Lecture on Shakespeare’s Transformation of Medieval Tragedy and an Introduction to Richard III
[The following document is the text of a lecture prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University). This document is in the public domain, released July 1999. This text was last revised on August 22, 1999. For list of other lectures in this series, please click here.]
THE MEDIEVAL CHRISTIAN TRADITION OF TRAGEDY
Medieval Christianity has a difficult time with the traditional classical view of tragedy (characterized by the features we considered in the last lecture), simply because for the Christian the life of the individual does not end with death and the notion of an individual’s life having value apart from the shared vision of life of the Christian community makes no sense other than as a form of sin. For Christians death is the gateway through which we move to the communal life hereafter. And that future life is determined by the way we have lived our lives in our communities. Obviously, any sense of eternal rewards and punishments is going to require from the believer an adherence to the communal rules which earn the happier reward. If I suffer horribly in the name of that faith, well then, I am going to a worthy reward. The story is not over.
Tragedy in the traditional classical sense requires a firm sense of death as an ending. Whatever the significance of the hero’s life, that life is now over, except perhaps in the memory of his or her people. There is no assumption of a life after death that is in any way a reward or punishment. Hence, the lament over the hero’s body in the closing stages of the tragedy is never a reflection on what lies in store for him. It is, by contrast, a lyrical evocation of what his life (now over) has meant, what it has revealed about the mystery of existence for those who remain. In a sense, where a comic conclusion looks forward to a better life together, the tragic conclusion looks back at the heroic life which has just concluded, leaving the audience to ponder its significance.
The Christian emphasis on the communal after life, like the Jewish emphasis on the overwhelming importance of the survival of the community in its historical progress to the promised land, means that there are no tragic Biblical heroes in the Greek sense of the word. Neither religious vision of life has much time for the individual who isolates himself from all inherited cultural meanings and determines to face life on his own terms no matter what the cost. There are no tragic figures in the Bible, because none of the major heroic figures is willing to maintain his own individual sense of what is right in the face of whatever life offers. The closest figure we have of this sort is Job, and he finally relents and bows to the will of the Lord (i.e., compromises for the sake of his faith and survival). He will not, like Oedipus or Achilles, refuse to compromise with his passionate integrity even in the face of death and certain destruction. Nevertheless, the potentially tragic stance that Job maintains throughout most of his story raises some very unsettling questions (which the rushed ending attempts to smooth over).
The fact that the full tragic vision may not be compatible with orthodox Christianity may help to explain why, in many of his greatest tragedies Shakespeare moves back in time out of the clearly Christian culture of, say, the history plays. Macbeth and King Lear are set in pre-Christian cultures (although there are many Christian references throughout), and the Roman tragedies (Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus) take place in pagan times.
It’s not that Christian or Jewish heroes are not capable of great suffering or heroic conduct. In fact, in the lives of many martyrs, Christianity celebrates their memory, just as the Jewish tradition celebrates those who fought heroically for Palestine. But these people died in the service of the faith, in anticipation of what lay in store for them in the afterlife or in the future of their community. They were, as the name martyr suggests (meaning witness), adherents to a group belief, not tragically isolated individuals answering to no one but themselves. Their life and death therefore confirm the value of an existing communal belief. The Greek tragic hero, by contrast, in his individual attempt to confront the mystery of the world, in a sense calls all such communal faiths into question.
Hence, what was called tragedy in the middle ages was something rather different. Essentially, the tragic story focused on a moral example of a great person who comes to a disastrous ending. Sometimes the sufferings of a great man were linked to the explicit morality of Christianity, and so the form became a study in divine punishment for defying orthodox doctrine. Typically, the tragic hero was a famous pagan who came to a bad end (Julius Caesar, for example). Associated with this idea is the notion that the rise and fall of a great historical personage helped to reveal the fickleness of fortune, the transience of earthly glory. Hence, the downfall of the great person might not be an explicitly moralized punishment for sin; it might simply be another example of the vanity of earthly ambition, more evidence that fortune is indeed like a wheel, lifting people up and then hurling them down.
The most famous definition of this view of tragedy (commonly called a de casibus play, from de casibus virorum illustrorum, which means "concerning the fall of great men") occurs in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the opening of the Monk’s Tale:
I wol biwaille, in manere of tragedie,
The harm of hem that stoode in heigh degree,
And fillen so ther nas no remedie
To brynge hem out of hir adversitee,
For certein, what that Fortune list to flee,
Ther may no man the cours of hire withholde.
Lat no man truste on blynd prosperitee;
Be war by thise ensamples trewe and olde.
The monk then goes on to tell very abbreviated stories of a series of famous people whose glorious rise to power has then been followed by a catastrophic fall: Lucifer, Adam, Sampson, Hercules, Nabugodonosor, Balthasar, Cenobia, Petro, King of Spain, Peter, King of Cyprus, Barnabo de Lumbardia, Hugelyn, Comite de Pize, Nero, Oloferno (Holofernes), Antiochus, Alexander, Julius Caesar, and Croesus, King of Lydia. There were plays about the rise and fall of many of these characters in the theatrical tradition which Shakespeare inherited.
The stories of these historical characters, in other words, are set up to illustrate a preconceived moral scheme of things (either punishment for sin or the eternally changing nature of fortune or both). Typically the play falls into a clear two part structure: the first half is taken up with all the things the character does to get power or do away with enemies, and the second half follows the stage-by-stage disintegration of that power, to the central character’s suffering and death, clearly punishments for all the sins of the first part or else the result of changing fortune, or both. The play might conclude with an explicit moral commentary directing the audience to derive from the story the appropriate moral lesson.
