If someone new to Shakespeare were to ask me what play they should start with, I would say A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It if you’re in the mood for a comedy, Macbeth if you want action, and Hamlet if you want his best work. I’m basic like that. None of these, however, is my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays.
For that, you have to look to his oft-neglected histories, and seek out the arguably least historical one. Richard III is probably best known these days for its slanderous portrayal of a king who even in Shakespeare’s time had been long dead. The actual figure had scoliosis and lived through a series of tragic family deaths, but the image of him as a duplicitous monster is largely an invention of Shakespeare’s, and the playwright almost certainly knew it. Richard III is about one step removed from Macbeth in terms of complete disregard for historical accuracy, witches included. The actual king may have been murderous, but mainly seems to have been endlessly unfortunate, up to and including going missing for a good few centuries before his skeleton turned up under an English parking lot in 2012.
Accuracy aside, though, the fictional version of his story is one hell of a good time.
3P Reviews Series: Richard III
Audience Assumptions: Non-academic
Part One: Lesser Ghosts
Of all of Shakespeare’s plays I’ve seen live (about a dozen at this point), the rendition of Richard III I saw at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 2012 (with some irony, I’m now just realizing) is the one I think back to most often. All of the plays I’m talking about this week I’ve seen at least once as well as read, and the live versions tend to bleed into my impression of the text. The version I saw of this play was fairly standard in its setting and depictions — roughly period-appropriate, characters dressed as one might imagine a Shakespearean production should look. It was the integration of the theatre itself that made the production so spectacular; the room was small, almost a box theatre, the main set an amalgamation of environments so each scene was simultaneously well-dressed appropriate to its conveyances and required little movement of props. There was a gate, a balcony, a thrust, and multiple traps, all used to good effect.
It’s the ghost scene that made it, though. Toward the end of the play, Richard is on his last legs, politically. He is likely to lose the battle the next day, and he knows it. All of his allies are dead, most at his own hands, and his enemies are bolstered by his misdeeds. At night, he prays for peace and guidance. Instead, he is greeted by the ghosts of those he has wronged, his brothers, his wife, his nephews, his friends, who each in turn tell him, think of them on the battlefield, then, “Despair, and die.”
It’s an effective scene on its own. This performance made excellent use of the stage lighting to heighten the effect, with requisite fog and panels in the floor providing nearly the only light in the theatre, as though Hell itself is beckoning to Richard.
All deserved, of course; Richard isn’t a bastard in the traditional sense of the word, but he fits it every other way.
Richard III follows a trajectory similar to Macbeth, except with no external provocation. Richard is Duke of Gloucester and his eldest brother is king. He is severely deformed and proclaims this to be the reason he is so treacherous. As with many later statements, this is a lie, or at least a half-truth at best; while the other characters often reference his deformities to dehumanize him when he becomes antagonistic, Richard lives in an otherwise surprisingly egalitarian version of England where he’s admired and respected for his wit and physical prowess for most of the play. This isn’t a Hunchback of Notre Dame story gone wrong (though I also don’t mean to imply Shakespeare was exceptionally woke in his portrayal of disability — he doesn’t exactly shirk the trope of evilness being reflected in one’s appearance here).
Richard hates everything and wants to be king out of spite, which already makes him Shakespeare’s best protagonist. He decides to go about this by systematically killing off his family members until he sits on the throne, fucking with their heads all the way. He locks his brother Clearance in the Tower (after paying someone to give the king a Riddler-like prophecy about Clearance betraying him). He then pursues and reluctantly wins the hand of a woman whose family he killed in battle, the family previously seated on the throne. He stirs the coals of political tension with other families to make the king’s job harder and bringing back the defeated queen to hang around as a foreboding omen.
Then the murders begin. He sends assassins to kill Clearance, which leads the king to die on his sickbed, leaving the king’s sons his heirs and Richard their Proctor. As you can imagine, this goes well. Into the tower the young boys go, and also into an early grave, but not before Richard gets himself crowned by claiming them to be illegitimate.
For no particular reason, Richard decides to pull a Henry VIII and murders his wife so he can marry his niece. By this point, the gig is up and many of Richard’s former allies start to realize the sort of person he is, and Richard knows it. His lords rebel and meet him on the battlefield. The night before the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard is visited in his dreams by the ghosts of those he has killed, who curse him and tell him to despair, and die. And that’s what happens; alone on the field in the midst of battle, he offers his kingdom to whatever man will give him a horse so he can flee. No one takes him up on that offer.
Part Two: The Serpent’s Tongue
The play works because of Richard. More than almost any of Shakespeare’s other works, this one orbits a character with such gravity that all else seems minuscule by comparison. Richard is neck-and-neck with Iago as the most monstrous character Shakespeare ever concocted, a man who murders his way to power for the fun of it.
He has a somewhat Joker-esque appeal, often coming across as darkly comedic to a point that obfuscates the genre of the story. The play is frequently comedic because Richard spends most of it unsuspected. The audience knows what’s up from the first few lines, where Richard effectively says, “Everyone around me is happy and I don’t like it. Imma make ‘em miserable.” And that’s what he does for the next three hours.
