What Do We See In Richard III?

The final Tuesday of January, I sat in a crowded venue in Washington, D.C., and as countless other Americans, observed a power play. However, I was not at the State of the Union address. I was two blocks away at the Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Richard III dramatizes the narrative of the crookbacked younger brother of England’s King Edward IV. With another brother as well as two young nephews in the line of succession before him, Richard has several obstacles to contend with before grasping the crown he covets. From his opening soliloquy, Richard leaves us no doubt of his intentions: “I, that am rudely stamp’d . . . Deformed, unfinish’d, . . . I am determined to prove a villain.”

And Folger’s production is not for the weak of stomach: all of Richard’s victims are murdered on stage (a contrast to Shakespeare’s text), their bodies are lowered through trapdoors in the stage floor, and his henchmen present Richard with the head of a decapitated nobleman. By the end of the first two acts, Richard has killed his brother Clarence and hastened the sickly Edward to his death. Richard then ensures his place as guardian of the heir to the throne by murdering other nobles with an interest in the welfare of his young nephew. Act III, the climax of the traditional five-act structure, culminates with Richard’s coronation.

However, the falling action in the last two acts includes three of the more heinous executions. Richard, still insecure in his ill-gotten kingship, has both his two nephews and his wife murdered. But elimination of family no longer helps Richard because another threat emerges in the form of the Lancastrian nobleman Henry Richmond and his army marching to engage Richard’s Yorkists. With followers melting away, Richard attempts to sleep the night before the impending battle. Instead he experiences a nightmare in which he sees those he has murdered. Upon awaking, he argues with himself, finally coming to the conclusion (small wonder!) that “there is no creature loves me / And if I die, no soul shall pity me.”

Much has been made recently of the recovery of the malformed King Richard’s skeleton under a parking lot in England, and Folger’s production takes full advantage of the discovery. In a chillingly brilliant display of poetic justice, all of Richard’s victims partially emerge from their trapdoor graves, surrounding him during the nightmare. As Richard falls to Richmond’s sword on Bosworth Field the next day, a trapdoor opens in center stage, and two of his victims pull him below while he futilely resists, uttering his famous line of recognition that the crown pales in value to his own life, “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” When the lights come on after the performance, the center trapdoor is changed to a transparent surface, revealing a replica of the skeleton found under the parking lot.

Some historians argue that perhaps Richard has suffered at the hands of a politically correct playwright. After all, Shakespeare penned the play only about one hundred years after Richard’s ignominious defeat – and when Elizabeth I, great-granddaughter of Bosworth Field’s victor, sat on the throne. Historically accurate or not, Shakespeare created a character whom we remember for two things: his crooked back and his cunning and ruthless path to power, a physical deformity that represents a moral deformity.

Why do we, 400 years later, still find the Shakespeare’s dramas worth performing and standing in line for? The answer: classic literature represents humanity. Love, ambition, hatred, rejection, justice – all are timeless, experienced in both medieval England and modern America.

These enduring elements explain why despite his wickedness, we feel a connection with Richard III in some way. Do we approve of his actions – no! Do we excuse his actions – most likely not. Yet I think that we see our own imperfections, our deformities, if you wish. We shrink from the horror of isolation; we realize the danger of letting one desire consume us; we feel the pain of inadequacy; we recognize the emptiness of finding an ideal not all we imagined. And the politically inclined would do well to remember what Richard III learns the hard way: power, be it ever so cleverly attained, remains fragile, crushed in a moment.

Jill Burcham holds both undergraduate and graduate degrees in English. She has worked in communications and development for non-profit public policy organizations since 2011.  Image of Richard III courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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