I am fascinated by the opening soliloquy of Richard III. Most of it is Shakespeare at his best and a little, Shakespeare at his worst:
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visag’d war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass—
I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph—
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them—
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate the one against the other;
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up—
About a prophecy which says that G
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
If you ever want to really get inside a piece of poetry: memorize it. Nothing is like it. In trying to memorize it, you look at it from every possible angle. I have, of course, memorized this exact speech. And so I think that I understand it pretty well. Here is my take, in more or less plain English:
Clearly, Richard is not a well-adjusted person. Even more: he is not a believable character. No one runs their life that way, “I have two options: lover or villain.” It’s ridiculous. But that doesn’t make it any less fun.
As is discussed in the lecture available in And I Won’t Even Complain About Not Much Liking Shakespeare, Henry Irving is the first person to record Shakespeare. He probably did it in 1888. And what he recorded was this opening soliloquy from Richard III. It is a remarkable thing, because his performance is almost unrecognizable as acting. There is almost no emotion: it is all elocution. When he says the line, “That dogs bark at me as I halt by them” he says it as if he were Sweeney Todd in a melodrama. The only way to understand such a performance is to hear it as an aria. And as such it is interesting. But it tells us precious little about the character.
From this lecture, I know that the history of Shakespearean performance over the last 125 years has been one of moving away from this musical style of performance to our modern emotional style of performance. Based upon this, going backwards from 1888, we can assume that performances were even more musical, less emotionally nuanced. And thus, it is surprising to read William Hazlitt in 1814, describe the character in Mr. Kean’s Richard:
I agree with all that Hazlitt writes here, but somehow his impressive intellect and erudition seem to fail him in that he misses the one thing that most defines Richard: his anger—at the universe for making him deformed, and everyone in it for not sharing his deficiencies. If Richard is not angry (and perhaps bored as well), I don’t see what the whole play is about.
Here is Laurence Olivier doing Richard the way I see him: angry. Beneath every line is rage and I am right there with him. This is the best performance of Richard I’ve ever seen, even though it is far from the most emotional or human. It is from Olivier’s own star-studded filmed version in 1955. Note that Olivier has taken out the dreadful lines, “And if King Edward be as true and just / As I am subtle, false, and treacherous, / This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up— / About a prophecy which says that G / Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.”
Here is an interesting take on Richard. According the person who posted it, “Heartbreak Productions Richard III summer 2002. Directed by Peter Mimmack. With Andrew Cullum as Richard III. Filmed at Kenilworth Castle.” He starts off very sarcastic, which I totally approve of, because sarcasm is just a veneer on anger. However, Cullum throws some self-pity in the second half of the speech that I’m not so sure of. Certainly it is a valid take on the character, but like so much of modern Shakespearean performance: a lot is created that just isn’t there in the text.
Branagh is very good as Richard, but in this scene, he plays it too much like the melodramatic villain. His barely suppressed anger is great, but he jumps so nimbly from it to an all too clear delight that I find it jarring.
The 1995 filmed version of Richard III is so stylized, that it is hard to know what to think of McKellen’s understated performance. He is clearly very pleased with himself, but somehow he manages to integrate this with his hatred and frustration so that it works. (It is unfair to do a comparison of a big budget film and basically a book on tape that Branagh was doing.)
Just the same, it is hard to know if McKellen understands the speech at all, based upon the following clip. Yeah, we get it: “Sun of York” is a pun of “Son of York” and King Edward is the son of the Duke of York. But Richard does not mean these lines as stated: he would prefer it still be winter. I don’t mean to suggest that McKellen really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Artists are almost always at their worst when they discuss their work. But one does get the impression that he thinks he is speaking to a child of limited intelligence:
There is no doubt that the more recent actors give Richard more depth. My question is whether that is really appropriate.