Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Off With Their Heads

Although Act 3 is rather long, it seems to move at lightning speed. With the aid of his two loyal henchmen, Buckingham and Catesby, Richard quickly--rather too quickly--clears the way for his illegitimate accession to the throne. With dizzying celerity, Rivers, Gray and Vaughn are executed, Hastings is beheaded (even before he's officially accused of anything), and the slanderous accusations whereby Richard will wrest the crown from Prince Edward are set in motion. At the end of the act, Richard appears between two bishops with a prayer book in hand, and pretends to be reluctant to accept the throne Buckingham insists is his by right. This last stagy scene is so over the top that it seems to belong in a comedy rather than a "tragicall historie." In fact I would argue that there's a black comedic aspect to the whole of Act 3--with a few more dastardly asides from Richard, Buckingham, and Catesby, it wouldn't be out of place as an episode of Blackadder II.

And by the way, if you've never seen this brilliant BBC comedy, you must immediately go to Netflix and put it at the top of your queue. The whole time I was re-reading Act 3, I kept thinking of the episode entitled "Head" in which Blackadder precipitously beheads (that's a pun, if you know Latin) one of the Queen's enemies, only to find that she's changed her mind after the deed's done. Hilarious.

After Elizabeth's relatives, the next to get the axe is Lord Hastings. I have to say that I think Will himself was over-hasty with Hastings. Although his political naivete helps to get things moving quickly, it's simply not very believable. I mean, come on. The guy has survived one of the longest and most vicious civil wars in English history (up to that time)--you don't navigate that kind of political minefield by being a babe in the woods. But that's exactly how he behaves when Catesby sounds him out about Richard's ambitions.

He's awakened in the predawn hours by a messenger from Lord Stanley, who can't sleep because he's had a dream that a boar (Richard's heraldic emblem) cut off his head. Dreams, curses, and portents are meaningful in this play--and in fiction in general--so it's always a mistake to dismiss them. Of course, doomed characters inevitably do. Stanley claims to fear the "separated councils"--i.e., the fact that Richard is having one council to (ostensibly) discuss Prince Edward's coronation, and another, secret one to further his own plans. Neither Hastings nor Stanley has been invited to this second council, so Stanley is understandably nervous. After the messenger leaves (lots of things happen via intermediaries in Act 3), Catesby arrives. Remember, it's 4 am; the early bird catches the worm unawares. Richard's lackey doesn't beat around the bush:

Lord Hastings: Good morrow, Catesby. You are early stirring.
What news, what news, in this our tottering state?
Catesby: It is a reeling world indeed, my lord.
And I believe it will never stand upright
Till Richard wear the garland of the realm.

Hastings is a little slow on the uptake here--like pretty much everyone but Richard and his men. Events seem to overtake the people most affected by them in this play. Will loves to fool around with time in his plays--he uses similar imagery and structural stratagems in Macbeth, a play with obvious thematic links to this one. Macbeth continually talks about "o'erleaping" time, i.e., skipping over events as he intends to skip over (by killing) the rightful heirs to the throne--the whole play moves very quickly as a result. In Antony and Cleopatra, the middle-aged Antony is always "too late" for everything--he's a heroic anachronism in a bureaucratic age. (This is one of my favorite plays, by the way--I'm looking forward to blogging it much later).

Anyway, back to Hastings. For some reason he doesn't seem to get that Richard is plotting to usurp the throne. Again, this has always mystified me--a guy this close to court intrigue can't possibly be that clueless. And remember, he's just been released from the Tower himself--he'd been slandered by Elizabeth's faction and nearly lost his head for it. Nevertheless, he sounds absurdly ingenuous here:

Hastings: How? 'Wear the garland?' dost thou mean the crown?
Catesby: Ay, my good lord.
Hastings: I'll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders
Before I'll see the crown so foul misplaced.

Okaaay...if you insist. And sure enough, a couple of scenes later Catesby enters with Hastings' bodiless "crown" in his hand. I guess you have to hold them by the hair. Eeww.

But, like Will, I'm getting ahead of myself (okay, that pun was unintended). Catesby comes right out and says that Richard wants to be king, and that he hopes to find Hastings "forward/Upon his party for the gain thereof." In other words, he hopes that Hastings will be on his team when he goes for the gold.

And thereupon he sends you this good news:
That this same very day your enemies,
The kindred of the Queen, must die at Pomfret.

Hastings seems to miss the meaning of this "thereupon"--it means something like, "and, in order to attain that (your allegiance), he's going to kill your enemies." It's an obvious political quid pro quo, but Hastings misses the point entirely:

Indeed I am no mourner for that news,
Because they have been still my adversaries.
But that I'll give my voice on Richard's side
To bar my master's heirs in true descent,
God knows I will not do it, to the death.

Catesby backs off:

God keep your lordship in that gracious mind!

Hastings then loses a good deal of our sympathy by reveling in the misfortune of his enemies, and Catesby remarks, with double meaning, that "tis a vile thing to die.../When men are unprepared, and look not for it." The cryptic warning goes unheeded; Hastings foolishly thinks the death of his nemeses has made him secure, and that Richard is still a big fan.

Again, this seems unbelievable. Catesby has just told him that Richard is power-hungry, and Hastings has just refused to help him. How could he not see the danger in that? Recent history has proven, after all, that when someone from the House of York is bent on usurpation, things can get very messy. But like most of the male characters in the play, he seems to have only a short-term memory and no sense of history at all.

Given his extreme cluelessness (which makes one wonder about his intellect, or lack thereof) it's not surprising that he's caught completely unaware at the first council--the meeting ostensibly called to discuss Edward's coronation. He gushes that he knows Richard better than anyone, and he can tell the Lord Protector (Richard's current title) is in good spirits because

...there's never a man in Christendom can
Lesser hide his love or hate than he,
For by his face straight shall you know his heart.

Are we talking about the same guy? Is Hastings that dumb? Or is Richard that good? It's the same question I asked about Anne. Both she and Hastings are morally in a kind of dark gray area, and neither of them seems to be all that sharp. Perfect Richard victims, both.

A few lines later, Hastings' fate is sealed with one word: "if." Richard sweeps into the room angrily, and asks what should be done about people who

...do conspire my death with devilish plots
Of damned witchcraft, and that have prevailed
Upon my body with their devilish charms?

Hastings says that these malefactors should be condemned to death. Richard then dramatically pulls up his sleeve to show off his withered arm:

Then be your eyes the witness of their evil:
See how I am bewitched. Behold, mine arm
Like a blasted sapling withered up.

Now everyone in the room knows that Richard's deformity has been with him since birth. And almost everyone knows that this is a ruse to accuse Elizabeth and Jane Shore (King Edward's former mistress, and Hastings' current one) of witchcraft. But after Richard makes this accusation, only Hastings seems uncertain, as if he just can't keep up with what's going on:

If they have done this deed, my noble lord...

Richard pounces on the word:

If? Thou protector of this damned strumpet,
Talk'st thou to me of "ifs?" Thou art a traitor.
Off with his head. Now by Saint Paul I swear,
I will not dine until I see the same.
Some see it done.
The rest that love me, rise and follow me.

You can bet they all jumped out of their seats and raced after him. Richard played them masterfully, and now has their complete loyalty--it's based entirely on fear, of course, but let's face it, fear is the foundation of any absolute monarchy. A king's reputation for fairness and piety comes later, when he's won over a few historians. Or better yet, dramatists.

Hastings remains with Catesby, and Will gives him a few lines to express regret: he belatedly wishes he'd listened to Stanley and not been quite so gleeful about his enemies' demise. Then the requisite lament about the perfidy of Fortune and, of course, a dark prophecy about England's future. Catesby urges him to hurry up, since "the Duke would be at dinner," and "he longs to see your head."

In the next scene, Catesby comes in with the head. Like Clarence, Hastings was executed too hastily; Richard and Buckingham now have to convince the Lord Mayor of London that they didn't kill an innocent man. (And get the paperwork done--the indictment, which should precede the execution, isn't written until two scenes later). The Mayor is no fool, and quickly concludes that Hastings "deserved his death."

Next on the agenda: convincing the Mayor and the citizens that Edward's children are bastards and cannot inherit.

This involves a rather convoluted story about how Edward had been betrothed to another woman before Elizabeth, a woman who did in fact bear him a child. A formal betrothal would mean that the marriage to Elizabeth was invalid, and her children illegitimate. To be on the safe side, Richard also wants Buckingham (his chief slander-monger--hearsay is big in this play) to suggest, albeit subtly, that the Duchess was involved in an adulterous affair while her husband was fighting in France--which would make Edward also a bastard. That's pretty low, and even Richard seems to know that calling his mom an adulteress might be pushing it:

...touch this sparingly, as 'twere far off,
Because you know, my lord, my mother still lives.

It's interesting that a lot of the bad stuff that women actually did in the Henry VI plays--adultery, witchcraft--is here reduced to slander. There are no real witches or real adulteresses in this play--there's only Richard, master storyteller.