This, in a sense, is a narrative formula which can be applied almost mechanically to confirm an important part of the Christian vision of life, either the providential view of history, the idea that evil does exist in the world but that with the passage of time God punishes sinners (in fact, He permits the sinners to exist and to flourish for a while to foster faith in His powers manifested in His divine punishment) or else the transience of earthly glory. Dramas based on this moral formula are thus the major way of explaining to people the existence of evil in the world and reconciling them to it or of encouraging humility.
In writing his First History Cycle, Shakespeare quite clearly adopts this providential view of history as an organizing framework (whether he endorses it, as we shall see, is another matter). The Henry VI plays feature a series of stories about the rise and fall of various characters involved in the Wars of the Roses. In each of their careers, there is a period in which they rise to power, followed by a descent (usually quite swift) which is often accompanied by a moral reflection on the providential workings of God or the fickleness of fortune.
It is clear (as we shall see in more detail later) that this vision is basic to the design of Richard III, the last play in the series. Many elements in the play link the destruction Richard does to earlier events, seeing in his killing of others the fulfillment of God’s providential plans. For many of the ones he kills have committed evil deeds themselves earlier in the story. And the presence in the play of Queen Margaret (who is often left out of productions) seems mainly concerned with lengthy poetical reminders of the working out of providence as a moral force in the sometimes bewildering series of successes and disasters.
THEATRICAL DEPICTIONS OF EVIL: THE OVERREACHER
I mentioned above that the Christian view of tragedy, either in a poetical narrative like the Monk’s Tale or in dramatic presentations, saw the literary form as one way of reinforcing Christian doctrine about the existence of evil in a providential scheme of history or of reminding every one of the fickleness of fortune. This tradition existed well before Shakespeare’s time, but it had been given an astonishing new theatrical vigour in the years immediately preceding Shakespeare’s first plays by the work of his contemporary Christopher Marlowe.
Marlowe took this tradition of formulaic tragedy as a Christian morality piece and enormously extended the theatrical power of the protagonist, the central figure in the morality story. For Marlowe’s central characters are not just typical bad types, motivated by sin (although they may be that), or formulaic invocations of past illustrious figures: they are also supercharged with personal energy, full of a restless spirit to break through the stale conventionality of the world around them. And so they typically give full rein to their considerable political or intellectual passion and come to grief because they aim so high. This new form of tragic hero has been called the Overreacher. The best known example of it is Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (a play some of you may have studied in English 200).
Marlowe did not decisively break with the traditional view of tragedy (after all, Faustus is dragged off to hell by various devils at the end of the play), but in putting so much poetic energy and fire into his central characters he begins to shift the balance, making the motivation and character and energy of the central heroic figure more impressive and interesting than the moral message delivered by the conclusion of the play. In fact, to some extent the attractiveness of some aspects of that central character can cast some ironic pressure on the basic moral structure which condemns that character to an unsuccessful ending. Marlowe doesn’t really succeed in using this new emphasis very skillfully to explore a more penetrating vision of tragedy, but his plays (which were extremely popular) certainly helped to prepare the audience for what the greater poet, his junior contemporary, was going to attempt.
THEATRICAL DEPICTIONS OF EVIL: THE VICE
There is a second theatrical tradition which we need to attend to briefly in any discussion of Shakespeare’s immediate inheritance, and that is what has come to be called the Morality Play. The Morality Play, as the name suggests, was an allegorical theatrical presentation of Christian doctrine. In its simplest (and most famous form) it depicts a central character called Everyman who is tempted by a procession of various figures with names like Lust, Greed, Avarice, and so on. Two angels stand by Everyman, the Good Angel and the Bad Angel (Devil), the former urging him to be true to his Christian morality, the second urging him to take the luscious and tempting offers as they march by. The conflict emerges, obviously enough, from Everyman’s struggle to resist temptation (this image of the good and the bad angels is explicit in Sonnet 147).
The purpose of such a play is clear enough: it serves to illustrate, often in a theatrically amusing way, the central moral struggle of the Christian soul to remain true to the teachings of the Church (the sight of an Everyman who gave in to temptation being dragged off by a group of devils into hell at the end would make the point clearly enough). As such, the Morality Play was a major form of popular instruction in an age when most people were illiterate; it put very popular public art in the service of orthodox doctrine.
There is little doubt that the most popular and influential figure in the Morality Play was the figure of the Devil (or Vice, as the character was more commonly known). His task in the play was to make things theatrically interesting, and so he is often a figure of much energy and fun, the source of all sorts of naughty suggestions and various tricks and deceptions designed to get Everyman to succumb to temptations. In addition, the Vice figure would commonly establish a close rapport with the audience (sometimes, it seems, running around among the members of the audience), letting them in on his plans, insulting them, making jokes at their expense, scaring them, inviting them to visit his dwelling place, and generally making sure their attentions were engaged during the performance. The typical Vice figure seems to have been a fat clown equipped with a wooden dagger or sword (as Falstaff’s references to himself as a Vice suggest). He brings into the play a good deal of comic business, often featuring fights between him and his gang of associates (all the different sins). But his main attraction is that he is the source of the action and, in the words of Bernard Spivak, his efforts "create the action of the play as game or sport for the playgoer" (191).
The defeat of the Vice at the end of the Morality Play (when that occurred) was obviously a highlight of the show, as he was painfully and amusingly dismissed or dragged back to hell or beaten from the stage. We still have evidence of the popular appeal of this figure in the modern rage for professional wrestling, where much of the action is taken up with various “bad” figures who interact all the time with the audience and whose antics add much (perhaps most) of the theatricality. In fact, the theatrical high jinks and the rapport established between the audience and such figures would seem to constitute an important part of the appeal of this professional sport/entertainment.
