Richard III (Vol. 73)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Richard III, see SC, Volumes 8, 14, 39, 52, and 62.
The fourth play in Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, Richard III dramatizes the final episode in the English War of the Roses, a dynastic struggle between the rival noble houses of Lancaster and York for control of the English monarchy that raged between 1455 and 1485. Detailing the rise and fall of Richard, duke of Gloucester, Shakespeare's drama takes considerable liberties in the depiction of history, characterizing its protagonist as a deformed, fiendish, and manipulative murderer who is willing to dispose of any man, woman, or child who stands between him and the throne of England. Though crowned king through his skillful machinations, Shakespeare's Richard enjoys his power only briefly before the Lancastrian earl of Richmond mounts an invasion from France destined to depose him. Richard dies in the ensuing Battle of Bosworth Field, and Richmond takes his place as King Henry VII, first of the English Tudor monarchs. While some have noted that Shakespeare's unfavorable portrait of Richard suggests a likely political motivation to please the reigning Elizabeth I, a Tudor queen, most observe that the dramatist's brilliant study of evil in Richard III far outweighs its potentially propagandistic qualities. Nevertheless, a number of late twentieth-century scholars have endeavored to situate the drama within its cultural and historical contexts, while others have continued to focus on Shakespeare's compelling figure of Richard, and the thematic issues that surround him.
Character-aligned study of Richard III, and indeed the vast majority of scholarship regarding the drama, has principally concerned itself with the charismatic villain who dominates the play. Bettie Anne Doebler (1974) follows this tradition by analyzing Richard as an allegorical embodiment of Vice. While Doebler acknowledges that Shakespeare furnished his Richard with an internal dimension, she nevertheless argues that most of his actions and reactions follow conventional patterns and are accompanied by the stock iconography of medieval and early Renaissance drama. Actor Anton Lesser (see Further Reading), who performed the role of Richard in Adrian Noble's 1988 staging of Richard III and its precursor Henry VI, considers the character's psychological motivations and development, and additionally concentrates on Richard's human qualities and the task of winning audience sympathy for him. Richard Marienstras (1995) explores another key element in Richard's characterization: the status of his physical deformity as a humpback. Marienstras studies productions that exaggerate Richard's misshapen form to a monstrous degree, and uses relevant Renaissance texts to reconstruct a multifaceted, symbolic understanding of this horrifying, diabolic, and uncontained stage presence. Among the other characters in Richard III who have elicited significant criticism, the drama's four women—Queen Margaret, Lady Anne, the Duchess of York, and Queen Elizabeth—are often viewed collectively as the play's “grieving chorus.” Penny Downie (1993) describes her interpretation of Queen Margaret for Adrian Noble's production of Richard III in 1988. The actress relates her efforts to humanize Margaret—a figure generally remembered for her mad, cursing speeches—and to convey the emotional gravity of her suffering.
Mirroring the extensive critical focus on the figure of Richard in Richard III, stage production of the drama has traditionally concentrated on this title role, with the quality of Richard's performance generally seen as the major barometer of theatrical success. Additionally, the drama has occupied a unique position between stage and film since Laurence Olivier's pivotal celluloid adaptation of the work in 1955. Olivier, working as both the star and director, created one of the most highly acclaimed and influential Shakespearean films ever produced. In his 2000 study of Richard III on film, Christopher Andrews surveys Olivier's adaptation, as well as other film adaptations of the drama, and analyzes the paths taken by Olivier, and later by actors Ron Cooke and Ian McKellen, in cultivating audience sympathy for Shakespeare's notorious hero-villain. In another look at Richard III on film, Kathy M. Howlett (2000) probes director Richard Loncraine's 1995 adaptation, starring Ian McKellen. Regarding the work's imaginative reconstruction of the past and stylistic setting in fascist, 1930s Europe, Howlett notes a process of deforming and manipulating history suggested in the play and highlighted in Loncraine's film. Turning to Richard III on stage, director Michael Grandage mounted a major theatrical performance of the drama in 2002 at the Crucible Theater in Sheffield. Exploiting the enduring attractiveness of its central role to leading actors, the production featured noted film star Kenneth Branagh as a haughty, calculating, and amoral Richard. Critical assessments of the production generally focus on Branagh's performance. Reviewer Toby Young admires Branagh's repulsive, “reptilian” Richard, but contends that he felt no sympathy for the doomed king. Likewise, Matt Wolf credits Grandage with compiling a satisfying Richard III and lauds Branagh's fascinating stage presence and verbal agility. Stephen Brown sums up a consensus of the production by acknowledging that Branagh's Richard, while technically flawless, so completely dominated the stage that he detracted from the seriousness of the violence and suffering of the play. The result was, according to Brown, “a very good production, rather than a great one.”
