Shakespeare, William Entries

Richard III


Sir Ian McKellan as Richard III in Richard Loncraine's 1995 film adaptation

Growing up, Shakespeare's Richard III was always a family favorite. My parents spent their courtship studying Shakespeare and botany at Southern Oregon College, and their reading of Richard with a particularly charismatic and inspiring young professor led my father, at least, to spend a good deal of time writing on the play. In the last few years we've taken a family excursion to Ashland to prowl their old haunts (and see Richard) and when I was in London I thought of them while visiting the recreated Shakesepare's Globe Theatre (where I stood with the groundlings to watch—what else?—Richard). So while I personally haven't studied this play in a classroom setting, I do have a long history with it, and the parts that have always thrilled me continue to do so. Richard's famous "Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?" speech, for example, will never get old; the language and Richard's diabolical self-satisfaction are just fantastic. Richard himself is one of the great villains of the stage, and it's always a satisfying mixture of fun and horror to watch him dismantle his family and the tenuous peace established by his brother's accession to the throne. This time around, however, a few aspects of the play struck me differently or more forcibly than before.

In particular, those who read my paean to the Margaret character in Henry VI Part 3 will be unsurprised that a reading of the Henry VI trilogy affected my understanding of the Margaret who appears in Richard III. Until now I had always perceived her as a victim—a wronged wraith who hovers on the edges of the action, cursing and prophesying the House of York from a place of righteousness. And indeed she is legitimately a victim, her husband and son having been murdered by Richard; but she was also, in a former life, one of his primary rivals for title of Villain. She is, still, the bloodthirsty woman who murdered Rutland and soaked a handkerchief in his blood with which to taunt his father. Margaret is not Clytemnestra, dragged into evil by the sacrifice of her children. Her harshness and ferocity may feed on the deaths of her son and husband, but did not begin with those deaths—she and Richard are both artifacts of the wars that have shaped them. This makes her prolific and highly accomplished cursing of the York allies a more complex proposition: at this point, despite her hatred for Richard, she is almost collaborating with him to keep the warlike spirit of enmity alive. Neither of the two are formed to pass away the time "in this weak piping time of peace." This is particularly evident in Margaret's final scene, when she is unable to mourn with the York women and instead exults in their grief, offering thanks to God that their children are killing one another:

          QUEEN MARGARET (to the Duchess of York)
From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death:
That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes,
To worry lambs, and lap their gentle blood;
That foul defacer of God's handiwork:
That excellent grand tyrant of the earth,
That reigns in galled eyes of weeping souls,—
Thy womb let loose, to chase us to our graves.—
O upright, just, and true-disposing God,
How do I thank thee, that this carnal cur
Preys on the issue of his mother's body,
And makes her pew-fellow with others' moan!
O Harry's wife, triumph not in my woes!
God witness with me, I have wept for thine.
Bear with me; I am hungry for revenge,
And now I cloy me with beholding it.

That final line, "now I cloy me with beholding it," is a great example of the richness of Shakespeare's language, since "cloy" carries not only the most obvious meaning opposing it to "hungry" ("To satiate, surfeit, gratify beyond desire; to disgust, weary (with excess of anything)" [OED, from 1530]), but also the connotations of "pierce as with a nail, to gore" (OED, from 1590) and "to stop up, block, obstruct, choke up" (OED, from 1548). Margaret's insatiable desperation for revenge, therefore, is sickening her even as it fails to satisfy her hunger; it's also duplicating the same stabbing, piercing act on her, that Richard perpetrated on her husband and she on his brother. And if the wound or cavity produced by this stabbing might be expected to free any of her demons and let her move beyond her grief, that hope is dashed by the "blockage" sense of "cloying": she is hemmed into her own vitriol even as she departs for France. She is fierce, but she is also ruined, and—this is the part I never understood before—as she implies by her own reflexive construction, she's largely brought it on herself, in her craving for power and violence, and then for revenge. "I cloy ME with beholding it."

When my folks and I saw Richard III in Ashland in 2005, all the women were played as a kind of spectral Greek chorus, lamenting upon the war crimes of the men. This was pretty effective, especially given all the anti-war sentiment in the air at the time over the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In context, though, Margaret is as responsible as any for the years of war behind her. The fact that she has genuinely suffered as a result of said wars, that she has lost her son to violence, makes the situation more complicated but does not change her past actions or, apparently, her basic character. When Elizabeth pleads with her to "teach me how to curse my enemies" (and you can see why she might, since every single one of Margaret's curses comes true), Margaret's answer underlines the cost of her commitment to vengeance:

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:
Bettering thy loss makes the bad causer worse;
Revolving this will teach thee how to curse.

