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.


  1. Always thought there was something faintly unpleasant about Anne, certainly in this scene. Her initial soliloquy seems overtly and deliberately theatrical - played for the audience of pall-bearers as much as for the audience of the play - and there's a kind moral self-satisfaction about her dialogue with Richard - "much it joys me... to see you are become so penitent" - that's under-cut by something more mercenary - "to take is not to give". This is not in any way to excuse Richard, but one of the reasons he's able to carry the audience with him for so long is perhaps because (almost?) all of his victims are, at best, flawed and, at worst, deeply morally compromised.

    I should add that I only came across this blog today, and I've found it fascinating.


  2. I agree...I guess that's one of the most interesting things about the play from the standpoint of moral philosophy--Richard's "evil" is at least in part an ability to bring out the worst in others. I guess that's what I was getting at in my most recent post when I joked about the "physics" of evil--it's the ability to draw out and attract the malevolence/weakness in others and channel it to one's own ends. Re: Anne's theatricality--yeah, there's something just so stilted and drama queenish about that whole "Set down, set down your honorable load" thing--but don't you find that all the women in this play are like that? The men seem to talk like real people (in iambic pentameter, but still somewhat conversational) but the women often revert to stagy melodrama. It's odd since Richard is the "actor" in the play...although he's decidedly protean while they are static and utterly predictable.
    Thanks for reading!

  3. Do I find that all the women in the play are like that? Yes, to an extent. But it's amazing how much the play in performance can change perceptions. I should admit here that Ian McKellen has ruined 'Richard III' for me. It's a play I love, but after seeing the National Theatre's version (nine times!) in the early nineties, no production since has quite lived up to it. (Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter recently did the exact same thing with 'Antony & Cleopatra', my favourite Shakespeare!) Anyway, Richard Eyre's NT production was so psychologically detailed, so chilling, and so unexpected when viewed alongside the comedic/horrific Vice-style Richard of Olivier and Sher, that it sent me reeling out of the theatre. (I'm very fond of McKellen's film, but at 90 minutes it lacks the detail of the three-and-a-half hour stage production.) And one of the areas where Richard Eyre's staging proved revelatory was the women. God knows how he did it, but they seemed utterly real. Anastasia Hille had an icy brittleness as Anne, which perhaps influences how I read the role. And the really outstanding portrayal was Clare Higgins as Elizabeth. So often the second so-called wooing scene has been described as a pale shadow of the first, but not in this production. It showed a powerful woman every bit the match of Richard, whose reasons were "too deep and dead" for him to comprehend, and who could counter his every protestation - "What canst thou swear by now?" - to devastating effect. The three queens, lighting candles to their dead, were redolent of news footage from Romania at the time the production was staged. And suddenly all the archaic cursing made sense. Sorry - I'm probably rambling now - so thank you for answering!


  4. Wow, that sounds amazing. I'd love to have seen that production. I'm afraid the live Shakespeare I have seen hasn't been anywhere near that wonderful. I live in the Midwest hinterlands, so it's hard to see more than college or regional productions, and they rarely do anything as challenging as Richard III--or any of the histories, for that matter. Not that they could do it justice--as you point out, this play demands a more nuanced understanding of the characters than one can expect from amateurs--much less really young amateurs.
    As you can tell, I'm reading these plays very much as a literary critic, albeit not a "professional Shakespearean"--I'm trying to free myself from some of the academic baggage that goes along with that educational background, but I do realize that my limited exposure to live theater, particularly really good live theater, is, well, limiting. So it's cool to hear from someone who does have that perspective. I am going to think about what you wrote when I get to the scene with Elizabeth...I think it is easy to read the play as over the top "comic tragedy"--as I did in my most recent post--but let's face it, it takes great actors to bring these words to life and show us the possibilities.
    Thanks again for engaging with the blog--and btw, Antony and Cleopatra is my all-time favorite play, too. Of course I love the title characters, but I think my favorite speech (well,there's so much wonderful language in that play, I guess I have a lot of favorites...) is Caesar talking about Antony in his younger, more virile days--"thou didst drink the stale of horses, and the gilded puddle which beasts would cough at..." it's gross, of course, but so evocative...
    Anyway, I'm rambling now. Thanks again for reading.

