Tuesday, September 15, 2009

4. Richard III

1. Sentences That Eat Themselves

The opening of Richard III is an example of my favorite kind of sentence: Sentences that eat themselves. “Now is the winter of our discontent” sounds pretty depressing and threatening, but by the second line it turns into something else: positive. It continues: “…made sunny and bright by York’s ascension to the throne” or something like that. (My book is behind me as I write and I’m too lazy to get it – it’s the first part of the sentence that is famous enough to quote from memory).

Of course, the first part of the sentence remains, even after it is negated, negative – Richard is discontented. You’re supposed to have that impression. I just love a sentence that unexpectedly changes meaning in midstream.

2. At last, strong language

There is a light year of difference between Henry VI (1-3) and Richard III, which some scholars assume were the first plays Shakespeare wrote. The difference is so great and so easy to see that some scholars think Shakespeare didn’t write the Henry VI plays, or only a very small part of them (most likely there was at least one other collaborator involved). The language in Richard is immensely strong and clear. Shakespeare is absolutely confident here, you can feel it. It’s hard for me to say exactly how he does it, but every sentence that Richard speaks in his monologues and throughout the play is not only loaded with evil, which is what most people notice about it, but with strength and clarity. It’s the language itself, the choice of words, the ways Shakespeare puts the sentences together – it is as if in Henry VI he was goofing around, trying things out, laying with the hammer and nails instead of using them; in Richard III every nail is pounded in with a single beat of the hammer, it’s amazing.

The contrast works not only comparing Richard III to the Henry VI plays – it works within Richard III as well. The dialogue of the other characters, the Yorkists he is about to murder, is uncertain and blathering, like it was in Henry VI. It’s like the characters themselves inspire Shakespeare or not: Richard inspired him and Richard’s language is stunning; the Lancastrians and Yorkists in general did not inspire him, and their language is indecisive, repetitive and moaning.

3. Court of Weaklings

Did I mention that all the other Yorkists and Lancastrians – the court of the king that Richard III murders – are a bunch of whiney indecisive fawning wordy boring shallow spineless moaning slackers? It’s not only that Shakespeare paints them this way, to contrast with Richard, they were this way in the Henry VI trilogy and they are just bring to see on stage. From the viewpoint of the audience, that has to sit through all their “sweet cousin” s and “your most loyal servant” s, they all deserve to die. If I were the stage director I would just let a piano fall on them from the rafters in the middle of their speeches and get it over with.

4. Where’s the Antagonist?

What this means is that Richard has no antagonist that can be taken seriously.

I’ve always loved the idea of stories without a “bad guy.” The reason, I suppose, is that I grew up on Hollywood movies, most of which have a clear antagonist/bad guy, and in action moves that bad guy not only follows goals that are somehow disadvantageous to our hero, they are personally evil. That’s one of the reason I am fascinated by the Nibelungenlied: It does fine without a bad guy. All its characters that fight each other are all about the same in terms of good/evil and in terms of whether their cause is just. There is no moral reckoning there. No one spends a lot of time biting the heads off chickens; they’re just caught up in a major conflict of interest. It’s a purely political story.

Richard III manages to do without an antagonist and at the same time be a moral tale.

Sure, Richmond pops up in the end to defeat him in battle, yes, but he’s just the means to defeat in the end, not a player all the way through the play. It is clear to us by then that Richard is his own worst enemy: The reason Richmond defeats him is that all his allies have fled to Richmond’s side. Richard’s sheer evil-ness carried him to the throne, but it also destroyed him. Caesar would have turned around after conquering his enemies and showered them with gifts and shown the world what a nice guy he is and been generous and bought all his former allies; Richard is not evil for the sake of power, he is evil for the sake of evil, and that is his undoing. Thus, Richard III is a morality play in an almost Protestant sense: “Look at him, he is evil, do not follow in his footsteps.”

5. Minor character steals the show

One morning, I woke up bitter and depressed – things weren’t going as fast or as good as they should and I was feeling old and as if everything was passing me by; I felt like I was treading water, I felt like a failure.

Then I read Queen Margaret.

Up to now, Margaret has not been a very fascinating character. In the Henry VI trilogy, she is basically the bitchy wife for whom Henry can never do anything good enough and who takes things into her own hands but isn’t really very effective either. In Richard III, she appears to complain about her loss and woe and about everyone else, and that’s really all she does. You can’t take her seriously because you think: Why is she still hanging around? She never really liked it here in the first place, and all she’s doing now is complaining. She’s like a ghost.

But now, after Richard III is crowned and kills the two cousins in the Tower and everyone knows he is evil, Elisabeth and the Duchess come to the Tower to mourn the boys’ death and Margaret pops up. Now, of course, instead of despising her, the Duchess and Elisabeth have a lot in common with her, and they listen.

