Monday, September 25, 2006

Richard III - Of Crookback Dick

Richard of Gloucester has a character flaw. Well, no, I'm not thinking of megalomania, mass murder, exploitation of widows and orphans, violation of oaths and contracts, filial and fraternal betrayal, or insufficient equestrian planning. Instead, from mid-3 Henry VI onward, he seems too much fixated on his physical appearance.

His father, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, invokes his sons:

Call hitherto the stake my two brave bears,
That with the very shaking of their chains
They may astonish these fell-lurking curs. (2 Henry VI, V.i.144-46)

And Clifford gives us our first description of the younger:

Hence, heap of wrath, foul indigested lump,
As crooked in thy manners as thy shape! (2 Henry VI, V.i.157-8)

Young Clifford, his father's son, curses Richard: "Foul stigmatic" (l. 215), and soon Richard kills Somerset under the sign for the Castle Inn (so the prophesy "beware of castles" wonderfully comes true), and utters a warrior's coda: "Sword, hold thy temper; heart, be wrathful still:/ Priests pray for enemies, but princes kill" (2 Henry VI, V.ii.70-71). He is praised for extraordinary prowess on the battlefield, and when he displays the Duke of Somerset's head, York declaims "Richard hath best deserv'd of all my sons" (3 Henry VI, I.i.17).

So far, we have only an heroic young warrior, despite York's enemies stigmatizing (smile) him. Meanwhile, his father, York, negotiates that Henry can remain king until death, when the crown will pass to the Yorks, and it is Richard with tortured logic who disputes this, pointing out that York swore before the King, but "an oath is of no moment, being not took/ Before a true and lawful magistrate," which Henry was not, having held a usurped throne and therefore the oath was frivolous and vain, and York is not held by it. "And father, do but think/How sweet it is to wear a crown" (3 Henry VI, I.ii.22-3, 28-9). Specious logic indeed, yet the first hint of Richard's ability to create illusions out of words. Young brother Rutland is slain, defenseless York is captured and tortured, and Queen Margaret taunts him:

Where are your mess of sons to back you now,
The wanton Edward, and the lusty George?
And where's that valiant crook-back prodigy,
Dicky, your boy, that with his grumbling voice,
Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies. (3 Henry VI, I.iv.73-77)

Before learning of York's death, Richard tells his brother Edward, "Methinks 'tis enough to be his son" (3 Henry VI, II.i.20). This seems a direct and sufficient declaration, unmasked, of Richard's true self- evaluation. York is slain. Richard responds, "Tears then for babes; blows and revenge for me/ Richard, I bear thy name, I'll venge thy death,/ Or die renowned by attempting it" (3 Henry VI, II.i.86-8), a tradition of son avenging father, independent of the insults directed at him by Queen Margaret, "But like a foul misshapen stigmatic,/ Mark'd by the destinies to be avoided,/ As venom toads, or lizards' dreadful stings" (3 Henry VI, II.ii.136-38). Indeed, Clifford dies, Richard mocks the corpse, and "King" Edward names him Duke of Gloucester.

Edward barters for Lady Grey's body, and when rebuffed, marries her instead, while Richard and Clarence keep up a patter of witty asides. Only when the bargain is struck (this encounter reveals the "wanton Edward," a characteristic I had not previously noticed), Richard is left, solus, to muse on love. This soliloquy, III.ii.124-195, reveals the first time the audience sees Richard other than son and warrior. He refers to "the golden time I look for," "between my soul'd desire and me," "a cold premeditation of my purpose," "Why then I do but dream on sovereignty," "I do so wish the crown...I'll cut the causes [that keep me from it] off." And the motivation: "why love forswore me in my mother's womb," "to shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub [no comments allowed on Dubya Bush here]/ To make an envious mountain on my back/ Where sits deformity to mock my body," etc. To compensate "I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,/ And whiles I live, t'account this world but hell,/ Until my misshap'd trunk that bears this head/ Be round impaled with a glorious crown," "Why I can smile, and murther whiles I smile..., And set the murtherous Machevil to school."

