Tuesday, October 6, 2009

O Bitter Consequence


As Act 4 opens, Richard's speedy ascent has caught the women unawares. Brackenbury, the lieutenant of the Tower, refuses Elizabeth's access to her sons, by order of "the King." "The King," Elizabeth says, surprised, "who's that?" Brackenbury realizes that he's gotten ahead of himself, and backtracks:

I mean, the Lord Protector.

"The Lord protect him from that kingly title," retorts Elizabeth, then demands again to see her sons:

Hath he set bounds between their love and me?
I am their mother, who shall bar me from them?

Brackenbury asserts that orders are orders--the princes remain off-limits.

Elizabeth will never see her sons again.

More than Tyrrell's sentimentalized confession, this scene grabs me where I live. Maybe it's because I'm a mother, or maybe it's just that feeling of creeping doom that the play instills so well. It's significant that Act 4 starts with these three self-professed mothers (Anne claims she's a mother to the princes "in love" rather than by law), because we're going to hear a lot more about (and from) mothers as the past returns, with a vengeance, to undo all of Richard's schemes. I'll get to that in a few moments.

The other interesting thing about this scene has to do with imagery and structure--specifically, the image of a barrier ("hath he set bounds...?") and the too-swift movement of Richard's plots. The murders of Clarence and Hastings, the courtship of Anne--these events caught everyone (even Anne) by surprise. Part of Richard's success can be attributed to his skill as an actor, but it's important to remember he's also a director, orchestrating the action so as to keep the court off-balance. This masterful puppeteering will all come to a halt in the next scene, however, when Richard overplays his hand by ordering the princes murdered. Here, Brackenbury's mistake--calling Richard king before he's been crowned--marks the last time in the play when Richard's ambition races ahead of events, and the last time he'll catch anyone by surprise. The princes, or rather their murder, will be a real barrier to further triumphs. This heinous act will put a thematic and structural stop to Richard's upward movement, marking the beginning of the end. He's reached the apex of Fortune's Wheel, and now begins his precipitous descent.

Now here's where I have to put on my medievalist hat for a moment, because Fortune's Wheel is really important to the play. Forget about the game show, which has forever trivialized a Great Philosophical Concept. The image and the idea of a "wheel" of fortune became popular through a late Latin work by a guy named Boethius. It's called The Consolation of Philosophy, and it was required reading in schoolrooms throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Queen Elizabeth I even translated it herself. So what was so compelling about this text, you might ask? Well, in an era when life was short and occasionally barbaric, when there were very few legal holds on the misuse of power, it was a way for people to rationalize injustice, and look forward to revenge.

My medieval Latin teacher would probably cringe if he heard me reduce it to this crude little formula, but basically that's what it was about, at least for people who weren't philosophers themselves. Like a lot of popular ideas, it lost most of its complexity in wide dissemination--kind of like the Buddhist and Hindu idea of "karma" these days. Most people understand karma as simple moral causation. Originally, it was supposed to account for the same kind of things Boethius was trying to explain--injustice, human misery, and so on--but thanks in part to John Lennon, we now understand it as "you're going to get what's coming to you, sooner rather than later." Instant karma's gonna get you, gonna knock you right on the head.

If only it really did work like that. Think what we'd save on legal fees, not to mention prison upkeep.

Anyway, Boethius was a well-respected Roman philosopher and mathematician of aristocratic background who fell afoul of the Emperor Theodoric in the 6th century. Prior to being horrifically executed (by axe, clubbing, or some other barbaric method--we're not sure), he spent a lot of time in prison with nothing to do but freak out about his impending doom. But he wasn't any ordinary political scapegoat. He was a really smart neoplatonist, so he wrote a whole treatise on why bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, and how free will fits into all of it.

These questions, as we all know, never go out of style.

The Consolation goes like this: while Boethius is sitting in prison, reading poetry and all but despairing of an answer to his burning philosophical questions, he has a vision. An allegorical figure, Lady Philosophy, chases away the muses of Poetry, calling them "strumpets," (she's bit of a prude) and starts explaining things to him. Allegorical figures are prone to lecturing--they have little appreciation for real dialogue, and you can't convince them of anything. They're sort of like moral Terminators: they only do one thing, and they won't stop until you agree with them.