What comes now really surprised me. Margaret has a long overblown speech about how everyone is so nasty and then the other two women says: Wow, you’re really good at moaning and groaning, teach us how to do that. And in a very short – to short – speech, Margaret maps out how to complain:

Forbear to sleep the nights and fast the days;
Compare dead happiness with living woe;
Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were,
And he that slew them fouler than he is:
Bettering thy loss makes the bad-causer worse.
Revolving this will teach you how to curse.

Image: Queen Margaret of Anjou

It’s like an tiny instruction manual about blowing up your own woe into a thing so big everyone has to notice, whether there’s any reason to or not. I had to think of the RAF – the German terrorist group Red Army Fraction – who went grew up in and lived in a wealthy, democratic, well-functioning society without any real cares and hated every minute of it. The only thing they were right about was: 1) German society in the 70s was capitalistic, but already then it was very clear that life under Communism was much worse and 2) there were still a lot of Nazis around and the Nazi generation had never come clean and said Mea Culpa and asked their grandchildren for forgiveness.

Comparing that to life, say, in Africa, those two complaints are pretty minor. Sure, the young generation had a feeling that the media and political structures were so overbearing and rigid that they would never change without some kind of radical solution, and that was partly true, but calling for a revolution in order to point out that the older generation was a bunch of Nazis – that seems like taking a bazooka to swat a fly.

And you can say the same thing about a thousand different complaints all around the world – the actual injustice that people are complaining about is often miniscule compared with the excitement and indignation the protesters get caught up in.

That’s the Margaret Syndrome: Take some grievance you have and completely exaggerate it as well and as loud and as long as you can and you will get attention. Make it your hobby, make it the contents of your life, make it your cause and the philosophy of your soul. (It’s not that Margaret wasn’t right about Richard being evil – it was that she was no better, and that the Duchess and Elizabeth probably could have stopped Richard long ago if they had wanted, but they didn’t make a move, and now their only recourse is to play the victims.)

I read this, thought of my complaints about my own bitter failed life, and said to myself: This is not what I want to be.

6. The Asides

Here’s one of Shakespeare’s weaknesses: He’s in love with himself.

All writers are, of course, and all writers are afraid that the reader won’t notice how brilliant they are, how ironic, how subtle, so they find ways to repeat their subtlety until the reader finally gets it, and to point out their irony so the reader doesn’t pass it over. Shakespeare also does this.

In Richard III he shows how evil Richard is and then Richard pretending to be god and righteous and even quoting scripture to fool all his enemies into trusting him. We see him do it. We’re not stupid, we know he’s dissembling, we know he’s pretending to be good while being evil and doing it well. Then he turns to the audience and tells us how evil he is and that he’s just pretending to be good and isn’t it clever that he, such an evil guy, is quoting scripture to pretend to be good?

I say, without characters fame lives long
[aside] Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word.

That’s the writer thinking: I wonder if they got the irony? I’d better point it out to them, just in case.

7. Why this murder scene and not another?

It’s interesting to see what Shakespeare chooses to show and what not. Early on he has a very moving and beautifully-written scene where Clarence is murdered in the Tower. Clarence is imprisoned, he wakes up from a nightmare and relates it in detail to his jailor, then is murderers come in and he tries to reason with them and they even show a bit of conscience (there’s even some humor here – they are the Laurel and Hardy of assassins),and then Clarence dies.

A few scenes later, the two young princes are also murdered in the Tower. As victims, these boys are much more emotionally involving than Clarence, but we don’t see the scene: It is reported. (To be fair: Clarence is Richard’s brother, but to see, onstage, two little kids pleading for their lives – that’s 50% more ticket sales right there.) There are more murders to come, and we don’t see any of them. Shakespeare chose to show the first one and just report the others.

The structural reason of course is so that he doesn’t repeat himself the whole time. You see one murder, you’ve seen them all. But why show Clarence and not the far more emotional murder of the boys? Was it chance? Did Shakespeare just say: We show the first murder, then no others. Was it the audience? Was Shakespeare writing for a political-savvy audience that knew about Clarence’s historical reputation as a politician? (Clarence existed, played an important role in the War of the Roses, was tried for treason and drowned in a vat of wine – though Shakespeare’s audience might not have known all the details, they knew about him and that he was an important historical character.)

Maybe he didn’t want the play to dip from political into sentimental, with the murder of young innocents being just too sob-worthy for his adult audience to take seriously. One way or the other, it makes the play a bit more adult: After all, in writing his historical plays, one of the goals Shakespeare is trying for it to tell a little bit about history in some way. Going for a politically important character treats the whole thing a little more seriously.

