Richard III, by William Shakespeare
There are a variety of ways that one can view Richard III. As a portrayal goes, Shakespeare’s protagonist is dishonest and ruthlessly ambitious, a step above the usual Marlovian overreachers and one that embodies the “black legend” of that particular king. The play also has a lot of resonance with other plays by Shakespeare, including a whole host of strutting players who make their mark on the stage and who sometimes find their plans disrupted by the workings of divine providence. From a historical perspective, this play manages to do a good job at dramatizing some of the most important aspects of Richard III’s career as an efficient henchman for his much more charismatic older brother Edward IV, and as someone whose bid for the throne ended up provoking hostility on the part of others that ended up bringing him down because he could not draw on enough popularity to endure the daring attack by Henry Tudor. This leads to a tragedy where Richard’s ability to fake his way through power is ultimately crushed by malign forces brought about by his bloodthirsty series of murders going back to the beginning of the wars of the Roses, all of which greatly complicates his own legacy.
Like the rest of the volumes of the Royal Shakespeare Company series, this particular book has some striking similarities with other volumes of Shakespeare’s works. The introduction examines the cycle of history that the reader/viewer will have seen in the eight plays of the cycle from Richard II to Richard III, Richard as a player/actor, and Shakespeare’s efforts to go beyond Marlowe. After that there are some notes about the text and some key facts about the play. The dialogue of Richard III follows, and it is a long play of almost 150 pages, definitely one of the longer of Shakespeare’s dramas. This is followed by some textual notes and some quarto passages that do not appear in the folio as well as a scene-by-scene analysis. Richard III in performances at the RSC and beyond includes the usual discussion of centuries of portrayals of the reviled king, along some discussions and reflections with directors, actors, and designers who worked on the play and tried to bring it to life. This is followed by material that is common to the series as a whole in discussing Shakespeare’s career in the theater, a chronology of Shakespeare’s works, a list of the kings and queens of England during the time, a chronology of the history behind the historical plays, and suggestions for further reading/viewing, references, and acknowledgements and picture credits.
Richard III is a great example of a cautionary tale about a brave and highly bloody man who sought power but ended up finding out like so many do that the quest for power is often a futile endeavor that ends up leading one into deeper trouble because one’s efforts to gain the crown often attack at the legitimacy of the office that one is seeking. The gap between political figures as the actors that they play in order to appear plausible on stage and the men (and women) they truly are underneath the mask is also a yawning one, and one that tends to threaten the respect and esteem that people have for political offices in general. Whether or not Shakespeare’s characterization of Richard III is entirely accurate, it is one that even now is supported by a large number of historians who view him as responsible for a variety of crimes and who view his blundering as leading quite naturally to his defeat at Bosworth, and the power of the play is one that remains true even after more than four hundred years, a considerable achievement.