Ernst originally asked how Richard is different from the versions of his character we see in the Henry VI plays. What I have tried to do is summarize the earlier Richard (s): first warrior son of Richard of York, called politically incorrect names by the Lancasters, but no less than a knight errant for the House of York. Then, suddenly, with no more foreshadowing than the depiction of King Edward Hotpants prostituting Elizabeth, Lady Grey (sleep with me and I'll give you your land back; no? then how about a crown?), his soliloquy (3 Henry VI, III.ii.124-195) outlines all of Richard III, the ambition for the crown, the motivation of being physically limited to the one career choice, and his chosen means for achieving kingship, murder. His soliloquy could be a program note for Richard III, but it is devoid of humanization or tragic character. The "tragic flaw" as articulated in the Henry VI plays is no more than being pissed off at being called "thou misshapen Dick." And lest you think I trivialize, notice in Richard III both Lady Anne and Queen Elizabeth, on behalf of her daughter, Elizabeth, seek to frustrate Richard's marital advances by threatening to mar their physical beauty.

But then, we turn to Act VI, "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York," and Richard of Gloucester is transformed to humanized, witty, tragic, and, as Ernst begins, "supreme self-dramatizer and director/manipulator.



I'm not sure this is Richard's character but I see Richard III as (forgive the term) metadrama in which Richard is the playwright, director and casts himself in a variety of roles, so what we see is a variety of masks, wonderfully fashioned to convince or overpower adversaries. But this series of staged scenes is interrupted by soliloquies, that dramatic device in which we, as audience, are addressed directly and invited to accept the speaker as without mask, revealing his true self as well as critiquing both his persona and those he has fooled.

The seduction of Lady Anne before the coffin of Henry VI, her father-in-law, is followed by "was ever woman in this humor wooed?/ Was ever in this humor won?" (remember similar lines from Chiron and Demetrius in II.i of Titus?) The proxy wooing of Elizabeth, during which Richard seems to have to work far more and against the greater burden of having killed almost everyone Elizabeth has ever met seems more convincing or perhaps self -- convinced of reformation -- Richard has achieved the crown at this point; yet Queen Elizabeth's apparent acquiescence to the betrothal of her daughter is followed, immediately, with Richard, solus, "Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!"

Actually, here Elizabeth has won, because she immediately tops Richard by betrothing her daughter to Richmond. Curious that Richard, the master of duplicity, is not able to project his own trickery onto others.

The phoniest role is the staged piety of Richard between to prelates with a holy book as prop to fool the Mayor of London into supporting him as king: "Long live Richard, England's worthy king!" Here he even has a stage manager, Buckingham, who doubles as prompter to those who are too ignorant to know their parts. One maskless scene involves Buckingham, when the latter comes to Richard for his promised reward as henchman, and Richard chooses to talk about the weather, ending with "I am not in the giving vein to-day."

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

RE: Richard III - Getting Going

Thou rags of honor,

I'm confessing. I am just now finishing the play, and so I'm only just beginning to consider the very intriguing questions Ernst sent along two weeks ago. Mea culpa. (Did anyone else catch Jon Stewart's coining the non-apology apology so commonly used by celebs and, now, Popes as the "kinda culpa." Genius.) So what am I doing here? Well gosh. I loved Act I, to my mind the best single act we've read yet. To begin ...

"Now is the winter of our discontent ...". I'm sure someone will speak to the glorious language here, but I was struck by the power of war suggested by the imagery. There is a sobering little book out by New York Times writer Chris Hedges called War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. In it, Hedges writes "The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its desctruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. ... And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble" (Hedges 3). When Richard III opens we find Richard, lamenting the calm shallowness of peace time.

"And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
[War] capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute." (1.1.10-13)

The idea of "grim-visaged War" prancing about in some woman's bedroom with a little wanton lute music on the boombox is a bit arresting, and Richard's scorn is clear. Such dalliance, of War personified, demonstrates the triviality Richard hates about non-miliatry life. In the subsequent lines, lines that neatly recap his two soliloquies from 3 Henry VI, he goes on to explain why – he wasn't made for love or delight. So he has nothing to do.

Well, the devil makes work for idle hands.

"And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain thse fair-well spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days." (1.1.28-31)

Hence, Richard continues his war, or rather he makes war, in the midst of people who might otherwise be at peace. Act 1 is full of references to Richard as devil, as Ernst noted, but I rather think he is Ares. Perhaps this is just another way of suggesting that Richard is the sort of Vice that Ernst mentioned, engaging in personal, and later military, skirmishes. But Richard's actions go so much further than picking fights with others until he conquers his antagonists. He also sets his antagonists on each other. He sows antagonism.

