When Shakespeare’s most Machiavellian monarch, Richard III, confesses his own murderous machinations in a quest to gain the English throne and implicates you as a co-conspirator, you’ll be mesmerized — even as you recoil from his brutally amoral schemes. This vivid, suspenseful period production, directed by the legendary Tina Packer, founder of Shakespeare & Company, is a meditation on power politics — and its dangers — that raises unsettling questions about our own world.
The Many Facets of Twelfth Night
By Bob Bows
Richard III is one of the most produced of all Shakespeare’s plays. A ruthless, witty villain appeals to some funny bone in the human psyche: is it his extreme outrageousness we are attracted to? Or that we often have evil impulses ourselves but would never act on them? Or that he is so open and generous with his thoughts to the audience, yet so secretive with his fellow players, that he binds us even as he commits these violent acts?
The character of Richard holds the play together. The structure of the play itself is simple: in form it follows a mystery play with its balancing of good and evil, Richard’s descent into hell being drama enough for a moral tale. If the young William Shakespeare were not already showing signs of being a major psychologist, the play would not hold up as well as it does.
The only opposition to Richard that I see is the women; but their opposition is through words and public demonstration, not through force. However, by the end of the play, public opinion turns so decisively against Richard that the unknown Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, is able to initiate the final battle of opposition at Bosworth Field.
The play explores Shakespeare’s fascination with the role of theatre and the actor’s art of persuasion in detail. Richard III is, of course, a Machiavellian villain, and Machiavelli counseled leaders to be good actors. Much of Richard’s power lies in his ability to act well.
What truly astounds me is that the play appears to point to Richard as a scapegoat. If he is born to bring the evil of the 30 years of fighting to an end, and all the evil every character has been a party to can be dumped on Richard’s crooked back, then we can blame him and kill him — and we don’t have to be culpable ourselves.
Margaret of Anjou, the outsider, delivers the message in her final lines:
Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were
And he that slew them fouler than he is,
Bett’ring thy loss makes the bad causes worse;
Revolving this will teach thee how to curse.
There are five people, all murdered, who are constantly referred to in the body of the play. One of the more annoying aspects of the English monarchy is that they tend to have the same names. Henry, Edward, Richard, with an occasional George and Charles thrown in. They are:
- Holy Harry, also known as Henry VI, former King of England, husband of Margaret, killed by Richard.
- Edward, Prince of Wales, son to Holy Harry and Margaret of Anjou, married to Anne, Warwick’s daughter, killed by Edward/Clarence/Richard.
- Earl of Warwick, the “Kingmaker”, father-in-law to Clarence, father to Anne, killed by Edward/Clarence/Richard.
- Duke of York, husband of the Duchess of York, father of Edward/Clarence/Richard/Rutland, killed by Margaret.
- Rutland, youngest brother of Edward/Clarence/Richard, killed by Margaret’s henchmen.
In this production we have mixed modern music and costumes with the more traditional Elizabethan sounds and look. These may be dynastic struggles that took place 530 years ago in England, but similar wars are taking place in many parts of the world today. And the fallout from war — especially for the soldiers who fight them — are reported almost every day in the press. Like Richard, they are secret warriors in everyday life, unable to stop seeing danger on all sides, anxious that the reality they have known will be lost. Indeed it is the only truth for them, their brains and bodies wired for action, seeing the enemy in friend and foe alike.
- Tina Packer, Director
Lamentation: Eliciting grief in order to cure it
One of the principle reasons for working on Richard III is the lamentation rituals of the women, written into the text by Shakespeare but rarely seen in modern productions. The women form the only opposition to Richard (until the very end of the play when Richmond appears as the deus ex machina), and they oppose him through the ancient rites of lamentation.
Lamentation rituals, or wailing for the dead, occur in almost all nations in the world. As “civilization” developed, these rituals were banned and destroyed. However, in recent years an interest in lamentation has been growing both in academic circles and grassroots movements — an interest probably inspired by the central role played by women poets and their knowledge of the links between birth and death.
In all societies, certain common factors appear in lamentation:
- The narrative about the dead and those living left behind
- Transportation of the soul from this world to the next through the vibrations of the voice
- Praise and blame
- Chanting, wailing, and “shrill cries”
- Disheveled appearance
- Beating of the chest and pulling of the hair.
From the outside, lamentation appears to be an excessive, uncontrolled display of emotion. However, the spontaneous poems and rhythmic movements and chanting created by professional women lamenters are full of antithesis, balancing the opposites of grief, pain, anger, joy, love, and eventually acceptance. As Katherine Goodland says, “Antithetical thought is the very essence of lamentation, a genre that elicits grief in order to cure it, that embodies death in order to renew life, that dwells on sorrow in order to find joy, that fills the emphasis of loss with the clamor of pain.”
Lamentation was banned over a 100-year period as Athens organized itself into a democracy. The essence of lamentation did not support the shift from individual toward institutional revenge, nor the creation of standing armies (where the idea of honor needed to be aligned to the idea of dying for one’s country, which in turn demanded that the truth about death be suppressed), nor primogeniture, nor the equality of women. Likewise, Reformation England was not keen on the excesses of women and what was seen as the promotion of emotion as opposed to the calm of reason.
To recreate lamentation sounds and awaken old grief in the body has been a painful and exhilarating exploration. Scholars ask the question: if lamentation was such an integral part of Greek life before Democracy, where did it go when it was banned? Well, it certainly went underground — people celebrated the rituals in secrecy for the next 2,000 years — but the other place it was diverted to (it is thought) is the theatre, that the Greek chorus is a divination of the lamentation rituals. Shakespeare thought it important enough to include in many of his plays.
