Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die:
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain to-day instead of him.
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
— Richard III, Act V, Scene 4
At long last, we come to the end of The Hollow Crown cycle, Shakespeare’s depiction of The Wars of the Roses. Before we start digging, it’s important to remind people of two points. The first is that the Henry VI plays and this one were written and performed prior to the “prequel plays” of Richard II through Henry V. The second is that Shakespeare has used all of these plays, as well as King John before them, to point at Elizabeth I and her Tudor dynasty as having broken the covenant of God by having usurped the throne, resulting in the Reformation taking root in England.
Being a closet Catholic, Shakespeare would see imagery and symbolism in everything, and he’d make that known to those in his audience with ears to hear his message. He would have to do this on the sly, however, lest he end up arrested and executed as a traitor. This meant walking an incredibly fine line that paints the Plantagenet / York line — the rightful and legitimate scions to the throne of England (regardless of any personal feelings) — as the villains, while the Lancastrian / Tudor line — the usurpers — are cast as heroic (again, regardless of any personal feelings). It’s all in presenting Her Royal Highness with what she wanted to see while sending a more subversive message to those who shared the Bard’s Catholicism and traditional values. Keep in mind, the presentations of these plays were in forum, with the nobility up in the boxes, and the groundlings being the ones truly being “educated” through the plays. It’s not as though the manuscripts were being studied in some scholarly fashion as they are today by those who would “see justice done” against the Bard. It makes an impression, slowly, deliberately, across a handful of performances, different plays, and several years. If Henry V could be regarded as the pinnacle of heroism and righteousness (and still Catholic , that missing component from the Tudor repertoire that allowed a monarch from a usurping line to otherwise rule in grace), then Richard III has been cast by Shakespeare and through other Tudor propaganda as one of the greatest dramatic villains ever crafted for the stage. Indeed, Richard III is so successful in creating a monster that could rival anything from Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory that modern film adaptations have continued the legacy the Bard began, to the point where man and monster are indistinguishable to many. It’s only truly in the wake of the rediscovery of his lost skeleton that science and history have started to undo the damage that Shakespeare leveled at the man so that we could begin to see him for who he really may have been, flaws included.
Much like with the Bard’s portrayal of Joan of Arc in Henry VI, Part I, history bends to political savagery in the name of dramatic spectacle, made more dynamic by modern perception. Joan made out the better for it despite Shakespeare’s attempts, but Richard remained ever the villain by the deeds named to him in the play. For example, in the Middle Ages, murdering children of a rival dynasty was seen as commonplace and expected. After all, those children today would grow up to become tomorrow’s powerful rivals. Today, there’s hardly anything as inconceivably evil as something like that. If you’ll forgive a more modern reference, there’s a reason Darth Vader’s first marching orders from his Sith master was to exterminate even the children at the Jedi Temple. We owe that sort of story point to Shakespeare’s Richard III. Like Darth Vader, the key to the Bard’s interpretation of Richard is his isolation from everything — his family, his people, his very morality. Even though no one truly knows if the historical Richard had anything to do with the fate of the Princes in the Tower, Shakespeare’s Richard “sacrifices” the princes to his evil ends, keeping the rightful heirs still in line with the appointment to the throne with God while putting all hellish focus onto Richard’s ambition. More fuel for the pyre. This complete isolation will result in paranoia of such magnitude that it will lead to his inevitable and perceived “righteous” undoing at the hands of Henry Tudor, thus making it seem that all is once more in balance with Heaven. England prevails. To the Bard, that’s really not the case. To Elizabeth, it’s precisely the sort of thing that appeases a Tudor-sized ego. The party line is toed, but the truth remains that the Queen is from a line of traitors. That, my friends, is a legendary juggling act.
Keep in mind that when Elizabeth’s infamous father tore down the monasteries, Richard’s “final” resting place was among the carnage. Even in death, Richard was isolated from all things good and just, resulting in the discovery of his bones under a car park over 500 years later. With the body disposed, all the remained were the shreds of reputation. Shakespeare made short work of that.
Sequels are always inferior to the originals, right? Even our own modern culture sticks with that assumption despite evidence to the contrary. The proof is out there for anyone to see, and yet nobody looks at it. Distortions become generalizations, and generalizations become “facts.” This is how public perception is created and perpetuated on memes. If it’s right there in plain view to see or to read, it must be true! In the ages before Facebook and Twitter, a play was most effective propaganda, just as films continue to be. Four hundred years before The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II proved what sequels were capable of achieving, Richard III had a rapt audience who were already primed on his Henry VI plays. What’s most fascinating is that Shakespeare was using this sort of distorted view in his play while painting Richard as doing the exact same things, twisting the truth to his own ends to achieve power. The difference, of course, is that Richard could monologue his truest evil self to the audience, letting everyone in on every detail. And, of course, Shakespeare is showing us he’s demonizing his king. If you strip away the talent of the Bard and the actors who have given us these fantastic portrayals over the years, the cartoon character that remains is essentially the prototypical — and now stereotypical — mustache-twirling Snydley Whiplash who ties his victims to railroad tracks and laughs maniacally into the camera. The Bard made it work on paper, and the actors who have breathed life in to this portrayal time and again have elevated Richard to epic villain status, right there alongside the Wicked Witch of the West. This is truly some scene-chewing greatness.
So now that we’ve covered what the play is designed to accomplish and how well it did so, let’s discuss the work itself.