  5. Hi, again, Gayle. I think, regardless of how much live theatre you get to see in your neck of the woods, the sensibility that these are very much performed texts comes across strongly in your writing - which, I have to say, isn't always the case with even some of the most eminent academic critics! My own background is academic, but the performance side has always been what's interested me most. As you've probably guessed, I live in the UK and I was lucky enough to be able to do an MA in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford Upon Avon, where the staff included people like Stanley Wells, who edited the New Penguin Shakespeare, and Russell Jackson, who was the textual adviser for Ken Branagh's films. One of the great things about this was that the course had active input from the RSC.
    Anyway, going back to that second wooing scene in 'Richard', one of the things I loved about the staging was that the dialogue between Richard and Elizabeth was overlooked by a rank of about a dozen greatcoat clad and torch bearing soldiers, all standing motionless to attention. It beautifully underscored the dynamics of the scene. Richard now has the physical power, but it's also at the point where his wit is beginning to desert him. He's comprehensively out-manoeuvred by Elizabeth, and his cry of "relenting fool and shallow, changing woman!" after she leaves has the hollow ring of denial about it. Interesting that McKellen seems to reserve most venom for the word "woman!", and the soldiers behind him, without breaking rank, all have a little laugh. The whole thing's deeply misogynistic, and casts a fascinating light on a society in which men go to war and women mourn.
    I actually had the chance to interview McKellen when he was doing this, and I'd be happy to post it if it's of interest. Not sure if there's a character limit to the Comments fields, though.
    Re 'Antony & Cleopatra', I think it contains the most beautiful writing ever set to paper - "Eternity was in our lips and eyes, / Bliss in our brows bent" - so I know what you mean about choosing favourite speeches, but I do have a special fondness for these lines:
    "... yet he that can endure
    To follow with allegiance a fall'n lord
    Does conquer him that did his master conquer
    And earns a place i' the story."


  6. Jonathan,
    I always liked Enobarbus, too. A moderate man among extremists--therefore doomed. He spends the whole play trying to set limits on Antony's excesses, then finally decides to opt for the grandeur of literature rather than the banality life in a post-heroic world. That is noble--at least in a context where such a choice exists.

    On Richard: I am going to write about 3.7 (Richard playing "the maid's part"--ie hard to get), and I'm interested in how they did it in the Eyre production. Because it's always seemed like such high camp to me. It seems to exceed the generic boundaries of both tragedy(with its Wheel of Fortune structure)and history--it's so absurdly theatrical. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

    Btw--even if your orthography hadn't given you away, I would have guessed you were from the UK owing to your elegant turn of phrase...we just don't get much of that over here, alas. But we're cool in other ways....

    Re: your interview. Yes! I would like to post it, but somewhere more prominent than the comments section. I think there's a way to do that (other than just a link), but I need to take a day or two and figure it out. I'm still pretty new to this and not hip to all the technical ins and outs of Blogger. Ultimately I want to put the blog on my own site (I mean, get a site of my own to put it on), because then I can make it more interactive. So I'll get back to you about that soon. Thanks for offering...I appreciate it.

    When I set out on this project, I think I hoped that it would generate interesting conversation with knowledgeable people. Thanks for that, too--it's so much more fun to do this when it's dialogical.

  7. Hi Gayle – just found out I’m going to have to post this reply as two comments because of character limits. So here goes the first:

    Thanks for the compliment about the turn of phrase, and I've got a number of American friends so I know you're cool in all kinds of ways!

    You talk about 3.7 seeming like high camp. I agree - it can certainly be played that way. As can much of the play. There's something very camp about Olivier's Richard, and the first production I ever saw on stage had Derek Jacobi playing the part, in his words, almost in the style of Mr Punch in a Punch & Judy show. That's why Eyre's production so startled me. I'd seem funny Richards, gothic Richards, but nothing that seemed so grounded in a recognisable human world. It also probably helped that the first time I saw the production it was still previewing, so I had no idea what to expect - I didn't even know in which period it would be set. And going into the auditorium gave me know clue either, as the set was masked by a blue theatre curtain with the legend “Edward IV” projected upon it.

    The lights went down and, in the darkness, we heard the tumultuous sounds of a mounted charge, followed by the clash of men in battle. So it's going to be medieval, right? And then the lights slowly come up on a bare stage wreathed in smoke. Still no clue from the set. And out of the smoke, steps a stiff, upright figure in post-World War 1 khaki and general's tabs (no obvious deformity,) speaking in clipped Sandhurst tones. Immediately, a post-conflict world is evoked that seemed fresh, new...

    How this links in with 3.7 is that, throughout the production, everything - even moments that could be played as near-farce - was approached from the standpoint that the audience had to invest in the characters as real people.

  8. And part 2:

    3.7 worked in the context of an atmosphere of mounting terror. We've already witnessed Brackenbury saying that he must not "reason" the purpose behind an order so he'll be "guiltless from the meaning"; fearful citizens talk of leaving what happens "to God"; and the scrivener says that "ill-dealing" must be seen only "in thought". These are fairly minor moments that are often glossed over in more traditional productions, but the twentieth century setting gives them an extraordinary resonance. People aren't blind or stupid, but they don't dare speak out.

    Back to Richard. When he begins politicking, he swaps his khaki for a tail coat and wing collar. He wears this in the Tower scene of the "divided councils". Richard stalks out after Hastings is arrested, leaving the latter, in Ratcliffe's care, to voice a brief soliloquy before being lead out to execution. On the words "O bloody Richard, miserable England," Richard reappears, silhouetted in a doorway and, for the first time, wearing the black uniform and boar's-head device armband. You could almost sense the audience catching their breath.

    Next, the mayor is terrorised by a clamour outside and we see the head of Hastings brought on in a fire-bucket. Not surprising that he says "he deserved his death!"

    (All this, I should add, is directly inspired by the text. The black uniform isn't just gratuitous fascist chic - it was chosen specifically to represent a modern equivalent "rotten armour, marvellous ill-favoured.")