Next time: Pious, humble Richard just can't accept the throne. No, really. Well, maybe if you beg, he'll consider making the sacrifice...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bad to the Bone

Do evil people know they're evil? I used to wonder about that as a kid. It must be a kid thing to think about, because my son asked me that same question a few months back. In comic books and Hollywood movies, they seem to know. They enjoy being evil, and don't suffer from any psychological side-effects, the way most real homicidal criminals do. Characters like Voldemort from the Harry Potter books, or the Joker in The Dark Knight are ontologically evil--they're like a different species, born without empathy, incapable of regret, asexual, and radically anarchic. There are other kinds of characters who are psychologically evil--Norman Bates from Psycho, or Two-Face in The Dark Knight. Something traumatic happened to them, and they snapped. In these cases, a clear connection exists between the "exciting cause" (traumatic origin) of their evil actions and the actions themselves. Often, but not always, this cause is said to be a Bad Mommy. The ontologically evil guys know they're evil, and actually see evil as their "good." The messed up criminals usually think someone else is doing the evil, and they have to stop it.

In real life, only the second type exists--although the "cause" is seldom easy to identify. Ontological evil is a very compelling fantasy, but that's all it is. Hitler, as nasty as he was, didn't sit around thinking, "how can I become the most evil guy in the twentieth century?" No, he thought "how can I do a good deed and rid the world of these undesirables, and restore the Master Race to its rightful position?" He thought he was doing a good thing, and really believed that one day the world would see him as a hero. Didn't have the faintest idea that he was the Quintessence of Evilness (I once had a student use that phrase in a paper, and it stuck in my mind). Hitler and his ilk aside, most evil behavior (yes, I'm making that distinction--the behavior is evil, not the person per se) exists on a continuum. Is it evil to spread lies about someone so that they lose their professional career and have to work at Wal-Mart? Yes. Is it as evil as murder? Of course not. But I personally think that, under the right circumstances, person A (the slanderer) is capable of becoming B (the murderer). There's just a piece missing in some people--usually fear of the Law will keep A from becoming B, but without that, all bets are off.

So, if ontological evil is a fiction (and I realize not everyone will agree that it is), why is it such a persistent and compelling one? Easy--it absolves the rest of us of responsibility, and radically simplifies our moral world. When George W. Bush labeled North Korea, Iran and Iraq (those were the three, I think) the Axis of Evil, he was hoping to simplify our collective understanding of and response to those countries. Although he wasn't saying that all the people in those countries were ontologically evil, he was invoking the idea of ontological evil--comic-book and horror movie evil--to mobilize an aggressive response. On the other side, many leftists suggested that Bush and Cheney were/are themselves ontologically evil. This is also an "enabling fantasy"--a means of gathering your troops for battle. But it's not true.

Now some people will say that the idea of "psychological evil" is simply a legacy of twentieth century Freudianism, which spawned different fictions, like Norman Bates murdering people because his mom's dead body told him to. He was psychotic, and therefore not morally responsible for his actions. The psychological notion of evil gave us the legally messy "insanity defense," which seems to me to be a lame (and inconsistent) way of dealing with this whole issue. As an antidote to "moral fundamentalism," psychology offers a weak and flawed understanding of the real Problem of Evil. Lots of people have Bad Mommies or Daddies, after all, and not all of them become crazed murderers.

On the other hand, some people are simply more suggestible than others, don't you think? You can see this in myriad situations in life. When confronted with an oppressive power, some people fold instantly. Some fight. And some internalize the badness and become even badder than the power itself--because people need Something to Believe In, even if it's a really really bad thing. Is this evil, or just weak? Do some people simply have feeble moral immune systems?

I don't have an answer for any of this, but I think we have an obligation--a moral obligation--to think about it periodically. Will thought so, too.

Although I'm not a conventionally religious person, I think the Bible offers an interesting take on this conundrum. It is, after all, a history of our evolving sense of morality. The Good Book--which purports to be an owner's manual for the human conscience--doesn't answer the question of where evil comes from (even the Devil, I would argue, is a morally ambiguous figure) but it does offer two possible responses to human malfeasance. There's an Old Testament response, based on Law. The Old Testament doesn't care where evil comes from. It just knows that a good society cannot thrive unless evil actions are punished commensurately. And then there's the New Testament response, based on mercy--which is another way of saying "empathy" or, in its twentieth century incarnation, psychology. "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." The origins of their own evil actions are inaccessible to them. They are morally sick. We must cut them some slack.

Will understood these two versions of morality, and invoked them often--although nowhere more consciously than in The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock and Antonio offer Jewish and Christian versions of morality--which is, in that play, inextricable from finance. I'm thinking I'll blog that play pretty soon...it's pretty fascinating on a lot of levels.

So, Bloody Richard. He knows he's evil, obviously. Although he tries to offer some "reasons" for his villainy, none of them really hold up. "Since I cannot prove a lover....I am determined to prove a villain," he proclaims in his opening monologue. But then, shortly thereafter, he proves that he's a pretty good lover, at least rhetorically. He seems offended by his mother's lack of affection for him--in Act 2 he complains in an aside that she doesn't wish him a long life--but it's obvious that his malevolence was the cause, not the effect, of the Duchess's lack of affection for him. Like all ontologically evil characters, Richard lives in a morally inverted world, where good is bad and bad is good. He sees everything "through a glass, darkly." He's duplicitous in a literal sense--his outside and his inside are radically at odds. He's a "false glass," a "shadow," a player in the old-fashioned theatrical sense. In Othello, Iago (one of Richard's dramatic descendants) states it well. "I am not what I am," he says. My being, my essence, is a moral black hole. I'm a pure negativity, an antithesis, an empty moral place, a vacuum. I suck bad energy in from others, refine it, and shoot it back out into the world for my own twisted purposes.

That's ontological evil--a problem for physicists more than psychologists. Okay, I'm kidding a little.

At the beginning of Act 3, Richard's duplicity is front and center. When Prince Edward complains that he misses his uncle and half-brother (Rivers and Gray, who've been carted off to prison), Richard insists that they're not good men:

Sweet Prince, the untainted virtue of your years
Hath not yet dived into the world's deceit,
Nor more can you distinguish of a man
Than of his outward show, which God he knows
Seldom or never jumpeth with the heart.
Those uncles which you want were dangerous.

The audience would naturally see the irony in these words, as Richard's "outward show" is in fact an inverted image of his heart. The Prince also misses his brother, York, whom Elizabeth has rushed to sanctuary. Buckingham (Richard's chief minion) insists that York be taken from Westminster by force, since as a child, he can't legally claim sanctuary as an adult would. The Cardinal balks at first, then gives in.

Richard then engages in a little banter with the Prince on the subject of oral versus written history, and the nature of fame. The Prince argues that oral histories are as powerful as written ones--i.e., that one's fame can live on in excess of what the historical records show. Richard's rejoinder is famous itself:

Richard [aside]: So wise so young, they say, do never live long.
Prince Edward: What say you, Uncle?
Richard: I say, 'Without characters, fame lives long.'
[aside] Thus like the formal Vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word.

Richard's quote actually has three meanings. On the surface, he's simply agreeing that, even without a written record ("characters," meaning letters), fame endures. His hidden meaning is that his own fame will live on, even though he has no moral "character." This reminds us that he's going to murder Edward and his brother, York. The third, unintended meaning has to do with Will's slanderous version of Richard's own history. Even without any documentation for his evil doings, his infamy will live on, thanks to this play.

The Vice character was a popular theatrical figure in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance--kind of along the lines of a vaudeville villain, with his twirling moustache (see Snidely Whiplash, above, from the old Dudley Do-Right cartoon), but with a religious undercurrent. This is one of Richard's most self-conscious moments, when he seems to see his own immorality clearly, and also realize that he's a bit of a caricature, a "stock villain."

In the remainder of this long scene we learn two things. Edward's young brother, the Duke of York, is wiser and more astute than the heir himself. He engages in an edgy banter with Richard that's more adult than childlike. The second bit of information concerns Richard's machinations to wrest the crown from his brother's children, whom he obviously plans to murder. He tells Catesby (second minion) to find out if Lord Hastings will join their faction against Elizabeth and her family, and help him win the crown. Catesby asks what they should do if Hastings won't join them. Richard's reply is succinct:

Chop off his head.

Next: Hastings hastens to his death.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mothers and Sons

After Edward's death, Act 2 becomes a chorus of lamenting mothers. Elizabeth mourns her husband and fears for her sons, the Duchess of York mourns two of her sons and fears the third, and children actually appear onstage, a rarity in Will's plays. The statue at right is of Margaret (it's in Paris, unsurprisingly--she isn't all that fondly remembered in England), who doesn't appear in Act 2. Nevertheless, her angry laments on the death of her husband and son set the tone for the other mothers in the play.

If the role of women in the Henry VI plays was to represent a threat--by means of adultery, witchcraft, or sexual allure--to hereditary monarchy, their role in Richard III is simply to curse and weep. What's interesting, however, is how they do it--their laments are highly stylized, almost choric. They look both backward, to the violence of the past, and forward, to imminent disaster. They seem, at these moments, to belong in a Greek tragedy rather than a Shakespearean history. Note the ritualistic tone of Elizabeth's Cassandra-like speech:

Ay me! I see the ruin of our house
The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind.
Insulting tyranny begins to jet
Upon the innocent and aweless throne.
Welcome destruction, blood, and massacre!
I see, as in a map, the end of all.

