Tuesday, October 20, 2009

History, Fiction, and the Seeds of Tragedy


It's surprisingly hard to leave Richard to his fate. Not his fate at the end of the play, which was a foregone conclusion, but his historical fate. Will's masterful characterization makes Richard not only the quintessence of unrepentant evil(ness), but also a consummate actor, a protean figure who will later morph into some his his best villains. But this Machiavellian manipulator clearly has little to do with the real man who ruled but two years, before being deposed by an ambitious adventurer with an altogether shaky claim to the throne. I suspect, if the truth were told, the real Richard was probably far less interesting, and the real Henry more so, than this play suggests. Who, of the two of them, had more overweening ambition? Who had the gall to insert himself into history at the head of an invading army? Richard's brother, after all, had been king. Henry's claim began on the wrong side of the blanket, and had to be legitimized by a hasty marriage and some surreptitious document-shredding (the Titulus Regius, mentioned back in the "History's Mysteries" post).

History is written by the winners, however. And Richard, whatever his failings as a man and a king, had the misfortune to run afoul of the Tudor propaganda machine.

So, why should any of this matter? Richard's dead, the Tudors essentially died out with Elizabeth, and we've got a great play to praise, perform, and quibble about for many generations to come. I guess it matters to me. When slanders metamorphose into historical fact, we all lose something. This case is particularly compelling because it sets historical truth against art in a pretty obvious and irreducible way. Literature, and art in general, has the power to make and break reputations for all time. Sometimes our most creative moments as a species can be our most dishonest.

I know, that's not the humanist party line. But it's a valid point nonetheless.

I'm hard-pressed to think of an example that's as powerfully vilifying as Richard III, however. At least not in English. (If anyone can think of one, I'd be interested to hear it). Of course, historical fictions are much less popular these days than they once were. There are hundreds of competing narratives out there. There's JFK the statesman, JFK the playboy, JFK the cold warrior--and I can't tell you who wrote any of those books, off the top of my head. Because they aren't aesthetically important or memorable. I daresay if Richard III had been written by Christopher Marlowe, the slurs to his reputation would be but a footnote in some obscure biographies. Richard, however, had the ill fortune to pique the interest of Shakespeare.

That just seems unfair. What's that old expression? Like breaking a butterfly on a wheel.

This kind of thing happens all the time in smaller, more mundane ways. A compelling or entertaining story gets started, it lands on the Internet, it's number one on Google, and it never, ever goes away--despite alternative narratives that seek to undo its destructive fictions. Lives are altered, and sometimes ruined, because we've increased our thirst for entertainment and lost our hunger for questions.

We need to care about the truth. Not to the exclusion of art, but neither should a good story short-circuit our moral sensibilities (or, for that matter, our common sense). Yes, the truth is elusive--we'll never know exactly what happened in the past, or even in our own lives. But we have to care--we're morally obligated to keep the question open. We can't let Google be our moral compass! Or Shakespeare (the institution, not the writer), for that matter. For one thing, the moral authority accorded The Bard in anglophone cultures is, sadly, often decontextualized. Plenty of people cite Polonius's dictum, "to thine own self be true," without realizing that Polonius was a sententious old fart and a sycophant who used his own daughter to curry favor with a corrupt regime. And how good is that advice, anyway? It's not the same as the Socratic/Delphic "know thyself." It suggests that, given a choice between serving the interests of a larger group or your own, you should always go with the latter. Certainly Polonius himself took it to heart, and look where it got him.

Will's history plays are theater--entertainment--and not historiography. Wonderful, sublime entertainment, certainly. Edifying, without a doubt. But not factual. These days, the people who know Richard III at all simply assume that he was the "villain" he aspires to be in the play. Henry V, by contrast, is the hero of Agincourt, not a bloodthirsty imperialist who made up convoluted dynastic reasons for invading lands he had no claim to. These two myths--one demonic, the other heroic--have endured mostly because Will made these two characters so compelling. His Henry VIII, on the other hand, has not made much of an historical impression. The play is certainly less powerful as drama (and may not have been written entirely by Will, anyway). Other, more compelling versions of Henry have triumphed over Will's benevolent monarch. We're more likely to agree with Dickens, who called Elizabeth's dad "a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the history of England."

I love that--"a blot of blood and grease."

Yes, I know that history is an interpretation, too. But competing narratives, taken together, can constitute a kind of truth. The refusal to obliterate possibility is a way of treating the past ethically, it seems to me. And it's an investment in the future, as well. So I'm giving the last historical word (and my last visual aid, see above left) to the Ricardians. It's only fair.

Okay, that's my anti-slander rant. Now, back to literature. Richard III is a kind of a hybrid play--it's history, but also tragedy. And the history part sometimes just doesn't mesh with the tragedy part. Histories, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, were supposed to be edifying, exemplary, and commemorative. They celebrated the noble deeds of past generations--most of which were performed in war. Histories were....manly. Women were mostly marginal characters--or increasingly so, if one takes a close look at Will's two tetralogies. In the three Henry VI plays, women are dangerous--foreign, witchy, and threatening to the patrilineal succession essential for social stability. In the second tetralogy, they are completely subservient and hardly present at all. Richard III is a kind of transitional play, a halfway point between the older vision of women as violent and domineering, and the later one, where they're fully domesticated. The play relegates these formerly scary women to a choric role--they are the hand-wringers, the cursing witches, the mourners. Victims, every one. And passive, too. The only time a woman acts in the play is near the end, when Elizabeth refuses to let Richard marry her daughter, handing her over to Henry instead. But we don't see her thought process, or her actions, and Elizabeth of York remains invisible.