A lot of care goes into Richard’s lines, which contain multitudes of puns, double entendres, and clues to his intentions that the audience will readily notice but passes over the heads of the other characters. A major theme of the story is metaphorical masks that people wear, with Richard coming across as an upstanding citizen to many of his compatriots, even winning favor with many of his skeptics like his first wife Anne. He does so less through giving them anything genuine than through flattery and suggestions that frame a particular image of him. To everyone but the audience, Richard is the unfortunate supporting son, a man who isn’t born to be king but who never wanted it anyway, instead skilled with his mind and many other talents he uses to impress and entertain. He is a good brother, or so his brothers think, willing to come when called but not ambitious. Because he is untethered to deeper political responsibilities, he can speak truths others can’t, and his great intelligence makes his words often worth listening to. His brothers use him as a shoulder to lean on, so much that when Richard gives the king a prophecy implying one of the king’s brothers is plotting to murder him, the king immediately assumes it is referring to Clearance, and when Clearance is confronted by the assassins, he assumes they have beed sent by the king and tells them Richard will pay them more if they leave Clearance alive.
The audience is meant to sympathize with Richard through most of the play. He is the protagonist, after all. This is a steep ask for any story whose protagonist does as many gruesome things as this one, especially when the story makes it clear every one of them is wrong. For Pete’s sake, Richard murders two young children just because they make fun of him. From any other perspective, Richard would be a horror villain. Game of Thrones wishes it has a character this duplicitous. But we remain enthralled by the character throughout the story.
For a character like this, I think a lot of the enjoyment you get out of watching them comes from a mix of indulging in taboo subject matter in a safe space, as is often the case with horror stories, but also the tension of the hounds closing in on them. Seeing any character being hunted down sparks a sense of panic in us, but also a thrill from it. If they’re caught, assuming the character in question is a good person, it’s terrible thing that makes you a little sick, but getting away after a few near-misses is a euphoric phenomenon. When the character being chased is a villain, the audience’s emotions about the situation become more complex, but in a way that synergizes with the structural tension of being caught. We are, after all, moral people, and it doesn’t entirely sit right with us when the villain gets away. As much as we love to see horrible villains enacting dastardly plans, we also like to see them get their comeuppance. The schadenfreude when Richard is defeated is quite satisfying.
Part Three: Valiant Witches
For such a long play, Richard III is also surprisingly simple. A lot of people are familiar with the gist of the story, even if they’ve never seen the play. Hunchback king murders his way to the top and kills his nephews in the Tower of London. Catchy, isn’t it? But that’s most of the play, really. You can’t say that about any of Shakespeare’s other histories — hell, I’ve seen several of them in film form multiple times, and I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head what any of the others are about beyond the guy they’re named after.
That’s not to say, of course, that this play is lacking in depth. It’s several hours long for good reason. I tend to enjoy it mostly for its language and the sheer unapologetic asshole Richard himself is, but the story is fleshed out with other characters who serve to be murdered by and eventually defeat Richard. Most of these are his various family members and lords, but the ones that stick out in my mind are the women.
There are three prominent women in this story, and though most of them lack much agency, they are far from passive participants in the plot. Lady Anne Neville features prominently at the start of the play, being widow of the previous king’s son. Her family killed by Richard’s, she remains in the area largely because she has nowhere else to go. She’s seen as a political asset as she retains her husband’s wealth, but Richard’s interests are of course his own. She shows little interest in him, even after charming words and persistent declarations of love, and is portrayed as a tragic figure. She’s suspicious and even after their marriage, which comes about largely as a pragmatic move on Anne’s part, she’s not ever in love with Richard. At times throughout the play, she is comforted by his apparent honesty, but her precarious position as a woman who must take what she’s given or face accusations of treason for her violently deposed family is never in question. She seems to almost know her fate, but has no recourse to avoid it.
Queen Margaret was married to the previous king, and serves as an interesting counterpart to Anne. She is likewise in poor standing with the new royal family, brought to the brink of ruination; however, unlike Anne, she is not seen as a prospective bride, but and banished from England. She refuses this order, instead lingering amongst the rubble and cursing those who brought destruction upon her family. She is one of the few early disparagers of Richard, almost a fortune-teller of things to come, but ignored by the aristocrats around her. She seems bothered by this not one bit and continues to curse everyone (especially Richard) through the rest of the play.
Queen Elizabeth Woodville is the wife of the current king, Edward, at the start of the play, and mother of the princes and princess. As her husband and children are systematically executed by Richard’s plan, she becomes distraught. She and her mother-in-law come across Margaret in the midst of their mourning in one of the play’s most emotionally resonant scenes. Margaret has little sympathy for them, cursing them and telling them that she warned them. She claims that Richard killed her own family, and bloodthirsty monster that he is, now he’s gone and done the same to theirs. Elizabeth begs to be taught how to curse like Margaret, looking up to the deposed queen as her forebear. Margaret’s instructions to her are chilling:
“Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days;
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.”
Elizabeth never uses this advice, but she does outwit Richard to save her daughter from him. However, her mother-in-law, (Richard’s mom, I’ll remind you) is there for the cursing lesson, and she has absolutely no qualms about going up to her now-least favorite and only son before battle and cursing him to be visited by ghosts, then meet a grizzly end.
The women in this play are portrayed at the periphery, as objects to be won or tossed aside, tragic, pitiful, yet paradoxically canny. They possess little power to oppose the strength of the tyrant, but they watch and they listen, and they learn the truth of the monster long before his men. They are not directly responsible for his downfall, but they are not an insignificant part of it, either. In many ways, the women are the emotional core of the play, the last bulwark against unchecked cruelty and ruthlessness. Against all this, they endure, in some form or another.