Late twentieth-century thematic criticism of Richard III, while confronting a range of topics, has almost invariably maintained a link to the drama's protagonist and to the principles he represents. Primarily examining formal and structural elements in the work, L. C. Knights (1962) observes that Shakespeare combined the dramatic conventions of skilled orator, satirical commentator, Machiavellian schemer, and scorned villain into the psychological framework of Richard's character, and contends that the final product far exceeds the limitations of a traditional morality play. Probing Richard's psychology as well as the structural patterns of the drama, Michael Neill (see Further Reading) stresses the motif of self-division as the work's thematic touchstone, and applies the concept to individuals, family dynasties, and the entire English body politic. Building upon this argument, Neill finds that the internal ironies of Richard III should be viewed as cosmic rather than moral, as his ascent toward a worldly omnipotence ultimately invokes a Godly wrath upon Richard. Vance Adair (1997) applies the tools of Lacanian psychoanalysis to Richard III in order to draw symbolic associations between Richard's monstrous form and the problematic reconstruction of history. In his survey of the drama, Antony Hammond (see Further Reading) studies character, language, and imagery in Richard III, and additionally highlights themes that the work shares with the other plays of Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, such as the depiction of revenge and retribution, loss, and the providential progress of history. Lastly, John Jowett (2000) concentrates on prophecies of revenge, dream-visions, and pangs of conscience that culminate in the play's depiction of a sacred, redemptive English destiny temporarily perverted by Richard's profane acts of violence.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Knights, L. C. “Richard III.” In William Shakespeare: The Histories, pp. 16-26. London: Longmans Green & Co., 1962.
[In the following essay, Knights examines the structure and method of characterization of Richard III, considering the drama as more than simply a political morality play.]
To call Shakespeare's Histories ‘political’ plays is simply one way of indicating that they deal with such matters as the nature of power—and the conflict of powers—within a constituted society, and with the relation of political exigencies to the personal life of those caught up in them. In other words, they belong not with the limited class of Elizabethan chronicle plays, but with that extensive range of world literature that includes Antigone, Athalie, The Possessed and Under Western Eyes. To say this is not of course to offer a definition: it merely suggests the nature of the interest that we bring to bear. What that interest finds to engage and direct it in such plays as Richard III and Julius Caesar is a matter for particular criticism: there is no formula that will help us. But there is one preliminary generalization that may be made. Shakespeare's early plays show an increasingly subtle relation between observation and what—for want of a better word—we may call inwardness. It is observation that strips off pretence, shows us how the world goes,...
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SOURCE: Lull, Janis. Introduction to King Richard III, by William Shakespeare, edited by Janis Lull, pp. 1-41. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
[In the following excerpted introduction, Lull probes the sources of Richard III and studies Shakespeare's depiction of history, women, the figure of Richard, and the play's theme of determinism.]
In the histories section of the First Folio, only Richard III is called a ‘tragedy’.1 It unites the chronicle play, a form Shakespeare had developed in the three parts of Henry VI, with a tragic structure showing the rise and fall of a single protagonist. Like Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus, written at about the same time, Shakespeare's play concerns the damnation of an unrepentant soul, but Shakespeare also grapples with the problem of determinism. In his opening soliloquy, Richard says he is ‘determinèd to prove a villain’ (1.1.30), and the play develops this ambiguous statement into an exploration of determinism and choice appropriate to both history and tragedy.2
HISTORY AND MEANING IN RICHARD III
Richard III is the last in a series of four plays—following three about the reign of Henry VI—that dramatise the English Wars of the Roses. As he had in the Henry VI plays, Shakespeare used the chronicles of Edward Hall and Raphael...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Doebler, Bettie Anne. “‘Dispaire and Dye’: The Ultimate Temptation of Richard III.” Shakespeare Studies 7 (1974): 75-85.