These are grand, prophetic pronouncements more suited to a biblical context than to a history play. There's some wonderful language here, too--I love "the innocent and aweless throne" as a description of a child king. He's innocent, and compels no "awe" in his subjects as a result. If Elizabeth's lament looks forward to "ruin" and "destruction," the Duchess's speech is an equally gloomy retrospective:

Accursed and unquiet wrangling days,
How many of you have mine eyes beheld?
My husband lost his life to get the crown,
And often up and down my sons were tossed,
For me to joy and weep their gain and loss.
And being seated, and domestic broils
Clean overblown, themselves the conquerors
Make war upon themselves, brother to brother,
Blood to blood, self against self. O preposterous
And frantic outrage, end thy damned spleen
Or let me die, to look on death no more.

The war for the throne has ended, but her sons are unable to live in peace. The Duchess has lost her husband (Margaret killed him in the last Henry VI play) and now "two mirrors of his princely semblance/Are cracked in pieces by malignant death." Edward and Clarence are dead, and she is left with only "one false glass/That grieves me when I see my shame in him." Her two elder sons mirrored their father's greatness, but the surviving youngest is but a "false glass"--a poor and deceitful reflection of his sire.

There are a lot of images of reflection and representation in the play. After Richard successfully woos Anne in Act 1, he congratulates himself and asserts that he must be more handsome than he'd thought. He pretends to be eager to find a mirror to confirm this:

Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass
That I may see my shadow as I pass.

Throughout the play, Richard is said to be a "shadow" on the sun/son of York. Actors were often called "shadows" as well, because their performances are but a shadow of real life. Mirrors, similarly, can be deceiving--they can show what one wants to see, rather than what is. Just like the theater itself. Richard is a "false glass" because he is a deceiving actor. One might well retort that all actors are deceitful--that's their job, after all. But Will wants to make it clear that there's acting and then there's...acting. Good acting holds a mirror up to life, while bad, deceitful acting distorts the truth, slanders good men, and sows discord among them.

Which is kind of what Will is doing with this play, when you think about it. It is, after all, a pretty slanderous piece of work, at least if you're one of those people who doesn't approve of sacrificing historical truth to political expediency. I guess that's why they call it "poetic license."

I'll have more to say about Richard as "director" of his own play in the next post. For now, however, I want to return to the weeping mothers. In scene two, Elizabeth and the Duchess "compete" to see who has more to cry about. Clarence's children get into it as well, asserting rather childishly that since Elizabeth didn't weep for their father's death, they won't weep for her husband's. Here, again, the language has a stylized, ritualistic quality that seems to belong to an (even) earlier age:

Elizabeth: Give me no help in lamentation.
I am not barren to bring forth complaints.
All springs reduce their currents to mine eyes,
That I, being governed by the wat'ry moon,
May send forth plenteous tears to drown the world.
Ah, for my husband, for my dear Lord Edward!
Children: Ah, for our father, for our dear Lord Clarence!
Duchess of York: Alas for both, both mine, Edward and Clarence!
Elizabeth: What stay had I but Edward, and he's gone?
Children: What stay had we but Clarence, and he's gone?
Duchess: What stays had I but they, and they are gone?
Elizabeth: Was never a widow had so dear a loss!
Children: Were never orphans had so dear a loss!

These lines are chanted rather than spoken, and sound nothing like real speech. They are also a stark contrast to Richard's straightforward conversational tone. Richard manages to make iambic pentameter sound like everyday language--well, okay, not like our everyday language--partly because he's always talking to someone, even if it's only the audience. These laments are not addressed to anyone but "fate"; like a tragic chorus, they provide a comment on events, but don't move any action forward. They're kind of "frozen" in time, looking backward and forward but having no purchase on the present. The "now" belongs to Richard, the Modern Man.

Elizabeth's use of maternal and natural imagery reinforces the idea of a sickly, barren land. She's "not barren to bring forth complaints"--in Richard's English wasteland, women bear only laments, not children. "All springs reduce their currents" to her tears--the water that should give life to the land is now reduced to a woman's tears. The Duchess of York uses similar imagery as she ends the choric complaint:

Was never mother had so dear a loss!
Alas, I am the mother of these griefs!
Their woes are parcelled, mine are general.
She for an Edward weeps, and so do I;
I for a Clarence weep, so doth not she.
These babes for Clarence weep, and so do I;
I for an Edward weep, so do not they.
Alas, you three on me, threefold distressed,
Pour all your tears. I am your sorrow's nurse,
And I will pamper it with lamentation.

As the mother of both dead men, the Duchess lays claim to a more encompassing grief, and her words suggest that her tears are more potent for that reason. The image in the last two lines is interesting--the Duchess claims to be a "receptacle" (a mythic feminine association) for the tears of all the others. She will nurse their grief, then "pamper," or over-feed it, with lamentation.

These "plaints" remain outside the action of the play, a choric hand-wringing that will have no bearing on the events to come. In the Henry VI plays women were too powerful, too active, too sensual. In Richard III, they are static figures who do what most women do in extremely misogynistic cultures: when young, they bear children; when old, they mourn them.

And that's pretty much it.

While all this complaining has been going on, Richard has been moving his plots along. Young Prince Edward is the heir-apparent, and Elizabeth realizes the need to get him to "sanctuary" at Westminster Abbey. Richard, in turn, realizes the need to have the Prince at his mercy, so he has Elizabeth's brother and son (Rivers and Gray) arrested and taken to prison.

As Act 3 opens, young Edward is surrounded by Richard and his minions--a lamb among wolves.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Woe to That Land

Most people know the story of the Holy Grail through Monty Python, but the actual Grail saga--which has been reworked many times over many centuries--began with a 12th-century French romance, the Conte du Graal, or the Story of the Grail. Ah, now you're thinking, where the hell is she going with this? There's no Holy Grail in Richard III.

Right you are. But actually, I was thinking about the Fisher King. The Fisher King, also called the Maimed King in some versions of the story, probably derives from an even more ancient myth about kings and their mystical connection to the lands they rule. In the Grail story, the holy chalice is the only thing that can heal the wounded king. Often the wound is said to be in the thigh or groin area, which makes sense, since the king's ailment causes the land itself to become infertile and barren. While the king languishes, dying but not dead, the land and its people suffer famine and disease. As I discussed in an earlier post ("Kiss Me Deadly," a few days back), the body of the king is both a metaphor for and a realization of the body of the nation. For those of you who are academically inclined, there's a classic study on this subject by a guy named Ernst Kantorowicz. It's called The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. It's not about the Grail story; rather, Kantorowicz argues that medieval and early modern kings had two "bodies"--one was "profane," and subject to desires and human weaknesses, while the other was sacred insofar as it represented the nation itself. A king's reign unfolds as the struggle between these two bodies--the human/profane and the divine/sacred.

Elizabeth I, Will's queen, used this idea to her advantage in creating myths about her virgin body (she may have actually been a virgin, but no one can prove it, obviously). The queen's inviolate body represented the inviolable island nation. By insisting on her virginity, mythologizing it, she drew on and implicitly invoked many ancient and medieval stories about the superhuman power of virginal women. The myth of Atalanta, German/Norse folklore about Brunhild, and the Christian belief in the Virgin Mary all reflect this notion. Elizabeth's unmarried status became a bargaining chip internationally (she kept hinting that she might marry), while her mythologized virginity countered national anxieties about her failure to produce an heir.

But back to the Fisher King. The reason I started thinking about this myth was because of Edward IV, who, at the beginning of Act 2, is just about to drop dead. According to Richard in Act 1, his brother "hath kept an evil diet long,/And overmuch consumed his royal person." In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this kind of euphemism usually referred to sensual excess of all sorts, from gluttony to alcoholism to sexual promiscuity. Richard, however, has made much of his brother's salacious appetites; he no doubt wants the audience to think of Edward's affliction in sexual terms. For a king to ruin his health--and ultimately lose his life--because of his sexual immoderation is the the worst kind of weakness, particularly when the kingdom is still reeling from the effects of civil war. Edward's profane body has obviously murdered his sacred one.

Bill Clinton springs, unbidden, to mind here. But I'll let you finish the thought...

In the play, as in the Arthurian myth, it's the nation that suffers. This is made explicit in scene 3, which takes place after Edward's death. Three nameless "citizens" are discussing the new regime. "Woe to that land that's ruled by a child," says one. Another remarks that the Duke of Gloucester is "full of danger," and the Queen's kin are "haught and proud."

And were they to be ruled, and not to rule,
This sickly land might solace as before.

"This sickly land" can only prosper if a leader emerges who can rule both factions. This line obviously looks forward to the victory of the Tudor king, Henry VII, at the end of the play. But it seems clear that Will was at least thinking about the Fisher King myth when he wrote about Edward's dissipation--rather like the Fisher King's sexual wound--and the "sickly" land that is his legacy.

