship since the publication of my copy has produced 40+ revisions to the canonical text, which just goes to prove how lasting and popular this work is - whereas the lesser-known Henry plays differed by maybe four or five words each.

That said, the play is just fun... once you get past all of the tall stacks of historical stuff. With a vile, hated villain comes some pretty fierce fightin' words and entertaining, high-end soap opera-quality melodrama. Poor historical Richard will never recover from this, the most infamous blow against his reign and character. History just cannot compete with Shakespeare.

Quotes

A citizen, about the impending doom of Richard's reign: "When clouds are seen, wise men put on their cloaks; / When great leaves fall, then winter is at hand; / When the sun sets, who doth not look for night? / Untimely storms make men expect a dearth. / All may be well; but, if God sort it so, / 'Tis more than we deserve or I expect."

Richard, to his nephew: "Sweet prince, the untainted virtue of your years / Hath not yet div'd into the world's deceit."

Lord Hastings: "To fly the boar before the boar pursues / Were to incense the boar to follow us, / And make pursuit where he did mean no chase."

Queen Elizabeth to the deposed Queen Margaret: "O thou well skill'd in curses, stay awhile, / And teach me how to curse mine enemies." Margaret's reply: "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."

Henry Tudor: "True hope is swift, and flies with swallows' wings; / Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings."

Richard: "Conscience is but a word that cowards use, / Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe."

Vocab & References

halberd, falchion, moiety, denier (trifle), cog (deceit), Jacks (male ass), costard (head), cacodemon, dugs (boobies), consistory, opprobriously, attainder, parlous, hies, recure, cockatrice (excellent!), teen (grief - ironic!), caitiff, intestate, cozened, Lethe, runagate, beaver (armor), cock-shut, peise, caparison, welkin

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