[In the following essay, Doebler evaluates Richard III's character in the tradition of the dramatic allegory of Vice.]
During most of the play Shakespeare's Richard III undergoes little temptation in the usual dramatic sense; in the manner of the conventional dramatic Machiavel, he announces his evil course to the audience and systematically and bloodily carries it out. No audience of any time could doubt the wickedness of Shakespeare's character. Even the twentieth century with its sympathy for the physically deformed instantly recognizes Richard's evil. It is thus not surprising that Mr. Spivack in his Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil can illustrate so copiously the fundamental connection between Richard and the old Vice of homiletic tragedy.1
Given the lack of internal conflict in the character, the audience of any time, but especially the Elizabethan audience with its view of life as a Pauline battle, would have a focus for its dramatic interest in the external conflict between Virtue and Vice that runs throughout the play and reveals ultimately the downfall of Vice as embodied in an evil king. Familiar to critics and scholars are the bloody Senecan conventions of ghosts, dreams, murders, and vengeance. Thus far unspecified,...
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SOURCE: Downie, Penny. “Queen Margaret in Henry VI and Richard III.” In Players of Shakespeare 3: Further Essays in Shakespearian Performance by Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company, edited by Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood, pp. 114-39. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, actress Downie describes her interpretation of Queen Margaret for Adrian Noble's production of Richard III in 1988.]
Queen Margaret was the biggest Shakespearian role I had ever played—the biggest in emotional range and intensity, in spiritual dimension, in the length of the journey from youth to age taken by the character. I suspect it may well be one of the biggest parts in English drama. It became for me very much a single character over three plays, even though the three Henry VI plays, which were reduced to two, were written rather earlier than Richard III. There are differences, of course; the earlier trilogy seems very straightforward, very emblematic, with little of the psychological warfare within characters' minds which one finds in Richard III. Even so, in playing Queen Margaret there remains a powerful sense of a single character's life discovered as one travels over a young man's writing career.
I had little warning of being cast for the role, about two weeks at the most. I had been in Richard III before,...
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SOURCE: Marienstras, Richard. “Of a Monstrous Body.” In French Essays on Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, edited by Jean-Marie Maguin and Michèle Willems, pp. 153-74. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1990, Marienstras studies the cultural tradition and symbolic significance of Richard's deformed body in Richard III.]
In Bill Alexander's 1984 production of Richard III with the Royal Shakespeare Company,1 the “monstrous” aspects of the protagonist were particularly emphasized. Antony Sher, who acted Richard, used crutches and, insectlike, hopped on four legs. Sometimes, with his huge hanging sleeves reaching down to the floor, he would assume the hallucinating appearance of a six-legged giant spider. The guiding idea of the production was to magnify the “animality” of Richard, a choice that Antony Sher settled upon after rejecting several other conceptions:
As he found himself growing intuitively into the role, Sher's trial impressions of the arch-demon altered drastically. His Richard would metamorphose—indeed Shakespeare's writing demanded it—from human being to animal and back again.2
Thus Richard would be the “bourgeoisie invaded by gargoyle.”3 Sher built up the character with reference to the images of...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Andrews, Christopher. “Richard III on Film: The Subversion of the Viewer.” Literature/Film Quarterly 28, no. 2 (2000): 82-94.
[In the following essay, Andrews evaluates the means by which film representations of Richard III, performed by Laurence Olivier, Ron Cooke, and Ian McKellen, have facilitated a relationship with the viewing audience.]
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile, And cry ‘Content!’ to that which grieves my heart, And wet my cheeks with artificial tears, And frame my face to all occasions.
—Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later King
For almost four hundred years the Chorus has made his appeal to audiences of Shakespeare's Henry V to imagine scores of horses and fields of men in battle. With the emergence of film we surely find the means to cast off such a device, perhaps with a desire to present a minimally altered script (after all, we can hardly imagine Henry V without the Chorus). Kenneth Branagh employs veteran Derek Jacobi as Chorus in his 1989 production. Jacobi, dressed in modern attire, calls for “a muse of fire” (1.1.1) and reflects on the limitations “within this wooden O” (13) on a sound-stage littered with props and film-making equipment. Despite this inherent appeal of this “behind the scenes” introduction to the film, it could be done without. As we fully expect...
