Thursday, October 15, 2009

Endgame, Part 1


It's been a long week, with too much work in it--October is probably my busiest month all year. I've been thinking a lot about the play, but have had little time to write. My thanks to Jonathan for the mid-week food for thought (see our exchange after the "fertile womb" posting). Fifteenth-century history has been much on my mind, and I almost find myself feeling a bit like the characters in the play--things have moved too fast, and I'm playing catch-up. At the same time, I'm aware that this story will never really have an end. We'll never know the truth, even if we had the time to sift through reams of Tudor and Ricardian propaganda in pursuit of the holy grail of irreducible fact.

I don't know how this happened, but after decades spent as a literary scholar, arguing for the privilege of cultural fantasy over material history, I've become, in my middle age, weirdly enamored of the truth. However elusive.

Act 5 has made me feel more sympathy for this man whose reputation fell into the hands of his enemies. I know how hard it is to change the course of an appealing narrative, even when it's widely acknowledged to be false. As much as I admire Will, I feel strongly that Richard, whatever his faults (and surely there were many) has been ill-used here. Part of my sympathy derives from my discomfort with the pat way things are resolved. Events are telescoped, which is necessary to the drama--but the simple moral dualism, which extends even to a divided stage--is surely reductive at best, dishonest at worst. The other thing I realize is that I really dislike Richmond, later Henry VII. I find his speeches cloying and his vaunted compassion disingenuous. He creeps me out.

So, let's take a look at the play, and I'll show you what I mean.

We left off at the end of Act 4, after Richard's attempt to "woo" Elizabeth into handing over her daughter. After Elizabeth leaves the stage, we're immediately thrust back into the masculine realm of warfare. Richmond is attacking from the western shore, and Buckingham has raised an army. Richard calls upon his remaining loyal lieutenants, Catesby and Ratcliffe (popularly known in a contemporary song as "the Cat and the Rat") to muster his supporters. He sends Ratcliffe to Salisbury, and Catesby to the Duke of Norfolk. And then he seems to forget what he'd just said.

Ratcliffe: What, may it please you, shall I do at Salisbury?
King Richard: Why, what wouldst thou do there before I go?
Ratcliffe: Your highness told me I should post before.
King Richard: My mind is changed.

His mind is definitely changed. Where once he was decisive and unflappable, he now seems confused and distracted. His allies have deserted him, or, like Stanley, are in the process of doing so, leaving him with a motley crew of disreputable men.

Stanley confirms that Richmond "makes for England, here to claim the crown." Richard seems to think that the crown itself conveys the right to wear it:

Is the chair empty? Is the sword unswayed?
Is the King dead? Is the empire unpossessed?
What heir of York is there alive but we?
And who is England's king but great York's heir?
Then tell me, what makes he upon the seas?

His argument is simple--since there is a king, and that king is himself, why is Richmond coming to claim a throne that isn't vacant? The speech seems absurd, given the fact that he's a usurper as well, but to Will's audience it would have had a deeper historical resonance. When Henry IV (Harry Bolingbroke) deposed Richard II less than a hundred years previously, he asserted the right of a lesser branch of the royal line to overthrow a legitimate ruler. This set an unfortunate precedent, and led to decades of internecine violence. In this context, a sitting king necessarily rules more by might than right. For Will, the coup d'etat that pushed Richard II off the throne was the "original sin" that would only be redeemed when Henry Tudor united the houses of Lancaster and York. That his reign also began as a usurpation is a fact for which this play attempts (rather heavy-handedly) to compensate.

Richard becomes increasingly paranoid as the final confrontation looms--although, as the saying goes, "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not really after you." Stanley is planning to defect, so Richard is right to fear that he will "revolt and fly" to Richmond. When the messenger arrives to tell him that Buckingham's army has dispersed, Richard doesn't wait for the good news; he assumes the worst and strikes the messenger.

Being a royal messenger in the bad old days before telecommunication seems to have been a high-risk occupation. Bring good news, and you might be set for life. Ill tidings, however, could be fatal. Maybe messengers were adrenaline junkies, like skydivers today...

When the messenger finishes, Richard learns that it's good news after all. Buckingham has been captured; naturally, he's sentenced to death. In his final speech, he regrets his broken oath to Edward in Act 2, and remarks that "Margaret's curse falls heavy on my neck." He here echoes Hastings, who lamented before his own execution that Margaret's curse "is lighted upon poor Hastings' wretched head."

Will seems to give Margaret a lot of power in these moments--not as an historical woman, or a queen, but as an avenging Fury who brings the disavowed past "heavily" to bear on the present. This is justice of a sort, but it doesn't end the cycle of violence. "Wrong hath but wrong," says Buckingham, "and blame the due of blame." An eye for an eye--but no scores are settled, and no balance is restored. That won't happen until the "hero," Richmond, takes the stage.