Lady Philosophy tells Boethius that the things of this world--money, fame, health, even human love--are transitory and basically not worth the paper they're printed on. Dame Fortune (the anti-philosophy) is a fickle bitch, and if you put all your faith in her, you will definitely come to a bad end. Because what goes up always comes down on Fortune's Ferris Wheel (see picture above). Medieval and early modern people, who lived much shorter lives, had really painful toothaches, buried lots of children, and didn't have the option of a class-action suit if some nobleman decided to wreak havoc on them, found these ideas genuinely comforting. The implication was that said evil nobleman was just as subject to Fortune's whims as the next (less powerful) guy, so eventually, he would be flying down the wrong side of that wheel, too.

I confess I like that idea a lot.

By the time Will was writing Richard III, the idea of Fortune's Wheel had been around a long time. It even had a whole literary genre associated with it called the "Fall of Princes." These were tragic stories about how a man attains great worldly power and acclaim, only to lose everything later, usually for no other reason than that he was Fortune's Plaything. Will mentions Fortune often in his tragedies, but it's important for our purposes to realize that it's an Old Idea--an idea from the distant past. In this play, that makes it a feminine idea, since anything having to do with history is women's business. The women are, as I mentioned before, a kind of historical chorus of doom, like cheerleaders in reverse--let's call them "drearleaders".

Sorry, that's awful. How about Stewardesses of the Past?

Hmm. Now I see women in Pan Am uniforms with Jackie Kennedy bouffants. I like it! (Aren't you glad I'm not directing the play?)

The point is, they're the keepers of the archives, and the ones who keep bringing up Fortune's Wheel.

In Act 1, Margaret reminds Dorset that

They that stand high have many blasts to shake them,
And if they fall they dash themselves to pieces.

This is standard Boethian doctrine: those who have a lot, have the most to lose. The higher they rise, the harder they fall. Earlier in the same scene, Elizabeth remarks presciently that their fortunes are about to descend:

Would that all were well! But that will never be.
I fear our happiness is at the height.

Richard, the modern man, wants nothing to do with old ideas. He doesn't believe in Fortune--or rather he believes in making his own fortune. The women, particularly Margaret and Elizabeth, understand the way the wheel works, and know that this old idea is going to catch up with Richard sooner or later.

Since this is theater, not history, it's sooner rather than later. Instant karma.

Back to the action. After Brackenbury bars the women from seeing the princes, Lord Stanley arrives to tell Anne that she's got to hurry up and get to her (Richard's) coronation, at which news all three women (Anne, Elizabeth, and the Duchess) go into a collective swoon. Then there's a lot of talk about maternity, the overarching theme of the latter part of the play. I'll have a lot more to say about that in the next post.

Dorset, Elizabeth's older son, comes in and asks after her health. For the first time, someone besides Richard and his henchmen gives an order:

O Dorset, speak not to me. Get thee gone.
Death and destruction dogs thee at thy heels.
Thy mother's name is ominous to children.
If thou wilt outstrip death, go cross the seas,
And live with Richmond from the reach of hell.
Go, hie thee! Hie thee from this slaughterhouse,
Lest thou increase the number of the dead,
And make me die the thrall of Margaret's curses:
'Nor mother, wife, nor counted England's Queen.'

Elizabeth evokes the image of Richard--and death--racing to catch her son. It "dogs" him at his heels; he has to run fast to "outstrip" death. Here, finally, someone is going to get a head start. It's also interesting that this speech includes the first mention of Richmond--the future--and returns us to Margaret's curses--the past. The past is dogging Richard at his heels; by the end of the play, Richmond will "outstrip" him, leaving him lying in the dust as history marches on.

Stanley--Richmond's stepfather--gives Dorset letters of introduction, and advises him "be not ta'en tardy by unwise delay." The opposition is now picking up speed. As Richmond moves forward, the women look back. Anne berates herself for having fallen for Richard's "honey words" and offers us a glimpse of her husband's unconscious. This is the first we've heard of it, but it won't be the last:

For never yet in his bed
Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep,
But with his timorous dreams was still awaked.

Richard's fearful dreams, like all the dreams, curses, and portents in this play, have real prophetic power: a thinly occulted realm of signs and omens lurks just under the surface of every significant event. Clarence is troubled by dreams prior to his murder, as Hastings ignores omens before his execution. These uncanny elements represent both an early modern conception of the unconscious mind, as well as a theological force that works against all "unnatural" acts. And they "dog" Richard for the remainder of the play, as we'll see.

Next: Margaret's back, and she's really pissed.

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