Saturday, October 17, 2009

Endgame, Part 2

In the last post, I wrote about the trouble I'm having with Will's version of events. This time, at least initially, I'm going to just read the play the way it wants to be read. Act 5 begins with Buckingham's execution, the last of Richard's bloody deeds--although technically, B. deserved it. Treason against a sitting king was punishable by death. Immediately afterward we meet Richmond, the future king and Richard's "foil" (why does that word always remind me of high school English class?)--or, more precisely, the protagonist who is only a bit player in this antagonistic drama. He immediately offers the audience a clear choice. It's me--just and fair, bringer of sunshine and mellow fruitfulness, or him-- devouring vampiric cannibal pig:

The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar
That spoils your summer fields and fruitful vines,
Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough
In your inbowelled bosoms, this foul swine
Lies now even in the centry of this isle
Near to the town of Leicester, as we learn.
From Tamworth thither is by one day's march.
In God's name, cheerly on, courageous friends,
To reap the harvest of perpetual peace
By this one bloody trial of sharp war.

His speech, which is addressed to Richmond's armies but also to the audience as a whole, is a masterpiece of political oratory. The image of the "bloody boar" trampling the edenic fields of the countryside, drinking human blood like hog swill out of hollowed out human torsos is horrifying and mythic--Richard is a wild animal who feeds on his own kind. This graphic picture is followed by a somewhat jarring return to the real geography of England, a reminder that this is history, not legend, and the stakes are quite real. Then the requisite invocation of divine favor, ending with a (somewhat) mixed metaphor--to reap the harvest, you must endure a trial.

Some of Will's most memorable metaphors are awkward by most people's standards. "To take arms against a sea of troubles" is impossible to visualize. It's a "bad" metaphor, but it's used powerfully to indicate that things in Denmark--even metaphysical things--are indeed "out of joint." Richmond does the same thing here--that a "trial" should yield a "harvest" only makes sense if we remember that Richard has inverted nature itself. In his sickly kingdom, women give birth to corpses and animals feed on humans. Fruitfulness will only return when justice is served.

That night, the two contestants go to sleep in tents on opposite sides of the stage. I know, "contestants" sounds like a game show.

Let's go with it...

Who will take home today's grand prize, this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-paradise, this fortress built by nature for herself against infection and the hand of war...? Will it be the blood-swilling boar, eater of his own kin and trampler of those demi-paradisal fields of fruitfulness? Or will it be the newcomer, this tall, good-looking guy who always smiles and only murders people when he absolutely has to? Let's begin the game and see!

Hmm. Mixed up my Richards for a second there. Richard II is a great play, too, in a completely different way--but that's for later. Anyway, back to the stage. Richard and Richmond (I think I'll start calling him Henry now, since he's going to be king in just a few scenes) both take a few notes, then fall asleep. The stage is dark, except for...ghosts! Yes, the ghosts of all Richard's victims traipse across the stage, making dire predictions for Richard and, just to be spiteful, happy ones for Henry. All these bit players get one more chance to show off their acting chops--and just in case the audience can't remember who they are, they announce themselves as if they're reading from a history book:

Ghost of Prince Edward (to Richard): Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow,
Prince Edward, son to Henry the Sixth.
Think how thou stabbest me in my prime of youth
At Tewkesbury. Despair, therefore, and die.
(To Richmond) Be cheerful, Richmond, for the wronged souls
Of butchered princes fight in thy behalf.
King Henry's issue, Richmond, comforts thee.

There are so many Edwards (and not a few Richards) among the royals that it does get confusing. Nice of the ghosts to remind us of their lineage. Next, the ghost of Ed's dad, Henry VI, shows up:

Ghost of King Henry (to Richard): When I was mortal, my anointed body
By thee was punched full of deadly holes. Think on the Tower, and me. Despair and die.
Henry the Sixth bids thee despair and die.
(To Richmond) Virtuous and holy, be thou conqueror.
Harry that prophesied thou shouldst be king
Comforts thee in thy sleep. Live and flourish!

Henry predicted that Richmond/Henry (now there are two Henrys, so it has to be Richmond again) would accede to the throne in 3 Henry VI; Henry's body was "anointed" because that's part of the coronation ceremony. (Presumably, Richard's kingly body was similarly oiled up, but never mind). The "despair and die," "live and flourish" messages become a ritualized chant as Clarence, Rivers, Gray, Vaughan, the young Princes, Hastings, Anne, and Buckingham repeat some version of the curse/blessing, accompanied by a few distinguishing details. Anne blames Richard for never letting her have a decent night's sleep, Buckingham for disloyalty (although this seems hypocritical, under the circumstances), Clarence for his undignified end in a tub of wine.

Although the stage directions seem to indicate that these figures enter from one side of the stage, visiting Richard's tent, then Henry's, a modern production could make more of the fact that this is supposed to be a dream, not a visitation. The ghosts could be represented using some sort of visual technology--figures on a screen, or even just voices--which would make them mere symptoms of Richard's guilty conscience and Henry's smug self-confidence.

