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30 Days of Shakespeare, Day 5

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Day #5: Your favourite villain

If you are surprised by this, you probably haven't been reading my LJ. ;) I will, however, endeavour not to copy angevin2 word-for-word on the utter, magnificent WIN that is Richard of Gloucester.

So, as I mentioned briefly on Day 1 of this meme, I came at Shakespeare's Richard III via a rather convoluted route. But by this point, after three years reading fifteenth- and sixteenth-century accounts of the Wars of the Roses, I have completely accepted Shakespeare's Richard of Gloucester as possibly the most compelling version of him out there.* You can't take your eyes off him in performance (unless you were watching the fairly awful student production I saw in 2007), and you absolutely must know what he gets up to next.

* Most modern versions I've run across make him far too nice. If I ever manage to get that far in the Wars of the Roses Novel That Hates Me, I still don't know how I'll deal with him, but the few times I have written him, he's been not especially nice. Even Ten didn't like him, and Ten fanboys everyone, really.

But I think what I love most is that Shakespeare does give him a discernible arc, beginning with his first appearance in 2 Henry VI. And, yes, it is spectacularly anachronistic (also extremely funny if you imagine Richard as the 2-year-old he actually was at the time), but the fact is that, within the universe of the plays, it works. He is already notorious when we first meet him -- heap of wrath, foul indigested lump, / As crooked in thy manners as thy shape, according to Old Clifford -- which does beg the question of a) How old is Richard of Gloucester supposed to be and b) What on earth could he possibly have done that was worse than everybody else in 2 Henry VI? I mean, really. This play has Suffolk, Margaret, Somerset, York, and BEAUFORT, for God's sake. Nobody can possibly be worse than Beaufort. Except maybe Richard. ;)

At any rate, the point is that he doesn't start out evil. Moderately homicidal, yes. But so are his brothers. And his father. And pretty much everybody in this play that isn't Henry VI or occasionally Humphrey of Gloucester. He is no different from any other ambitious nobleman.

Until his father dies on a molehill in Wakefield.

3 Henry VI is probably my favourite part of the trilogy, at least in part because of Richard's journey from being a boy who idolises his father to a seasoned killer prepared to do away with his entire family for the nebulous ideal of a crown. He's got no idea what it means to be a king. All he knows is that he wants it, as if becoming king will somehow balance out everything he lacks:

Then, since this earth affords no joy to me
But to command, to check, to o'erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown
And whiles I live t'account this world but hell,
Until my misshapen trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown. (3HVI, III.ii.165-71)

He is shaped to be a villain, ergo he shall be a villain. But the fact is that, at least in the Henry VI plays, the only people to harp on Richard's deformities are the Lancastrians. York doesn't notice; Edward and George certainly don't, and nor do Warwick or Salisbury. Even Elizabeth, who becomes his chiefest opponent in Richard III, doesn't remark upon it in any of their scenes together. (I make a similar argument about Margaret and the Yorkists in my dissertation, but that is neither here nor there.)

If he were anybody but Richard-the-not-yet-III (as the_alchemist conveniently calls him), he'd just be part of the crowd of Generally Awful People who populate the Henry VI plays. But the fact is that Shakespeare's audience -- and, indeed a modern audience -- already know this guy. Even before he kills anybody, they know exactly what to expect, and so do the characters on the opposite side. He becomes a villain because it would never occur to him to become anything else. The weight of an entire century of cultural expectation is hanging over this character, and Shakespeare twists it such that we the audience become complicit in every murder Richard commits.

He took the great bugbear of the fifteenth century and turned him into a charming, dangerous, and utterly fascinating man that I, for one, could watch for hours without being bored.

But the fact is that when Richard finally claws his way to the English throne, he has absolutely no idea what to do with it, or with himself. He has nowhere to go except deeper into himself, and that ultimately destroys him.

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high'st degree
Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! guilty!
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself? (R3, V.iii.194-204)

But, although we don't pity him in the end, I at least am rather sad to see him go. Richmond just isn't even a tenth as fun as Richard, and I have the feeling Shakespeare was being very deliberate in that.

Day #1: Your favourite play - Othello and Richard III
Day #2: Your favourite character - Lady Elizabeth Grey in 3 Henry VI and Richard III
Day #3: Your favourite hero - Othello
Day #4: Your favourite heroine - Juliet from Romeo and Juliet and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing
Day #5: Your favorite villain - Richard of Gloucester
Day #6: Your favourite villainess female villain
Day #7: Your favourite clown
Day #8: Your favourite comedy
Day #9: Your favourite tragedy
Day #10: Your favourite history
Day #11: Your least favourite play
Day #12: Your favourite scene
Day #13: Your favourite romantic scene
Day #14: Your favourite fight scene
Day #15: The first play you read
Day #16: Your first play you saw
Day #17: Your favourite speech
Day #18: Your favourite dialogue
Day #19: Your favourite movie version of a play
Day #20: Your favourite movie adaptation of a play
Day #21: An overrated play
Day #22: An underrated play
Day #23: A role you've never played but would love to play
Day #24: An actor or actress you would love to see in a particular role
Day #25: Sooner or later, everyone has to choose: Hal or Falstaff?
Day #26: Your favourite couple
Day #27: Your favourite couplet
Day #28: Your favourite joke
Day #29: Your favourite sonnet
Day #30: Your favourite single line
Current Location:
Current Mood:
hot hot
Current Music:
Edith Piaf - Cri du cœur
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On 25th July 2010 00:50 (UTC), gileonnen commented:
That last soliloquy that you quoted has always haunted me--I got to that point in the play and had to sit back and wait until my own depression had abated a little, because the end of that was just so perfectly my inner monologue when I was/am depressed that it struck me like a blow.
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On 25th July 2010 01:07 (UTC), lareinenoire replied:
Oh, it is just incredible, isn't it? Richard's inner demons are so very real and Shakespeare depicts them so very, very well. Especially the line about his conscience having a thousand tongues that just won't shut up.

And I have those days as well. ::hugs::
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On 25th July 2010 01:09 (UTC), gileonnen replied:
I am curious to see whether we can get across-the-board Richard IIIs for 'favourite villain.' I know he's mine.
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On 25th July 2010 01:14 (UTC), lareinenoire replied:
Hee! Well, we are three-for-three so far! And he is just such a brilliant villain. Iago is the only one who can give him anywhere near a run for his money, and Iago isn't nearly as much fun for an audience.
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On 26th July 2010 18:46 (UTC), tiggerbone commented:
You absolutely must read Kill Shakespeare. I think you will like this Richard.
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On 26th July 2010 20:51 (UTC), tiggerbone commented:
Here is a link to the Kill Shakespeare webpage.
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