Thursday, October 19, 2006

Richard III - Richard and Language


Ernst originally challenged us to consider Richard in comparison to the Henry VI plays, with, perhaps, a focus on his character in relation to fated necessity. I thought to address this, but sidetracked into too much throat-clearing, reviewing the earlier Richard, but never getting to the point. Still, I incline toward Ernst's own summary: "Richard the actor-the supreme self-dramatizer and director/manipulator of show-piece scenes involving others." And, again, Ernst's insight, "language is key here" – is my inspiration and is the route to watching the women, the seduction of Anne, Margaret's curses, the attempted seduction of Princess Elizabeth by proxy of Queen Elizabeth, and even the sparing between Richard and his mother the Duchess of York.

Soon, Randall put the opening soliloquy before us, contrasting its purpose with Macbeth "talking to himself," Hamlet "weighing a course of action," and Jaques "philosophizing." Richard, he says, is summarizing. Richard is "talking to us," the audience, "taking credit." I see these ideas as all of a piece.

So, back to film, for only a moment. Randall notes that he tells his students "the basic stuff about a soliloquy is the inner thoughts of the character made audible by the playwright." I tell my students that, too. I remember the first Shakespeare film I saw was Olivier's Hamlet (1948). There was Sir Lawrence posed on the battlements of Elsinor, staring silently into the sea, and his thoughts (soliloquies) were provided by voice-over, truly stream of inner reasoning – introspection, self-appraisal. He must be telling the truth, I have long told my students, because there is no editing of speech to persuade, influence, or argue with others in social or political interaction. Very psychological, in keeping with Olivier's reliance on Freudian critic Ernest Jones's Hamlet and Oedipus.

But Hamlet's first soliloquy, (Hamlet, I.ii.129-159), "O that this too too sullied flesh would melt," (a neat little quiz question: does Hamlet here consider suicide, "self-slaughter," before or after he encounters the ghost's revelation of his father's murder), begins with perfect decasyllabic verse, but soon

"O God, God
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't, ah, fie, 'tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely...."

The decasyllabic verse breaks up, overwhelmed with enjambment and caesurae. Soon Hamlet cannot even finish his sentences:

"and yet, within a month--
Let me not think on't! Frailty, thy name is woman!--
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father's body
Like Niobe, all tears, why she, even she--
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer-..."

And though he has the classic allusions ("like Niobe"), he can't complete the explanations of the present by such references to history or culture. There is exposition regarding the o'er hasty marriage, and nasty commentary on Claudius' character, but, for me, what is revealed is a structural image of Hamlet's inner turmoil. Interesting that "wants discourse of reason" is a key phrase. I'm not insisting on psychology, here, just suggesting that the form the poetry takes is an image of the speaker.

Now, turn, if you will, to Richard III, Act 1, scene I, ll 1-41, and read it silently to yourselves. Enjambment at 1 and 3, but both flow into perfect (unrhymed) couplets. The other eight enjambed lines similarly flow into a complete image or statement. The other 31 lines are end-stopped. Similarly, there are no caesurae except to set off appositives, or parenthetical asides; nothing like the full-stops in the middle of Hamlet's lines. The only unfinished sentence is l.41, physically interrupted by the entrance of Clarence. And look at the structure of the whole argument; Now (1), now (5), and now (10); but I (14); and therefore (28). Would we could promote such reasoning in our student papers.

(I'm reminded of Marvell's "Coy Mistress"-"had we but world enough...," "but at my back I always hear...," "therefore...let us sport us while we may"-the poor girl doesn't stand a chance, unless she had said at line 1, "yeah, but we don't.").

Richard's speech is filled with polished poetic devices: the winter/summer, clouds/ocean metaphors (1-4); the sun/son pun (2); anaphora, the rhetorical use of repetition (6-8); internal rhyme: clouds, loured, our house (3); isocolon, semantically balanced prose (here with alliteration) as in "Our dreadful marches to delightful measures" (8); assonance and more alliteration: "unless to spy my shadow in the sun/ and descant on mine own deformity" (26-7); parallel syntax, e.g., pronoun followed by dependant clause (relative pronoun, verbal phrase, adjective, noun): "But I, that am not shaped-I that am rudely stamped--I that am curtailed" (14, 16, 18). Unlike what I hope I suggested about Hamlet, this is non-naturalistic, it is highly polished art. As Randall says, it summarizes, but it also states what Richard already knows about himself – a psychological soliloquy would not need to tell himself he is deformed, unfinished.

