Friday, October 9, 2009

Nothing But Songs of Death


I've been really enjoying reading this play, but it does take its toll. I find Richard usurps my thoughts at odd hours, and lines from the play jump out and caption things almost randomly. Today I woke up to find the our president had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This was pretty surprising, since he's only been at this job for about nine months. My reaction was mixed--I think Mr. Obama is a good man, well-intentioned, but lately I've been feeling like he's in over his head. Health care, Afghanistan, climate change, the Middle East, the recession. I mean, really. No wonder his hair is going gray (and how weird is it that that always seems to happen to presidents--although I think nine months may be a record). I feel--and I've already had someone chew me out about this, implying that I'm a Friend of Fox News--that this award was premature. I blame the Nobel committee, not the president. The prize represents a blatant attempt to influence policy in this country, and I think that's kind of low, although also brilliant, in a way....

So what pops into my head this morning, but Richard asking Elizabeth to consider

...what I will be, not what I have been,
Not my deserts, but what I will deserve.

Now I'm not comparing Obama to Richard! So don't even go there. My point is that I had this uncanny moment when life seemed to imitate art. The award seemed to race ahead of Obama's achievements, catching us all by surprise, just as Richard seems to do for the first three acts of the play.

I think this says more about my own obsessive relation to this text than it does about contemporary politics. Which in turn makes me realize that blogging Richard III has taken quite a bit longer--already--than The Taming of the Shrew. It just asks more, and you (I) have to give it.

But it's still fun. I like doing this, even if I'm not sure who's listening. (A blog is like prayer that way, I guess). I want to do something different after this, however. Initially I thought that it would be cool to blog Macbeth, because of Halloween--but that was before I remembered how like Macbeth this play is. No more premeditated murder for awhile.

I want to stick with something early, so my two current contenders are The Merchant of Venice--which I love because it's all about debt, and grace, and justice--and Romeo and Juliet, which is interesting mostly because it's had such a profound and long-standing cultural impact: it's been made into a ballet, a musical, and several films. It's part of the way we think about romance now, and I find that fascinating.

If you want to weigh in, I'm happy to consider votes. My cousin, to whom I owe the existence of this blog--because she urged me to do it repeatedly--wants romance. (Don't we all!) Absent any other persuasion, I'll probably go with that...but I'm open to other suggestions.

Now back to Act 4.

In the second scene, Richard ascends the throne with all necessary pomp. Although he's gotten what he wanted, he clearly has no idea how to rule. So long an antagonist, he's incapable of anything else--least of all reigning over a kingdom. He can't sit on the throne for even a moment without plotting yet another murder. Like Macbeth, who was "in blood/stepped so far" that he couldn't turn back, so Richard muses that he is "in/so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin."

As "sickly" as the kingdom was under Edward, it becomes much more so under Richard, a reflection of his twisted mind. Wombs bring forth beasts, children arrange for the murders of other children, weeping women ventriloquize a suffering nation. It's a testament to the court's disorder that the king must ask a page--a mere child--to find him a hired assassin. That a child knows just where to look is even more telling. The court is teeming with criminals, and all good men are running off to join Richmond.

Although Buckingham is less than thrilled about killing the princes, it's implied that he would go along with it if Richard were to grant him "th'earldom of Hereford, and the moveables" that he'd been promised. Rewarding loyalty is rule one of kingship, but Richard made the princes' murder a test of that loyalty, and Buckingham failed. Denied his reward for service rendered, the king's most loyal minion decides he'd rather keep his head, and runs off to raise an army.

If Richard of Gloucester was crazy like a fox, King Richard seems to be just plain crazy, muttering to himself about Richmond and recalling earlier prophecies of doom. He's not sleeping, and, like all murderers in Will's plays, thinks that more killing is just the soporific he needs. That and a new wife, once he poisons the one he's got.

The historical murderer, James Tyrrell, doesn't kill the princes in Will's version of events--he calls upon his servant and some lowlife cronies to do the dirty deed. The play once again makes mediation an issue--the murder is passed from the page to Tyrrell to his lackeys, and we only hear about the deed through Tyrell's narrative. Where once Richard pulled the strings, he's now distanced even from his own evil plots; his power has become diffuse and events are slipping out of his control. What's more, he doesn't talk to us anymore--when he mutters his asides, he's obviously talking to himself.

From Machiavel to madman, in three acts.