Remaining faithful to revenge requires harming one's present self (sleeplessness, starvation), and destroying one's possibility of hope for a better future. What's more, it requires a relentless alteration of history, one that demonizes the hated rival, exaggerating his misdeeds and ignoring one's own. In contrast, Richard's witty, twisted repartee seems positively light-hearted—at least, until he wakes up in the night tormented by dreams of his dead victims.

The dreams, indeed, were another aspect of Richard III that really struck me this time through, to the extent that I'm not sure how I could have failed to appreciate them before. In addition to Richard's haunted nightmares before the battle of Bosworth Field, we have Hastings' prophetic dream of the boar showing its tusks, and, most memorably for me, Clarence's gorgeous retelling of his nightmare of drowning:

Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!
What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wracks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatt'red in the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men's skulls; and, in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
As 'twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
That woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mockt the dead bones that lay scatt'red by.

The line "Methought I saw a thousand fearful wracks" recalls, to me, Margaret's "Was I for this nigh wrackt upon the sea?" speech in Henry VI Part 2—and her "tears as salt as sea" have here swollen to comprise an entire ocean, the weeping eyes mere hollowed sockets. This kind of expansion, indeed, reflects the way in which by this point the whole apparatus of the previous plays is swelling and foundering, as Richard kills off family members and alienates former allies until none remain. By this point, I truly felt both the epic scope and the pathos of the characters in a way I mostly didn't throughout the Henry VI plays; Shakespeare here is hitting his stride.

Henry VI Part 3


Richard Caton Woodville: The Battle of Towton (detail), 1922

Apparently, February here at Evening All Afternoon is all Renaissance, all the time. I promise excursions into the eighteenth and even the twentieth centuries in the near future. In the meantime, let's take a look at the third (or second, if he indeed didn't write Part 1) installment in Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy—which entire trilogy is in turn the set-up for Richard III.

In the third play, then, the moral fog I mentioned in my previous post has hardened into place, as both York and Lancaster claimants for the throne have committed some truly despicable acts in their bids for the throne. More than that, as Jenny so amusingly points out, the struggle for control of the kingdom has degenerated into something like a farce. In the opening scene, for example, Henry and his minions run into Edward (now Duke of York, since his father is dead) and his minions at the House of Parliament, where Edward is sitting on the throne. The two parties engage in a pissing match that strikes one as anything but regal:

          KING HENRY
Thou factious Duke of York, descend my throne,
And kneel for grace and mercy at my feet;
I am thy sovereign.
          DUKE OF YORK
                              Thou'rt deceived; I'm thine.
          DUKE OF EXETER
For shame, come down: he made thee Duke of York.
          DUKE OF YORK
'Twas my inheritance, as the earldom was.
          DUKE OF EXETER
Thy father was a traitor to the crown.
Exeter, thou art a traitor to the crown
In following this usurping Henry.
Whom should he follow but his natural king?
True, Clifford, and that's Richard duke of York.

"No, you're a traitor to the crown!" "No, YOU'RE a traitor to the crown!" And so on. This kind of petty squabbling is more convincing, to me, when the teenage Montague and Capulet thugs do it in Romeo and Juliet, although here it could very well be a comment on the maturity level of those that ought to be ruling the country. In any case, one is quite relieved when their bickering gives way to battle, since at least the fighting provides opportunities for dramatic death scenes and further "kingly" behavior such as kicking around the dead body of your enemy while you make fun of his inability to answer (the York boys to Lord Clifford), or taunting your captured enemy with a handkerchief soaked in his dead son's blood, before beheading him and sticking his head on a pike on London Bridge. Queen Margaret's fantastic baiting of the elder Duke of York:

Alas poor York! But that I hate thee deadly,
I should lament thy miserable state,
I prithee, grieve, to make me merry, York
Stamp, rave and fret, that I may sing and dance.
What! hath thine fiery heart so parcht thine entrails
That not a tear can fall for Rutland's death?
Why art thou patient, man? thou shouldst be mad...

What a deliciously evil speech. Margaret, in fact, is probably the most interesting thing to me in the entire Henry VI trilogy, both in terms of its inner logic, and in terms of earlier and later figures of whom she reminds me.