England is at relative peace following the long and bloody civil war between the Houses York and Lancaster. Edward IV sits upon the throne, his younger brother Richard resenting every moment of it. Shakespeare’s Richard is as deformed within as without, cruel and ambitious, heedless of all who stand in his way to take the throne for himself. He manipulates Lady Anne into marriage, has his older brother Clarence executed, and pins the crime on King Edward so as to accelerate the king’s infirmities that will lead to sickness and death. Upon that death, Richard is named Lord Protector of England, a position meant to be held only until Edward’s eldest son comes of age and assumes the throne for himself. But Richard is only just beginning his treachery. The nobles loyal to Edward’s little princes are killed, and the princes’ relatives on their mother’s side are arrested and executed. This and further hardship will have later ramifications as Elizabeth Woodville (the mother and former queen) is nothing if not vindictive. She’s seen some things, after all. Led by Lord Buckingham, Richard’s allies volley to have Richard crowned. For their “protection,” Edward’s young heirs are locked in the Tower; murderers are hired to dispose of them.
The reign of terror that ensues results in the people hating and fearing him. Worse, it separates him from the noblemen who are needed to support his campaign. Rumors begin to circulate that the Earl of Richmond, Henry Tudor, is gathering forces in France in order to invade England and stage a coup, and many nobles defect en masse to join them. Richard’s depravity continues. He has his wife murdered so as to marry young Elizabeth of York (Edward and Elizabeth’s eldest daughter, thus further legitimizing his claim to the throne despite being her uncle). Queen Elizabeth is able to stop the marriage, but upon all she’s endured, she promises in secret to marry her daughter off to Richmond.
Richmond invades England. The night before the battle, Richard is plagued by terrible dreams whereby the ghosts of those he has murdered rise and curse him. Richard falls in battle the next day, his evils finally at an end. Richmond is crowed King Henry VII and is betrothed to young Elizabeth of York so as to unite the warring houses of York and Lancaster and bring about a lasting peace and a new golden age for England.
As with any of Shakespeare’s plays, the key to getting the most out of them is to pick out the themes and motifs that make the story and characters work. It’s not enough to dramatize events. Themes and motifs are all about the next-level resonances that keep these plays alive today.
If there’s one thing a Catholic like Shakespeare will understand, it’s the idea of evil wearing the mask of good. The Bard’s Richard is about as diabolical as they come. He may not present as a portrait of comeliness, but he is a master manipulator, pouring honeyed words into ears of anyone who will listen. His charisma is strong enough to bend people, and otherwise good and honest types end up turning a blind eye to misdeeds simply because such ideas do not line up with their perceptions of Richard. It creates a kind of cognizant dissonance that people cannot reconcile. Politicians through the ages use that sort of thing all the time. In this case, it’s a complete captivation that holds even the audience spellbound. We can see all of his machinations, but he’s such an incredible villain, we love to watch him work and want to see more of it.
Related to that, the power of language is Richard’s — and Shakespeare’s — stock in trade. Some of the most fantastic verse I’ve yet encountered in the Bard’s work come from this play, most of it in service to Richard’s manipulations. One telltale point: the princes are able to see through Richard and match his wordplay, confirming that it’s not just their bloodline that makes them the threat they represent to his power an aspirations.
As with all of the historical plays we’ve seen, Shakespeare takes a very Arthurian tact in uniting the power of the throne with the land and its people. These are one concept, together. A ruler who is morally righteous equals a state that prospers for the good of all. One such as Richard is a poison. These themes are strong enough to bear repeating in some of the Bard’s most powerful plays, such as Hamlet and Macbeth. The commoners in this play are portrayed as intelligent and even politically savvy, mounting their fear and distrust of Richard before the nobles do.
The power of the supernatural holds sway in Elizabethan England, for crown and commoner alike. Shakespeare employs these elements here in abundance to heighten the sense of impending dread at all turns, from ghosts to curses to dreams. Richard himself is identified with the devil more than once.
Because Medieval heraldry is fun, I always get a kick out of seeing when the symbolism of a character matches. In this case, Richard’s heraldic emblem is the boar. Out where my parents live, wild boars are numerous, so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to put this together. In fact, it was on a visit out there that I first began dipping my toes into this play, which helped to put this together. Boars are truly ugly creatures, and they do massive amounts of damage in a matter of seconds to a stretch of land they invade. They are untamed, uncontrollable, and answer to nothing resembling hierarchical authority even in their own ranks. Everything to them is primal instinct, forward driven, and they will push aside anything in their path, often violently. If that doesn’t fit Richard to a T, I don’t know what does.
In the final analysis (for this project, anyway), Richard III is a play that will live in infamy. The Bard’s evisceration of Richard’s character is so total and complete, even newly discovered historical fact will forever live in the shadow of this tale. The best case scenario is that the two concepts will be taught side by side, and even then, the Bard will win simply on account of showmanship. All the same, he points out that Richard wrongfully usurped the throne. Rightful bloodline or no, the throne was not his to take, nor was it Henry’s, and nor is it Elizabeth’s to keep. There’s enough subversion and backpedaling going on that Shakespeare will keep his head and outlive Elizabeth. As I keep alluding, I have nothing but respect for anyone who can pull off so bold and reckless a tap dance, especially in so volatile an era.
While this completes The Hollow Crown cycle for us on this project, there is still one more play in the line of those listed as the historical plays: Henry VIII. What does a direct look at the Tudor line actually look like through the Bard’s eye? We’ll find out next time when this project continues.