Parenthetically, one might observe here that the presence of the Devil figure in the popular imagination of Christianity is curious. After all, Christianity is a monotheistic religion, maintaining that God, who is all powerful and good, created all things. This creates a major philosophical problem for Christians in explaining the existence of evil in the world. How can we reconcile the existence of evil with the goodness of God? The Devil, the chief agent of evil, is difficult to explain, because the only way we can account for his existence is to make him part of God’s creation. And that seems problematic, since we might want to know why God, who is perfectly good, could be the source of evil.
However, the Devil is essential in popular Christianity, because his presence converts Christianity (unofficially) into a Manichaean religion, in which there are two forces in conflict. With this conflict in our minds we can readily understand the existence of evil as the work of the Devil, without bothering our minds about complex theological questions about the origin of evil. And the existence of the devil makes religious drama possible, because now we have at hand a ready source of conflict. Hence, those concerned with educating the illiterate to be faithful to Christian teaching have always relied a great deal on the Devil. In fact, some historians claim that the entire concept was invented and developed by Christians in order to increase the popular appeal of Christianity.
The Devil/Vice figure as a representation of evil is not like the Overreacher, however, because the Devil is not human. Thus, we are not invited, as spectators, to speculate about the motivations he might have for his nefarious deeds. This is an important point, as we shall see in Richard III, where we have to decide just how much we need to analyze Richard’s character. To present the evil figure in the play allegorically as the Devil (or as the three witches in Macbeth) is to symbolize evil as a force in the world but not to locate it in the particular psychological make up of the evil figure. No one who has read Macbeth spends any time worrying about what the witches feel like or what their motivation is for acting the way they do or what their childhoods might have been like. They are witches: that fact explains their function and their actions.
THEATRICAL DEPICTIONS OF EVIL: THE MACHIAVEL
But the most important depiction of evil in society in Shakespeare’s plays is a figure called the Machiavel, and no consideration of Shakespeare’s works can avoid spending a great deal of time on this figure, in all its many manifestations. In fact, there is no more fascinating character type in Shakespeare than the Machiavel. Shakespeare returns to it again and again, so often and in so many different ways that one might almost say that his entire work is an exploration of and (perhaps) a response to what this figure represents.
The term Machiavel is derived from the name of Machiavelli, one of the first great modern voices in political and moral theory. He lived in Italy almost one hundred years before Shakespeare (from 1469 to 1527) and was most famous (or notorious) for a book called The Prince, which is a short work providing political advice to the modern ruler. There is no time here to elucidate Machiavelli’s political philosophy in detail, and there is no need to, because it is very unlikely that Shakespeare had any first-hand knowledge of Machiavelli’s writing. The Machiavelli he was drawing upon and responding to was the popular conception of Machiavelli, which was inevitably a simplified and exaggerated version of what Machiavelli was saying but which also contained an important part of the truth of his political philosophy.
Machiavelli’s fame or notoriety rested (and rests) on the fact that he insisted as a first prerequisite of effective political rule that the ruler should forget about traditional notions of virtue and morality. The essential quality of a ruler was the effective use of power to guarantee his own survival. And The Prince is full of advice on how the ruler should skillfully use whatever resources are available to maximize his own power and to reduce the power of his enemies. Machiavelli is the great exponent of the popular maxim "The end justifies the means," and the end he has in mind is the continuing political survival of the ruler. If, to stay in office, one needs to lie, cheat, deceive, or kill, that is all part of what the ruler must do without moral scruple. This requires, Machiavelli insists, a complex set of practical abilities (what he calls virtu), and it may well require the appearance of virtue (because that is a useful cloak to wrap oneself in for public consumption). But it does not require any strict adherence to old-fashioned notions of charity, honesty, clemency, or other components of traditional Christian virtue. Hence comes the old saying, with Machievelli there is no virtue in virtu.
The Machiavel figure in the English theatre, which originated before Shakespeare (Marlowe even has Machiavelli as a character in one of his plays), is thus primarily a person who puts his own personal survival and power above any traditional moral restraint. He is a person who believes that the assertion of his individual desires is more important than observing any traditional ways of dealing with people and who is prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve his personal desires. He is, thus, a self-interested individualist with no traditional scruples about communal responsibilities and morality. The Machiavel is thus commonly an inherent source of social disorder.
In carrying out his plans, the Machiavel typically demonstrates many of the particular skills which Machiavelli talks about. He is, above everything else, a really fine actor, a consummate hypocrite, who can adjust his looks and his talk to meet any particular situation. He is a superb manipulator of people (especially those who take his appearance for the truth). He has a really impressive practical intelligence, being able to assess people and situations to his advantage, and he uses people’s credulity, stupidity, fear, ambition, and ignorance always to his own advantage. In many cases, he does not have a clear plan of action; he initiates discord (or takes advantage of chaotic times) and then improvises his way through, using an impressive range of efficient skills to get his way.
What separates the Machiavel figure from the Vice or the Overreacher are the very human qualities of his psychology. The Machiavel figure is a much more naturalistic portrait of evil than the Vice, and is generally a much cleverer and more subtle and convincing figure than the Overreacher (although the two may not be that easy to distinguish, since an Overreacher may well use Machiavellian tactics to get his way). With the Machiavel figure, the theatrical presentation of evil takes on a very human personality and character, and evil becomes a product, not of extraordinary passionate heroes or Devil figures, but of the all-too-common actions of the man or woman next door.