The daughter of a destitute French king whom the now-late Suffolk convinced Henry VI to marry, Margaret turns out to be far more forceful than her king husband: in one scene, for example, she lets Henry tag along to the scene of a battle they're about to fight with the Yorkists, only to tell him, in essence "You only get in the way when you try to fight alongside me; why don't you sit quietly over there under that tree?" She then proceeds to command the army while he bewails the bloodshed all around him. Not only is she a good military commander; she's also by far the most verbally adroit character in these plays, meeting her match only as Richard Duke of Gloster (later Richard III, of the silver tongue) comes into his own toward the end of Part 3. Like Clytemnestra in Aeschylus's Agamemnon, she talks circles around everyone else, and even when one knows she is being utterly duplicitous, one is still halfway convinced, against one's will, by her words. In this scene from Part 2, for example, she's laying a totally unreasonable guilt trip on her husband, saying in effect "I can't believe you're mourning for your dead friend whom we just discovered murdered in his bed; don't I mean anything to you?" Especially despicable given that she herself conspired to murder the duke; yet the gorgeousness of her language can't be denied.

Was I for this nigh wrackt upon the sea,
And twice by awkward winds from England's bank
Drove back again unto my native clime?
What boded this but well-forewarning winds
Did seem to say,—'Seek not a scorpion's nest,
Nor set no footing on this unkind shore?'
What did I then but cursed the gentle gusts,
And he that loosed them forth their brazen caves;
And bid them blow toward England's blessed shore,
Or turn our stern upon a dreadful rock?
Yet AEolus would not be a murderer,
But left that hateful office unto thee:
The pretty-vaulting sea refused to drown me;
Knowing that thou wouldst have me drown'd on shore,
With tears as salt as sea, through thy unkindness:
The splitting rocks cower'd in the sinking sands,
And would not dash me with their ragged sides;
Because thy flinty heart, more hard than they,
Might in thy palace perish Margaret.

Compare her luscious phrases ("but that I hate thee deadly"; "With tears as salt as sea") with the pedestrian thumb-biting going on above between Henry and Edward. Despite her cruelty, she appears in her eloquence far more like a monarch than either of them, and knows it. The men around her realize it, too—Henry himself opines that "The tiger will be mild whiles she doth mourn; / And Nero will be tainted with remorse, / To hear and see her plaints, her brinish tears." (I love this description of her tears as "brinish," again tying her to the sea while at the same time evoking her unsavory, contaminated character, since sea brine is full of all the dirt and flotsam of the ocean along with simple salt water.) And Richard Duke of Gloster, no mean speech-maker himself, questions whether she should be suffered to live "to fill the world with words." Despite the fact that she has proved herself on the battlefield as well as in the verbal realm, it's her way with words that threatens Richard: an explicit admission that, at least in his view, the kingdom will be won with language (and murder), and that Margaret alive is dangerously eloquent.

Such a dangerous yet compellingly eloquent female character brings to mind many of Shakespeare's later plays: Lear's Regan and Goneril (where eloquence itself is almost equated with duplicitousnesss, and reserve with honesty), Lady Macbeth, and in a more comedic setting, Taming of the Shrew's Kate, and Much Ado About Nothing's Beatrice. I think it's interesting that, although these subversive women tend to be punished—killed in the extreme cases, conquered by love and/or abuse in the comedic versions—their presence was plainly compelling to Shakespeare and his Renaissance audiences, just as it continues to be for modern ones. It's always a question, in such cases, whether the attraction lies more the middle of the play, when one gets to watch these women being subversive and clever and sometimes cruel or even evil, or the ending of the play, when one sees them brought into line.

Henry VI Part 3 is a particularly interesting instance of this question, because, while Margaret is certainly not admirable in any comprehensive sense of the word, neither is literally anybody else in the play—and she at least has the advantage of being memorable. In a way, that leaves the reader freer to enjoy her, and to feel disappointed in her downfall, than in a play like Lear, where there is a clear moral center, a "good team" and a "bad team."

It's so interesting that Shakespeare's very first plays presented such a complex, topsy-turvy moral universe, one that at times approaches nihilistic farce. I imagine that, in going on to re-read Richard III, that play will strike me in new and different ways having read these earlier installments. In particular, Richard's villainy takes on a new cast now that I realize, not only that he's whipping up more discontent after a bloody civil war, but that the side on which he fought has won, and he's turning his own brothers against one another. His villainy achieves a lower plain than any of the murderous characters in the Henry VI plays, since they at least (except Warwick) remain loyal to their own houses. And yet, despite his clear demarcation as the villain of the piece, I suppose the same question could be asked about him as I asked about Margaret: is the fun of the play in watching him be evil, or in seeing him brought low?

