Tuesday, January 14, 2014

William Shakespeare: Richard III (1591)

Lawrence Olivier as Richard, in the 1955 movie

Most of Richard III takes place in a peacetime that slowly but steadily goes rancid. When Richmond finally appears, war - a little "sharp" war for a great "perpetual" peace - is vindicated by contrast with the diseased peace in which Richard has had his own way until he even loathes himself. There's a freshness about Richmond's perspective, too:

That spoil'd your summer fields and fruitful vines (V.2.8)

True hope is swift, and flies with swallow's wings (V.2.23)

So Richard is a boar among the summer vines, not on the battlefield but domestically, among ladies and children and courtiers who in various ways bend over backwards to connive in not seeing what is happening; as it were in their very midst, although (so far as the actual executions are concerned) principally offstage. It's a peacetime society from which people disappear. 

Act I is brilliant from its opening words, and has sometimes seemed to unbalance the rest of the play. Here the dramatic argument is irresistible, and the scene that caps Act I is, unusually, a scene in which Richard is not present.

Elsewhere, for all the large swathes of Senecan rhetoric, it's the cynically vigorous language of the secret performers that stays in the mind (mainly Richard, but ably assisted by his sidekick Buckingham). Generally they explode in small bursts, not aphoristic but with the knee-hugging rightness of aphorism.

Why, madam, have I offered love for this,
To be so flouted in this royal presence?
Who knows not that the gentle Duke is dead?

Richard's delight in giving pain, the sharpness of his timing, makes us draw breath in an unholy joy of sheer admiration. So this was what drama was capable of. Only Chaucer, centuries previously, had a comparable command of pace.

Or Buckingham, greeting the Mayor with a perfectly-pitched performance:

Welcome, my lord: I dance attendance here.
I think the Duke will not be spoke withal.

Surprisingly it's only when these supreme performers are playing a part that we suddenly hear an exquisite naturalism, in contrast with the constrained rhetoric of Rivers, Grey, Duchesses and Queens.


Richard III has a pervasive vein of peasant morality.

Loyalty to party or to a party's discredited ideals has broken down. In that respect Richard is at one with the society that he gores, and so to an extent is his nemesis Richmond. This is why there is not the least irony in Richard's address to his troops at Bosworth; he does it unexceptionably well. At this point in the play the peasant morality is seen in its reassuring aspect. That's why there's so much emphasis on getting up early in the morning!

Elsewhere in the play we see other manifestations, for example implacable vengefulness, as in old Queen Margaret. Here, as in Richard himself, peasant morality is exposed as a bedrock worn bare by civil war.

And the counterpart of implacable vengefulness, which is indifference to past loyalties: something that may look like forgiveness, though it is not. This is what lies behind the long debate between Elizabeth and Richard in IV.4; that it is possible for Elizabeth, that it may even be acceptable, out of sheer awareness of changed circumstances, to take up with the murderer of her own children, no other shelter being on offer. 

And this too, dogged willingness to carry out a grim task if it's part of an assigned job.

1 M. What we will do, we do upon command.

That magnificent scene with the murderers and Clarence is where this element in the play is given its most intuitive outing, and where the character of Richard is summed up, not without admiration.

            Cla. O, do not slander him, for he is kind.
            1 M. Right, as snow in harvest.
            Come: you deceive yourself...

Note 1 - The Text

This note really carries on from some of the speculations in Note 1 on 3Henry VI. The first Quarto of Richard III was published in 1597 - seven more were to follow. Its text is rather a puzzle. It's close to F but differs in hundreds of trifling details, readings that are predominantly but only mildly inferior. The explanation that has been generally accepted (D.L. Patrick, 1936) is that Q is a memorial reconstruction: it is not trying to improve on F, it is trying to reproduce it in its absence. But in what circumstances? The problem is that Q is so nearly successful compared e.g. to the octavo of 3 Henry VI. The common theory goes that, for some reason, Shakespeare's own company needed to reconstruct an absent prompt-book, and they fortunately had the means to do so because the company had only just performed the play and the lines were fresh in their minds. As is usual in these theories of memorial reconstruction (it's almost a trope), it turns out that certain parts (e.g. Buckingham's) are remembered distinctly less well than others (e.g. Richard's). Perhaps this act of reconstruction took place during a provincial tour. The manuscript that, a quarter of a century later, would form the basis of F, was on this theory temporarily unavailable to them. A priori this all seems quite unlikely, and I repeat the remark made in my earlier note: there's something about the sociology of the Elizabethan theatre that we don't fully understand. Could it be, for example, that the Chamberlain's Men did not have access to early plays that Shakespeare had written for another company, but were compelled to make new texts if they wanted to carry on performing a proven success such as this? Or could it be that theatre companies would not allow a master prompt-book out of their hands (which would be necessary if it was going to be set up in the print shop), but were less concerned about accidental loss of a spare copy that had, perhaps, originally been put together for a provincial tour, sometimes by partly memorial methods?

Note 2 - Marlowe's Edward II

Marlowe's 1592 play owes a massive debt to the first tetralogy and to Richard III in particular. (Though in return, Shakespeare was to learn from it when he came to write Richard II). As to Richard III, the debt lies chiefly in the unexpected transformation of Mortimer's character towards the end of the play, and in the scenes leading up to Edward's murder (with Marlowe contributing his own distinctive way with sadistic situations). It's the most painful, but also much the most interesting, part of the play - perhaps Marlowe had already written the rest before he saw Richard III and was inspired by the Clarence scene.  

(2010, 2014)



At 7:14 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

You have a way of writing about literature that creates hunger in the reader, at any rate this reader. I had a spell at 16 or 17 of devouring, sometimes at a sitting, many of Shakespeare's major plays, but never Richard III, and now I am indecisive, filled with an urge to see Olivier in the role, but holding back with the notion that I must arm myself with a proper reading first, not just your article, though it offers some important pointers, but an alert run-througyh of the entire play. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

At 3:52 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

I don't think you would need to read the text first, though it would certainly be interesting. I saw the film as a child and it made a great impression on me. Olivier's text is faithful to performance traditions rather than to Shakespeare's original. It cuts most of the long choral scenes of lament, it borrows a memorable speech of Richard's from out of 3 Henry VI, and even includes a famous line from Colley Cibber's 18th century adaptation ("Off with his head!").


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