Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Richard III

made glorious summer by this Son of York

Continuing where I left off explaining my love affair with Shakespeare: Richard III is probably the most difficult of Shakespeare's well-know plays for the modern audience to understand fully.

I account for my expertise with Richard purely by chance. I don't remember studying another play between Caesar and Richard. So, I was still quite inexperienced when I first tried to make sense of it. Now, it is a firm favourite.

It is often produced on stage and in film - with the Laurence Olivier film version probably the best known to the general public. The complexity of the play arises chiefly because without an intimate knowledge of The War of the Roses (which, of course, Shakespeare's audience almost certainly had) the action and the relationships between the characters is not very easy to follow.

Sitting down with just the text to guide you is poor fare indeed. Although Richard is very much the focus, characters come and go, or are mentioned, without any textual clues to their background, relationships, families or importance. The Dramatis Personae is not much help either:

King Edward the Fourth

Edward, Prince of Wales, [afterwards King Edward V], son to the King

Richard, Duke of York

George, Duke of Clarence, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, [afterwards King Richard III], brothers to the King

A young son of Clarence

Henry, Earl of Richmond, [afterwards King Henry VII]

Cardinal Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury

Thomas Rotherham, Archbishop of York

John Morton, Archbishop of Ely

Duke of Buckingham

Duke of Norfolk

Earl of Surrey, his son

Earl Rivers, brother to Elizabeth

Marquis of Dorset and Lord Grey, sons to Elizabeth

Earl of Oxford

Lord Hastings

Lord Stanley, called also Earl of Derby

Lord Lovel

Sir Thomas Vaughan

Sir Richard Ratcliff

Sir William Catesby

Sir James Tyrrel

Sir James Blount

Sir Walter Herbert

Sir Robert Brakenbury, Lieutenant of the Tower

Christopher Urswick, a priest

Second Priest

Tressel and Berkeley, gentlemen attending on the Lady Anne

Lord Mayor of London. Sheriff of Wiltshire

Elizabeth, Queen to King Edward IV

Margaret, widow of King Henry VI

Duchess of York, mother to King Edward IV

Lady Anne, widow of Edward Prince of Wales (son to King Henry VI) [afterwards married to Richard]

A young Daughter of Clarence

Ghosts of those murdered by Richard III, Lords and other Attendants; a Pursuivant, Scrivener, Citizens, Murderers, Messengers, Soldiers, &c.


I thought so. What's needed here is a genealogical table coupled with a synopsis of who likes/hates/loves who.

When you get to the “winter of discontent” opening speech you better have some idea of not only the above; but also of 15th century English social mores. Without it you are going to be lost after scene one – if not sooner. As Clarence, his brother, is carted off to the Tower, it's hard to see why Richard is so happy; until you realise that the thoroughly despicable Duke of Gloucester is cheerfully plotting the downfall of his brother the King and his brother Clarence is in the way, “I intend to prove a villain” is quite clear but the reasons are very enigmatic.

The scene where Richard woos Anne (who spends most of the scene spitting at him) seems incomprehensible to modern audiences until you realise Anne really has no choice in the matter. Richard's contention that “I will have her, but I will not keep her long” seems all the more evil Anne being so distraught because she knows she will have to marry him no matter what she thinks.

Another possibility which might have appealed to an Elizabethan audience may be the many pragmatic reasons why Anne would consent to this unwanted marriage - “a woman alone at court needs a protector - there is a sense in which she wants to believe in his passion, wants to think of herself as the salvation of a "bad" man who will be converted by the love of a good woman.” (Garber p. 142) No matter how convincingly we theorise, it is still very obtuse to a modern audience and no matter how I tried to explain it to today's teenagers it just didn't, and doesn't, really make any sense.

One good thing about my study of Richard was the wider reading I was exposed to, particularly The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Using the novel genre she examined the validity of the Tudor propaganda which destroyed Richard's reputation after his death. All very interesting, but it is wise to remember that even Shakespeare was a prisoner of his time and, in particular, was using contemporary sources for his inspiration.

His drama is not a history and even the Richard III Society would agree that Richard III is an excellent play if a poor history.

It's still one of my all-time favourites.


The confirmation that the body found in a Leicester car park is indeed that of King Richard II give yet more fuel to the campaign to re-establish his reputation.

But, overcoming Shakespeare's characterization will continue to be difficult.

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