Yet I am struck by Richard's lack of a specific goal in Act 1. A number of times he explains that he will be a disruptive, malevolent force, but he does not say here, as he did in the last Henry play, that he wants to be king. His pleasure is in all in the mayhem. Take this strange moment for instance. After opening with his sour soliloquy, then wooing Anne in the most hideous seduction scene ever imagined, then trading seemingly endless curses with Margaret, Richard finally gets a moment alone and sends forth another soliloquy:

"The secret mischiefs that I set abroach
I lay unto the grievous charge of others.
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol'n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when I most play a devil." (1.3.324-337).

Curiously he makes explicit what he has been doing implicitly for two and a half scenes. Why is this speech here? I tell my students the basic stuff about a soliloquy being the inner thoughts of the character made audible by the playwright. But Richard's thoughts here do not explore anything he is not already sure of. He is not talking to himself (Macbeth), not weighing a course of action (Hamlet), not philosophizing (Jaques). He's summarizing. And because he already told us he was going to do this, and because we've already seen him doing it, this solilquy summary is a little like a ninth-grade English essay conclusion – it's pretty redundant.

So if he can't be talking to himself, he must be talking to us. (Look out! There goes the fourth wall.) Even though we've watched him doing these things, it seems very important to Richard that he take credit. To act, as Richard and Iago do, maliciously but in secret, pretending to be what one is not, denies one the reward of an audience's "appreciation." In modern times, Richard would be the terrorist who calls up the press after a car bomb takes out a public market and says "we did that."

I think my favorite line of Richard's in Act 1 is "Ha!" It is monosyllabic celebration of his successful seduction of Anne, and again, it allows him to take credit for the action in front of the audience. The battle, his private war against all those who would not make war, gives him purpose, a reason for living. In waging the war, though, he becomes a performer or a director, and we, the play-goers, are his audience. Are we meant to delight in his machinations? Are we meant to be repulsed? Are we to find secret joy in our revulsion? What I find that I enjoy a lot about this play is how much it engages me directly as I read it.


Monday, September 18, 2006

Richard III - Getting Going

I know I'm supposed to spur you on to further thoughts, but I think my "introduction" raised, what are, for me, central questions. If you can't work with anything I've sent out, please invent areas of exploration for yourselves and delve in. Or is the responsive lethargy of 3 Henry VI continuing on into its follow-up?

One other question I would ask involves the mixture of comedy and tragedy in Richard III. As I have suggested before, Richard is in many ways a character out of the comic tradition found in "vices" like Ambidexter in Cambises and realized – perhaps – most fully in Marlowe's Mephistopheles. Such characters are frequently a mixture of detached cynicism and restlessness. They know they have no hope in any larger view of the world. "Why this is hell, nor am I out of it," says Mephistopheles famously. They, like their boss the Devil, are damned and without hope. This helps make them flat "types" – i.e. characters fit for comedies.

Well, Richard is sort of like this, and, in a sense, he is a comic character, and his play is a comedy (doubly so if he can persuade the audience that HIS world outlook is valid). Despite its "tragic form," we go to the play not to be cleansed through experiencing it, but to be entertained by the vivacious trickery and double-dealing of its chief comic trickster, knowing full well that he will be tossed out (something like Malvolio) for being too narrow to fit into the comic world's regenerative pattern.

Is there any sense in this way of looking at the play?

Note: The average temperature of New England has risen 4 degrees in the last 30 years.


Friday, September 8, 2006

Richard III - Opening Remarks

Ah, Falstaff! Art thou the Grand Vice? Art thou not also the great Pan or his drunken devotee? Art thou not, as well, the penultimate Miles Gloriosus, the braggart soldier extraordinaire? And the trickster, the local Loki? How many archetypes can so great a body encompass?

We are all familiar with Richard III. It is a dramatic tour de force, but also a pretty simple play with lots of grand moments before the final rising tension of Richard’s confrontation with Elizabeth of York (who holds out against him longer than most), the ringing in of fate with the visitation of the ghosts, and the rapid denouement, which casts out the Devil and restores peace, amity, and a legitimate pair of rulers to England.

1. The most interesting questions may focus on Richard’s character and its relationship to fated necessity.

How is Richard different from the versions of his character we see in the Henry VI plays? Is he humanized to the point that he can be seen as a tragic character — and, if so, how? And if he is some sort of tragic hero, what are the particularities of his “tragic flaw” — beyond simple pride? To what point is his character less human through being “necessitated” by what may be Shakespeare’s larger plan, in which Richard seems meant to be the devil-come-to-earth (the “Scourge of God” as seen in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine), the ultimate result of Richard II’s overthrow and the necessary precursor of the Tudor ascendancy? And, of course, what is one to make of Richard the actor--the supreme self-dramatizer and director/manipulator of show-piece scenes involving others?