Henry VI Parts 1 - 2


Edwin Austin Abbey: The Penance of Eleanor, 1900

Recently, I don't know why, I've been taken by a sudden and overwhelming craving for Shakespeare. It could be all the Montaigne, I suppose; having not read Shakespeare at all since finishing my undergrad thesis on King Lear and Montaigne's "Of Experience," the self-effacing humanism of the one has me coveting the richness and textured diction of the other. In any case, I decided on a whim to start at the compositional beginning: with the three Shakespearean plays first performed (1590-92), Henry VI, Parts One and Two.

The compositional beginning is, of course, not the chronological beginning. Henry VI Part 1 opens on a kingdom in disarray: the strong old king, Henry V (whose earlier incarnations as Prince Hal and Henry V Shakespeare would go on to portray later in his career) has just died, leaving an underage son and a political vacuum of which literally everyone and their cousin is rushing to take ownership. And what a bunch of vile cousins they are. The Duke of Gloster, the official Protector of young Henry VI and one of the only truly sympathetic characters, is at odds with Cardinal Beaufort, a Wolsey-esque figure attempting to rule the kingdom from the Church seat. In Part 1 we get the famous scene of discord between the Duke of Somerset and Richard Plantagenet (later the Duke of York) which establishes the red rose as the badge of the house of Lancaster and the white rose as the badge of the house of York, and presages the bloody Wars of the Roses to follow. On top of all this, the Duke of Suffolk is attempting to curry favor with the King by convincing Henry to marry the woman of Suffolk's choice—Princess Margaret, through whom Suffolk himself hopes to rule by proxy. A Better Book Titles-style renaming of this trilogy might be, Too Many Dukes! (And Also A Surfeit of Earls).

And indeed, in the Henry VI plays one can see the beginning of a Shakespearean obsession: the danger inherent in a divided kingdom or house, in having too many cooks in the kitchen. However revolutionary he was in a lingual sense, Shakespeare was a political conservative; in his mind, a country lacking a single, strong and legitimate monarch was in serious trouble. This is especially true when a whole court is distracted from an outside threat; in this case, the infighting comes at a particularly unfortunate time, because England is currently at war with France, and the French army has just acquired the secret weapon in the form of Joan of Arc. While the French find new purchase thanks to Joan's galvanic leadership (and conjuration of demons), the English let their petty rivalries keep them from sending reinforcements into battle, thus jeopardizing one of their most experienced and honorable commanders. In fact, it's usually the nice guys who finish last when dueling dukes get going:

Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous!
Virtue is choked with foul ambition,
And charity chased hence by rancour's hand;
Foul subornation is predominant,
And equity exiled in your highness' land.
I know their complot is to have my life;
And, if my death might make this island happy,
And prove the period of their tyranny,
I would expend it with all willingness:
But mine is made the prologue to their play;
For thousands more, that yet suspect no peril,
Will not conclude their plotted tragedy.

(In this speech we see a hint of another typically Shakespearean practice more famous in Hamlet, Midsummer Night's Dream, and As You Like It: the tendency to use imagery of plays and actors within the plays themselves, creating a nesting-boxes effect. "Plotted tragedy" is a nice pun on "plotting" as in scheming, and "plotting" as in planning out the events of a story or drama.)

That problem of legitimacy is a tough nut in the Henry VI plays—much more so than in some other Shakespeare works, because, at least at first, the "rightful" succession isn't clear. Often, when there is a cold-blooded and manipulative usurper in Shakespeare, like Richard III or Hamlet's Claudius, that person is clearly marked out as a villain, while the rightful heir to the throne is de facto morally righteous. Reluctant or "weak" usurpers, like Macbeth, are perhaps a more complicated case—their character fails them, despite their qualms. But in Henry VI, we have in Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York a clear-headed, manipulative character who is attempting to arrange events to topple the current king; yet Shakespeare hesitates to portray the Duke of York as a complete villain—unsurprising, since his claim to the throne is actually stronger than Henry's. Throughout Part 1, it's as if all the characters are struggling through a moral fog: everyone has his set of allegiances, but all sides are morally equal, equally self-serving. One could equally well come to the conclusion that one person is the rightful king, as that another is. As Salisbury says late in Part 2, "It is a great sin to swear unto a sin; / But greater sin to keep a sinful oath." In such a catch-22 situation, there's really no easy way to stick to one's guns and feel secure in one's virtue: a surprisingly nihilistic vision for the first plays by a man who often shows himself a staunch monarchist.