- Kimberly White and Tina Packer
Richard lays out his plan to set his brothers (George, Duke of Clarence & King Edward IV) against one another, maneuvering Clarence into the Tower. He persuades Anne Neville to marry him, despite the fact that he killed her husband Prince Edward and her father-in-law Henry VI. Henry’s widow Margaret returns from exile in France to curse those responsible for her husband’s downfall and death. Richard sends two murderers to the Tower with the King’s order to execute Clarence.
Kind Edward IV, in poor health, reconciles the factions from the recent battles over his succession to the throne. Richard reveals that the king’s reversal arrived too late, and that Clarence is dead. Edward dies shortly thereafter, leaving his young son Edward to be crowned and Richard as Lord Protector. Richard and Buckingham take charge of the young prince Edward and arrange to have Lords Rivers and Grey (Elizabeth’s brother and son by her first marriage) imprisoned at Pomfret castle. Fearing for their safety, Elizabeth and her younger son Richard of York take sanctuary.
Richard and Buckingham now begin to openly seek support to make Richard king. Unable to win his support, Richard names Lord Hastings a traitor and has him killed. Rivers and Grey are executed at Pomfret. Richard spreads rumors that his mother was unfaithful and his brother, the dead King Edward, was therefore a bastard. Buckingham, Catesby, the Mayor of London and other nobles arrive to beg Richard to be king in place of his nephew. After feigning reluctance, Richard accepts.
News of Richard’s elevation reaches his wife Anne, his mother the Duchess of York, and Edward IV’s widow Queen Elizabeth. Derby urges Elizabeth to send her son Dorset to join his stepson, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, in Brittany. Richard is crowned king of England, and has his nephews killed in the Tower to eliminate competition for the throne, cutting off Buckingham in the meantime for hesitating to kill the princes. Richard disposes of his current wife Anne in order to marry his niece, Edward’s daughter Elizabeth. Old Queen Margaret, having seen her curses begin to take root, leaves to live out her life in France. Richard’s mother denounces and disowns him. Richard urges Queen Elizabeth to woo her daughter Elizabeth on his behalf. Instead, Elizabeth sends word of her consent for her daughter to marry Richmond, who approaches from France to depose Richard and claim the throne for himself.
Buckingham is captured and executed. Richard and Richmond each prepare their forces for battle. The ghosts of Richard’s victims each appear, promising victory to Richmond and death and destruction to Richard. The Battle of Bosworth Field commences and Richard is killed by Richmond, who pardons those who fought on Richard’s side, is crowned Henry VII, and through his marriage to Elizabeth, unites the houses of Lancaster and York, effectively ending the War of the Roses.
Which Richard, Which Edward, Which Henry, and Which Elizabeth?
Making Sense of the Plantagenets
I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him.
While these lines highlight the devastation of countless deaths and murders that haunt the play, they also underscore the potential for confusion regarding the numerous characters named Richard, Edward, Henry, and Elizabeth within the play and within the line of Plantagenet kings. Throw in the battles for succession and the shifting loyalties among the nobility, and it becomes even more difficult to keep it all straight.
It all started with Edward III (reigned 1327-1377), who had twelve legitimate children. Of these, five sons survived to adulthood (for simplicity, only those relevant to Richard III are included in our family tree). The two branches we are most concerned with are those coming Edward III’s third and fourth surviving sons: John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (the Lancastrians) and Edmund of Langley, Duke of York (the Yorkists). The Henrys (Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI) all descend from John of Gaunt; the brothers Edward IV and Richard III descend from Edmund of Langley. Here comes the tricky part. Richard’s branch (the Yorkists) are also descended from Edward III’s second son Lionel, through his daughter Philippa. This bumps them ahead of the Lancastrians in the line to the throne, but this position is dependent on royal descent through a daughter, a controversial question at the time. Henry IV, the first Lancaster king, also took his throne by deposing his cousin, Richard II. Another wrinkle comes in the form of the Beaufort line. The Beauforts are the sons of John of Gaunt (father to the Lancasters) by his mistress, Catherine Swynford. Born bastards, the sons were legitimized (by Richard II) when John later married Catherine, but were barred from royal succession (by Henry IV). If a king could bar them from succession, another king could restore their place in line. This is, in effect, what happened. Henry Tudor (the earl of Richmond, later Henry VII) was descended from John of Gaunt through his mother, Margaret Beaufort.
The Plantagenets also had an unfortunate tendency to die relatively young, leaving infants and children as heirs to the throne. Richard II was crowned at age ten; Henry VI became king at nine months old. A child king became an opportunity for the numerous Plantagenet uncles and cousins to assert their authority and battle (sometimes more literally than others) for power and position. Shakespeare’s Richard is a spectacular villain: physically deformed, ambitious, bloodthirsty and ruthless, willing to arrange for the murders of his own brother and nephews in his quest for the crown. Let’s not forget, after all, that Shakespeare was writing under a Tudor queen, who owed her throne to her grandfather Richmond’s victory at Bosworth. Historically, however, much of Richard’s support came from concern over another child king in the form of Edward IV’s son Edward.
Prince Edward’s age was not the only problem. For centuries, English kings married foreign princesses after much negotiation and discussion among the nobility. Edward IV, however, secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, and English widow who already had two sons by her first husband (Grey and Dorset). She also had many brothers. The Woodvilles’ rise to power was an affront to many of the more established nobility. Upon Edward IV’s death, many feared the Woodvilles (who were not of royal blood) would essentially rule the kingdom through the twelve year old Edward V.
— Heidi Schmidt
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