But this is history, and not myth--or rather, it's myth that purports to be history--so no Grail is going to save England from Richard's ruthless ambition. We see Edward in one last ineffectual scene at the beginning of Act 2, when he forces the warring factions to make peace. That this reconciliation is a sham is obvious to all, but Edward is dying, and must be placated. I couldn't help thinking about the kind of empty talk of "bipartisanship" that always seems to accompany regime change in this country. Our recent election was accompanied by all sorts of promises, wishes, and assurances of good faith. Less than two months later, the accusations and defensive rebuttals were flying, and "bipartisanship" was once again just a word with no purchase on the bone-deep political divisions in the country.

In the first scene of Act 2, the divided nobles put on a pretty good show for Edward's benefit--at least until Richard drops his bomb, putting an end to pretty speeches. In response to Elizabeth's wish that her husband include Clarence in the love-fest, Richard turns on her:

Why, madam, have I offered love for this,
To be so flouted in this royal presence?
Who knows not that the gentle Duke is dead?

Richard pretends to be offended that Elizabeth would make light of his brother's death, knowing full well that he's announcing it to the unsuspecting court. All are understandably shocked, but no one more than the King himself, who had rescinded the execution order. Richard explains that the messenger bearing the death order was "a winged Mercury," while the other--the one bearing the order of clemency--was "some tardy cripple." One is reminded here of the speed with which Richard himself is orchestrating events, and the "tardy" responses of his opponents.

Edward then gives his last speech, bemoaning the fact that no one begged him for his brother's life. This, of course, makes him look even more pathetic--as if he has to be persuaded to take a moral stand, and has no mind of his own. In the next scene Elizabeth announces that the King has died. Although the future looks gloomy, one can't mourn the loss of such a lame monarch. He's left his two young sons without a father--and with a murderer as their Protector--all because he couldn't rule his own appetites. What a total loser.

Well, I didn't get to Richard's mom yet. This has been a hectic week, and I'm behind on my posts--the date at the top of the post, in case you haven't figured it out, is the date I started the post, not the date I finished and published it. But my work week is over now--I'll finish Act 2 next time.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Blood Simple

I remember the exact moment that I stopped liking violent movies. It was while watching Pulp Fiction, the second week it came out. The film had already generated a lot of buzz among my friends, and I loved--or thought I loved--films with a lot of explosions, shooting, and witty banter just before someone got whacked. Did I tell you I have four younger brothers? And that they're all serious recreational hockey-baseball-soccer-basketball players? I grew up in a locker room, essentially. I can swear like a sailor when the need arises, and I always scorned "girly" stuff, like pop music, nail polish, the color pink, and drinks that don't burn going down.

All that, of course, was before I became someone's mom.

But when I saw Pulp Fiction, I was still years from motherhood. I was okay with the opening scenes, and laughed at the repartee between Jules and Vincent (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, pictured above in character) as they carried out a hit on some teenage drug dealers. But even then, I was feeling a little uneasy. There was something different about this film--different from, say, the Hong Kong action films I liked, where no one was asking me to identify with the bad guys. Here, the audience was supposed to like these two thugs. And yeah, they were likable. I mean, John Travolta. Before he went all Scientology, he was funny and adorable, playing dumb-but-sensitive Italian-American greaser types. I have relatives like that, so what's not to like? And Samuel L. Jackson is such a good actor, and had such good lines as the "intellectual" hit man, you had to sort of admire him. So I went with it, until the famous pawn-shop rape scene. Jules and Vincent weren't in that scene, but I'm sure those of you who've seen the film remember it. It's really violent and disturbing. And funny. I remember feeling very weird, though--not so much at what was going on onscreen, but at what was happening in the theater. People were laughing hysterically. All of a sudden it was just like Sartre described it when he wrote about "existential nausea." I felt totally alienated from the other movie-goers. I wasn't laughing, and I just didn't want to be sitting there in the dark surrounded by people who thought that scene was a riot. I got through the rest of the movie, but that was the beginning of the end of my "tough-chick" taste in films. Romantic comedies, here I come.

All that came back to me as I was re-reading the murder scene in Act 1. Because these two hit men are funny, too. Like Jules and Vincent, they have quasi-philosophical discussions. And like all of Will's lower-class comedians, they tend to take things literally. When they arrive at the prison to dispatch Clarence on Richard's order, Brackenbury (the lieutenant of the Tower) is surprised to see them. He asks the First Murderer (they don't get names) "how cam'st thou hither?" He means, "how did you get in here? It's a prison." Murderer 1, pretending to understand the question as "by what means did you travel here," answers: "I came hither on my legs." We saw this same sort of thing between Petruccio and his servant Grumio in Taming; willfully taking expressions literally is a kind of low-level rebellion against the upper classes that almost all these stock "clowns" indulge in.

Brackenbury, realizing quickly what's going on, points to the sleeping Clarence and throws them the keys, refusing to get involved. The two murderers then engage in a little banter about whether or not to kill Clarence as he sleeps:

2nd Murderer: What, shall I stab him as he sleeps?
1st Murderer: No. He'll say 'twas done cowardly, when he wakes.
2nd: Why, he shall never wake until the great judgement day.
1st: Why, then he'll say we stabbed him sleeping.
2nd: The urging of that word "judgement" hath bred a kind of remorse in me.
1st: What, art thou afraid?
2nd: Not to kill him, having a warrant, but to be damned for killing him, from the which no warrant can defend me.

Murderer 1 then argues with 2, and 2 decides to count to 20, in the hope that the "prick of conscience" will go away.

1st: How does thou feel thyself now?
2nd: Some certain dregs of conscience are yet within me.
1st: Remember our reward, when the deed's done.
2nd: 'Swounds, he dies. I had forgot the reward.
1st: Where's thy conscience now?
2nd: O, in the Duke of Gloucester's purse.
1st: When he opens his purse to give us our reward, thy conscience flies out.

This exchange could have taken place in any modern film; these two are the ancestors of all the bungling criminals that are so popular in Coen Brothers or Tarantino movies. Films like Fargo and Pulp Fiction often called "postmodern" owing to their slippery notions of morality, but this sort of character has been around a long time. And it is funny when Murderer 2 has to count to 20, or admits he'd "forgot the reward," and later, when Murderer 1 catches the conscience virus and balks as well. The conversation shifts between vaguely philosophical musings about the nature of guilt to practical discussion of where to throw the body afterward. Before they can carry out any of it, however, Clarence wakes up and proceeds to argue for his life in legal terms, claiming that they can't kill him, because he's an innocent man:

...What is my offence?
Where is the evidence that doth accuse me?
What lawful quest have given their verdict up
Unto the frowning judge, or who pronounced
The bitter sentence of poor Clarence's death?
Before I be convict by course of law,
To threaten me with death is most unlawful.
I charge you, as you hope to have redemption
By Christ's dear blood, shed for our grievous sins,
That you depart and lay no hands on me.
The deed you undertake is damnable.

Clarence calls upon both earthly and divine law to protect him, but the murderers counter that the King is the law, and he's the one who wants the deed done. Clarence gives them a little Sunday school lesson, pointing out that God rules over all other kings:

Erroneous vassals, the great King of Kings
Hath in the table of his law commanded
That thou shalt do no murder. Will you then
Spurn at his edict, and fulfil a man's?
Take heed, for he holds vengeance in his hand
To hurl upon their heads that break his law.

I don't know if you remember the scene in Pulp Fiction when Jules quotes the Old Testament Ezekiel--"and they will know that I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon them." Jules invokes the biblical text to give some moral stature to an immoral act; Clarence invokes the commandment against murder to save his life. The murderers, however, are having none of it:

2nd: And that same vengeance doth he hurl on thee,
For false forswearing, and for murder too.
Thou didst receive the sacrament to fight
In quarrel of the house of Lancaster.

The killer reminds Clarence that he's done murder, too, and broke an oath to God when he took communion and swore to fight for Henry's cause against his brothers.

1st: And, like a traitor to the name of God
Didst break that vow, and with thy treacherous blade
Unripped'st the bowels of thy sov'reign's son.
2nd: Whom thou wast sworn to cherish and defend.
1st: How cans't thou urge God's dreadful law to us,
when thou hast broke it in such dear degree?

These are potent legal arguments indeed--at least from the standpoint of Old Testament law, which Clarence invoked in his own defense just a few lines previously. The New Testament urges mercy, the Old Testament (Old Covenant), justice. Clarence, out-argued, then switches his strategy, insisting that he did it out of love and loyalty to his brother. He doesn't believe either of his brothers would have ordered his death. The murderers insist that Edward did so (this is what Richard told them). Desperate, Clarence promises the murderers that if they go directly to Richard, he will pay them more than Edward offered. The killers seem, for a moment, to feel sorry for him:

2nd: You are deceived. Your brother Gloucester hates you.
Clarence: O, no,he loves me, and holds me dear. Go you to him from me.
1st: Aye, so we will.

This is one of those funny/uncomfortable moments. Clarence tells them to leave at once and go see Richard. The murderers understand this as "go see Richard when you're finished here," and agree, ironically, to follow his directive. They will go straight to Richard, to collect their payment.