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SOURCE: Howlett, Kathy M. “Vivid Negativity: Richard Loncraine's Richard III.” In Framing Shakespeare on Film, pp. 128-48. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Howlett appraises director Richard Loncraine's film adaptation of Richard III and the problems of historical representation that it addresses.]
Richard Loncraine's Richard III (1995) sets Shakespeare's play about a medieval tyrant's rise to power within the material trappings of a 1930s fascist England, a transformation that troubles some film critics, who call the film “a time-travel experiment gone wrong,” with “Fascist regalia” that “seems oddly beside the point.”1 Even those critics who are impressed with the film's fascist spectacle remain skeptical that it is still Shakespeare. Richard Bowman, film critic for The American Spectator, praises the film's “consistent cleverness of its setting,” finding that “in some ways [it is] the best film adaptation of Shakespeare there has ever been.” Yet, paradoxically, he concludes that the film “is not Shakespeare.”2
The film's varied collection of images from the Third Reich includes some breathtaking visuals, most notably Richard's Nuremberg-styled rally, but Hollywood's familiarization of audiences with the clichés of fascist spectacle has so trivialized their meaning that the...
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SOURCE: Young, Toby. “Of Kings and Witches.” Spectator 288, no. 9059 (23 March 2002): 66.
[In the following review of Richard III starring Kenneth Branagh at Sheffield's Crucible Theater, Young praises Branagh's technically flawless performance as Richard, but acknowledges that the actor failed to elicit audience sympathy.]
I was quite fired up by the prospect of seeing Kenneth Branagh at the Sheffield Crucible, let me tell you. Branagh is arguably the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation and his return to the stage after a ten-year absence to play the lead role in Richard III is a source of huge excitement for theatre critics like me. Consequently, I eagerly made my way to St Pancras last Tuesday and caught the 3.25 p.m. to Sheffield. I was going to be present at an historic occasion!
At 10.50 p.m., after Ken had taken his final bow, I wasn't disappointed, exactly, but I wasn't in a state of post-orgasmic euphoria either. His performance as the hunchbacked king is technically faultless and it's thrilling to watch. I was reminded of Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who scored a perfect ten at the 1976 Olympic Games. But Branagh's Richard is so pleased with himself, so completely untroubled by doubts or insecurities, it's impossible to feel any sympathy for him. In his struggle to give the character some contemporary resonance, Branagh has turned Richard...
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SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. Review of Richard III. Variety 386, no. 6 (25 March 2002): 45.
[In the following review of Michael Grandage's production of Richard III at the Crucible Theater in Sheffield, Wolf focuses on Kenneth Branagh's outstanding Richard, and briefly assesses the performances of the supporting cast.]
Shakespeare's envenomed Richard strips himself naked—emotionally speaking—in the opening soliloquy of Richard III, so why shouldn't Kenneth Branagh's remarkable “foul toad” first appear before us attired only in underwear, Richard's misshapen body literally stretched out on what seems to be some kind of rack? The opening of Michael Grandage's new production of this often produced yet rarely satisfying play makes the audience sit up, and it's to the credit of a creative team firing on all cylinders that the interpretive excitement rarely abates. We all know that Shakespearean drama's most renowned “hedgehog” (in the final scene, Branagh is even dressed as one, albeit in Liberace-style flaming red) can be funny and fierce, but I've never before clocked a Richard so consumed by pain. “There is no creature loves me,” he cries, determined as a result to engender hate. And as Branagh speaks the line, his delivery totally lacking in self-pity, the play takes on a new-found sting, as befits a ruler who has spent a life on the rack, psychically speaking, well before...
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SOURCE: Brown, Stephen. “Do We Like Him Now?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5166 (5 April 2002): 24-5.
[In the following review of Richard III directed by Michael Grandage in 2002, Brown analyzes Kenneth Branagh's Richard, finding his performance intelligent and complex. The critic concludes, however, that Branagh's characterization contributed to “a very good production, rather than a great one.”]
