Wednesday 25 January 2012

Devouring Books: Richard III by William Shakespeare

Shocking Confession: I had never read a Shakespeare History before last week. I know, shocking right?! As it turns out, actually, although I love and admire Shakespeare, and I kind of go on about him sometimes, I have, in fact, only read 9 of his plays. Including this one. I was sort of perplexed when I figured this out, but the thing is that the ones I had read before this here Shakespeare month, I'd read at least twice, and so apparently I'm not a venturer out on Shakespeare? Which makes sense- I mean, no matter how much I love him, I still think it's difficult to read Shakespeare, and so it's not necessarily something I'm going to do on my own all the time, which is why Allie's Shakespeare Reading Month has been so good for me! (And now she's extended it, I'm planning on reading two more plays before it's over, so that'll bring my numbers up *does a little achievement dance*). Anyway, so that's my dirty little Shakespeare secret- now let's move on to Richard III shall we?

Before reading this, all I knew about it was how horribly historically inaccurate it was- I did Tudor History at college (English college, that is, rather than the American college, which is our University...) and we did a tiny bit on how Henry VII came to the throne, and all I can really remember about Richard III is how wrong the Shakespeare play was about him. Which is fully understandable- Shakespeare was writing this at a time when a Tudor was on the throne (Elizabeth I's grandad basically de-throned Richard) so any other perspective on him other than his utter evil would have essentially been treason (suggesting that he deserved the throne would certainly have been) and so going with the legend rather than the facts was probably a good idea- both for the sake of his head, and for literary history. Just not for actual history, and in defence of that I just want to keep in mind that while Richard III is AWESOME, it's not really what actually happened. Necessarily...

So, Richard III. Where to begin? I have no idea. Before I read it, I tweeted that I wanted to read a History, and nobody suggested anything but Richard III to me. And my god, do those people know their shit! I was blown away- the language, the monologues (oh MAN, the monologues!) the raw ambition, the scheming, the plotting, the cunning, the insults, the hatred, the war, the murders! I mean, this play had everything except love, and who needs that when you're reading about a weird looking, power hungry megalomaniac?! I'm going to admit that I felt the tiniest bit sorry for Richard when he described himself thusly:
"I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made-up"
Because, aw, no one should think of themselves as being hideous; but most all of my sympathy faded riiight around the time he had his brother murdered because he wanted the crown for himself. I mean, he might be all insecure and sad that he's really really deformed, but that doesn't mean he has to "prove a villain/ And hate the idle pleasures of these days." Really, Richard, not cool.

Richard III is such a villain though, and he's probably the best one I can think of! He never relents on his end goal of seizing power over the country, and continually manoeuvres situations, peoples lives, stuff like that, in order to get what he wants. In doing this, he loses the support of everyone he knows, his mother constantly moans about him ("He is my son- ay, and therein my shame.") and with any other character, I might be tempted to go 'hey, wait a minute...' and feel sorry for them, but with Richard? It pretty much seems to be what he deserves. He is, to put it mildly, the most villainous of all villains who ever villained BUT, crucially, this is never done in a pantomime villain type-way, so you still have to take him seriously (as, I imagine, you do with anyone who's killing off members of the Royal family, and, almost more importantly, but easy to forget, his own family. Cold hearted bastard that he is!) So, in one way all this villainy is fun because it's a real look at someone who is seemingly without a conscience (more on that later) and who will do anything to get what he wants (Literally anything). BUT if you think about it too deeply and consider that all these deaths actually happened then shit all gets a bit too real, which is why it's sort of great to remember that it's fiction, not real. Ahhh, doesn't everyone feel better now?

Enough with all this though, let's talk about the women now, shall we? To be honest, I was surprised there were women having any role at all in things in Richard III, considering that monarchy generally revolves around the actions of men, and the men who help those men. Nonetheless, there are scenes completely dominated by females- the women who have allowed bad things to happen to improve their own status, the women wronged against by having their husbands and sons killed- women are really just the detritus left behind after the men are done being dicks and killing each other. So, each of them has their sorrows, and as the play goes on they have extra sorrows, and by the end you really have to feel sorry for them, whatever role they've played in proceedings (especially the absent princess, Elizabeth, who, it seems at one point, is going to have to marry her exceedingly ugly, and, you know, evil UNCLE Richard...) I do have issues with Anne though, because at the beginning she's all 'oh I could never marry you, you SCUM' (MUCH more eloquently, obviously) since Richard's killed her husband and all, but then when we see her again, she actually is married to Richard- it's all very odd, and we obviously can't see his amazing wooing skills because we're supposed to hate him; but they must be something, you have to give him that!

I have to talk about the last scene and then I'll be done, and look away now if you don't want to know how it ends (hint: Villains never win. Ever.) I was so so impressed by the final scene, and honestly, by that point, I didn't know how I could be more impressed by Richard III than I already was. Here's how: When all the ghosts of all the people murdered by Richard were cursing him and wishing him ill, I could really see how effective a scene it must be, not only now when ghosts can be all see-through and things, but also in Elizabethan times, when even then, just with a little flour or something, this scene could be wholly creepy and effective. I just thought it was amazing and effective and just actual pure brilliance. Obviously, because it's Shakespeare, but still- he really outdid himself! And then, after all that, Richard gains some much needed clarity, a moment where he realises 'what was it all for?', and reveals himself to be human, after all:
"What? Do I fear myself? There's none else by
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
And if I die, no soul shall pity me.
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I
Find in myself no pity for myself?"
He sees himself for what he really is, and he doesn't forgive himself, because, how could he? But at the same time he realises that, if there's no one to mourn for him after he's dead, then what was the point of gaining everything that he did? It's poignant, and even though you still sort of want Richard to die, it would be easier if he'd done it without this moment of clarity.

So, Richard III. You should probably read it, because it's a masterpiece, and I'm definitely glad I did. Round of applause to my personal Shakespeare advisers, because they really really know what they're talking about when it comes to Shakespeare. It may be the second longest play (after Hamlet, which you should also probably read) but it's worth the effort and the time it takes to read it- it gives you waaay more than you put into it. Just remember- it's not historically accurate. I mean, no one's ever been that ugly...


  1. I've got to say that Shakespeare's historical plays were always my least favorite. I found them to be dull compared to this comedies and tragedies.. that's just me though. I'm happy you liked this one!

    1. Hey, I'm not sayin they're not- this is the only one I've read, and from what I've heard it's the best one, so I'm willing to accept the others are boring! This is really great though :).

  2. The most villainy-es villain that ever villained yes! I love this play probably because it's so unlike a history. Plus I read this in class and we compared Richard to Iago as an example of the scheming Machiavellian character, and I love Iago so how could I not love Richard too.

    If you get a chance you should check out the movie Looking for Richard. It's Pacino and a bunch of actors going over the "actor's process" putting on Richard III. The scene of Richard woo-ing Anne is awesome. And I love that Richard seems just as confused that his woo-ing worked as you are, cos really, wtf Anne??

  3. I was totally thinking about how much Richard reminded me of Iago! Seriously- SUCH good characters! Anne is clearly insane/super-duper unable to look after herself... that just annoyed me so (that maaay have been one of the historically accurate things though, so we can't really say too much about it, I guess!)

    Also, Pacino is the greatest! I will definitely be on the look out for that movie!

  4. I had no idea this one was so good. Then again, before this month there was a whole lot I didn't know about Shakespeare. I'll have to put this on my list for next year. My brain needs a bit of a rest.

  5. I swore I would stay from Shakespeare plays after Shakespeare Reading Month, but your post makes me want to download Richard III from Project Gutenberg. Right now. Richard III sounds like a deliciously evil villain, and I learned a lot from your post about the historical context of the play.