At this point they're getting tired of all the talk--"talkers are no good doers," one of them assured Richard earlier. "We go to use our hands, not our tongues." By keeping them talking, Clarence has gotten the upper hand for the moment. The 2nd murderer ends the legal argument and urges his victim to "make peace with God," since he must die at their hands. Clarence tries one last time to scare them into relenting:

Have you that holy feeling in your souls
To counsel me to make my peace with God,
And are you yet to your own souls so blind
That you will war with God by murd'ring me?
O sirs, consider: they that set you on
To do this deed will hate you for the deed.

This is true enough. The murderers will no doubt be scapegoated for committing a crime that no one wants to take responsibility for. This gives them pause, and they confer. Clarence seizes the moment, urging them again to relent. Murderer 1 argues that relenting is "cowardly and womanish"--the idea that mercy is "womanish" will be taken up again in Macbeth, a play in which being a man means being a killer.

In his last speech, Clarence makes a fatal error:

Not to relent is beastly, savage, devilish.--
My friend, I spy some pity in thy looks.
O, if thine eye be not a flatterer,
Come thou on my side, and entreat for me.

So far so good. He calls them "friends," and speaks to them as social equals. But then, he loses whatever sympathy he'd gained by reminding them of their social differences:

A begging prince, what beggar pities not?
Which of you, if you were a prince's son,
Being pent from liberty as I am now,
If two such murderers as yourselves came to you,
Would not entreat for life? As you would beg
Were you in my distress--

And then they kill him, mid-speech. After calling them "beggars" (more or less) and "murderers," and reminding them that he's a prince, he loses the "human" argument, which must be based on a notion of equality before God.

Will's audience, like the audience of Pulp Fiction, would have sympathized with the killers in this scene. They make the better legal argument, they consider his pleas and debate them, and ultimately realize that, given their social standing relative to his, they're damned if they do and damned if they don't. From a purely practical point of view, they're better off taking the money and running. Or at least one of them realizes that. Will keeps the moral question open by having murderer 2 refuse to do any actual killing, and "repenting" at the end. This gives the scene a biblical overtone (Christ and the two thieves), and allows the audience to laugh, while still maintaining some moral superiority to Clarence, who, as the killers reminded us, showed no mercy to the Lancastrian heir.

It says something about our own era that audiences no longer need this ambivalence, this "open question" to identify with bad guys. But if I speculate too much about this, I'll end up sounding like every aging moralist who ever lived. "Young people today have no values, and they're all going to hell in a handbasket." There, I said it. Middle-aged people have been lamenting the diminution of moral values in the young since time immemorial--far be it from me to break with tradition.

So, I finally finished Act 1! It was, admittedly, a pretty long first act.

Next time: politics, politics, and Richard's mom.

Yeah, I know. You'd rather watch Pulp Fiction.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Tiger's Heart

I know I promised you blood and gore this time, but I realized that I needed to write about Margaret, Henry VI's widow, before moving on to Clarence's murder. I've always liked Margaret in this play because she's the only person who stands up to Richard from the beginning. She's neither afraid of him nor snowed under by his charisma. She more or less spits in his face, calling him names and making dire (and accurate) predictions about his future. Despite the rhetorical power of these speeches, her part is often cut; both film versions and many stage productions simply leave her out. I think she's an important part of the play, and of Will's vision of history, too, so I'd like to spend a little time speculating about what he had in mind when he pulled her out of the historical chronicles and gave her a personality.

I decided I couldn't do Margaret justice without at least reading through the Henry VI plays, since she actually has a much larger role in 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI--she doesn't show up until the end of I Henry. So, I finally read them. And I'll be honest with you. It wasn't like reading Othello or Lear or any of the plays we're all more familiar with. No, parts of these plays definitely dragged. And there were a lot of characters I just couldn't care much about. But I have to say, the women are a lot more interesting in these early histories than in the later plays of the 2nd tetralogy. These girls are very, very badly behaved.

How badly? Well, they all seem to be over-sexed, power-mad, and completely amoral. Most of them are French, and therefore...well, not English. They tend to emasculate the men who come into contact with them, either by kicking their butts in battle, like Joan of Arc, or by dominating them sexually and turning them into passive weeping weaklings, as Margaret does to Henry. Some of them dabble in the Dark Arts, as well. Of course there have been women like this since the advent of narrative. The temptress (Eve), the witch (Morgan le Fay), the femme fatale (too numerous to count), the psychotic/possessive soul-eater (a horror staple) often help to, as my less-skilled undergrads used to write, "move the plot along" in genre fiction. Will's plays, with a few exceptions (Macbeth, King Lear) tend to avoid these cliches, remaining at least ambivalent about women (okay, this is arguable, but we can argue about it later). In the later histories women are all but invisible; when they do appear, it's in some non-threatening and docile capacity.

Margaret is anything but docile in the early plays. From the moment she appears as a French captive, she exerts a sexual power over men, most significantly Henry, who will make her his queen, and the Earl of Suffolk, who will become her adulterous lover. She plays men off against one another--in some ways she's not unlike Richard--and her only real loyalty is to her son. The excessive torments she visits on Richard, Duke of York (our Richard's dad) in III Henry VI are Will's own invention. She forces him to stand on a molehill, wipes his tears with a cloth dipped in the blood of his murdered son, and finally crowns him with a paper crown before killing him. Before his death York curses her, calling her a "she-wolf of France," an "Amazonian trull" (that word means what you think it does), and denouncing her lack of feminine virtues:

O tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide!
How coulds't thou drain the life-blood of the child
To bid the father wipe his tears withal,
And yet be seen to wear a woman's face?
Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible--
Thou stern, obdurate flinty, rough, remorseless.

The cruelty of this tiger-hearted woman is so unspeakable that her own allies shudder to watch. Amid the barbarism and internecine violence of civil war, Margaret's monstrosity still stands out. It's clear, however, that her Amazonian evil is meant to showcase Henry's effeminate weakness. Throughout most of the last two plays chronicling his reign, Henry does little more than wring his hands and weep. When it becomes clear that the Yorkist faction is going to take his throne and probably kill him, he bargains for his life by promising to make Richard of York (the dad, again) his heir, in exchange for letting him serve out his own reign. Margaret is understandably furious when he disinherits her son, Edward, and severs herself from him forever. Henry laments and regrets some more, but does little to prevent the disaster that is enveloping his kingdom. It's left to Margaret, like Joan, to assume the man's role and lead the Lancastrian armies onto the battlefield in an effort to preserve her son's right to reign.

Will's point is clear: when weak rulers marry strong women for love (or, okay, sexual passion), kingdoms crumble and the world rips apart. Margaret's viciousness only makes sense in relation to Henry's inability to control her--remember our discussion of The Taming of the Shrew, which makes explicit the link between domestic and social order. In the comedy, it's only a political idea. When the couple in question are a king and his queen, it's a fact with bloody consequences. Because Henry can't control his wife--and therefore his rivals--he's unfit to rule, despite his legitimate claim to the throne. Margaret has to be evil enough to upset the "natural" order of patrilineal succession--that's why Will goes to such lengths to make her into an "unnatural" villain, a manly (and therefore monstrous) woman.

Although Elizabethans--including Will--were strong believers in hereditary monarchy, hereditary rights could be nullified if the legitimate king lacked the moral and/or emotional strength to defend them, as in the case of Henry VI and (in the 2nd tetralogy), Richard II. If he isn't enough of a man to rule, someone more virile will step up and depose him--although the legitimacy of that line will remain in question. (Of course, once you add a moral component to the right to rule, you're halfway to a democracy anyway...but that's another issue.)

Because Will's understanding of history and its politics invests so much in the ideal of male potency, the threats to that ideal are represented as a kind of twisted femininity (Margaret) or sexually amorphous theatricality (Richard). By the time Margaret shows up in Richard III, she's got a long history that runs the gamut of female stereotypes. She starts out as a nubile young temptress, becomes a domineering wife, a cruel middle-aged virago, and then, finally, a cursing old crone.

Let's see, where does that put me? Hmm. Never mind.

When she appears on the stage in Act 1, she's no longer beautiful, powerful, or even fully visible. She's ignored by everyone, as if she's some old homeless woman with a shopping cart full of dumpster detritus (I'm sure she's been played that way in some modern-dress productions). Driven mad by her son's murder, she's become an almost mythic figure, a crazed Cassandra who seems to tread the border between this world and the next. She curses Elizabeth first, predicting that her fate will be similar to Margaret's own: she will "die, neither mother, wife, nor England's queen." When she turns her venom on Richard, her curse is both eloquent and (as we'll see later) effective:

...Stay, dog, for thou shalt hear me.
If heaven have any grievous plague in store
Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee,
O let them keep it till thy sins be ripe,
And then hurl down their indignation
On thee, the troubler of the poor world's peace.
The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul.
Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou liv'st,
And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends.
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be while some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils.
Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,
Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell,
Thou slander of thy heavy mother's womb,
Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins,
Thou rag of honor, thou detested...

Richard interrupts her at this point, and Elizabeth takes his side; Margaret's stream of invective makes them temporary allies. Although she's reduced to threats and curses, this woman who once helped a kingdom to ruin, it's hard not to admire her, simply because she's the only one who sees Richard as he is. I have to confess that the first time I taught this play I was in the middle of a seriously ugly professional battle (which, like Margaret, I lost) and took real pleasure in reading these lines aloud. If you have someone you feel has unfairly victimized you, I recommend this: go into a room and read Margaret's curses in the loudest, most resonant voice you can muster. I guarantee you'll feel better.

