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.


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