So who is this addressed to if not himself? To the audience, I think, and it says "watch me work"-there is a passion for pattern here, and Richard says I am an artist, director, actor and "plots have I laid" in our own dramatic sense. Hamlet invites the audience to experience; Richard invites observation of the art of it all, and he is a master of language. Russ McDonald, by the way, reminds me Richard never kills anyone in Richard III (unlike 3 Henry VI). He uses language to lead others to kill. (Parallel in Shrew: Petruchio never once strikes Kate.) This Richard is not the Richard of the chronicals, let alone history. And, to change my remark above, the one who is really saying "watch me work" is Shakespeare. [I'm working from my classroom notes so I know there should be more attributions than I show.]

There is much more immersion in language. The first scene ends, in soliloquy: "Clarence hath not another day to live:/ Which done, God take King Edward to his mercy,/ And leave the world for me to bustle in!" (I.i.150-52). Did you pause for a microsecond after "world" so Edward, as Clarence, dies by Richard's plot, before Richard is left to bustle? Act I, scene ii, Anne's lament over the coffin of Henry VI, has the rhetorical height of threnody, e.g., the curse, 14-28, with the anaphoric "cursed be the hand...cursed be the heart...cursed be the blood," intensified by hand/holes, heart/heart, blood/blood. (Though Anne is alone except for the Halberds, this is monologue rather than soliloquy, a formal statement rather than an inner discourse.)

Stichomythia (dialogue in alternate lines) when Richard interrupts this grief: Lady/villain. O wonderful/ more wonderful, vouchsafe/ vouchsafe; fairer than tongue.../fouler than heart..., that expands into discourse:

By such despairing I should accuse myself.
And by despairing shalt thou stand excused." (I.ii.68-86).

This scene is only prologue to the brilliant rhetorical duel between Richard and Queen Elizabeth (IV. iv.136-430) in which Richard plays on Elizabeth to affiance her daughter to the King, a struggle subtly won by Elizabeth's feigned acquiescence, but seemingly closed by Richard's "Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!" (IV.iv.431), for me the first sign that Richard's brilliant language has at last lost full power. Queen Margaret's catalogue of curses:

"Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog!
Thou slave of nature and the son of hell!
Thou slander of thy heavy mother's womb!
Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins!
Thou rag of honor! Thou detested--




I call thee not.

I cry thee mercy then, for I did think
Thou hadst call'd me all these bitter names. (I.iii.227-235).

Wonderful. Margaret's whole scene, beginning with her caustic asides cursing everyone, then front and center to extravagantly curse Richard, is wittily turned into a verbal game. Notice line 233 is a single decasyllabic line, containing four speeches, gaily bouncing all the vituperation back onto Margaret. (It even reprises Randall's favorite line in the play: "Ha!")

Even in his most chilling moments, Richard still engages rich dimensions of language. Young Richard of York is brought to the tower (whence, of course, he will never return), and asks his uncle, "I pray you, uncle, give me this dagger." Richard replies: "My dagger, little cousin? With all my heart" (III.i.110-11). So the play-that-is-a-play continues. I don't cotton much to the most "theatrical" scene of all, staged by Buckingham, in which Richard walks with a "holy" book between two holy men, while Buckingham "sells" his piety to the mayor and citizens of London, that they may be manipulated, salted by ringers, to "force" the crown on "Richard, England's worthy king!" (IV.i.240) [notice how many scare quotes I had to use], and indeed from this point on, Richard III changes texture. Richard's script has reached its climax.

I must skip over the wonderful gamesmanship on both sides in the contest between Richard and Queen Elizabeth, but the last of the last high rhetoric is the coda, the quasi-liturgical vision of the ghosts generating power by formal repetition, "despair and die." I agree with Frank Kermode, Shakespeare's Language that this is less impressive than the poetic complexity I have been admiring. The play ends, absence of a horse apart, with Richmond's oration, in which he tells his soldiers "Got mit uns," and seems to draft Henry V's own pre-battle musing, "let us our lies, our debts, our careful wives, our children, and our sins lay on the king. We must bear all, oh hard condition." [Sorry, I'm quoting from memory.]

So, it is in the language. Shakespeare is Prospero, and he conjures Richard, who directs a play, in which he acts to display the power of language. Though the "Tudor myth" is forever underscored by the fascinating power of this Richard, the "play" (with language) is over in the Richard/Elizabeth argument. Thus, the relative brevity of the last two scenes.


No comments: