While Reading Richard III

You’re expected to think deep thoughts while reading Hamlet, but Richard III is a crowd-pleaser, Shakespeare’s first big hit on the stage, so herewith a series of thoughtlets.

Shakespeare is famous for insults, but this play specializes in curses. There are a few good insults, of course. Richard calls Queen Margaret a “foul, wrinkled witch.” That sets the tone for that relationship. But the curses are almost as evil as the deeds, “Die neither mother, wife, nor England’s queen!,” Queen Margaret says, wishing the deaths of Queen Elizabeth’s father, sons, and husband.

Some of Shakespeare’s plays are more accessible than others. This one is pretty good, though keeping track of four kings, two queens, two near-queens (dead and promised, respectively), and innumerable lords gets a bit old. It would be easier to understand if Richard 3.0 directly followed Richard 2.0. But then we’d have betas. Dang.

Is it time for a new book of management ideology? The main challenge in writing Management Secrets of Richard III would be getting 300 pages out of “demand total loyalty, lie to everyone, kill anyone in your way.”

In Act 3, Scene 7 Richard makes a tremendously risky and confident move. Almost every obstacle between him and the throne is dead or locked away, so he refuses it and makes them beg. His false objections are a hint of truth, “Alas, why would you heap this care on me? / I am unfit for state and majesty.” When he finally agrees, he claims that the blame lies on them if it all goes wrong. Suckers.

The history of actors playing Richard seems to be a continuing struggle to rise above chewing the scenery. The part invites several kinds of overacting, but also allows very different interpretations. It must be a real thrill to nail that part.

Richard Plantagenet was born October 2, 1452, Niccolò Machiavelli on May 3, 1469. It is a shame that they never met. Niccolò had the theory, Richard the practice.

The play isn’t history, Richard couldn’t have been that evil. It is based on seriously biased Tudor histories. That makes it more fun, like listening to the home-town radio announcers for baseball instead of the carefully even-handed TV commentators. Before every Rice football game they’d tell us “No cheering in the pressbox,” but that didn’t stop us from writing how the dominant Owls crushed the hapless Horned Frogs.

I’m not especially happy with the notes in this edition (Signet), about a third of them are things I don’t need to be told, and there are quite a few mysteries without notes. I guess it is back to the Arden Shakespeare. More expensive, but worth it.

Many Shakespeare plays are just full of lines that are widely quoted. Beyond “this is the winter of our discontent” and “my kingdom for a horse,” there aren’t many in Richard III. Those two are the first line of the play and the last of the second to last act, Richard’s first and last lines — clearly Shakespeare knew when to play his best cards.

The pacing is interesting in Act 5. The last two scenes are extremely short, 13 and 40 lines to cover the final clash between Richard and Richmond, Richard’s death, and Richmond’s closing speech. If those were preceded by normal action, the play would feel cut short, unfinished. But the scene before delays the clash is a parade of ghosts who recapitulate Richard’s murders, something that would usually be done in a final speech. We are held at the high point of tension, and the shock of the final scenes can hit with full force.

These are not subtle or especially deep characters. Richard is broadly drawn, with some shreds of humanity, but the other characters are pretty shallow. Mostly, we get to watch them get sucked into the evil vortex that is Richard and see how much they struggle against it. They each get their turn, but it is all about Richard.

Update: A few hours after I posted this, I read about a Shakespeare-themed virtual world. The first play they’ll tackle is Richard III.

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