Review: Richard III, William Shakespeare

I looked up Richard III, and Wikipedia says that scholars consider it one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.  Well, you know what, Wikipedia?  Scholars apparently did not read The Daughter of Time at a young and impressionable age and acquire an emotional stake in the innocence of Richard III!  I have a framed portrait of Richard III in my house, and one of these days I am going to borrow a drill to do a guide-hole, and hang the damn thing up.  In my last apartment it hung right next to my bookshelf.

Let me just say, Parliament had already passed through a bill declaring all of Edward IV’s children illegitimate (that was how Richard became King in the first place), so there was just really no point in Richard’s killing them.  Hell, I’d have declared them illegitimate too, with their father dead and all the kill-you-to-get-ahead Woodville relatives around preying on their little minds.  Oh, and when Henry VII took power (HUH), Parliament passed through a Bill of Attainder about how wicked and evil Richard was, and it never even hinted that he had killed any little princes.  Which makes Josephine Tey – and Elizabeth Peters – and me – think that they were probably not dead yet at that point.

And you know what else?  Henry VIII was not a bad king, despite his shocking wife-beheading ways, and that little incident with St. Thomas More, and I just want to say, he really spent very little time with his (Tudor) father growing up, but was very close with his (Plantagenet) mum.  I ONLY MENTION IT.  I DO NOT POSIT ANY CAUSAL CONNECTION.

Is Richard III one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays?  Dude, I have no idea.  I was too busy stewing over the injustice of history.

No, wait, I’ve not done this right.  Let me give it another go.  The Duke of Gloucester – I’m calling him that as a means of separating him in my mind from Actual Richard III, who I AM SURE would never hurt a fly – the Duke of  Gloucester is an excellent character.  As evil as he is, it’s a bit seductive.  (I liked Satan as well in Paradise Lost.)  We’re the only ones in Gloucester’s confidence, and he’s tipping us an enormous wink with practically every line:

They do me wrong and I will not endure it:
Who are they that complain unto the king
That I, forsooth, am stern, and love them not?
By holy Paul, they love his grace but lightly
That fill his ears with such dissentious rumours.
Because I cannot flatter and speak fair,
Smile in men’s faces, smooth, deceive and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.
Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abused
By silken, sly, insinuating Jacks?


I am, by the way, justly paid out for urging Shakespeare to fudge history to make it a better story.  Gloucester takes the throne by declaring his brother’s sons illegitimate.  And to make Gloucester really wicked, Shakespeare has him cast doubt on the legitimacy of Edward IV too; i.e., Gloucester implies that his own mother was unfaithful to his father.  “But touch this sparingly, as ‘twere far off,” he says, “because you know, my lord, my mother lives.”  Oh, he’s so evil!  This is a better story than sticking to a possibly legitimate gripe about Edward IV’s bigamy, and I cannot really complain about it.

I love it how Gloucester and his cohorts plan how to make him appear noble and religious when he is ready to get crowned, how his (temporary) BFF Buckingham describes him as the antithesis of the womanizing Edward IV (darn it, I keep writing Edward VI by mistake – he’s the one who died without knowing the love of a woman).  When offered the crown in a nicely staged ceremony before the people and the gullible Mayor of London, Gloucester nobly refuses – shades of Caesar, and a plot device that Shakespeare will, of course, use again when he writes Julius Caesar.

(In his cups (I’m assuming they have pubs in heaven), Plutarch is probably all like, “Shkspeare din’t think of that himself, y’know.  I was the originin – I was the orin – I was the one who wrote that story down first.  Evrybody thinks he’s so great but iss me that he got that story from.  I’m a great historian!”  And then he probably slaps his beer down really hard and sloshes it everywhere, and then Ralph Waldo Emerson is probably all, “Let me take you home; you’ve had enough” and says apologetically to the bartender, “Sorry about him, he really was a great historian,” and then Plutarch probably throws his glass at the bartender and hollers “I usedta work for an ORACLE!” and Emerson props him up and says, “I know you did, man, let’s get you back to your cloud, come on.”  And on the way home Plutarch laughs derisively and says, “He said Brutus was an honorable man like – like fifteen thousand bazillion – it got rully lame – I don’t feel so good,” and then is sick into someone’s heavenly geraniums and then he’s like “Hahahahaha, I ralphed – get it, get it, cause your name – I love you Ralphie,” and then he probably cries and says “Willm Shkspeare never visits me – nobody reads my stuff except stupid Latin students – why doesn’t anybody love me anymore?” and drunk-dials Herodotus to commiserate.)

Okay, having given myself some emotional distance by calling Shakespeare’s character Gloucester, and by thinking of him as a character instead of a historical figure of whom I am protective – I have to admit that Richard III is a damn good play.  I want  to tell you about every single amazing scene – like the one where Margaret (“Why should she live, to fill the world with words?”) makes fun of Edward IV’s queen, who has just lost her husband and sons; and the one where Richard screws around with Buckingham just because he can.  Oh, and the scene where Gloucester (now King) is telling his sister-in-law how nice he’s going to be to her, and she bitch-slaps him in iambic pentameter:

Be brief, lest that the process of thy kindness
Last longer telling than thy kindness’ date.