The murder of the princes, unlike that of Clarence, takes place offstage. It's more powerful as theater that way, but it's also a nod to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, I think. Tyrrell's confession is the only "proof" that Richard was the culprit, and Will at least honors the historical record to that limited extent.

The confession itself is so full of pathos that it borders on cloying. According to Tyrrell, who heard it from the killers, the two children huddle together

...girdling one another
Within their alabaster innocent arms,
Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,
And in their summer beauty kissed each other.

He paints a picture of hardened criminals ("fleshed villains, bloody dogs') who

...wept like two children in their deaths' sad story.

In telling Tyrrell what they've done, the murderers become the victims, weeping like the "two children" they've killed. Interestingly, Tyrrell doesn't say they wept while they were doing the killing. They were overcome with remorse when they had to narrate it. Thus we see, once again, the moral triumph of literature over life, stories over real deeds, and (perhaps) theater over history.

In scene 4, Margaret returns with a vengeance. Literally, since revenge is practically all she can talk about. It's a shame that so many productions cut her part, because I think she's central to Will's whole concept of the play. Her curses in Act 1 are really a competing narrative--Richard has his scenario, and she has hers. As several characters note throughout, Margaret's version wins out in the end; everything she predicted comes to pass.

Historically, Margaret of Anjou died in 1482, so she wouldn't have been alive when Richard took the throne in 1483. But Will brings her back from the dead, a cursing revenant to remind the audience that the past is never finished, and there's no escaping from the inexorable whirl of fortune's wheel. Some readers have compared her to Hamlet's father, and I think that's apt up to a point. "Remember me," says Hamlet's ghost. Margaret asks instead that we remember history--she's only the messenger. More than anything else, she speaks for the dead.

After the murder, Margaret takes center stage alone, conjuring the old idea of the Fall of Princes once again:

So now prosperity begins to mellow,
And drop into the rotten mouth of death.
Here in these confines slyly have I lurked
To watch the waning of mine enemies.
A dire induction am I witness to,
And will to France, hoping the consequence
Will prove as bitter, black, and tragical.

Prosperity, like a rotten fruit, is about to fall off the tree. Margaret uses the language of theater--the induction, or prologue, has begun, the consequence, or conclusion, will likely prove bitter. These were Richard's words, too. In his opening soliloquy, he promises "inductions dangerous"; when Buckingham balks at murder, he mutters, "O, bitter consequence"--by which he means Buckingham's unwelcome response to his request. No longer in control of "double meanings," he isn't aware that his own bitter consequence is at hand. In usurping Richard's own words, his theatrical language, Margaret gains the advantage; the rest of the story follows her script.

In the remainder of this scene Margaret taunts the other two women with their misfortunes. She calls Elizabeth a "queen in jest," and asks her

Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers?
Where are thy two sons? Wherein dost thou joy?
Who sues, and kneels, and says 'God save the Queen?'
Where be the bending peers that flattered thee?
Where be the thronging troops that followed thee?

This is a very old poetic motif called the Ubi Sunt lament. It's from the Latin phrase "Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?" which means "where are those who were before us?" One of the most haunting uses of the ubi sunt trope is in the Old English (c. 700 CE) poem The Wanderer, about a warrior who has lost his comitatus, or war-troop:

Where is the horse gone?
Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?

I was trying to think about what sort of things we might "ubi sunt" about today. Even at my age, it was hard to think of anything. "Where are all the good rock bands?" doesn't really have the same poignancy. Nor does "where now are your discos, your eight-track tapes, your high school smoking lounges...?" I wonder if it's possible for us to think about the past without irony. Or nostalgia laced with irony.

It's not nostalgia, but rather mortality, the passing of men and eras, that the ubi sunt calls to mind. Will uses it in Hamlet, too, in the graveyard scene, when Hamlet makes a joke about lawyers. When Margaret uses it, she's dead serious. "Thus,"' she exults, "hath the course of justice whirled about,"

And left thee but a very prey to time,
Having no more but thought of what thou wert
To torture thee the more, being what thou art.

This is classic Boethianism--Elizabeth had risen high on the wheel, and now the memory of that happiness is nothing but torture. You'd think she'd be royally pissed off, no pun intended, and tell Margaret to get lost and leave her to her grief. Instead, she asks for "cursing lessons," proving that misery does indeed love company, even if it's in the form of a crazy old woman who talks like something out of a Latin textbook.

Before Margaret can get to the advanced course, however, Richard marches in, trailing kingly pomp and circumstance. The women block his way, and he demands to know

Who intercepts me in my expedition?

