Monday, June 23, 2014

Richard III

"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York;"

Written in approximately 1592, Shakespeare's play based on the life of England's King Richard III is one of power, fate, murder, sorrow, and liberation.  Following both Richards bloody, almost secretive rise to power and his short reign, the play defines him and determines how people will think of him for centuries to come.

The Plot:

The wars between the House of Lancaster and the House of York have seemingly come to and end with the defeat of Henry VI.  Richard, Duke of Gloucester, a younger brother of the new king, laments his physical condition as a deformed hunchback.  He proclaims himself a villain to the audience and seeks to gain the crown for himself.  Though the nobles of the kingdom are warned of Richard's intentions by the former queen, Margaret, Richard is able to charm them all into believing he has only the best intentions.

One by one, he is able to remove those who stand between him and the throne.  Too late do those around him realize that he will stop at nothing to seize it.  But even once the crown is his, he is not safe as a new threat in the shape of Henry Tudor emerges from France.  Deserted by those around him, Richard seeks to retain the throne he gained by the blood of others.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I've read a number of Shakespeare plays, but this is without a doubt my favorite so far.  I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it from the classic struggle for power to the immortal lines from Shakespeare's pen.  This is certainly one I see myself indulging in over and over again.

I think the most striking thing about this play is the character of Richard himself.  From the very first soliloquy, he admits to the audience that he is a villain who will stop at nothing to steal the throne for himself.  And yet at the same time we feel ourselves drawn to him.  Perhaps it is his deformities which he blames for his lot in life.  Perhaps it is his witty charm and magnetism.  Perhaps it is because he speaks to us directly.  For whatever reason we cannot simply loathe him and our feelings become very complicated.  I think it is very telling that some editions refer to this play as the "Tragedy of Richard III" rather than the "History of Richard III".  You can certainly see how this character has affected our modern portrayals of villains in stories (I'm thinking especially of Loki in Thor and The Avengers). 

Of course, this magentism is really only a factor in the first half of the play.  As time goes on, Richard speaks less and less directly with the audience.  We begin to view him only through his actions and their affect on others which are not good.  Slowly he is becoming the pure villain he always claimed to be, desperately struggling to retain the throne he stole.  It is also clear by the end that Henry Tudor is our new hero.  We see him riding in to free England from Richard's tyranny and bring peace to the land by marrying a daughter of the House of York.  In one of the best scenes in the play, the ghosts of those whom Richard has murdered simultaneously curse him and bless Henry Tudor.  The transformation of Richard to evil personified and the House of Tudor to England's saving grace is complete.

I honestly can't recommend this play highly enough.  If you love English history, political intrigue, and complicated anti-heros, then this is for you.  A must read for anyone who is trying out Shakespeare!

The Performance:

 Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed.  Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.

I watched the 1955 film version starring Sir Laurence Olivier.  Though there are some scenes/characters that are cut, it is still considered by many to be the definitive version.  Olivier, of course, delivers Shakespeare's lines with ease and his portrayal of the deformed king is now what most people think of when they hear the play's title.  A great version of an amazing play.

Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it below!     


hopeinbrazil said...

Thanks for recommending this play that I am not too familiar with. I'll be adding it to my TBR list.

Hannah said...

I read this play when I was at university and I enjoyed it well enough but your review is really making me want to read it again. I was bogged down with work at the time and I don't think I was able to appreciate it as much as I should have.

Excited for Benedict Cumberbatch's Richard III? ;)

bookwormans said...

Oh, I am simply beside myself over the idea of BC as Richard. If anyone can play a villain that you love, he can!