Sunday, October 31, 2010

Discussion: Richard III

The play: King Richard III

The plot tweet:
"Deformed" Machiavellian Gloucester goes on killing spree, claims crown, but Margaret's dire predictions all come true. Enter the Tudors.

My favorite line:
"And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days."


Whenever I finish a Shakespeare play, I read the relevant chapters in my little pile of critical texts, such as Hazlitt's Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, Marjorie Garber's Shakespeare After All and Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. For Richard III, however, all of my usual texts referenced an unusual critical source: Sigmund Freud.

Luckily, thanks to my compulsion, I already had Peter Gay's Freud Reader on the shelf.

The gist is this: In 1916, Freud published a series of essays, "Some Character Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work." One of those essays, "The Exceptions," focused on patients who -- perhaps like Richard III -- feel that they should be exempt from societal rules because of some childhood trauma or congenital disadvantage. According to Freud, this explains Richard's behavior and our connection to him, since all of us would like to claim the same exemption:
Richard is an enormous magnification of something we find in ourselves as well. We all think we have reason to reproach Nature and our destiny for congenital and infantile disadvantages; we all demand reparation for early wounds to our narcissism, our self-love.
Do you agree with Freud's assessment of Richard? To what extent is this play's dual protagonist-antagonist driven by issues related to his deformity? I'm inclined to disagree with Freud, because Richard rarely seems hindered by his disabilities. In the Henry VI plays, he proved himself to be an able soldier; in this play, he proves that he's capable of charming and manipulating everyone -- even the women whose husbands, parents and children he has murdered. The deformity he describes in such detail in his first soliloquy doesn't really seem to be holding him back, and he seems to know that.

Henry VII, who emerges victorious at the end of this play and ends the War of the Roses, was Queen Elizabeth's grandfather. So, it's not surprising that Shakespeare should portray the Tudors' final Plantagenet enemy in a bad light -- even if Richard's alleged deformity has no basis in historical sources. The power of Shakespeare, and of this dynamic character, is that this portrayal overshadows everything else we know about the real Richard III.

As many critics point out, this play has plenty of faults. It is long and uneven, and the female characters do nothing but whine and moan (even Queen Margaret, who took such an active role during her late husband's reign). Richard steals the show, and the scenes in which he doesn't appear feel thin and empty, perhaps because none of the other characters is fully developed.

And yet this play has always been one of the most popular Shakespeare plays in performance -- probably because we're so drawn to Richard. He soliloquizes early and often, making the audience complicit in his plots. We pity him and root for him even as we are increasingly horrified by his Machiavellian schemes. You might love him or hate him (and by the end, you probably hate him), but he's fun to watch.


  1. (Ever a week behind - looks like I'll be missing out on the contemporaries a bit in order to get caught up.)

    I think Freud has a good point. Certainly by the time we meet Richard in this play and the preceding trio he has learned to make the most of things. He has learned to charm and manipulate. Following Freud's analysis this would come as the result of earlier (pre-H6) hardship in his youth. He may have been hindered by his disability in youth - but by now his early pains have hardened him into a master-manipulator. An intriguing, and repulsive character.

    Personally, I found Margaret far the most (i.e. the only) compelling character in the Henry VI plays - and still compelling here. I saw this play onstage in Seattle a few years ago with powerful actresses as Elizabeth, Margaret, Anne and the Duchess. To me, they remain fascinating - but certainly not whiners.

  2. I think that "vilains" such as Richard don't perceive themselves as evil.Shakespeare gets Richard to openly say that he's evil as you quote in the opening speech but I think that although it makes great drama to have such admissions from a "deformed creature", Richard's justifications would have been along different lines.For example," Why shoud I not succeed as others?Yes I am deformed but I still have the right to seek kingship?What king has not slaughtered the innocent to retain power?I will behave as they have done and if I succeed then it is God's will."