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.

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