In the broadest sense, Margaret represents the voice of history in the play, the history that Richard, the modern man, wants to subvert, erase, and ignore. That history should be reduced to the curses of an old madwoman is a testament to Richard's mastery of the present, his ability to direct events--and the play--as he wills. When his power begins to decline, however, history--and Margaret's curses--will return (quite literally) to haunt him.

Next time, I promise There Will Be Blood.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I Gotta Be Me

I'm always struck by how often politicians--particularly those with no new ideas--lay claim to "authenticity" and "plain speaking." And how attractive this particular rhetorical strategy seems to be. In today's political discourse, the worst thing that can be said about a public figure is that he's a "smooth talker"--this charge was laid on Bill Clinton ("Slick Willie"), way before Monicagate, and more recently on Obama, who, unlike his immediate predecessor, actually knows how to craft and deliver a speech. George Bush's mangling of the language was proof, to his supporters, that he just wasn't good at political theatrics--that he was, his pedigree notwithstanding, just a regular guy. Sarah Palin often claims to be "telling it like it is," when in fact she inevitably sounds like she's ingested some kind of syntax-shredding hallucinogen. Just this week, a congressman from South Carolina interrupted a presidential address by screaming "you lie!," then excused himself by admitting he had gotten "too emotional." In other words, he was just being authentic, and honest about his feelings. The "authenticity excuse" is by no means limited to politicians. A few days ago a well-known music celebrity embarrassed a young woman on the awards podium by interrupting her speech and declaring his preference for one of the other nominees. His initial excuse was that he was being "just real," i.e., authentic and honest.

These "honest" moments remind us that we Americans have a particular aversion to anything that smacks of "theatricality," or performance. Which, of course, doesn't mean that we don't perform. On the contrary, both the congressman and the singer reaped quite a bit of media attention for their "impromptu" interruptions; both, in other words, were creating the kind of theater we love most--the theater of the "real," and "authentic." Historically, this is nothing new. As I've mentioned in previous posts, the Elizabethan stage was often the subject of Puritan tirades about the moral dangers of theatricality. And lest we forget, America was founded by just this sort of person--our political culture is, in a sense, still defined by Puritan moral paradoxes.

Politically, the celebration of "plain speaking" and condemnation of eloquence is an incredibly effective strategy. Even the most mendacious vitriol gains credibility if it's presented as fearless honesty. This is, in fact, a very theatrical move--more powerful in that it masquerades as genuine self-expression. Richard understands this well--ironically, it's when he's pretending to be "authentic" that he's the most theatrical. Although he's been slandering his brother's wife, Queen Elizabeth, whenever possible, he answers her charge by asserting his lack of "court polish":

They do me wrong, and I will not endure it.
Who are they that complain unto the King
That I forsooth am stern and love them not?
By holy Paul, they love his grace but lightly
That fill his ears with such dissentious rumours.
Because I cannot flatter and look fair,
Smile in men's faces, smooth, deceive and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.
Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abused
With silken, sly, insinuating jacks?

Because I can't smile and joke and suck up to people, and I'm no good at bowing and scraping and cheating--because I'm not a politician, in other words--no one trusts me. Can't a simple, honest man such as myself be left alone? Why must my simple, plain truth be slandered by slick lowlife nobodies (like Elizabeth and her relatives)?

It's a lament that has been repeated throughout history by politicians of all stripes. If you're old enough, you might remember Nixon's "Checkers" speech, in which he shows off his populist credentials by talking about his dog and his wife's "Republican cloth coat." I'm just a regular guy, he claimed. I would never lie or cheat--it's my enemies who are twisting the truth in order to ruin me. I've got a cute dog and a frumpy wife. I couldn't possibly be a swindler.

Thanks to Watergate, he lost all claim to authenticity, however, and is now immortalized as "tricky Dick."

This Dick is pretty tricky, too. After claiming to be a "plain man," incapable of political smears and slanders, he goes on to blame Elizabeth for Clarence's imprisonment, and repeats his charge that she and her relatives are social-climbing upstarts:

Our brother is imprisoned by your means,
Myself disgraced, and the nobility
Held in contempt, while great promotions
Are daily given to ennoble those
That scarce some two days since were worth a noble.

My brother (Clarence) is in jail thanks to you, I'm in disgrace with the King, and all high-ranking people are held in contempt, while low-born scum like you are given titles they don't deserve.

He's implying that people like Elizabeth, who aren't as blue-blooded as he, are degrading the entire aristocracy and the culture it sustains. In other words, Elizabeth and her kind are bringing about the end of civilization. This was, in Will's day, a classic conservative complaint. Today, in our democratic political culture, conservatives assert the opposite--that liberal "elites" are denying the common man his voice and trashing his values. In both cases, however, the "enemy"--upstarts and elites, respectively--are accused of being deceitful and "slick" in their use of language--of being theatrical, deceitful, and inauthentic.

Next: A little black comedy in the Tower.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Kiss Me Deadly

Every woman adores a fascist
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

Sylvia Plath wrote those lines in her poem, "Daddy." A short time later, she stuck her head in an oven. In life as in literature, female masochists often come to a bad end. Of course, there are a lot of brutish men in film and fiction--a certain amount of sado-masochism is a staple in romance. But re-reading Richard's seduction of Lady Anne in Act 1 led me to muse about this phenomenon a bit more, and to wonder, once again, what Will was trying to do with this scene.

Obviously we're supposed to see it in relation to Richard's professed disdain for women, which he's just articulated to his brother George (The Duke of Clarence, therefore "Clarence" in the play). Prior to his encounter with Anne, Richard assures his clueless brother that he'll do everything possible to get him out of prison. He then attempts to lay the blame for Clarence's misfortune at the feet of Elizabeth, his brother Edward's Queen:

Why, this it is when men are ruled by women.
'Tis not the King that sends you to the Tower;
My Lady Gray, his wife--Clarence, 'tis she
That tempts him to this harsh extremity.

Masterfully manipulating stereotypes, Richard casts Elizabeth ("Lady Gray" was her former married name--she was a widow when Edward married her) as a social upstart and a "mighty gossip," linking her with Edward's mistress, Jane Shore--both women, he claims, are lowborn schemers who rule the King through sex and slander. As Clarence is carted off to the Tower, Richard reveals more of his plans to the audience:

He cannot live, I hope, and must not die
Till George be packed with post-haste up to heaven.
I'll in to urge his hatred more to Clarence,
With lies well-steeled with weighty arguments.
And if I fail not in my deep intent,
Clarence hath not another day to live--
Which done, God take King Edward to his mercy
And leave the world for me to bustle in.
For then I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter.
What, though I killed her husband and her father?
The readiest way to make the wench amends
Is to become her husband and her father...

Edward, it seems, is in poor health owing to his "evil diet," by which we should understand an excess of food and drink, but also sex--extravagant living in the most general sense. It's important that he not die before Clarence, however, because Clarence will be much harder to kill if he's king. As for "Warwick's youngest daughter," the Lady Anne Neville, Richard needs her "not all so much for love, /As for another secret close intent." Not because he loves her, but for another private reason.

What could this reason be? He doesn't need her for dynastic reasons--he's fifth in line for the throne, (after Clarence, and Edward's two children) married or not. Because the historical Richard married Lady Anne Neville, however, Will was stuck with her. The historical facts are as follows: Richard married Anne, had a son by her, who lived to be eleven. Anne herself died of consumption (tuberculosis) after twelve years of marriage. The rumors that Richard had poisoned her began after her death, but they were never proven. Nevertheless, Will had to make Anne part of the story, and somehow use her to accentuate Richard's villainy. What better and more dramatic way to do this than to have Richard seduce her over the body of one of his murder victims?

But which victim? In the previous Henry VI play, he killed both Anne's husband and her father-in-law. In this play, Anne laments over the body of Henry VI, the murdered king. Most performances, however, (including both Olivier's and McKellen's film versions), make the corpse that of Anne's dead husband, Edward (Henry's son, the former Prince of Wales). Why the switch? The answer seems obvious--it's more dramatic, and more horrifying, to have Richard seduce Anne with her husband lying dead between them.

So if that's the case, why didn't Will write it that way?

Because an Elizabethan audience wouldn't have seen it the way we do. The king's body was thought to represent the nation itself; regicide, or king-killing, was therefore a crime against the nation, not just against an individual. To have Richard woo Anne over the body of the king he'd just killed would be far more subversive, criminal, and villainous than seducing her over her husband's corpse. In our modern, middle-class, democratic world, the conjugal relationship takes precedence--it makes sense that contemporary directors would stage the scene around Edward's body, not his father's.

So, Anne. Brainless or shameless? Hard to tell. She seems fairly articulate, but then she's got Will writing her lines. She starts out in high rage, cursing Richard:

O cursed be the hand that made these holes,
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence,
Cursed the heart that had the heart to do it.

