THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Richard: Portrait of a Serial Killer

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Richard III is a play of murder, ghosts, sword fighting and a hunchback king, returning us to the royal strife of England. Henry VI has just been murdered and Edward IV now rules. In response, our homocidal Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, employs a familiar Shakespearean motif where the villain details their dark motivations and darstardly plot to the audience. After thoroughly deciding to be bad (though he’s already been offing folk for yonks now) Richard does not disappoint, embarking on a spree of deceit, exploitation, murder and outright villainy in a bid to take the throne. Richard woos Lady Anne alongside the still fresh corpse of her father in-law Henry VI, then spurs the recently returned Queen Margaret to curse him a blue streak (my favourite lines being where she brands our Quasimodo ‘thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog!’ and ‘rag of honour’). At this point it’s clear we are in for a rotten good time.

In order to inch along the line of succession, Richard first arranges to have his brother Clarence killed in bed (the poor soul is stabbed and drowned). The king then dies and Richard finds himself being outwitted and challenged by his two bright young nephews who now stand to inherit the crown. So Richard beheads their cohorts, brands the princes bastards, locks them up, finally becomes king and then murders them, soon poisoning the fiancé he earlier widowed then wooed. Wow.

All this evil can’t go unnoticed and eventually the populace catches on, rebelling against their new king. Richard screws over one too many co-conspirators and Henry, the Earl of Richmond is called in to challenge the hunchback. Popular opinion turns and armies converge against our anti-hero, even the ghosts of his previous victims confront him. The heroic Earl of Richmond sweeps in and defeats Richard, throwing him to the ground and running him through. Richard finally meets his end and this dominant image leads us to our inevitable conclusion: never before has a hunchback so desired a horse… no wait, the other one, the abhorrent fruit of treason and civil war is that a murderous cripple becomes king and is slain in isolation and condemnation. More blood is shed and England is mocked. This is what happens when you mess with the throne.

Shakespeare is spelling out the lesson of the story loud and clear. In Elizabethan times it was considered that God, Peter and the saints, Queen Elizabeth, the aristocracy and the poor, the local butcher and whore, everyone fit into a preordained chain of command. The theology of John Calvin had also gone some way in teaching that the status of powers and souls were predestined and the monarchy was part and parcel of an established order that stretched from Heaven, top-down to London then to the bowels of Hell. So to challenge the established systems of authority is a treasonous, Luciferean act that invites judgement and chaos into the land. You want a different king? Fine, now you have a blood-thirsty monster for a monarch, and what a monstrous monarch he is…

If ‘The Henriad’ presented us with a myriad of players and a frequently absent protagonist, then Richard III makes no bones about who this story is about (actually, there’s an abundance of bones made here come to think of it). Our anti-hero Richard commands the narrative, defining his motivations for the audience and manipulating each character’s compliance or outrage. For the first time in this overarching story, possibly the oeuvre, Shakespeare has crafted a character in particular fullness. The namesake of the play is our key character, fully realized, dangerously active within the plot and unforgettable. Richard III is a cold, hard killer, built out of pure badness and lots of fun to boot.

Richard’s iconic villainy is notable for a few reasons. Overall, there is something strikingly familiar about Richard’s asexual, embittered ugliness. Richard III is indeed the progenitor of a troupe of deformed villains to arise in the popular imagination, such as Mary Shelley’s ‘Creature’ or Gaston Leroux’s Eric in gothic fiction, Dwight Frye’s hunchback Fritz in Universal’s Frankenstein, many of the Kane/Finger comic book villains like Joker, Two-face or Penguin (note Devito’s Richard-esque 1992 portrayal), battle-scarred Darth Vader in pop corn cinema or any number of goons portrayed by the tragic ‘actor’ Rondo Hattan. Even Johnny Rotten claimed a degree of sympathy with our raging outcast as he challenged the British monarchy. These diverse figures are all defined by their physical deformity and social isolation that lends itself to sociopathic behaviour. The lesson here? Ugly people are bad people.

Now, to suggest that beauty equates virtue and vice versa in common fiction is as obvious as it is painfully inadequate for real world application. In reality, many beautiful people are calculating vampires and many others who happen to look like Ernest Borgnine are the salt of the earth, but there is something to be said for the image of the outcast. It may be a left-over from some distant evolutionary instinct, maybe it’s just prejudice, but to lack normative appearance and health often leads to exclusion and an antisocial stance.

That’s why every school has that chubby kid with braces who dreams of being all-powerful then snaps one day and overturns a desk after being mocked in Maths class… well, maybe that just happened at my school… alright, maybe that was me personally. Regardless, I attended two high schools in my younger years and can attest to the fact that the freaks and geeks and the disabled can be groomed for aggression and ambition through maltreatment. Sadly, I suspect we have all known a ‘Richard’ at some point.

Also, Richard is the prototype for the moustache twirling, monologuing villain, the kind we often see in velvet cape and top hat. At any given point you expect him to burst into hand wringing cackling or to tie Queen Margaret to a set of train tracks. He’s witty, brilliant and as entertaining as he is pure, transparent evil. After pages and pages of murder and lies, I lost count of how many characters declare Richard to be the ‘devil’ right to his face.

Akin to the earlier offerings of ‘The Henriad’, this play is long with a big cast, heavy on the blood and politics. However, Shakespeare also begins to introduce shades of theatrical humour into his historical world, giving us a taste of the work that is to come. Ultimately, in Richard III Shakespeare presents us with his first unforgettable character, a character that is as familiar as he is innovative. Richard III is ugly, disabled, unloved and jealous of the throne, so he sows deceit, kills the virtuous and the young, eats away at the monarchy and threatens to corrupt the entire kingdom. We know his motivations, we know his plan, we know what is going to happen to him in the end and yet we can’t help but feel for him in his wretched plight. I hope we’ve all learned our lesson: don’t buck the status quo, don’t kill for power and don’t pick on the ugly kid in school…




April 12, 2011 at 6:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] of history, and the anti-hero of vindictive wit we have come to know and love (reviewed by myself here, and Ben here) was just another fiction from a wool merchant’s […]

  2. […] Yeah, as we discussed previously Burton’s follow up Batman Returns does riff off Richard III wonderfully with Devito’s Penguin. […]

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