Many of Shakespeare’s heroes and villains are clearly Machiavel figures, in tragedies, comedies, and history plays: Bolingbroke, Richard III, Macbeth, Don John, Iago, Claudius, Regan and Goneril, Edmund, and others. These figures all demonstrate a preoccupation with their own advantage and an unscrupulous way of achieving what they want. They also share many Machiavellian skills, especially the ability to act whatever role and use whatever language they think the situation requires. What makes them often such complex embodiments of evil is that they are all, to a greater or lesser extent, recognizably normal; we meet such people in the world all around us. Their success, in many cases, depends upon other people failing to see them as anything but ordinary. In some cases, Shakespeare’s presentation of them makes them, in some ways (initially, at least), quite likable and amusing (e.g., Iago, Edmund).
But what makes Shakespeare’s treatment of this Machiavel figure so fascinating is that Shakespeare is no sentimental traditionalist deploring the immorality of modern individualism (as so many critics of Machiavelli were). For he is acutely aware that in the modern state certain Machiavellian qualities are essential for political efficiency and peaceful community. It is no longer the case that traditional virtues will be enough to keep a ruler in power. Hence, in Shakespeare’s work there is also an exploration of the necessary qualities the Machiavel figure brings to political rule. This, indeed, is one of the great themes of the second history cycle (as we shall see in our study of Henry IV, Part 1): Prince Hal’s education in how to become king requires him to learn and to use many of the qualities we associate with the Machiavel. The fascinating question Shakespeare explores in this history cycle, particularly in the last play, is the complex issue of what a commitment to Machiavellian tactics does to the humanity and the personality of the Machiavel (more about that later in the course). In other plays, of course, the Machiavellian origins of disorder in a particular human personality are seen as much more immediately evil (e.g., Iago, Edmund).
PRELIMINARY OBSERVATIONS ON RICHARD III AND MACBETH
Many of the above remarks will become much clearer once we start to have a close look at Richard III and Macbeth. Let me first offer a few remarks on why these two form our first pair of plays.
The most obvious reason these two plays belong together is that structurally they are almost identical. By that I mean that they both focus squarely upon a central hero who sets out to capture the crown. The first half (approximately) of each play concerns itself with the various stages in the hero’s successful attempt to do away with everything that stands between him and his goal. The second half of each play looks at the step-by-step disintegration of that achievement, the stripping away of all that the hero has worked so hard to achieve. And both conclude with his death in battle at the hands of a military adversary who is associated with a rejuvenation of virtue in the land.
Such a plot structure, I have argued above, is very traditional and would be thoroughly familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. What I want us particularly to look at as we put these two plays onto the table for discussion, however, is not the similarity but the extraordinary differences. Richard III is clearly an apprentice work. Much of it is very laboured, conventional, theatrically rather dull. It does, however, have a formidable hero, one of the most powerful and popular of all the characters Shakespeare created. But even the presentation of Richard is very erratic. Macbeth, by contrast, is one of Shakespeare’s greatest masterpieces, in many people’s eyes the finest of all the plays. It suffers from none of the problems we see in Richard III, and it is justly famous as one of the most fascinating, penetrating, and poetically rich explorations of evil ever written.
Putting these two plays together like this, right at the start of our study of Shakespeare, will, I hope, help us to learn something of the amazing development of his art from the early apprentice years to his full tragic maturity. Only thirteen years separate the creations of these two plays, but the transformation of the form is extraordinary (as is the amazing development of Shakespeare’s blank verse). In reading Richard III we are still clearly in the world of the medieval morality play (with some important exceptions): in reading Macbeth we are aware that we have left any simple formulaic shaping moral principles far behind.
THE “JUVENILITY” OF RICHARD III
One of the commonest observations about Richard III is that the play is characterized by some of very conventional characters and poetry as well as by some flashes of pure genius, moments when we get a glimpse of the full power of Shakespeare’s art about to burst forth. As Goddard puts it, the play is marked by “juvenility and genius” (35). In our discussions of the play, I would like to deal with the juvenility first and rather quickly so that we can concentrate our time on the genius component of this remarkable play.
Clearly, in the conception and execution of this play, Shakespeare relied a good deal on some rather stale conventions. The play obviously is designed on a typical de casibus form as the final rise and fall in the sequence of the First History Cycle. Richard is evil and murders his way to the crown, whereupon his power gradually disintegrates until his final death in battle. This common form is accompanied by all sorts of moral reflections by various people, like Margaret, Buckingham, and Hastings, to the effect that there is a moral purpose working itself throughout the action. In that sense Richard is both an agent of God’s providence (because he punishes a lot of wrongdoers, like Clarence and Hastings) and a sinner who is justly punished by God. All this is delivered more or less according to the formula.
The reader can see that much of this aspect of the play is quite conventional. Most of the characters in the play are rather wooden and often indistinguishable (e.g., Stanley, Hastings, Buckingham, the Archbishop, Elizabeth, Margaret). They often speak at unnecessary length in relatively uninspired verse. The play is brought to its conclusion by Henry Tudor, who is little more than a conventionally pious agent of God’s justice. If one imagines oneself thinking about putting on a production of this play, the first thing one would want to do is to edit the text extensively, because so much of it comes across as flat and uninspired, almost a mechanical carrying out of the formula (significantly, Margaret and the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother, are often cut or severely curtailed). Some critics have suggested that there’s a real sense that Shakespeare has lost interest in the original design and purpose of the play well before the end. These points, I think, are clear enough.
RICHARD III: THE PORTRAYAL OF RICHARD
But the play has one extraordinary character, the protagonist Richard, one of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular creations, his first truly memorable character, and one of the greatest acting roles in the history of English theatre. Clearly, something about this character fired Shakespeare’s imagination, because the imaginative energy, poetic power, and theatricality of this character are astonishing. One is almost tempted to speculate that with this character Shakespeare began to unlock the full power of his creativity.
