William Shakespeare’s renown in the English-speaking world knows no bounds. He gets his own section in most libraries and bookstores, he’s assigned in every English curriculum, and in any major city there’s almost always a production of one of his plays going on at any time. Take a poll asking for the greatest poet, dramatist, or even general writer in English, and the Bard will win almost every time. In fact, he’s so famous that we don’t even need to call him by his name; just say “the Bard,” and people know who you’re talking about, like how St. Thomas Aquinas just calls Aristotle “the Philosopher.”
However, there’s also a phenomenon with Shakespeare similar to an observation C. S. Lewis once made about Scripture – if you tried to judge the amount of Bible-reading in England by the number of Bibles sold, you’d be far off the mark. A lot of people never approach Shakespeare’s work outside of class assignments, and find him difficult for several reasons. A common one is his diction; coworker of mine once said, only half-jokingly, that he’d be more interested in Shakespeare if Shakespeare wrote in English. Of course, not only did he write in English, he wrote in Modern English, albeit early Modern English.
A good illustration of the difficulties people run into is the famous opening soliloquy in Richard III, which I just watched recently:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
As soon as people see this, I suspect many of them feel like they need to dissect it like a frog in biology class, as they were always required to do in school. “What’s the metre here? Any assonance or alliteration? There is a pun on ‘son’ and ‘sun’, I should mention that. Who is the ‘son of York,’ anyway? There’s also a lot of contrast between images in each lines…” and so on. Are you really supposed to get all of this?
Well, no. Not the first time you see the play. Shakespeare, remember, wrote for a popular audience. Few people, especially seeing it for the first time, will notice these things. So why is it there? First, because you likely will pick up, at a subconscious level, the tone that the Bard wants to convey through these techniques. Secondly, because it adds depth to the play. You’ve likely noticed, on watching a film or reading a book for the second time, things that you didn’t notice the first time around. This is a mark of quality, and applies to all storytelling media.
Another thing that throws people off, especially in the history plays, is the intimidatingly large cast of characters, often referred to in the play by their titles rather than their names (which can change over the course of the play!). The key here is to watch the play rather than just reading the script, especially if it’s your first experience with it. It’s much easier to keep track of characters when you’re able to put an actor’s face to a character.
What about the historical background? For Richard III, don’t you need to know about the War of the Roses? How about the prequels, the 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI? Well, it doesn’t hurt to know these things, of course, and the full significance of a few events will be clearer if you have seen the Henry VI plays. However, Shakespeare was a good enough dramatist to ensure that the audience doesn’t get lost, and the play is mostly self-contained. So the basic story isn’t too difficult to follow, and Richard even has several asides throughout the play explaining to the audience his plans and motives. One example is, again, right in the opening soliloquy:
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul […]
Now, Richard III has long been one of my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, if not my favourite. Not coincidentally, it’s the only one of his works that I’ve seen performed live. This time I watched a BBC production from 1983, starring Ron Cook, Brian Protheroe, and Michael Byrne. It’s a solid choice for anyone looking to see this, and though it’s filmed on a stage like any other play, since it’s on film they’re able to use a few simple techniques like having a couple different cameras, allowing them to focus on whichever character is speaking, and using some simple special effects during Richard’s nightmare with the ghosts of his victims near the end. These are small things but do make the play more pleasant to watch.
I’ve also always liked Richard himself. He’s not exactly a subtle character, really. He says right in the section quoted above “I am subtle, false, and treacherous.” Most of the other characters know what kind of person he is; Queen Elizabeth refers to him in Act 1 Scene 2 as “a man that loves not me – nor none of you.” When Richard enters a little later, he defends himself with the classic weasel’s tactic of portraying himself as a victim:
They do me wrong, and I will not endure it:
Who are they that complain unto the king,
That I, forsooth, am stern, and love them not?
By holy Paul, they love his grace but lightly
That fill his ears with such dissentious rumours.
Because I cannot flatter and speak fair,
Smile in men’s faces, smooth, deceive and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.
Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abused
By silken, sly, insinuating Jacks?
Now, I said of the second and third parts of Henry VI that the theme of those plays is essentially how to fail at kingship by being too weak. Henry, though a good man, did not want the throne and failed in one of a king’s most important functions, to keep the jackals away from power. Richard III is also about a monarch’s failure, but this time the failure mode is what happens when one of these jackals does take power. Richard gets the throne, but once there he’s paranoid and ungrateful to his allies.
At the end, Richard is a pathetic figure, fully aware of his own isolation, having betrayed or otherwise lost every potential ally; he says after a nightmare in which the ghosts of his victims prophesy defeat for him and promise victory for his rival, Henry, Earl of Richmond, “There is no creature loves me, / And if I die no soul will pity me.” Richmond, of course, is victorious, and ends England’s intrigues and civil wars. One sign of his virtue is that, in contrast to Richard’s paranoia and spitefulness, Richmond promises clemency to his defeated foes:
Proclaim a pardon to the soldiers fled
That in submission will return to us,
And then – as we have ta’en the sacrament –
We will unite the white rose and the red.
What makes a successful king? Power and authority, i.e., the strength that Henry VI lacked and the virtue that Richard lacked, but that Richmond, then Henry VII, possessed.