Image: George of York, Duke of Clarence

8. Two Nightmares

There are two dreams (or waking-up-from-dreaming passages) that are handled differently and are very interesting.

The other is early on: Clarence relates his nightmare to his jailor about drowning and seeing all kinds of things underwater. Bloom loves this passages, and it’s a great passage, one of the three or four best in the play.

The second right at the end: Richard wakes up on the eve of the final battle with self-doubts and questions who he is and why he is evil and is a bit confused. It’s his dark hour.

The difference is interesting for writers: Clarence’s nightmare is stronger, because it’s more concrete and has more tactile imagery – it’s full of fish eating eyeballs out of eye sockets and all that. Richard’s dream on the other hand is pure abstraction, it’s like he just got out of therapy. He’s all, “Who am I?” etc.

It’s what the Germans call “Bauchnabelschau” – navel-gazing. (Hey, we English-speakers call it that too!) And that’s the second problem with it: First, it’s too abstract without sensory images, and second, it’s nothing special. We all feel sorry for ourselves all the time, we all indulge in navel-gazing, and seeing it on the stage is nothing special. Seeing Richard in the beginning scenes talk about destroying the entire world – that was abstract too, but it was interesting. It’s something we don’t all do every day. But navel-gazing – we know all about that already, thanks.

There’s something else about that last dream.

Bloom hates it. I wasn’t so sure t was that bad the first time I dead it: I read it in Bloom’s synopsis of the play before I read the play itself, so I read the dream passage out of context, and it seemed okay to me. Then I read it in the context of the play and saw that true, it’s bad. The problem is: It breaks character, it even destroys character.

The whole time, we love and hate Richard, we’re fascinated by him. But all of a sudden, he gets up on the stage and tells everyone that he himself is a horrible person and empty inside and that – in moral terms – he deserves to die. What happened to the evil gut chewing up the scenery? That’s the guy we love. We want to see him brawling and cursing and generally being hubristic to the very end. But with this dream, Shakespeare wrote a very Protestant moral ending. It’s like his “asides”, in which he tells the audience what to think. He’s saying: “Dear audience, even Richard, in the end, sees that he himself is a horrible person, so don’t think for a minute that just because you loved him up to now that anything he’s done was worth it. Don’t do this at home!”

9. The Build-Up

I gotta say I really like the almost-end. The last page was a let-down, but the four or five pages before that were elegant and somehow rewarding.

It’s the final battle on Bosworth Field. The two armies gather and we see them the night before the battle. It’s set up so we see them parallel to each other – there are even stage instructions that specify that Richard’s tent is on one side of the stage and Richmond’s on the other. Then they talk to their men, they monologue, they dream.

Shakespeare really takes his time doing this – it’s the build-up and at the same time a kind of elegiac preparation for doom. Build-up for Richmond, doom for Richard. Nothing else in the play is this elegant – there’s symmetry to it, there is poetry in the scene itself (Shakespeare has written better language elsewhere) and it’s very satisfying.

I don’t know if it was really necessary to send eleven – count ‘em, eleven – ghosts to haunt Richard’s dreams, and of course in the morning he wakes up and his monologue (see above: Nightmares) is a let-down, but the simple fact of the symmetry of the scene and the fact that the battle afterwards (it’s almost non-existent) is far less important to Shakespeare than the build-up before makes this beautiful. It’s the first time he does something this pleasingly-constructed on stage.

It’s the final scene of the War of the Roses – after tomorrow’s battle, the War will be settled for good. It’s not the climactic battle Shakespeare savors, but the peace before the storm. That moment of introspection, that moment where no one on earth knows what the outcome will be, but is determined to take that final step – Shakespeare seems to have chosen that moment as the most human of moments, and it’s certainly the most human in the four War of the Roses plays.

10. Sucking up to Queen Elizabeth

The end deteriorates. From Richard’s dream to the final battle and Richmond’s crowing victory, it becomes clear that Shakespeare has become a patriot. We get preaching about what this means for England. How the terrible day are over at last. And how a new era now begins. It’s the Elizabethan era – Richmond, the Lancastrian, paved the way for the Tudors.

The Richard portrayed by Shakespeare was far more evil than the historical Richard, and the reason is probably that Shakespeare was working from a pro-Tudor/pro-Elizabeth history book, which portrayed Richard as horribly as possible in order to justify his overthrow (he was king, after all) and the ascension of the Tudors. So in retrospect the entire War of the Roses project was really about legitimizing the Tudors, which Shakespeare does most clearly in Richard. He’s sucking up to his queen.

I can imagine that this was very self-affirming for many in Shakespeare’s audience, not only the audience member attached to Tudor politics. It’s patriotic. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it doesn’t age well: Now, the end is just dreary, a let-down, a cop-out.