Why should that be the case? The question is impossible to answer. I have a hunch that it might have something to do with the legend that Richard was deformed (with a withered arm, a limp, and a hump on his back) and notorious as a bloodthirsty killer. Hence, his evil is linked to some particular human characteristics or to the fact that he is the devil in human form (or both). Whatever the reason, as soon as Richard makes his appearance in the Henry VI plays he brings onto the stage an individual presence which makes him memorably different from the processions of historical rebels and their opponents.
Richard is quite clearly an amalgam of different traditions, and we can see in the play that these elements of his ancestry are not seamlessly fused. One of the first challenges facing anyone thinking of mounting a production of this play is to determine which feature of his stage personality is going to predominate, and different productions of the play have stressed different aspects.
Richard, for example, is obviously, in part, a Vice figure, an embodiment of pure evil. And he brings to the role many of the most theatrically effective elements of that type, above all his ruthlessness, his beguiling involvement of the audience, and, most notably, his sardonic sense of humour. Early on he establishes a cozy intimacy with the audience, invites us to see him succeed among so many credulous nobles, jokes with us about his actions and intentions, and celebrates with us when he is successful. He even tells us that he is the traditional Vice character: “Thus like the formal Vice, Iniquity,/ I moralize two meanings in one word” (3.1.82-3). The fact that Richard is, particularly in the first half of the play, very funny is one of the most intriguing and appealing aspects of the role. Richard’s loss of his sense of humour well before the end of the play may be one reason why his downfall does not compel the same attention as his rise to power.
Richard also comes straight from the tradition of the Machiavel. In a soliloquy near the end of Henry VI, Part 3 (parts of which are often added to the opening soliloquy of Richard III) he identifies himself with the Machiavel, and his actions are a demonstration of the standard tactics of the Machiavel at work. He is a wonderful actor, can lie to suit any occasion, has no compunction about killing members of his family and young children, and is an expert manipulator of people. Most important (as we shall see), he has an unerring sense for the weaknesses of other people, which he constantly exploits. He has no master plan of how to get the crown. His entire scheme is basically inspired improvisation. It is significant that when he has no one left to deceive or manipulate, he doesn’t know quite what to do.
A good deal of the popularity of this play rests on the way in which, in the first half, this Vice-Machiavel carries out his plan. There is an energy and imaginative zest in the writing and the plotting which are, I think, a key to our interest in the work. For that reason, the second half is less successful. Once Richard’s power begins to fall apart and we come upon the moral working out of God’s purposes in defeating Richard, there is a perceptible loss of dramatic power and interest. I’ll have more to say about that in a moment.
But there is a third element in Richard’s character, too, namely, the deformed and malevolent outsider. This is a new psychological dimension which makes the character sharply human rather than an allegorical devil figure or a typical Machiavel. We are invited in the opening soliloquy to see Richard’s evil as a manifestation of his physical and mental crippling, particularly in his inability to love. He tells us at the very opening that, now the war is over, he has nothing to do, because love forswore him in his mother’s womb and his physical shape precludes his finding any interest in love. His resolve to be evil, he tells us, is a decision arising from his sense of inadequacy.
This third element complicates things a good deal for anyone who wants to strive for a coherent interpretation of Richard’s character (or for the actor or director who wants to bring the character to life on the stage). The complication can be summed up with a question, the answer to which will decisively shape the presentation of the character: Is Richard’s deformity the symbol of his evil or is it the cause? In other words, are we to take Richard as an allegorical presentation of the devil (and not worry too much about the psychological complexities of his character, because his deformity is simply an indication of the Devil) or are we to see Richard’s evil as a human response to the psychological pressures of being horribly unlike everyone else?
The answer to this question is important, because it will determine the tone of the play and set the level of the audience’s sympathy with Richard. If Richard is indeed the Devil in human form, then we can treat him as such and sit back and enjoy the spectacle of pure evil inviting us to share a bravura performance of duping a bunch of people far less practically and politically intelligent than himself. With such an understanding of the main character, we can really bring out the most noteworthy feature of this play, the sardonic humour.
On the other hand, if we want to stress the psychological torment of the main character, we will probably have to tone down the humour. It may still be there verbally, but that will always be undercut by our sense that we are dealing with a person in pain, whose plotting is not the zestful and amusing expression of a thoroughly evil type but rather a compensation for physical and psychological inadequacy. This may complicate Richard’s character, but the price will be very high, for we will be sacrificing the quality that, more than anything else, has sustained the popularity of this play over the centuries, the sense of fun Richard and the audience share in his exploits.
Are these two view mutually incompatible? Well, it takes a brave interpreter to make any absolute rule about such a matter, because there may well be a manner of carrying off such a marriage of what look like incompatible approaches to the play. In practice, however, it seems that the choice between the two options is inevitable. And we have two excellent examples. In one of the most famous production of Richard III, Laurence Olivier decided to go for the gusto (in a theatrical production in the late 1940’s, which for a generation of theatre goers defined the role). Some years later he made a film of that production. The film has many flaws (as a film), but it does establish in an unforgettable way the theatrical power of Richard as the Vice figure and really brings out the black humour in the play. It also leaves a memorial to one of the greatest interpretations of a Shakespearean role in the history of English theatre.