It was said that the historical Henry VII wanted to keep her that way--even to the point of denying her a coronation. Perhaps the example of the last Henry, who was ruled by his foreign wife (Margaret, remember) just freaked him out. Whatever the case, public outrage eventually forced him to have her formally crowned queen.

At the end of the play, Henry orders that the dead be "interred...as befits their birth." Social hierarchy--in those days synonymous with social order--has been restored. Henry wouldn't even talk to a page, much less order one to help him with some nefarious scheme. Richard, however, cares little for boundaries. He can "play the maid," or be a man's man on the battlefield. He can refuse to associate with the upstart Woodvilles (Elizabeth's kin), but surround himself with lowlifes. He's too big, too subversive (although I confess I dislike that word--it's too cliched among academics), for a history play.

Which is why he has such a long afterlife in Will's other works. All of Will's great villains carry some of Richard's literary DNA. In King Lear, Edmund declares his disdain for hierarchies and the law--like Richard, he blames his evil actions on a congenital misfortune, his illegitimate birth. When he calls on the gods to "stand up for bastards!" we can hear the echo of Richard's determined villainy. He's as masterful a manipulator in his own way as Richard is in his--and fully as duplicitous, playing the loving son and brother even as he plans to destroy both Gloucester (father) and Edgar (brother). In Othello, the Richard-like Iago quite upstages the hero. He pretends to be Othello's friend, but readily admits his sinister motives:

I follow him to serve my turn upon him.

I pretend to be his man so I can get back at him, for some imagined slight.

Like Richard, Iago is an actor, a master of double-speak:

Though I do hate him as I do hell pains--
Yet for necessity of present life
I must show out a flag and sign of love
Which is indeed but sign...

He few lines later, his duplicitious words to Othello remind us of Richard, insisting on his "childish-foolish" naivete:

...I lack iniquity,
Sometime, to do me service.

I wish I could be wicked and hard-hearted, but it's just not in me.

Macbeth probably owes the greatest debt to Richard III. As Richard begins his descent in Acts 4 and 5, there are many moments that prefigure Macbeth's own quick rise and hasty fall from power. Like Richard, Macbeth asserts that he's done too much murder to stop. In Macbeth, Will makes much more of the issue of time--of "o'erleaping" the rightful succession to the throne and of speedy plots outrunning nature itself. As in the Richard III, the "high crime" of regicide poisons the entire nation. Will here divided Richard's sexually ambivalent personality in half--Lady Macbeth is the instigator, policing her husband's manhood, while Macbeth himself is the actual homicide. As Macbeth isn't fully a man, his wife isn't really a woman--she's an unnatural corruption of her sex. Rather like Margaret, in the Henry VI plays, only a whole lot scarier.

Tragedy, in other words, is about character. It pulls at our emotions, eliciting feminine empathy rather than masculine patriotism. Okay, that's reductive--but I think there's something to it. Tragedy transcends history in the same way that Richard himself--Will's Richard, that is--transcends the historical context of the play. In claiming to be a villain, a Machiavel (actually he uses that word in 3 Henry VI), he claims to be immune to the predations and judgments of historical time.

I haven't talked about Machiavelli here, and I don't want to get too much into philosophy, but Machiavelli's The Prince was very widely read in the Renaissance. Like most popular works, it became reduced to a few ideas in the popular imagination--as a "mirror for princes," i.e., a treatise on right rulership, it promoted an active use of power in specifically theatrical ways. A prince should be a mythmaker, an illusionist, a creator of spectacles that inspire fear and awe. Machiavelli's emphasis, however, was on social order; he knew from experience that powerful, contentious nobles and restless commons can lead to social and political chaos. Order was the desideratum of all princely actions, no matter how cruel or parsimonious. For Machiavelli, the Prince wasn't a figure who stood outside history--he was a character who wrested history from the grasp of fortune and made it his own.

This struggle, between the individual will and the relentless tide of events, is, in some sense, the origin of tragedy--in literature as in real life. Tragic figures go against the tide--either because they initially think they're above it (Lear, Macbeth), or because circumstances force them to (Hamlet), or because they are too innocent to understand what's at stake (Othello, Romeo and Juliet). History is that tide, even if it's marginalized, as it is in many of the greater tragedies of Will's later career.

I'll have more to say about this in upcoming posts, when I start re-reading Romeo and Juliet, a play that isn't really about erotic passion at all (okay, there is some of that, but it's a sideshow); rather, it's about the struggle between public and private life--the social/historical world and the inner realm of character and emotion. This conflict, rather than some nebulous notion of "love," is what all romances are about. Yes, even the ones you buy at the grocery store. Don't believe me? Just wait, I'll prove it.

So, Richard. Although he dies at the end of the play, he still has the last word--his ghost inhabits Iago, Edmund, Macbeth, Don John, and even Claudius on occasion. A creature who disdained boundaries, he's managed to transcend even that most inexorable one, the final curtain. He's dead, but like the Terminator, he'll be baaack. So let's not say goodbye, or farewell, but simply...later.

Next: Hormonally-charged adolescents and crazy Italian families. Sounds like a page out of my own history!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome Gayle. Can't wait to see who you compare to Mercrutio. ;-) Really well done-later tates richard.

    Words are powerful...only when used by the right people. You--yes. Snoop Dog and local reporters? Not so much.

    Looking forward to the star-crossed lovers as there are days and relationships we all would like to see a "happy dagger."

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