And then there’s the big battle, and despite a lot of brave fighting, Richard is slain.  It’s sad, and I couldn’t maintain this separation between the Gloucester character and the real Richard III.  I remember from The Daughter of Time what the City of York put in their town records after Richard III was killed, and I’m pretty sure I remember it word for word.  So while Shakespeare was sucking up to the descendents of Henry VII, I was thinking of that.  “This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered; to the great heaviness of this city.”

Onward now to Comedy of Errors.  I really do not want to read Comedy of Errors.  I was in it in high school and it’s idiotic.  Preview: There are two sets of twins resulting in lots of HILARIOUS MISHAPS.  God, I can’t wait for Twelfth Night.

Have you read Richard III?  Or have you seen it performed?  Is there a good film version I should investigate?

17 thoughts on “Review: Richard III, William Shakespeare

  1. I know exactly how you feel, because I also read The Daughter of Time at a young and impressionable age. It’s such a sad story even without the part where Richard’s name gets blackened for centuries – he was such a decent guy, and a good king, and his brothers and wife and son all died one after another, and then he was betrayed by people he’d been nothing but forbearing to, and killed at what must have been a fairly young age. It’s nice that at least the people of York appreciated him.

    • It IS sad – isn’t it? His picture looks so anxious and unhappy. I became obsessed with the Tudors in early high school, and it caused me some trouble as they were all descendants of dreadful Henry VII, so I had to explain away any virtuous qualities they all had. 😛

  2. I’ve seen it a couple of times, twice on stage. I know I saw the Ian McKellan version (with all the fascism and the Nazis and whatnot), but I honestly don’t remember it in the slightest. I’m chock full o’ Scottish play recommendations, however.

    For a while after first reading The Sunne in Splendour (I came to the RIII camp late), I was infuriated with Shakespeare, and would talk mad shit about him at people if they brought it up. I do love an underdog. But it is just so very good that I’ve come around to it again, and I have to look at it as being like Amadeus: It’s not fact, and it doesn’t really purport to be, but it tells an amazing, important story. In <Amadeus‘ case, a Cain & Abel tale of brotherhood, jealousy, envy, love, and hate, and with RIII, jealousy, envy, love, and hate. And tyranny, power, and punishment. You know. Of course, RIII has kind of RUINED Richard’s reputation FOREVER. But I am not bitter.

    Btw, love Plutarch in his cups. I’m going to give my Herodotus a love pat so that he doesn’t get too lonely.

    • Hm. That’s an excellent point about Amadeus. I will try to continue thinking of it that way – only I don’t care about Mozart and I want to give poor sad serious Richard III a big hug to cheer him up.

      The Scottish play is probably my favorite tragedy. Or maybe Romeo & Juliet, I don’t know. They’re neck and neck. But I would be glad to have some good Scottish play recommendations! It’s the first Shakespeare play I really remember reading and loving, so it has a special place in my heart.

      • The Roman Polanski-directed Penthouse version of the Scottish play is actually excellent. Mad props for an amazing Lady MacB! Also divine is Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.

        I grew up on Amadeus, which probably shaped its importance to me n the context of understanding other works. Granted, though, I feel far more for Richard than for Wolfgang, even if my father wante dthat to be my name if I were born a boy …

    • It’s been a while since I read the Tey as well – I’m surprised at how many of the details have stuck with me. I’d never heard of Looking for Richard – thanks for the recommendation, it looks really cool!

  3. The first few paragraphs cracked me up! I’m not particularly emotionally invested in any English history, but Daughter of Time does sound interesting. 🙂

    • It is very, actually. This police inspector is laid up in bed due to an injury, and he spends all his time in bed learning about Richard III and whether or not he was as evil as history thinks he is. As you may have inferred, he concludes not. 😛

  4. I don’t know anything about Daughter of Time or Richard III or even English History in general, but this post is seriously awesome. Love the Plutarch sidenote. I think I need to read Richard the III. I was wondering which history play to go for first!

  5. Wait, wait, isn’t there an absolutely brilliant Lawrence Olivier version? I think I saw it in high school, it’s black and white and Richard is so terrifying that it might as well be a horror film. He is Satan incarnate. *loved it* Or did I imagine all that?

    Love the Plutarch sidebar!

  6. Have you seen the Ian McKellan movie version of Richard III? It’s a little out there, set during the first world war.

    I want to go to an interactive performance of this play, like the one in The Eyre Affair where the audience shouts things at the stage a la Rocky Horror!

    • I need to see the Ian McKellan version, as I’m a big fan of his, but I’m reluctant because of the world war thing. It often seems a bit weird when Shakespeare’s plays get set in specific time periods – the subtext seems off. But I do love Ian McKellan, so I expect I’ll see this film soon enough!

  7. Pingback: Wrapping up 2009 « Jenny's Books

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