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richard iii

11 december 2015

Richard III is one of Shakespeare's most famous plays. It's odd that it should be so closely akin to Henry VI, Part 3, which is one of his least famous plays. Yet they share a central character and a style and political and thematic concerns. And indeed, as editor Janis Lull notes, adaptors ever since Colley Cibber in the year 1700 have cannibalized Henry VI, Part 3 for any good bits they can put toward their Richard IIIs.

3HVI is notably rudimentary, at least for Shakespeare, in terms of stagecraft and language; obviously "early." Richard III gives its title character a nuanced and "inward" personality – a complicated evil appeal that mixes panache and repulsiveness. Yet, as critics including Stephen Greenblatt have remarked, everybody around Richard talks and acts like they're still in the Henry VI plays. Their language is too formal; they deliver awkward set-pieces or stilted echoes of each other's words. Shakespeare uses quite a bit of stichomythy, the ancient Greek technique of having each partner to a conversation deliver a single line of verse alternately. This gives opportunities for rhetorical balance and ironic parallelism, but it's also so not how people actually talk.

Blank verse paragraphs are not how people talk either, of course, but Richard of Gloucester can use blank verse as conversationally as other characters use prose. An exchange in Act One, Scene 1 about one of Edward IV's mistresses:

With this, my lord, myself have nought to do.
Naught to do with Mistress Shore? I tell thee fellow,
He that doth naught with her, excepting one,
Were best he do it secretly, alone.
What one, my lord?
Her husband, knave; wouldst thou betray me?
Meanwhile the women in the play are notably static and elocutionary characters, and their parts are often cut down to next to nothing. Richard himself, of course, is one of the handful of greatest challenges for an actor, whether it's to go over the top of an already OTT tradition or to try to deliver Gloucester's great nastiness in a lower key. For once Shakespeare didn't write very good parts for the lovely boys of his company, and actresses since have paid the price.

There isn't much military action in the play till right near its end, when Richard famously offers his kingdom for a horse and Richmond, the future Henry VII, kills him in single combat. The duel is ahistorical. Royals did still take to the battlefield in those days, but that might have been the last time English kings showed up to fight in person. In Laurence Olivier's film, Richard is killed, more realistically, by a contingent of Lancastrians.

One oddity of the play is that Henry and Richard are rivals not only for the crown but for the hand of Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV. Richard tries to broker a marriage offer for Elizabeth with her mother (Elizabeth too) in Act Four, Scene 4. He doesn't get far; the mother's main objection is that Richard killed two of her sons and might not make the best husband to their sister. At the very end of the play Henry VII announces that he will marry Elizabeth instead, but she never appears onstage. So much for women's agency.

Janis Lull presents a judicious version of the 1623 Folio text in her 1999 Cambridge edition. She resists the received tradition of adopting lines (and even one whole scene) from the 1597 Quarto. Like other recent editors, she sees "modern editions as presentations of particular texts rather than as ideal reconstructions of the author's lost intentions" (209). That's well-put.

We know in fact zero about Shakespeare's textual intentions. Scholarship till fairly recently had assumed that there was a single archetype behind each Shakespearean play which had become "corrupted" by copying and recopying, typesetting, memorial reconstruction, and revision (except when the revision was the author's own, but how to determine that was generally a matter of conjecture based on aesthetic preference, following the principle that Shakespeare could never have made changes for the worse). Lull remarks:

We appear to know less about the textual history of Shakespeare's plays than we did fifty years ago. If textual hypotheses cannot stand examination, however, we must admit that they never really represented knowledge. (219)
I haven't seen the paradigm shift in Shakespearean editing characterized better.

Shakespeare, William. King Richard III. 1597, 1623. Edited by Janis Lull. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. PR 2821 .A2L85