Recently (1995), Ian McKellen brought Richard to the screen again in a very different interpretation. This time, Richard is a mean spirited, twisted, bitter military dictator, whose actions seem much more closely linked to a generally inadequate personality. Gone from the portrayal is the grim shared humour of the Olivier interpretation. This interpretation may owe a good deal to the influence of some Eastern European critics (notably Jan Kott) who see in this play a political vision in tune with the police states of the Fascist and post-war Communist states. The result of the decision to portray Richard this way, however, seems conclusive: the play and the character lose much of their interest for us. Richard seems to work much better on stage as a traditional Vice figure than as some recognizably human evil produced by physical and psychological deformity. Simply put, the interpretation which strives to bring out Richard’s sense of "fun" (if that is the right word) holds our attention more. Of course, one needs to remark that this may well be a fault of the film itself rather than an inherent flaw in this line of interpretation. Or it may be the case, as Jan Kott has remarked, that only an audience which has itself lived in fear of the secret police knocking on the door in the early hours of the morning can respond adequately to the full horror of the second Richard.
I’m not saying the psychological dimension is not there. Clearly it is. Shakespeare invokes it in the opening soliloquy, and later in the play, when we witness Richard’s nightmares, we are apparently intended to see him suffering some pangs of conscience, a quality that would not seem to fit the devil very well. It hardly seems credible that the Richard we have been following in the first half would be worried about the fact that no one loves him or that his victims visit him in his dreams. We can see what Shakespeare might be trying to do here, but that sense of Richard suffering guilt feelings hardly squares with what we have come to learn about the character earlier in the play. What I am claiming here is that this human dimension of Richard clashes somewhat with his allegorical power as the Devil in disguise and that, of the two features of his character, the latter seems to be the more theatrically effective.
It’s as if Shakespeare in producing this character in a traditional way starts to get interested, not just in the presentation of evil theatrically, but in the more complex question of the origins of evil in the human personality. But he is not ready to deal with that yet. Hence, there is no coherent and dramatically compelling insight into Richard’s character (although some critics have tried to find one). His theatrical strength comes from what he represents and how he acts, not from who he is or why he behaves the way he does.
Put another way, if we see Richard as the embodiment of evil in this play, there are two rival conceptions of evil at work here: one is the traditional one, evil as the Devil incarnate, and the other is something new, evil as a manifestation of genuinely human qualities. The alliance between them is uneasy, for the author is not yet ready to take his understanding of evil away from the traditional allegorical depictions of it.
Here a comparison with Macbeth may be useful. Macbeth is, in many respect, as I have mentioned before, exactly the same play structurally as Richard III, but the later play is entirely different in its emphasis. Here there is no allegorical power at work in the depiction of the central character and there is no bravura humour in the various ways Macbeth acquires power. What takes its place is a psychological complexity of character that links the evil that Macbeth does and its consequences at every stage to the particular features of a human personality. The evil acts in this play are entirely the product of particular feelings of a recognizably human character, and Macbeth, unlike Richard, is one of the most compelling psychological portraits in the history of theatre. This quality makes the second half of Macbeth (where his world falls apart) chillingly convincing, for his decline, like his rise, is always presented to us primarily in terms of Macbeth’s psychological responses to events.
What I would argue, therefore, is that in writing Richard III, Shakespeare began to become imaginatively excited by the complexity of evil in the human character but that he was not ready to deal with it yet. And so, in effect, he concluded the play according to his original design, perhaps with a declining interest, for many of the later scenes in the play have little creative passion underlying them, particularly the wooing of Elizabeth (4.4) and the portrayal of Richmond (which seems almost perfunctory). Shakespeare then waited thirteen years before tackling the story again. And this time, his mature powers are ready to handle what his imagination had responded to inadequately all those years before.
To conclude this point, it might be worth remembering that authors write from two important sources, their conscious intentions and their irrational imaginations. We see both at work in Richard III. The conscious intentions set this play up in the same conventional moral framework as the Henry VI plays, but the imagination is roused by some elements in the play and, to some extent, jars with those conscious intentions. What I have said above suggests that Shakespeare is not yet ready to let his imagination go--he is sounding new depths but not yet ready to shape those into some coherent whole. And so, the flashes of imaginative genius are intermittent, and he concludes the play conventionally, holding to the intentions he started out with (of course, given the nature of the story, he had relatively little freedom to alter it, since Richmond, who becomes Henry VII, is Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather and his victory over Richard establishes the Tudor royal family on the throne).
RICHARD III: THE INCREASING COMPLEXITY OF THE MORAL VISION
There is, however, in addition to the dramatic power of the chief character, another feature of Richard III which is remarkably new (in comparison with the Henry VI plays) and which also indicates something of the imaginative power in store. This quality I call the increasing complexity of the moral vision, and what I mean by that curious phrase is that as we follow Richard’s career, our understanding of his evil opens our eyes to something more challenging than simply the talents of a successful allegorical Devil-Machiavel figure.
The quality I wish to refer to this: Richard’s successful climb to power in this play is not simply a tribute to his own skill; it is also a manifestation of the moral weaknesses of others in the play. And this aspect also seems to have seized Shakespeare’s imagination intermittently (especially in the first half), as if that, too, is an insight which he is not fully prepared to develop yet but which is going be a prominent feature of later plays.
For Richard’s victims are not simply innocent dupes outwitted by an irresistible Devil-Machiavel. Again and again, we see that they simply fail to recognize what they are confronted with and, even when they do sense what Richard is doing, for various reasons they evade the moral issue. The result is that we are forced to recognize here that Richard’s success depends upon the refusal of others to stand up to him and what he represents. This play thus initiates what we are to witness again and again in Shakespeare: the point that evil succeeds in this world because of the moral complicity of others.
