Richard III, the Last Great Medieval Man
[In honor of the discovery of Richard, the Third’s remains, I’m re-posting a short essay I did on Richard that was part of the “To Be Or Not To Be” Series.]
Before HAMLET, Shakespeare’s first big hit was Richard the Third: Richard, Earl of Gloucester, the Hunchback, the Crook-backed toad, Tricky Dick. Richard marched through the Henry VI plays killing everyone in his way to get the crown for his father, York, and then his older brother, Edward the fat and horny. At the end of Henry VI part III, Richard assassinated King Henry, the Sixth, the pious, the boy who should have been a Saint rather than a King. King Henry tells Richard what a horrible devil he is, how he infects the world and how the world would have been better if he had never been born. Richard gets fed up with listening to this and murders him in the Tower saying: “Die, prophet, in thy speech. For this, amongst the rest, was I ordain’d.”
In the opening soliloquy of the play, The Life and Death of King Richard the Third, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York“, Richard has a dilemma. Edward is now King Edward IV. Peace has returned. What’s a villain like Richard to do during this summer of peace? Dance with the ladies? Right, the hunchback will become a courtier. Well, if he is to be true to his nature and honor God, being a good Medieval Man, he must continue to become the best villain ever.
In the Medieval era, there was a belief that a man was placed in his place in the wheel. He had his place, function and duties. They were pre-ordained by God. A man stayed in his track. If he thought he had a choice or stepped out of his path, he would be damned. He might have a little glory and power for a while, but fate would finally catch up with this he would be sentenced to eternal damnation. Richard realizes that he has no other option than to be what God made him to be. “For this, amongst the rest, was I ordain’d.”
Hmm, let’s see what would be the height of Villainy? He sets his goal: to become King. How audacious would that be for the younger brother, the hunchback toad to become a king? He kills a brother, marries the wife of the previous prince whom he killed, he kills his nephews. He is a great villain, a pious villain.
A great example of this is Act III, Scene 7. Edward has died. Richard and Buckingham put out a rumor that his sons were bastards and legitimate. The Lord Mayor and the Citizens come to plead for Richard to assume the throne. They demand to see Richard. The mob is told that Richard is at prayer. After many summons while Buckingham riles up the crowd, Richard appears with prayer book in his hand and a Bishop on either side. In some ways this is a farce and a sacrilege that the audience is in on. In another way it is absolutely correct Richard is doing what God ordained him to do: be a Super Villain. After much begging, Richard finally capitulates. He becomes King Richard the Third of that name. This is a triumph. He is gaming the system while he is abiding by the system. It’s quite brilliant.
Attaining the crown is one thing. Keeping it is the next challenge. He continues to kill everyone in his way, including his friends. Buckingham who helped him to the throne is executed. A villain has to keep up his skills. In time (three plus hours in the theater), an army amasses against him at Bosworth Field.
Prior to the penultimate battle, Richard has a dream where all of the people he killed or had killed return to curse him: “despair and die”, you shithead. In that moment, he asks if he is a murderer? He realizes that he might have had a choice. Maybe he didn’t have to be a murderer. But, he’s a Medieval Man. He can’t change his stripes. The next day, “A Horse, A Horse, my kingdom for a Horse”, is the end of Richard.