His mom answers

O, she that might have intercepted thee
By strangling thee in her accursed womb,
From all the slaughters, wretch, that thou hast done.

On the "should Hitler have been aborted" question that provided much discussion fodder in my Catholic girls' school, the Duchess has little ambivalence. Now I have to admit, there is one tiny little moment here where I almost feel sorry for Richard. The Duchess seems to have hated him from birth:

Thou cam'st on earth to make the earth my hell.
A grievous burden was thy birth to me;
Tetchy and wayward was thy infancy;
Thy schooldays frightful, desp'rate, wild, and furious;
Thy prime of manhood daring, bold, and venturous;
Thy age confirmed, proud, subtle, sly, and bloody;
More mild, but yet more harmful; kind in hatred.
What comfortable hour canst thou name
That ever graced me in thy company?

Childbirth was rough, he was a cranky baby, a wild kid. Which makes him...just like millions of other kids. Small wonder that by the time he gets to be a man, he's sneaky and violent. As a twentieth-century girl (which is to say, one who left her girlhood in the last century), I can't help but do a little psychoanalyzing here.

You must imagine the German accent:

Dr. Freud: So, Richard. Tell me about your mother.

Richard: She never loved me, even when I was a baby! She always compared me to my brothers, who were better at sports. It's not my fault I was born deformed, with a withered arm and this hump on my back.

Freud: How did this make you feel?

Richard: How do you think? Lousy! I tried to please her by being smart. I memorized poems and plays, and I was good at languages. I learned to fight with one hand. I was charming, and had good manners.

Freud: And did these things win her love?

Richard: No. No matter what I did, the bitter old hag told me I was a grievous burden, tetchy and wayward, born to make her life hell.

Freud: "Tetchy?" Das verstehe ich nicht. But never mind. So what did you do when you realized she wasn't going to love you?

Richard: (smiles) I decided to prove a villain, and kill everyone else in my family--as well as a bunch of other people who got in the way of my overweening ambition. And you know what? It was a total rush.

Freud: Umm-hmm. I see...

In fact, Freud did have a few things to say about Richard. In a short essay he called "The Exceptions," Freud wrote about patients who have become neurotic owing to some "experience or suffering to which they had been subjected in earliest childhood," an experience they found to be unjust. These people grow up to think that normal rules do not apply to them--i.e., that they are "exceptional." Freud's primary example of this type of neurotic was Richard III (Will's version, not the historical king). According to Freud, Richard was "a figure created by the greatest of poets--a figure in whose character the claim to be an exception is...motivated by the circumstance of congenital disadvantage." In other words, since he was deformed and (therefore) unloved, he became determined to play the villain.

Right. Personally, I think Freud was seduced by Richard's own version of things--Richard claims that all his villainy has its origins in congenital deformity, but he really just likes being wicked. He plays up his "congenital disadvantage" when it suits him, but that's not the cause of his...evilness. (I like this word more and more, I find. In this era of inflated everything, evil definitely needs an intensifier.)

Freud was, in my view, a pretty good philosopher, but a lousy clinician. If you read the footnotes and post-scripts of his case studies, you find out that he never cured anyone. But he did tell a hell of a good story.

Even if Freud overstates the case, however, there is something between Richard and his mother. He's different around her.

Duchess: I pray thee, hear me speak.
Richard: You speak too bitterly.
Duchess: Hear me a word, for I shall never speak to thee again.
Richard: So.

She curses him with a bloody death in battle, which I won't repeat here, because it's just like all the other maternal curses in this part of the play. But am I wrong to hear something in that "so?" Richard, who always has a retort, is reduced to a monosyllable. He lets his mother have the last angry word, as if he's allowing her to punish him yet again.

Maybe Freud was right, and it is all about Richard's oedipal issues!

Nah.

Well, I've already written about the "second wooing scene" in the last post, so I won't dwell on it. I simply want to reiterate the differences between this scene and the first one, with Anne. The primary difference, of course, is that Richard is wooing an intercessor, not a lover. The other difference is that he completely misreads her. After she seems to give in and exits the stage, he calls her a "relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman." These words would have been appropriate had they been said of Anne in Act 1, but here, they seem to associate Elizabeth with Fortune herself, who, as any Boethian knows, is indeed shallow and always changing.

Lastly, of course, Elizabeth's a mother. Richard has no luck with mothers in this play. They are like anti-matter to his matter, and they're utterly immune to his seductive power.

Next: The king in check.

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