Let me consider a few examples. Early in the play, Richard plots the killing of Clarence. When the murderers arrive at the prison where Clarence is held, they present their pass to the head officer of the prison, Brackenbury, who has just shared an intensely moving scene with Clarence in which the latter has made clear to all the intense suffering he is going through. Brackenbury is now faced with a choice: Should he let the murderers in to kill Clarence or not? His answer is significant. He says, as he reads over the commission, “I will not reason what is meant hereby,/ Because I will be guiltless of the meaning” (1.4.89-90). Notice carefully what this is saying. Brackenbury will not pause to reflect upon what is going on (and will thus not have to act upon any such reflection), because he wants to preserve his innocence. But he knows perfectly well what is going to happen. This is a moral evasion of great magnitude. Because of it, Clarence dies, Richard enjoys another success and thus confirms his strategy. Brackenbury may think this evasion makes him innocent; quite clearly it does not. Richard’s successful murder of Clarence and what follows thus stem to a large extent from Brackenbury failure to act.
Earlier we have seen a similar incident in the wooing of Lady Anne (1.2). She has every reason to recognize Richard for what he truly is. After all, he has murdered her father-in-law and her husband and helped to kill her father. She is in the midst of mourning for the dead Henry VI. And yet within a few moments she has capitulated and given him encouragement to continue his courtship of her. This transformation provides Richard with his first success, and he is elated by it. It confirms that he is right to have set out on the evil journey he has undertaken.
Why does Anne so suddenly capitulate? That we can only know clearly if we see the scene acted out, but it seems that she has given into Richard’s flattery and perhaps sex appeal (she tells us later in the play that she had grown grossly captive to his honeyed words). There is no force involved here, other than the force of Richard’s personality. Confronted with Richard, Anne is unable to maintain her strong rejection of him. Admittedly his tactics are brilliant (and very dangerous to him personally since he risks death). But he judges her weakness superbly and brings her, not simply to the edge of an emotional collapse, but also to be his betrothed.
Now it’s worth asking why Shakespeare includes this scene in the play. After all, Anne has no particularly important function in the story, Richard does not love her, and his plan to reach the throne does not need to involve her. He refuses to divulge his motive, and once he has married her he seems to dispose of her almost immediately. It is difficult to see why the story of Richard would require this scene. And yet no production of the play would ever leave it out, because it is such a profound psychological confrontation, which explores a theme much more complex than most of the rest of the play. Anne is innocent, yes, but she is weak. And in a world which contains evil in the form of Richard, it is not enough to be innocent. One has to keep one’s guard up, to be careful of one’s own feelings, because (and this is the key point) evil succeeds, not just because evil is clever but, more pertinently, because other people are weak or stupid or afraid. Thus, however much sympathy we may feel for Anne (who is a very minor player in the world of the court), she bears her share of the responsibility for Richard’s later successes.
[A short digression. To get a sense of what I have been talking about in relation to the scene with Lady Anne, one need only compare it to the scene later in the play which involves the wooing of Elizabeth (4.4). Now, this is a potentially much more serious political matter, since Richard’s decline requires some immediate assistance and he thinks such an alliance might help. But the scene is excessively long and for most readers very tedious (it is commonly cut severely or omitted). One wonders why Shakespeare felt the need to go on at such great length about a non-event (unless it is to establish the rectitude of Queen Elizabeth I’s ancestors). Whatever else gave rise to this scene, it did not spring from Shakespeare’s imagination.]
This pattern of moral evasion I have been talking about occurs repeatedly. The Archbishop, for example, has the power to prevent Richard from getting his hands on one of the young princes, the next king, who has gone to sanctuary. But he allows Richard to overrule his mind and denies the young prince the Church’s protection. As a result, the young princes are murdered. Lord Hastings is warned by Lord Stanley of Richard’s dangerous plans, but Hastings ignores them (in Olivier’s film this dismissal of the warning is linked directly to Hastings’s adulterous fascination with Mistress Shore, which underscores the point of Hastings’s negligence). So Hastings, a powerful man in the kingdom, goes to his death, and Richard enjoys one more success.
The most obvious place where all this pattern of moral evasion is summed up occurs in the curious little scene where the Scrivener appears with the indictment of Lord Hastings, which he has been writing out so that it can be reviewed and discussed. But Hastings has already been arrested and taken off to be executed. The moral perversion of this process is clear to the lowly Scrivener, who comments as follows:
Here’s a good world the while! Who is so gross
That cannot see this palpable device?
Yet who so bold but says he sees it not? (3.6.10-13)
He has no doubt about the matter and points his finger squarely at the issue: Who has the courage to confront evil when it manifests itself so clearly? In bringing this to our attention, the Scrivener is requiring us to consider how all of those whose ignorance or cooperation is necessary to Richard’s success bear, to some extent, a responsibility for what happens. This would obviously include Richard’s active collaborators, like Buckingham and Catesby, but it also refers to all those who refuse to see what they don’t want to see: Anne, Hastings, the Archbishop, the Lord Mayor, and so on.
Incidents like this significantly deepen our understanding of the way political evil manifests itself in the world and the reasons for its frequent success. And this becomes a major theme in many Shakespeare plays: in this world you have to keep your wits about you; innocence is never enough. Purity of conscience without courageous action and an intelligent sense of what is going on around one does not leave one blameless or free from harm. And some of my favorite characters in Shakespeare are those, like the Duke of Albany in King Lear, who start off relatively blind and uninvolved (and therefore complicit in the evil) but who wake up to their moral responsibility and then act courageously upon it. And what is particularly Shakespearean about this theme is that it applies not only to the great and the powerful (like the Archbishop and Lord Hastings), but also to lesser officials and common folk. The entire plot of King Lear, as we shall see, might be said to hinge on the moral actions of a single anonymous servant who risks his life and dies trying to prevent what for him is unacceptably evil conduct. Standing up against evil in the world is everyone’s responsibility.