2. Productions of the play. I saw two the year before last. One was at Ashland with what’s-his-name playing Richard with a leer and a metal crutch. I found it tedious and the character too “cute” and thus uninterestingly narrow.

Much better, to my way of thinking, was a production at Chico’s Blue Room Theatre in which a much more intense focus was placed on the tightly-built Richard’s (Joe Hilsee) ever-restlessly-moving mind. It was also a production in which Buckingham was played by a fine actor, a man who must weigh 300 pounds, and one who played the role with a kind of unreflective buff joviality that made his conniving with Richard larger-than-life and his fall tremendous.

And then there’s Olivier’s film, which certainly leaves some grand moments imprinted on the mind, but which I haven’t seen for years.

3. As a kind of “vice,” Richard engages many of those he encounters in a kind of battle. Until the end, he wins each such confrontation. Who puts up the most effective losing battles/arguments? A classroom exercise would be to list these battles (at least ten of them) and then rank them in terms of the effectiveness of Richard’s antagonists.

Many workmen
Built a huge ball of masonry
Upon a mountain-top.
Then they went to the valley below,
And turned to behold their work.
"It is grand," they said;
They loved the thing.
Of a sudden, it moved:
It came upon them swiftly;
It crushed them all to blood.
But some had opportunity to squeal.
--Stephen Crane

4. So language is key here—both in winning arguments and in fighting back. I don’t really know how to deal any further with language than this assertion. Ideas, anyone? Also, what are we to make of the formulaic speeches running from Elizabeth’s argument with Richard, to the ghosts threatening him near the play’s end, to Richmond’s wrap-it-all-up final speech. And what of the relative brevity of the last two scenes?

5. The play’s three women (Margaret was actually in France, where she died during the years the play covers). They provide a fine, irony-rich chorus to the tragedy and heighten the moral issues weighing in on it. Is there any more we can say about them?

Sorry, that’s the best I can do at the moment. Feel free to raise (and answer) other questions.


Saturday, September 2, 2006

RE: 3 Henry VI


The Vice – I, too, think of Iago, whose destruction of Othello always drove my students to seek psychological motivation (recall Randall's story about Don John having an unhappy childhood). And he is certainly never a laugh riot. But I primarily think of Falstaff as "the Vice." He fits Ernst's description of "comic character," and we can look forward to exploring our affection, amusement, even admiration for him.

Robert Torrance has a book entitled The Comic Hero (a contradiction of terms) which features Falstaff. However, Germaine Greer, in Shakespeare, says "Because he is entertaining, scholars persist in finding excuses for Falstaff, forgetting perhaps that the Vice was always an ingratiating, lively, and amusing fellow. Falstaff's ancestor is the Morality figure of Good Fellowship, who always lets people down and cannot bring the protagonist one step on his way to heaven" (71). Greer also addresses Iago. "In Shakespearean tragedy there is always an element of psychomachia, or the struggle within the soul. One of the simplest, that Shakespeare would have taken over from the morality plays, is to show evil working on the protagonist in the person of a Vice. The Vice may be a lineal descendant of the intriguing servant of classical comedy or he may be a less self-conscious, more homegrown product. It is futile to demand motivation from the Vice, or reasons for his actions, for the point about evil is that it is absurd, unmotivated, and inconsistent" (45).

Could we offer Jack Cade (2 Henry VI) as the Vice? He is a buffoon, especially in the production Randall and I saw, comic yet with deadly outcomes, such as executing the guildsman after Cade has declared he should only be addressed as "Mortimer." As with Falstaff, he charges through the civil state as the Lord of Misrule. However, as John commented, the Henry VI plays seldom find either a narrative structure within the history, nor does Shakespeare rely on the conventions of drama, certainly not genre, but neither, I think, any temptation to import the established figures from medieval drama. So, I don't find The Vice here nor "evil." What we see in Richard is the emergence of a complex character imposed on history, devoted to ambition, to exploiting, overwhelming weakness where he encounters it, and to political individualism. Richard is already "modern" as he sees into the instability of the medieval world. When Randall says "evil is the negative consequence of what we do, not who we are," he expands Mike's introduction of 3 Henry VI as "an early map for existential isolation."

