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A Discontented Winter

"Could have been worse, I could have been stuck in a cask malmsey wine."

“Could have been worse, I could have been stuck in a cask malmsey wine.”

One of my absolute favourite pieces of literature is Shakespeare’s Richard III. I think it is one of his gretest plays, notwithstanding Hamlet’s invention of the human (to borrow from Harold Bloom). The play works on so many levels; in the person of Richard we have a character so gleefully free of any bindings of a conscience that he ranks up with that other arch villain in the Shakespearian canon, Iago. Although for my money I think Richard is a better villain in that he is more psychologically complex. Iago is evil because he is evil as the embodiment of ontological badness, whereas Richard’s ambition drives him to increasingly desperate acts of brutality, culminating with the murder of his nephews in the Tower of London.

But Richard is more than his ambition, he is able to destroy because no matter how repulsed we may be of him – and he does repulsive things; in the first lines of the first act he sets in motion the eventual execution of his brother Clarence by their older brother Edward IV – we are drawn to him like moths to a flame, or flies caught in the web of a spider. As an audience we can’t help but be seduced by him just as Anne, the widow of Henry VI’s son Edward who was also murdered by Richard, is in turn seduced in what must be considered one of the greatest erotic exchanges as Richard seduces the widow of the man he murdered literally over the coffin of the dead Edward.
As a tragedy we know that all of Richard’s evil acts will culminate with his downfall at Bosworth. But even here, Richard charges straight towards his fate: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” is a giant middle finger to fate.

One of the other reasons why I am a fan of this play is what it says about Tudor politics in late Elizabethan Englans. The play is the final part of his monumental Wars of the Roses series. This series made up of Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI parts 1-3 cover the events from the usurpation of Richard II’s throne by his cousin Henry IV and the subsequent Hundred Years War and civil wars after the premature death of Henry V. These plays are regarded as following the actual history of this period fairly closely. This conscientiousness is thrown out the window with Richard III.

It is of course not surprising that this would be case given that Richard was killed by the grandfather of the reigning Queen and that by time of the play’s publication, the stability of the Tudor dynasty was again put into question by Elizabeth’s refusal to marry and produce an heir. Being married to England to England may have played well with the locals, but it seems that as a husband, England was incapable of knocking up the Queen.
After 1485, Henry VII had to continue to prove his legitimacy. This obsession took on unhealthy proportions under the reign of Henry VIII with the historical irony of the author of the black legend of Richard that was the template for Shakespeare’s play, Thomas Moore falling under the executioner’s axe for his opposition to Henry’s efforts to secure the Tudor claim to the throne.

There have been innumerable productions of the play, the most memorable being of course Lawrence Olivier’s portrayal. However, my favourite performance was that of the RSC in the late 1980s which was broadcast during TVO’s 20th anniversary. (The link is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JeoCIbCFPA) One of the early examples of playing with the staging of Shakespeare in modern contexts, the performance was brilliant because it tapped into how prescient the themes in Richard III are today. The questions of political legitimacy and myth making are depicted in stunning visuals – Margaret, the widow of Henry VI as a washed up Margaret Thatcher. Shakespeare, drawing on anti-Yorkist propaganda originating at the end of the 15th century was able to legitimize the reign of a Queen by destroying the legitimacy of a King.

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