Now, this conception of the active success of evil in the world is considerably more naturalistic and sophisticated than what I have argued is the original conception of the play which has Richard’s success attributable to his devilish characteristics and his punishment due entirely to the providential justice of God (acting through Richmond). The latter is a much simpler (perhaps even simplistic) vision of life, as is its corollary that the overcoming of evil will occur through God’s actions in history (rather than through the courageous actions of particular individuals). In Richard III these two visions of evil exist side by side, and, to judge from the second half of the play, it seems as if Shakespeare is not quite ready to handle the more sophisticated version fully. For the portrayal of Richmond comes across as quite wooden, a conventionally good figure, associated with God’s purposes, of little interest as a sharply etched human character.
We do not witness in Richard III any character wrestling with his conscience about how to act in a morally complex world (with one notable exception which I will come to in a moment). In that sense, the moral vision of the play, in spite of the frequent scenes of moral evasion, remains quite simple, and thus the vision of tragedy never moves very far from the conventional medieval vision. As I have mentioned earlier, some interpreters have sensed that Shakespeare became rather bored with this easy way of understanding evil and finished the play quickly and conventionally without pushing his deeper insights.
Before leaving this issue of the divided nature of Richard III, I would like to call our attention briefly to what is probably the most extraordinarily poetic and complex scene in the play, once again by way of pointing out how, in the midst of the conventional structure and poetry of much of this play we get clear indications of the full potential of the later works. The scene I refer to is 1.4, Clarence’s dream and subsequent murder.
Clarence has been a relatively minor character in the First History Cycle. One of the sons of the Duke of York, he briefly switches sides, but then returns to the family fold. As the elder brother to Richard, he stands between Richard and the throne. Hence his murder is essential to Richard’s ambitious scheme. But instead of having Clarence done away with in the usual manner, Shakespeare gives us a long scene with him and, in his murder, raises the sorts of issues that are going to be a feature of many later plays.
scene opens with Clarence recounting a dream he has had to Brakenbury,
the keeper. The poetry of this dream is an extraordinarily evocative
exploration of a tormented soul trying to come to grips with his unconscious
awareness of what he has done in his past life and what awaits him.
O Lord! Methought what pain it was to drown,
What dreadful noise of waters in my ears,
What sights of ugly death within my eyes.
Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wrecks,
Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon,
Wedges of gold, great ouches, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scattered in the bottom of the sea.
Some lay in dead men’s skulls, and in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept--
As ‘twere in scorn of eyes--reflecting gems,
Which wooed the slimy bottom of the deep
And mocked the dead bones that lay scattered there. (1.4.21-33)
Clarence is a suffering person, trying to come to grips with that suffering. He has no clear sense of what his dream vision means, and he is not offering some pithy moral about the meaning of life. His words convey a growing unconscious sense within him of the vanity of everything he and his family have spent their murderous lives trying to acquire. The image of all those earthly riches lying among dead men at the bottom of the sea, where the only life is the fish gnawing the flesh of the dead, suggests that some important insight is struggling within Clarence and that he is resisting the awareness as strongly as he can (hence the sense of drowning).
Recounting his dream brings Clarence up against his own past complicity, something he is unwilling to face squarely:
Ah, Brackenbury, I have done those things,
That now give evidence against my soul,
For Edward’s sake; and see how he requites me. (1.4.66-68)
Notice here how his desire to blame Edward indicates the distance he still has to travel before fully understanding and accepting what he has done. What we are witnessing here is something much more complex and interesting than the rather simple invocations to God’s providence which other people use when they sense their lives are in danger. The experience of evil, including one’s own, is becoming much more deeply personalized, and the pressure here is on us to recognize that its presence in our lives cannot be so easily subsumed under easy allegorical categories.
In the confrontation with the murderers which then follows, we witness Clarence’s desperately pleading for his life, falling back on all the arguments his frantic mind can come up with. He tries appealing to the law, to religious feeling, to family values. But the murderers repeatedly point out that Clarence is appealing to all those moral principles which he has spent his own life time violating. He is, they are suggesting, now a victim of the very situation which he himself helped to set up. In terms of that long quotation from Troilus and Cressida (Ulysses’s speech on degree), Clarence was happy enough to contribute to disturbing the civil and moral order by killing others in order to advance his own interests; he cannot now appeal to them, since they do not exist in the world where power answers only to power, a world which Clarence helped to create. Finally Clarence is left with nothing other than the naked and desperate plea of one human being facing fellow human beings and asking for some vestige of human pity.
Here again, what’s interesting about the scene is that the attention paid to Clarence’s murder is out of all proportion to Clarence’s dramatic importance in this play or in the First History Cycle. But something seized Shakespeare’s imagination here and pushed him to use the murder of Clarence as an exploration of the emotional torment of a guilty soul trying to come to terms with his own evil in the face of his imminent death. What we see here reaches its culmination in the astonishingly powerful speeches of Macbeth as he comes closer and closer to the realization of what is closing in on him as a result of his own flawed nature.
We might also note that the murder of Clarence also features a debate between the murderers on the nature and the effects of conscience. Here for the first, but not the last, time, Shakespeare presents the commission of an evil act by two anonymous professional killers in terms of their immediate feelings and moral sensibilities. And he suggests, in the way the feelings of the murderers shift around, that living with one’s own evil, adjusting one’s mind to what one has done or is about to do, is a far more dramatically fertile and complex business than the simpler allegorical form might suggest. The active presence of evil in the world is becoming something much more deeply psychologically rooted in the particular natures of human agents, who bring with them an ambiguous tension with which most of us are all too familiar (if not to the same degree).
Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Spivak, Bernard. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil: The History of A Metaphor in Relation to His Major Villains. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.