She goes on to curse Richard's future wife (a bad move, considering what happens later) and progeny. Even after Richard enters, she manages to hold on to her anger for a time, calling him a "devil," and a "minister of hell." He replies by addressing her as "sweet saint," and begging her to calm herself "for charity," which in Will's day meant something like "Christian love," not simply feeding the poor. At this point the supernatural intervenes: dead Henry's wounds begin to "bleed afresh" in the presence of his murderer. Will borrowed this idea from a 12th century French romance, Chretien de Troyes' Yvain, in which the hero/killer also woos his victim's widow. (See, I knew the doctorate in Medieval Studies would come in handy. It's a good thing I wasted--oops, I mean spent, six years of my young life in grad school reading that stuff, so I could share this with you today).

Anyway, Anne continues to curse him, but Richard manages to turn the exchange into something like flirtation:

ANNE : Villain, thou know'st no law of God nor man.
No beast so fierce but shows some touch of pity.
RICHARD: But I know none, and therefore am no beast.
ANNE: O wonderful, when devils tell the truth!
RICHARD: More wonderful, when angels are so angry.
Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman,
Of these supposed crimes to give me leave
By circumstance but to acquit myself.
ANNE: Vouchsafe, diffused infection of a man,
Of these known evils but to give me leave
By circumstance but t'accuse thy cursed self.
RICHARD: Fairer than tongue can name thee, le me have
Some patient leisure to excuse myself.
ANNE: Fouler than heart can think thee, thou canst make
No excuse current but to hang thyself.

Note the use of opposites, as in Richard's opening monologue: devils/angels, divine perfection/diffused infection, fairer/fouler, etc. They continue along these lines, Richard attempting to "excuse" while Anne continues to "accuse" him. Throughout the exchange we see the juxtaposition of "heart"--the inner truth--and "tongue" the external representation of that truth. Richard uses his tongue to advantage here, insisting (at first) that he didn't kill Anne's husband, but admitting that he killed the king. The turning point in this macabre exercise in speed-dating is when he tells Anne that both murders were really her fault, because she's so damned beautiful, he couldn't help himself. Now if Anne hadn't been such a vain little twit, she would have called him on this BS immediately. But she is vain, and probably more than a little afraid of him, so she says that if that were true, she'd scratch her face up and wreck its prettiness. Bluff number one.

A few lines later Richard offers her his sword, demanding that she kill him if she wants to so badly. Bluff number two. Here he finally admits to killing Edward, too, claiming that it was her "heavenly face" that made him do it. Of course she doesn't kill him. Instead, she shifts gears completely, uttering this wistful and romancy sentence:

Would that I knew thy heart.

Game over. Richard senses this, and moves in for the kill, claiming that his heart "is figured in [his] tongue." Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. He offers her a ring, and she accepts it. I should point out that critics have made a lot of the imagery of gender reversal in this scene--Anne points the sword at Richard, he observes that his ring "encompasses" her finger, and so on. Some of you might point out that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." I would retort, very cleverly, that sometimes it isn't. Stalemate.

Next time we see Anne is in Act 4. She's married to Richard and wondering when he'll decide to kill her, too.

It's easy to see this first scene as proof of Anne's weakness, or Richard's rhetorical prowess--he gloats at the end that he must be better-looking than he thought, to win a woman whose husband he murdered--a man twice as good, and much more handsome, than he is. All that is certainly true, but there's also a sense in which this scene is just a bunch of classic pulp-romance cliches in Elizabethan garb.

Let's imagine the harlequin romance version:

"Edward," Anne sobbed, kneeling before his body. "What kind of monster could do this to you? What kind of beast? You were so young, and so..."
She whirled around, startled. "Who's there?"
A tall, somewhat hunched figure emerged from the gloom. "Richard. Richard of Gloucester."
"You!" she gasped, surging to her feet. "You...bastard! You killed my Edward! In cold blood! How dare you come here!"
Richard moved forward, and she inadvertently took a step back. He was much larger than she remembered, his shoulders broader, even with the slight hunch that forced him to lean to the left. His dark hair looked wild, as if he hadn't slept, and his scarred face was shadowed with pain. "It was war, Anne. I had no choice."
She lifted her head, meeting his eyes. They were green, she noticed with surprise. A beautiful dark green, like a forest at dusk. "There's always a choice," she whispered. "You made yours." Her hand swept over the corpse of her husband, but she held Richard's gaze. She couldn't seem to look away.
"I did it to save my life," he said. "But when Edward fell to the ground, I wasn't sorry."
Anne sucked in a breath. She tried to speak, but the words lodged in her throat.
Richard moved closer, but this time, she held her ground.
"Why..."" she began.
"Because," he said roughly, pulling her into an iron embrace. "Because of this." His lips came down on hers savagely, taking what he wanted. She trembled in his arms, but after the first few seconds, her resistance melted in a surge of searing heat. This is how a king kisses, she thought....

And the rest, as they say, is history. Next time: less romance, more villainous mayhem.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Modern Man

Well, it's been a busy week. I've been writing this post for days now, and thinking a lot about Richard in the grocery store and on the highway, driving my kid to school. Listening to Obama's speech on health care--and the somewhat hysterical responses of his antagonists--has kept me in the mood for this play, which is all about manipulating opinions, both public and private. Recently, I've been afraid that our new president would end up being a "weak king" and that someone like Richard--nihilistic, theatrical, and charismatic--would step into that power vacuum and start telling some really powerful stories; fascist mythmaking is a great twentieth century invention that digital technologies have made even more effective. The vast majority of people are, I'm afraid, pretty powerless against an extremist shaman of this sort.

On to the play, and I'll show you what I mean.

Richard, alone among Will's characters, begins with a soliloquy. This initial speech is the "engine" that drives the rest of the play, providing the vision and the energy for Richard's theatrical villainy. Like Richard himself, it's structured as a list of opposites: winter/summer; dreadful marches/delightful measures; nimbly/lamely; lover/villain, and implicitly, inside (private)/outside (public). From the moment he steps on the stage, Richard makes the audience complicit in his schemes and privy to his desires. We share in his dirty secrets, and can't help but feel superior to the hapless Clarence or the clueless Anne, who only see the "actor." We see the "real" Richard, the private man rather than the public show.

The private world of feelings, of desires and urges, is a feminine place (I mean mythically, not biologically), unlike the public--and masculine--arena of politics, wars, and dynastic struggles. Or at least that's how it was in Will's day. It's hard to make that argument now, when politicians draw us into their lurid assignations, when talentless people like the Gosselins (yeah, I read People, too) invite us into their messy (and fundamentally uninteresting) private lives, and every sexual misstep seems to warrant a public confession from the guilty party, complete with a list of excuses (alcoholism, childhood abuse, job stress). But in the late sixteenth century the human psyche was still relatively uncharted terrain. People didn't make the connection between personal trauma and later actions--to Will's audience, Richard's deformity was simply the outward reflection of his inner corruption. It wasn't, as Richard seems to insist, the reason he became a traitor and a murderer. It just didn't occur to people that there might be psychological reasons for bad behavior, although Richard clearly wants us to see his misshapen body--and the revulsion it inspires in others--as the cause of his inner corruption rather than a sign of it. This was a new idea, and one that wouldn't gain currency for another three hundred years. In a sense, Will's Richard can be seen as the first "modern" man--devoid of kinship ties, scornful of history, lacking any moral/religious foundation.

That's why Ian McKellen's fascist Richard works so well. Fascism was all about form over content--fascists loved parades, uniforms, and spectacles of all kinds. They preached the triumph of will over history, myth over religion, and ideological "brotherhood" over ties of blood. They were the quintessential modernists, military men who had contempt for women but were themselves (in many cases) sexually ambivalent. That's the public side of the "modern man." The other side is the inner self, the "Freudian" man, fighting with psychic demons, tormented by sexual ambiguity, messed up about mommy. That's Laurence Olivier's Richard, as seen in the Dali-esque painting on the left. Richard is both: a master of the private realm, a manipulator of others' insecurities and fears, and a perfect fascist ruler--a creator of myths, a revisionist historian, a dealer of death.

The famous opening lines of the play are worth some careful consideration, partly because people who quote them casually never seem to understand how the syntax works:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York...

Okay, pay attention. The way this should be understood is: "this son (sun) of York (Richard's brother Edward IV) has transformed our (previous) unhappy state (winter) into a happy one (summer)." The "our" would refer to the House of York, which now holds the throne. This is the "public" sense of the lines, referring to the whole Yorkist dynasty.

But if you were one of those people who understood this as "now I'm really discontented," you're not completely wrong. Will wants you to take it both ways--as a public (if somewhat sarcastic) statement about the Yorkists, and a private statement about Richard's own "discontent" at the current state of affairs. So right there, in the first few lines, we see the public/private (collective/individual) opposition that's going to carry on through the whole play, as Richard shows one face to the people in the play, and another to us.

He goes on to set up a series of contrasts between the "grim" sights and sounds of war and the "delightful" music of court parties, flirtations, and private assignations:

Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,
And now--instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries--
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

Now we're celebrating victory, hanging our swords on the wall so we can tell stories about the battles we fought. Now instead of war-cries and calls to arms we have stylish gatherings where we dance and hang out with our friends. "War" isn't scary anymore. No, now the god of war has become a god of love and pleasure, lounging around in the bedroom, listening to the girly sounds of a lute while he gets busy between the sheets.