I have a big (long) argument about the evolution of words, something I think of as "the Jacobean Moment," which Randall worked through, but I think I will save it for a more substantial play. But welcome, John, for what I hope to learn from you about this subject.

I'm just a little burned out on Henry VI, yet it is tempting to dwell just a little longer on Edward's seduction of Lady Gray. (Isn't there a punch line: "we've established what you are, so now we're just negotiating about the price"?) What a curious little bit of Restoration hanky-panky. Does it strike anyone else as not fitting into this play, just as I tried to argue that the father-who-kills-son, etc. seemed out of place?


P.S. Greer's book has been rereleased with a new title, Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction. Same book, but with pictures.

Much Ado About Reading

by Maureen Dowd (NY Times, 9/2/06)

’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. W., the most simple, unreflective and Manichaean of men, communing with Will, the most subtle, reflective and myriad-minded of men.

Under Laura the Librarian’s tutelage, the president is discovering the little black dress of 60’s education, as one scholar referred to the president’s summer reading list of “The Stranger,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.”

Mr. Bush’s bristly distaste for the intellectual elite has been so much a part of his persona, from Yale on, that it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around a heavy W., steeped in French existentialism and Elizabethan tragedy.

On the 2000 campaign trail, W. told me that he did not identify with any literary hero, that baseball was his favorite “cultural experience,” and that he liked “John La Care, Le Carrier, or however you pronounce his name.”

He was a gym rat, not a bookworm. He told Brit Hume in 2003 that he rarely read newspaper articles, preferring to get his information through aides, and he told Brian Lamb in 2005 that he would fall asleep after 20 or 30 pages of bedside reading.

But the first lady must have grown alarmed at seeing her husband mocked as a buff bubblehead wrapped in a bubble. She began giving interviews saying her man did too read newspapers, and she slipped W. some Camus and other serious fare.

Jackie Kennedy once complained that the Kennedys could turn anything into a competition — even oil painting. Just so, W. tried to keep his new gravitas homework interesting by engaging in a book competition with Karl Rove. Bush aides told Ken Walsh of U.S. News & World Report that the president wants it known that he is a man of letters.

W.’s claim of having read 53 to 60 books already this year has been met with some partisan skepticism — The American Prospect calls it “demonstrably ridiculous” — despite a Wall Street Journal article pronouncing speed-reading back in fashion among busy executives.

But I’m tickled that W. is reading Shakespeare, even if it’s just to please his wife or win a bet with his strategist. The president has been so tone-deaf in dealing with the world, and even with his own father, that he can only benefit from a dip in the Bard’s ocean of insight about the vicissitudes of human nature and war. Not to mention the benefits of being exposed to the beauty and precision of the language.

Stephen Greenblatt, the Harvard professor and author of “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,” demurs, noting that “there’s no reason to think reading Shakespeare necessarily makes you a more reflective or deeper person. Otherwise, the Nazis who kept the German Shakespeare Society going in the 30’s and 40’s would have learned something.”

Shakespeare’s texts are so complex, he says, that they “allow a huge range of readings and political views, like the Bible.”

Take “Macbeth,” Professor Greenblatt says. Bush critics might see irony in W.’s reading a play about a leader who makes a catastrophic decision to overturn a regime that ultimately brings his country and himself to ruin. But the president may be reading it differently, seeing shades of Saddam Hussein in Macbeth, a homicidal tyrant who gets his bloody comeuppance.

But he agrees there are some trenchant lessons that W. could glean, including Shakespeare’s doubt about quick and easy wars, and his conviction that what the professor calls “the rose-petal view” is an illusion; Shakespeare found a gigantic gap between what we imagine and what is actually likely to happen.

Ken Adelman, the former professor of Shakespeare and arms control director under Reagan, has compared W. to Prince Hal. But the Republican consultant, who teaches a management seminar with his wife, Carol, on Shakespeare, agrees that W.’s insulation prevents him from having the leadership strength of Henry V, who mingled among the common folk in the taverns and the soldiers on the battlefield.

Sometimes the second-term President Bush seems more like Henry’s opponent, the Dauphin of France, who has no sense of the reality of battle or his troops, misunderstands the situation and treats Henry with undeserved scorn.

The relentlessly black-and-white Bush could learn from the playwright’s riveting grays. “With Shakespeare,” says Marjorie Garber, a Harvard professor and the author of “Shakespeare After All,” “nothing is ever finished. You never close the door on anything. There’s never any ‘Mission Accomplished.’ ”