I mean virtuous optimism.

After the ghosts exit, Richard "starteth up out of a dream," imagining himself on the battlefield. The speech that follows is Richard's penultimate long monologue; in many ways it's the antithesis of the play's opening. Once rhetorically masterful, completely in control of his own theatrical duplicity, he's now fully internalized that duality. No longer duplicitous, he's now simply fragmented, divided in two by his guilty conscience. A modern psychoanalytic reader might call this a psychotic break:

Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds!
Have mercy, Jesu!--Soft, I did but dream.
O coward conscience how dost thou afflict me?
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason. Why?
Lest I revenge. Myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain. Yet I lie: I am not.

Because dreams and prophecies are potent in this world, his call for another horse will echo into the historical future just a bit later, when he utters his famous "kingdom for a horse" line. The fractured, jerky cadence of this speech indicates that Richard himself is broken, and that his psychic and spiritual "wounds" can't be bound up or healed. The mirror that he once imagined reflecting his mastery of events ("I'll be at charges for a looking-glass," he boasts in Act 1) is now shattered. The fragmentation of the nation, soon to be reunited under Henry's healing reign, has now become Richard's own psychic civil war. A few lines later, he seems to foretell his own historical afterlife:

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.

He's fulfilled his own ambition "to prove a villain," but it's dust in his mouth. Now he seems positively whiny:

I shall despair. There's no creature loves me,
And if I die no soul will pity me.
Nay, wherefore should I?--Since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself.

His pity party is interrupted by Ratcliffe, who advises him to "be not afraid of shadows." Shadows are actors, the audience knows. But they need a sun. Richard prided himself on being a "shadow" on the Sun of York. Now that he's king, he needs to be that sun--but he's only a shadow, a theatrical poseur, a fake. Henry's the sun, now, and Richard's brief reign is about to be eclipsed.

Before that, however, Henry gives his soldiers the necessary inspirational pep talk. In the great tradition of generals and football coaches, he invokes God, the home fires, future generations, and, because it's England, Saint George. It's fairly formulaic, structured to be a contrast to Richard's bigoted and vitriolic final speech (see below). Henry reminds the audience that Richard is "a bloody tyrant and a homicide," who "hath ever been God's enemy." If they win, he assures his troops, they'll be rewarded with a peaceful, prosperous country, grateful wives (and all that that entails) and happy grandchildren.

There are omens, of course, before the battle. Medieval and Renaissance people got pretty freaked out by astronomical phenomena--comets and eclipses were thought to be harbingers of certain doom for someone. It was said that a sighting of Halley's comet in 1066 portended the Norman triumph, for example. There is, naturally, no record of an eclipse prior to the Battle of Bosworth Field, so this is definitely poetic license. But it does add to the apocalyptic ambiance. Richard tries to see it as ominous for Henry, and not himself:

The sun will not be seen today.
The sky doth frown and lour upon our army.
I would these dewy tears were from the ground.
Not shine today--why, what is that to me
More than to Richmond? For the selfsame heaven
That frowns on me looks sadly upon him.

Does it? Henry didn't mention anything about an eclipse. At this point in the play, Richard's like one of those cartoon characters who walks around with his own private raincloud--his own umbrella of doom. He knows it's over, too--that's why his oration to his troops--his final speech--is so desperate, a vitriolic stream of Francophobia laced with images of suicide and rape:

Remember whom you are to cope withal:
A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways,
A scum of Bretons and base lackey peasants
Whom their o'ercloyed country vomits forth
To desperate ventures and assured destruction.

France--and particularly Brittany--is like a nauseated belly, spewing out its own poison scum to fill up Henry's army. Like all lowlifes, they will steal your stuff and rape your women:

You having lands and blessed with beauteous wives,
They would distrain the one, distain the other.

Moreover, the guy who leads them is a girly man, a "milksop," a "paltry fellow." If his followers hadn't been enlisted in the army, they'd probably have "hanged themselves" in despair at their lowly circumstances.

If we be conquered, let men conquer us,
And not these bastard Bretons, whom our fathers
Have in their own land beaten, bobbed, and thumped.
And in record left them the heirs of shame.
Shall these enjoy our lands? Lie with our wives?
Ravish our daughters?

Politicians who resort to this sort of invective are invariably losers. It's okay to make racist/xenophobic insinuations, but saying them out loud smacks of desperation. Richard here suggests that the Breton soldiers will pollute the land and compromise its racial purity. Those wives and daughters who are (in the usual scheme of things) useful only as vessels of hereditary privilege, hold a privileged place in this kind of "ethnic cleansing" narrative. It would be heavy-handed to point out that Hitler used similar tactics in his early speechifying years. But hey, why not point it out anyway?

Well, we know what happens after that. There's fighting offstage, clamor and the clanging of swords, and then Richard stumbles in, calling for "a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" This moment is more powerful if we remember how fast Richard's plots raced through the first three acts of the play--and now, history races ahead without him. He's not above making bargains, however--

Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die.
I think there be six Richmonds in the field.
Five have I slain today, instead of him.
A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!