Michael Grandage's production of Richard III at the Sheffield Crucible is built around Kenneth Branagh. There are few “concepts” and the only major one, as we shall see, relates to Branagh's characterization. The costumes are non-specific medieval-modern hybrid, tunics and greatcoats with the young princes in trainers. The set, by Christopher Oram, a bare, grey stone floor on the thrust stage with a backdrop of pillars, is similarly generic and unobtrusive. The characters move swiftly across the open playing space, scenes almost overlapping. Tim Mitchell's grand schematic lighting, with banks of spotlights carving up the stage, does most of the work of differentiating spaces and keeps the action moving. The company are variable, though Danny Webb makes a fine, weaselly Buckingham, and Barbara Jefford delivers Queen Margaret's vengeful curses with real stature. Branagh, in his first proper stage appearance since his acclaimed 1992 Hamlet for Richard Eyre, is not a selfish...
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SOURCE: Adair, Vance. “Back to the Future: Subjectivity and Anamorphosis in Richard III.” Critical Survey 9, no. 3 (1997): 32-58.
[In the following analysis of Richard III informed by Lacanian and poststructuralist theory, Adair draws thematic links between Richard's monstrous physical and psychological deformities and the drama's problematic representation of history.]
… the unconscious is manifested to us as something that holds itself in suspense in the area, I would say, of the unborn.
I. DIFFICULT BIRTHS
Having confounded his own expectations in the successful wooing of Lady Anne, Richard has recourse to a model of ego formation that, for modern audiences at least, has much in common with the Lacanian archetype:
I do mistake my person all this while: Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot, Myself to be a marv'llous proper man. I'll be at charges for a looking glass, And entertain a score or two of tailors, To study fashions to adorn my body: Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass, That I may see my shadow as I pass.
Internalising the gaze of the Other, in this case that of Lady Anne, Richard's acquisition of a looking glass is accompanied by an idealisation of body image that is redolent of the ‘jubilation’...
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SOURCE: Jowett, John. Introduction to The Tragedy of King Richard III, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Jowett, pp. 1-142. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
[In the following excerpt, Jowett presents a thematic overview of Richard III, highlighting such motifs as prophecy, curses, dreams, and conscience.]
Prophecy of Revenge. It is a distinctive quality of Shakespeare's representation of reality that, though the physical and social world is tangible and real, it is at the same time subject to intrusion and redefinition from something the plays' characters experience as beyond the material. For all its immediacy and solidity, the world's epistemological foundations are shifting and insecure. When Richard declares that he is ‘determined to prove a villain’ (1.1.30) he seems to speak of his autonomy of will, but the words might mean that his villainy is predetermined, an effect of destiny. The individual events in Richard III are not simply events in themselves. They are subject to prophecy, prefiguration, and repetition. They fall within larger patterns of symbolic meaning.1
In the opening scenes the action seems subservient to Richard's will. Clarence enters on cue: ‘This day should Clarence closely be mewed up ❙ About a prophecy … Dive, thoughts, down to my soul; here Clarence comes.’ Lady Anne's first entry similarly follows hard on...
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Alleva, Richard. Review of Richard III. Commonweal 123 (19 April 1996): 18-19.
Review of director Richard Loncraine's film adaptation of Richard III that contends the work offers a fascinating abstract of Shakespeare's drama, but forsakes too many of its original details.
Bridges, Linda. Review of Richard III. National Review 49 (15 September 1997): 80.
Includes a brief comment on a 1997 production of Richard III at Stratford, Ontario. Comparing it with the famous Laurence Olivier film version, the critic finds this stage production truer to Shakespeare's text but less energetic and vibrant.
Brooke, Stopford A. “Richard III.” In On Ten Plays of Shakespeare, 1905. Reprint, pp. 100-26. London: Constable and Company, 1954.
Considers Richard III to be unique among Shakespeare's dramatic works, particularly in its presentation of a completely isolated hero and as the thematic finale to his English historical sequence.
Brooks, Harold F. “Richard III, Unhistorical Amplifications: The Women's Scenes and Seneca.” Modern Language Review 75, no. 4 (October 1980): 721-37.
Argues that similarities can be traced between the four women in Richard III and characters in Seneca's classical drama...
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