Shakespearing #5 by David Foley
Richard III is Shakespeare’s first transtemporal hit, the first of his plays to be a hit not only in his own time but across the centuries. Why?
The most obvious answer is Richard himself, a character type now so familiar that he seems always to have been with us: the glittery hero-villain, whose malevolence is so imaginative, so mobile and intelligent that he seduces us into horror.
Shakespeare seems to be having such fun with him that you can feel his interest fade in Act V when it’s time to bring his villain to defeat. Down Richard. Up Richmond. And to end, a conventional encomium to the peace and prosperity the current queen’s grandfather ushered in. The entire act is set out in a stiffly pageant-like series of scenes, including visitations by the ghosts of Richard’s victims: “Despair therefore and die!” And yet even here the familiar voice of the Nietzschean ubermensch breaks through: “Conscience is but a word that cowards use;/Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe.”
In another way, what feels so fresh to a contemporary audience about Richard III may be what was most old-fashioned about it in its day. Scenes that read like Ionesco or Beckett—the comic interchange between Clarence’s murderers; Margaret muttering asides through 50 lines of dialogue before anyone notices her presence; the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth, and Margaret sitting on the ground in some Beckettian non-space while they bemoan their murdered husbands and children—have roots in the more pantomimic conventions of the mystery and morality plays.
Richard himself is half Lucifer and half, as he himself says, “the formal Vice, Iniquity.” Shakespeare’s perhaps instinctive reach for these old forms seems to be a way of managing or framing the weight of evil in the play. The play is haunted by past murders. Richard’s adumbration of Macbeth—“But I am in/So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin”—could apply to many of the other characters, and Clarence’s gorgeous, guilty monologue before his death is given a didactic gloss by the argument between his murderers.
The result is a play that seems, in its willingness to mix and match dramatic strategies, both freewheeling and highly stylized. The power of the famous scenes between Richard and Anne and Richard and Elizabeth lies in the way their dramatic fluidity is contained in a driving stichomythia.
But their power also comes from Shakespeare’s fascination with strong women. James Shapiro rightly warns us against looking for Shakespeare the man in his plays, but you do sometimes wonder what Shakespeare’s mother and sister were like. Halfway through the play, Richard pays a backhanded compliment to his sister-in-law, Elizabeth. He says of the nephew he will soon have killed, “O, ’tis a perilous boy,/Bold, quick, ingenious, forward, capable:/He is all the mother’s, from the top to toe.” His later scene with Elizabeth goes on for some 430 lines, and this time we’re sure that Richard has met his match. We’re as puzzled and disappointed when Elizabeth, like Anne before her, yields as we are when Kate says that women, being “weak,” should “place [their] hands below [their] husband’s foot” in The Taming of the Shrew.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that, in a nation that had been run by two strong-willed women in succession, a woman might be considered “bold, quick, ingenious, forward, capable.” And perhaps it’s not surprising that the more conventional 16th century view of women should find reinforcement in his plays. It’s the living tension between those two views that gives Shakespeare’s women their (admittedly sometimes frustrating) power.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.