It was, apparently, common practice for leaders to send out "decoys" on a medieval battlefield--since everyone was covered up in armor, it was also pretty easy to do. This kind mistaken identity plays a large part in medieval romance--knights were always putting on someone else's armor in order to fight incognito. Still, it's hard to know how to take this. Some critics have suggested that Richard's deluded here, and others see the "six Richmonds" as evidence that the new king understands the theatrical uses of disguise as well as his nemesis does. Personally, I think that the six Richmonds imply that Richmond/Henry is kind of a placeholder himself. He's two-dimensional figure here, and obviously not Will's favorite character in the play, although he's (necessarily) the "hero." He doesn't get any really good lines, relative to Richard or even Margaret; he seems curiously vacant, a blank page awaiting the scribbles of history (you see why I'm a literary critic and not a poet). There can be six Richmonds, certainly. Six, or a hundred. But only one Richard.

In the play, Henry gets to defeat Richard in single combat. It's more romantic that way, but the gory chaos of a real medieval battlefield was anything but. After dispatching his enemy, Henry gives his final "synthesis" speech, in which he mentions (the fixedly absent) Elizabeth of York, whose bloodlines will ensure the legitimacy of his claim. Elizabeth herself matters so little that she's not even a character. She's a "peaceweaver" in the great Anglo-Saxon tradition--a woman useful only insofar as she can be exchanged in marriage. By marrying her, Henry hopes to silence those who would call him a usurper.

There is an uneasy moment in the midst of all this reconciliation and peace-talk. In the final lines of the play, Henry hints that there might be more bloodshed to come:

Let them not live to taste this land's increase,
That would with treason wound this fair land's peace.

My thanks to Jonathan for pointing out that this threat to potential traitors hints at future purges of real or imagined enemies. Shades of Richard himself....

Next time, I'll have a little more to say about history, fiction, and the seminal role of this play--and Richard--in Will's later tragedies.


  1. Hi Gayle

    Lovely stuff, as usual. Here's McKellen on the ghosts (with a brief lead-in from me):

    The final soliloquy, in which Richard is tortured with guilt for his deeds, is preceded by a spectacularly staged nightmare. The ghosts of his victims appear to torment him, and Buckingham delivers the coup de grace by pressing a crown shaped from barbed wire on to the usurper's forehead. Throughout all this, a magically rejuvenated Queen Margaret circles the action, laughing maniacally as her prophesies of doom are fulfilled.

    "In the text they're referred to as ghosts, those visions, but it's quite clear that he's having a nightmare and that Richmond is having a dream and somehow they're both in each other's dreams. And I said, if we could stage it like a dream, then we were going to be a lot closer to what was required than normal. I think we could have gone further. We could have had Richard looking at himself, maybe ... But when I'm playing it, I just see it all as an extraordinary pageant of life flashing quickly before him and it's all an emotional preparation for the speech that follows."

    It was quite a scary, visceral staging, and very surreal. It's horrific for Richard, but oddly serene for Richmond. He even gets to waltz with Lady Anne!

    I like your interpretation of the "six Richmonds". As it's a line that comes out of nowhere (unlike in 'Henry IV, Part 1', when the concept of a slippery pragmatist using "shadows" is much more fixed), a critic has licence to put their own gloss on it, but - whichever argument you go for - it seems, to me, to diminish Richmond slightly.

    On that note, it's also interesting that quite a few modern productions *don't* have Richard being defeated in single combat. It starts that way, but he ends up being killed in the press of all his enemies. That may be - ironically, given the play's dubious historicity! - an attempt to better reflect the historical record (without the intervention of Sir William Stanley's force, Richard would probably have overwhelmed Henry Tudor), but it once again serves to make Richmond a less substantial figure by comparison.


  2. Hi Jonathan,

    Yes, Richmond ended up quite diminished in my estimation by the time I finished--it's funny, because I have taught this play several times, and always adhered to the "party line,"--Richmond is England's savior, etc. I think writing about it is fundamentally a different experience from simply lecturing about it to sleepy undergraduates...I did undergo a kind of "transference," if one can call it that. Richard just hooked me in a way he hadn't done before.

    Still reading the Kendall bio, which is seductive in its own way--lots of detail about 15th century life, peering into the daily routine of Richard's childhood at Warwick's castle...more than a little speculation and fantasy, too, but still compelling.

    It's kind of hard to let the play go...I suspect Romeo and Juliet won't be quite as engrossing, but who knows?

  3. I forgot to say that I read the Kendall quite a few years ago. It's actually a beautifully written book. More an historical romance than a "straight" work of history, but the history under-pinning it is pretty much sound - at least as far as I can remember!

    'Romeo & Juliet', to be honest, isn't one of my favourites. It has some sublime verse, but I'm not that engaged by any of the characters. Romeo, in particualar, is selfish, smug and a menace to all around him! I'll look forward to reading what you write, though.