Notice the way this passage ends--it's fabulous writing. First, the picture of epic battles--"grim-visaged war," "barbed steeds," and then, like a shift from drums to piccolos, the image of a man--a very girly man--"capering nimbly" (prancing around) to the "lascivious pleasing of a lute." Great alliteration, ending with the short, feminine-sounding word, "lute." Ooo, a lute! How cute!

It's important to remember what it meant to be a fifteenth- or sixteenth-century aristocrat in wartime. You really fought, and killed people. Not with guns, from a distance, but with swords and knives and other messy accessories. You didn't order Congress to send poor or ideologically-indoctrinated kids off to do your fighting for you, then make great speeches about how noble they are. No, you had to get your hands all covered in gore--sometimes your own--even if you were going to be the next king. So when Richard talks about hanging up swords as monuments and behaving like civilized men again, he points out that these port-sipping party boys, who were out slicing up their enemies a week or so ago, are only pretending to be cultured Renaissance men instead of bloodthirsty savages. It's a contrast that just doesn't exist anymore--it's been a very long time since the people in power really fought to keep it. Yeah, I can't help thinking of Dick Cheney's five deferments during the Vietnam War, or Bush Sr. pulling strings to get junior a safe gig with the Guard. A little blood and gore might have immunized them against idiotic military adventurism. Then we'd still have money for that health care overhaul...

After his snide observations about warriors in peacetime, another contrast follows--this time between the effeminate courtier in the bedroom and Richard himself, who's too malformed to engage in erotic recreations:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass
I that am rudely stamped and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph,
I that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up--
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them--
Why I in this weak piping time of peace
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on my own deformity.

I'm scary-looking, so girls don't like me. Even dogs bark at me. No one ever lets me play in any reindeer games. Lacking anyone to kill, since the war's over, I have nothing to do but look at my ugly self.

But then, he gets to the point:

...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.

Since I can't get a date, I'm going to blow up the school. Or rather, kill all my relatives and take over the throne.

He proceeds to tell us exactly what his plan is--to make his oldest brother (the king) paranoid about the one next in line, the Duke of Clarence. If all goes well, Edward will execute Clarence, thus removing one obstacle to Richard's ambitions.

So the soliloquy ends with a giant spoiler. Here's my plan, now watch me do it. By telling us exactly what he's going to do, Richard forces us to focus on the how and why (although mostly the how--we've already heard the "why") rather than the what. He becomes the director of his own evil play--seducing people into playing the parts he assigns. Any leader who can do this is assured of political success. Unlike our current president, or his inept predecessor, Richard realizes that power is something you collect behind the scenes. The big speeches are just for show.

I'm not saying this is a good thing, of course. But it is, as we'll see, awfully effective.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Embracing the Dark Side

A few months ago my son came up to me and asked, somewhat sheepishly, if it was "okay to like playing the bad guys better than the good guys." I asked which bad guys he meant, and he said that he liked playing the Emperor in Star Wars because "he gets to say all the good stuff." I had to agree (with the caveat that seeking galactic domination isn't a laudable life goal). So much more fun to snarl "we will crush you" or "we have you now" in a deep, creepily calm voice than to cry "you'll never get away with it!" just seconds before they blow your home planet into cosmic debris. It's obvious that Will's Richard III is a precursor to George Lucas's Emperor Palpatine; both start out acting like good guys, working hard for the nation (or alliance) as a whole, while they sow the seeds of treason and murder. There are other parallels, too. Will's history plays can be roughly divided into two groups (excluding King John and Henry VIII). The so-called "first tetralogy," or group of four plays, includes the three Henry VI plays and Richard III; these deal with the Wars of the Roses (a series of dynastic wars in the mid-to-late fifteenth century) and its aftermath. The second tetralogy includes Richard II, Henry IV 1 and 2, and Henry V. As in the Star Wars saga, the plays that were written later are chronologically earlier, and are more clearly tied to the contemporary English political scene than are those of the first tetralogy, which are more mythic in both structure and theme.

Richard III stands out among Will's plays in that its principal character is a villain. Richard obviously influenced Will's conception of villainy in the later plays, prefiguring characters such as Iago in Othello, Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, and Edmund in King Lear, but none of those characters is at the center of the drama the way Richard is, and none has the sheer theatrical power Richard commands on the stage. He is evil, but also alluring, pathological, but also more insightful and "logical" in his thinking than any of the other characters, at least in the first acts. And, as my son pointed out, there's something about a bad guy that we just can't resist. Will's bad guys talk directly to audience, for one thing, daring us to commiserate with or protest their fiendish plans. His heroes, on the other hand, pitch their soliloquies just over our heads, as if seeking approval or guidance from somewhere (or someone) Higher.

A little background:

As the play begins, the Yorkists are celebrating their victory over the Lancastrian King, Henry VI. The power struggle between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians goes back to 1399, when the weak King Richard II was deposed by Henry IV--this is dramatized in the second tetralogy. But dynasties that begin with depositions are never very stable. The Yorkists, claiming that the Lancastrian succession was illegitimate, pressed their claim on the battlefield and finally defeated--and murdered--the last Lancastrian, Henry. England is now ruled by the Yorkist Edward IV. It gets confusing because there are lots of Edwards running around. The King's young heir is also called Edward, and King Henry had a son named Edward who appears in the play as a ghost, haunting Richard. The principal Edward for our purposes, however, is the aforementioned Edward IV, the new Lancastrian king, and Richard of Gloucester's (our Richard's) brother. There's another brother named George--he's the Duke of Clarence, so Will just calls him "Clarence" in the play. Richard is the youngest, so he has to get the other two out of the way if he wants the throne.

Edward's wife is Elizabeth; this is her second marriage. Her pedigree isn't that great for a queen, and Richard makes a lot of this fact. In the Ian McKellen film version, Elizabeth and her brother are played by Americans Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr., with American accents to indicate their "upstart" status. It totally doesn't work--they just seem like bad actors. It's too bad, because that production is otherwise excellent.

It's important to recognize, as I mentioned in my previous post, that the history plays were for the most part written as Tudor propaganda. Elizabeth I was a Tudor, the granddaughter of Henry VII, who emerges victorious at the end of this play. The death of Richard marked the end of Plantagenet rule (both the Yorkist and Lancastrian pretenders to the throne were Plantagenets), and the Tudor ascent could be seen as a usurpation itself. It was therefore important that Richard III be demonized, in order to legitimate the Tudor claim. Will's evil Richard isn't his own invention; several early historians, including Sir Thomas More, contributed to the picture of Richard as a deformed, scheming tyrant. As far as we know he was not physically malformed, nor was he in utero for two full years, or born with teeth, as the propagandists claimed. By most accounts he was a reasonably good ruler--but he'll always be remembered as the king who was "determined to prove a villain," thanks to Will.

Still, he's indisputably more popular as a bad guy than he would have been as a good king. Thanks to the charisma of Will's Richard and the actors who played him, the historical Richard has organized defenders. In 1924 the Richard III Society was founded in England; the express purpose of the group is to defend Richard's memory from the Tudor smear--but I suspect that, paradoxically, Will's wicked King is the real attraction.

What is his appeal? Like many villains, he has two personas (yeah, I know it's "personae," but that sounds unbearably stuffy). There's the "public" Richard--the good, self-effacing younger brother--and the private one--the scheming, power-hungry sociopath. Because he's so obviously "split" this way, we identify with him despite his nefarious intentions and deeds. Who among us doesn't show a "sunny" face to the world, shoving our petty envies and irrational aversions into the private sphere? No one acts the same in public and in private. In this sense, Richard is us--he just happens to have bigger aspirations, and acts on them. Because he's Will's creation, this inside/outside opposition manifests itself in lots of double entendres. When he sees that his poisonous schemes have paid off, resulting in his brother Clarence's arrest, he promises to try and free him:

...this deep disgrace in brotherhood
Touches me dearer than you can imagine.

Clarence understands this to mean, "our brother Edward has acted disgracefully; I'm really deeply upset." But his words can also mean, "I'm more implicated than you can guess in this fraternal betrayal." He goes on to assure his brother that he'll be free soon:

Your imprisonment shall not be long.
I will deliver you or lie for you.

Clarence hears "I'll do everything I can to get you out, even if it means taking your place in prison." But we, in the audience, hear the other meaning: "I'll tell enough lies about you that your imprisonment will be shortened by death."

Richard's charismatic stage presence owes a lot to lines like these; his mastery of people and events is inextricable from his command of language. If George Lucas had been a better writer, his Emperor Palpatine might have rivaled Richard in theatrical malevolence. As it is, he never transcends the usual "evil overlord" cliches, and has to take a back seat to the humorless and laconic Darth Vader. But Lucas isn't in Will's league, obviously, so it's not surprising that our favorite villain in the Star Wars saga is the guy with the impressive voice in the scary suit. Evil, like nostalgia, isn't what it used to be.

Next time, Richard's whole personality in one monologue.