    So 3.7 follows on directly from all of this. What could so easily have been comic is now horrific. Citizens begin to assemble in the shadows, with Richard's black-clad, torch-bearing troops mingling among them. Buckingham and the Mayor appear and then, on a mounted platform, we see Richard, flanked by two bishops in purple. He and Buckingham are using thirties-style microphones and the darkness is cut by searchlights.

    Richard is holding a bible. This isn’t a new sight. In fact, he gave one to Clarence in the very first scene. I'll quote from the McKellen interview here:

    ""We put the bible in earlier in the play as if that were something he might have in his knapsack. 1 don't think you can suddenly have that scene with him parading himself as a holy man of prayer if it's not been prefigured elsewhere. Otherwise it just becomes a charade and everybody is a fool to believe it. It's much more potent, 1 think, if Richard is so convincing as a righteous man that we would be fooled by him. Normally that scene's played for laughs. I think if it does that, then the horror of the situation is removed…"

    The scene culminates in Richard being lowered to the ground to join Buckingham as the air is rent by chants of "Long live King Richard!"

    "Farewell my cousin, farewell gentle friends," he says. He turns to stare defiantly at the audience. The moment is held, as if to say the collusion is at an end. Then he violently casts the bible aside and, in doing so, raises his arm in a fascist salute. The torches are extinguished and the auditorium plunged into darkness.

    When the lights come up for the interval, a blue curtain masks the stage once again, but this time projected upon it in heavy gothic lettering is the legend "Richard III".

    Well, that was a bit long-winded, but I hope it answers how Eyre handled 3.7!


  9. Thanks, Jonathan, for that evocative description. It really forced me to rethink 3.7--and the structural movement of the whole act. I hope you don't mind that I mentioned our exchange in my most recent post--I find your descriptions of this production really interesting, and I think other readers will, too. I wanted to let them know where to find us...I'll be thinking about some of your other comments as I get into Richard's descent. In the most recent post I did my own reading, then shifted to Eyre's--it makes me wish I'd seen more live theater, so I could juxtapose different interpretations. Not having to take one stand and die for it is what makes blogging so much more fun than academic publishing!
    Thanks so much for your input--hope to hear more....

  10. That's the lovely thing about theatre - there's no such thing as a definitive interpretation. The best you can ever get is one that works perfectly for *you*. And sorry about the typos. I thought I'd picked up on them before submitting, but when I re-read they're leaping out at me from all parts!

    I should also probably have added a little more qualification to some of the points I raised. For instance, Brackenbury is portrayed as an army officer, which really spotlights that line about blindly following an order. But I guess that's a symptom of randomly commenting on an existing (and perfectly crafted) piece, rather than writing something from scratch! (And this is probably the first time I've written on Shakespeare in 10 years, so I'm very much enjoying the opportunity that your blog has given me!)

    One thing I'd like to mention is that, from reading my comments, people might get the impression that Eyre's production down-played the humour. That isn't the case at all. It was frequently very funny in a pitch black way - for instance, Richard casually snuffing out candles on a dining table during the "I do the wrong and first begin to brawl" speech - but never in a way that made you forget the underlying seriousness. And often you would laugh at something, only to find the laughter catch in your throat. An example is the head in the fire bucket. The combination of grossness and incongruity is laugh-out-loud funny in just the way that Blackadder can be, to use a comparison that you used in one of your blog entries. But then, when Richard has been left alone on stage, you see him dipping a speculative hand into the bucket, as if fascinated by this thing that had so recently been alive. Then he starts like a guilty one surprised, suddenly aware that he's being watched by the audience. He looks up and holds their gaze, challenging them, and says "Now will I in to take some privy order... that no manner of person / At any time have recourse unto the princes." The laughter has died, and you're aware that you've watched - and been complicit in - something stomach churning.


  11. I can almost imagine that--humor is seldom so nuanced these days, it seems to me. You can see some of it in Edgar Allan Poe's stories, but that sort of horrific humor, the laugh that becomes a shudder is perhaps too subtle for modern sensibilities...I wrote a few weeks back about some (fairly) recent Hollywood films that seem to be trying for something of that sort, but the laughter that they elicit seems to me very misanthropic and scary in altogether another way--like, whoa, what's wrong with us that we find this funny?
    Before I embarked on this project I actually hadn't read any Shakespeare for nearly ten years myself--since I stopped being a working academic. Always enjoyed teaching it, though--it wasn't as weighted with duty as my own field (I was a Chaucerian). But I find blogging to be so liberating--it's true it's time-consuming and not income-producing, but I think this is the first time I've felt that reading and writing about literature is simply pleasurable.
    I am going to try and make my posts shorter, however...I'm afraid I'm still approaching them like a scholar (must get through this act, this scene, etc before I end the post)--then again, it may be too late to change that way of thinking...
    Re: typos--goodness, most people don't even bother to differentiate among homophones these days. The occasional honest typo is venial by comparison. It's refreshing to correspond with someone who cares about the language, however.