As this fog coalesces around the Duke of York and his claims to be the rightful heir to the throne in Part 2, Shakespeare grapples with the question of whether a plot against the crown is ever justified: what creates "legitimacy"? Henry VI is the grandson of a usurper, and York's line of descent is closer than Henry's, so if legitimacy is a marker of Divine Right to Rule, the crown should go to York. Yet Henry is the lawful son of the previous king, who was himself the lawful son of the king before that, not to mention that he's already sitting on the throne—so if legitimacy is a practical device for ensuring stability in the realm, the crown should stay with Henry. Though again, if it is a simple practicality in the service of stability, leaving the crown to Henry may not be the best idea after all, given the young king's gullible, easy-going nature in this time of war. Is York, then, justified in intentionally undermining Henry's rule? If he is justified, is it because of his lineage, or because of Henry's weakness as a monarch? His behavior looks from the outside exactly like a treasonous plot. Is there any difference, especially when he sacrifices virtuous people in order to gain his ends? And when he makes such delicious yet devious speeches as this?

        DUKE OF YORK
Well, nobles, well, 'tis politicly done,
To send me packing with a host of men;
I fear me you but warm the starved snake,
Who, cherisht in your breasts, will sting your hearts.
'Twas men I lackt, and you will give them me;
I take it kindly; yet be well assured
You put sharp weapons in a madman's hands.
Whiles I in Ireland nourish a mighty band,
I will stir up in England some black storm,
Shall blow ten thousand souls to heaven or hell;
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage
Until the golden circuit on my head,
Like to the glorious sun's transparent beams,
Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw.

It's hard to think that York is as admirable as Gloster; on the other hand, he's certainly no more despicable than Suffolk, Somerset, Beaufort, or any of the other schemers and plotters. Does his noble(r) birth alone elevate him above their level? One wonders if the answers to these moral questions are, for Shakespeare, at all dependent on outcome: had Richard Plantagenet succeeded in his bid for kingship, rather than merely touching off the powder keg that became the Wars of the Roses and siring the villain who would become Richard III, would they have been justified by the end result of returning the legitimate heir to the throne? Particularly in a time of war, an argument has often been made that ends justify means; and it's just possible that York himself believes that restoring the golden circuit to his own head would "calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw," whether the flaw in question is that a lower-born man is holding the sceptre, or that a less competent man is holding it. If he sees himself as a snake and a bringer of storms, he is perhaps honest in believing those poisonous and warlike images describe a fiercer and more effective England.

But there seems a stronger argument within these plays for the idea that possession is nine-tenths of legitimacy. In the latter part of Part 2 we get the faux-populist leader Jack Cade, spouting off about his own dubious claims to the throne and manifesting what is more or less Shakespeare's worst nightmare: rule by a mob, which is, like all Shakespearean mobs, easily swayed one way or the other by the slick speeches of whoever cares to woo them. Cade is in every way Henry's opposite; he is petty and bloodthirsty, and sends men to their death in a light, joking fashion. Not only is he an exaggerated caricature of the usurping spirit of the Duke of York himself, but he is actually acting on York's orders when he foments rebellion: not a ringing endorsement of the latter's fitness to wear the crown. Yet, despite Cade's obvious cruelty and nightmarishness for an anti-populist like Shakespeare, there is a fascinating grain of truth to his flippant, backwards speeches:

        JACK CADE (to Lord Say)
Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar-school: and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used; and, contrary to the king, his crown, and dignity, thou has built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear. Thou hast appointed justices of the peace, to call poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer. Moreover, thou hast put them in prison; and because they could not read, thou hast hang'd them; when, indeed, only for that cause they have been most worthy to live.

This speech is undoubtedly funny, and undoubtedly horrifying for those of us who value the written word; at the same time, Cade's complaint about "justices of the peace [calling] poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer" rings uncomfortably true, at least in modern ears. It's not the last time Shakespeare used the comic relief of a lower-class character to take a pot-shot at issues of class or gender inequity, without stepping too far outside his own (and his patrons') received ideology.

A fascinating beginning; I'm looking forward to Part 3!

June 2012

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography