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.


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