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...

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