The Tragical History Of King Richard Iii, Alter'd From Shakespeare Quotes

Colley Cibber

"Conscience Avant; Richard's Himself Again"

Context: Scholars acknowledge that Richard III, first performed in 1592 or 1593, is not one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. The dramatist distorted the handsome prince of history into a heartless hunchback, and turned out a "tragedy of blood," so much to the tastes of Elizabethan theater-goers. It deals with Richard's attempt to gain the throne of England, following the death of Edward IV. By craft he gets rid of most of his rivals, then persuades the citizens of London, through their Lord Mayor, to beg him to ascend the throne. However, retribution follows. Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond and later King Henry VII, invades England. Richard sees the ghosts of his victims appearing on the eve of battle to prophesy his defeat. On Bosworth Field, after having his horse killed from under him and offering his ill-gotten kingdom in exchange for another, he is killed by Richmond. A century after Shakespeare wrote the tragedy, another playwright-actor, Colley Cibber (both of whose names were generally pronounced with a hard "C" during his lifetime), decided he could improve on Shakespeare. Cibber was short, thin, and with a piercing voice, born to be a comic actor, and first achieving recognition in a comedy by Congreve. He was also one of the best comic writers of his age and author of a dozen hits. But he yearned for fame in tragedy. His first attempt, Xerxes (1699), lasted one performance; next he decided to "alter" Richard III. He changed the order of scenes, cut out scenes where Richard did not appear, brought in lines from other plays by Shakespeare, and added many of his own. The result was a version so much more actable than the original that for nearly two centuries, Cibber's play replaced Shakespeare's. It had fifteen printed editions between 1700 and Cibber's death in 1757. It was the first "Shakespearean" play seen in America, when Edwin Forest toured the colonies with it in 1750. The great Edmund Kean brought it to the independent United States. Even in the twentieth century, it was preferred by Walter Hampton and Robert Mantell. Charles Macready tried to restore Shakespeare in 1821, but in view of audience apathy, had to retreat to Cibber. Not till the time of Sir Henry Irving in the 1870's did the version by Shakespeare make its return to the stage. Audiences complained that Cibber played the sly Richard by slinking about the stage like a pick-pocket. He also used the trick of delivering his lines very slowly and deliberately, while the rest of the lines raced with melodramatic speed. But it was effective. And one of the most effective moments closed Act IV, when Catesby (as Cibber renamed Ratcliff) announces the capture of Buckingham. "Off with his head!" cries the king. "So much for Buckingham!" Close to the end of the play, after the ghosts of Richard's victims appear in the dark to curse him, Cibber introduced into Shakespeare's Scene III, what he called Scene V. Of the three speechs quoted, Shakespeare wrote the first; Cibber rearranged words originally written by Shakespeare, in the second; and Cibber was the author of the third dramatic speech that closes the scene.

. . . , shadows to-night
Have struck more terror to the Soul of Richard
Than can the substance of ten Thousand Soldiers
Arm'd all in Proof, and led by shallow Richmond.
Be more your self, my Lord: consider, sir,
Were it but known a dream had frighted you,
How wou'd your animated Foes Presume on't?
Perish that thought: No, never be it said,
That Fate it self could awe the soul of Richard.
Hence, Babling dreams, you threaten here in vain:
Conscience avant; Richard's himself again.
Hark! the shrill Trumpet sounds, to Horse: Away!
My Soul's in Arms, and eager for the Fray.