It seems odd that Will takes so long to bring Richmond into the play. I mean, he could have shown him in France, plotting his next move, or fulminating about how evil Richard is and how determined he is to set things right. But he doesn't do any of that. I think the reason Will holds off is because Richmond, no matter how fine and noble he makes him, can't possibly compete with Richard on the stage. As his fortunes fall, Richard still compels our gaze and even (in my case at least) some of our sympathies. Like Anne, we know he's evil, and we don't care. He's...cool.

Evil, of course, but still cool.

What is coolness, you may wonder? Speaking as someone who comes from a very hip and (sometimes irritatingly) cool family, I'll tell you. It's an ontological state, like (theatrical) evil. And its distinguishing characteristics are a vision, a will to bring it into being, and--here's the intangible part--a kind of "style" that transcends fashion. When, after wooing Anne, Richard imagines looking in the mirror and finding himself handsome, what he's really saying is "Am I cool, or what? Am I not the quintessence of fifteenth-century hipness? Is there anyone who can match my savoir faire, my je ne sais quoi, my utter and complete mastery of the social scene and its emotional runoff? No, there isn't. I am it. And then some."

It's a delusion, of course. But if you can get other people to believe in it, you're living the dream.

Richmond is not cool. He's like the teacher's pet, the prep school brat, the Eddie Haskell (if any of you are old enough to remember Leave it to Beaver) who sucks up to everyone and mouths a lot of platitudes about a "new dawn," and how he's going to bring back all those "summer fields and fruitful vines" and so on. He calls the captain of his troops "good" and "sweet," and bids his army march into war "boldly and cheerfully!" He's a motivational speaker, touting the power of positive thinking. Visualize victory, and it's yours! Imagine I'm going to be a great king, and I will! We can do this thing if we just, you know, believe....and remember, the other guy is a bloodsucking swine! Be cheerful! Smile! The sun of York is about to set, but my sun will be even brighter.

If he were a twenty-first century American, he'd be preaching in a megachurch and making a bundle off of self-help books and lectures.

Meanwhile, back in the Middle Ages, Richard is still confused about why his people are abandoning him:

...the King's name is a tower of strength,
Which they upon the adverse faction want.

I'm king, remember? That should count for something. He's not king. I am. Me. Not him. Get it?

What they get is that the throne is up for grabs, and the odds don't favor Richard. I use the idiom intentionally, because Richard himself has always been a gambler. Even his last words, "my kingdom for a horse!" are a gambler's plea--all or nothing.

Will's vision of the Battle of Bosworth Field is one of theatrical symmetry--two tents, two camps, two contestants for the throne, facing each other across the stage. Throughout this scene, Richmond's orderly, hierarchical approach to the coming battle is juxtaposed against Richard's emotional disarray:

Henry Earl of Richmond: Give me some ink and paper in my tent.
I'll draw the form and model of our battle,
Limit each leader to his several charge,
And part in just proportion our small power.
Let us consult upon tomorrow's business.
Into my tent, the dew is raw and cold.

Richmond is the kind of guy who color-codes his ties and irons his underwear. He's a quintessential bureaucrat, prefiguring Will's "managerial" characterization of Octavius Caesar (later Augustus) in Antony and Cleopatra. In these post-Freudian days, he'd be called anal. Compare Richard, on the other side of the stage:

King Richard: I will not sup tonight. Give me some ink and paper.
What, is my beaver easier than it was?
And all my armor laid into my tent?

Richard also calls for ink and paper, but then seems to forget what he wanted it for. He's distracted by his helmet visor, which might not be as tight as he'd like. A few lines later, he calls for all kinds of stuff:

...Fill me a bowl of wine. Give me a watch.
Saddle white Surrey for the field tomorrow.
Look that my staves be sound, and not too heavy.

While Richmond is busy laying out a strategy, Richard, like a knight in a romance, is busy with his armor--as if preparing for single combat, not a clash of armies. Again, this reminded me of Antony and Cleopatra--Antony wants to meet Caesar in single combat, not realizing that that era (which only really existed in literature, anyway) is over. In Caesar's new world, the rulers are managers, not warriors.

Historically, Richard was the last English king to die on the battlefield. If he was the "man of tomorrow" early in the play, he's now become yesterday's news. Richmond is the new man now, the guy who's got a feminine side, who can weep as well as wield a sword, who understands the importance of hierarchy and order. At least that's what Will wants us to think.

Is this "synthesis" convincing? Or does it tip over into irony? I'll talk about that next time.

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