Blush, Blush Thou Lump of Foul Deformity

Richard III, Act I

I read only three plays by Shakespeare during high school: Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth and Richard III.  Everyone reads Romeo & Juliet – no big surprise there.  Macbeth has that undeniably witchy element used to bait restless young people to pay attention.  But Richard III instead of, say, Hamlet, Othello or King Lear – surely, that was the outlier of the group.

The class my sophomore year ostensibly covered world literature, but my brilliant teacher had a fondness for the Brits.  We read Sherlock Holmes and a Tale of Two Cities, so I suppose Richard III fit the bill as the most accessible of Shakespeare’s histories.

To me it read more as a tragedy though than any history.  More than anything else, I remember Richard’s hunchback and diabolical scheming to kill the young princes in the tower.  Oddly enough, I can’t recall much else, but then that’s often how it goes with the literature we’re exposed to when we’re young.  We pick out certain details that startle us or appeal to us in the moment, discard the subtle details or the overarching context that we do not yet have the means to grasp.  And of course, with Shakespeare, there are complexities of language that most courses do not have the time or interest to elucidate, especially those with racial or sexual connotations.  As with Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, either we’re not mature enough to handle them, or the system would implode from the resultant controversy.  Thus, most teachers are content to hit the major plot points, draw out the usual test questions from Richard’s villainous personality, and let the rest go.  For the majority of students this will suffice, as they will rarely, if ever, encounter the play again.

My teacher, though, took a decidedly different tack. She had us read Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time” as an accompanying text immediately afterward.  That book, for those unfamiliar with it, sets forth a case in the guise of a murder mystery that Richard III was framed by history and not the demon we have come to know.

I can’t recall if my teacher believed Tey’s argument, or whether she just wanted to drive home the idea that we shouldn’t accept even Shakespeare’s word as fact.  If that was her point, it worked since to this day I have my doubts about whether Richard was as dastardly as the play portrays him, even if I can’t remember why Tey’s argument had been so convincing.

I bought the book to read again, but I now doubt that one week will suffice to absorb both the play and the book and make any sense of them together.  While reading the first act, I became aware that most of the history was flying straight past me, that I am too poorly versed in English dynastic succession to make anything but a hash out of the plot without some form of guide for help.

As usual, my plan is to turn to Isaac Asimov for the historical background while I make a go of the literary aspects on my own.  Unfortunately, that’s all the time I have allowed myself on the syllabus.  Then again, since there will be a lot more cushion later on, I may just expand Richard from one week until the end of the month and then adapt the schedule accordingly.

Although it may have made more sense to read Richard III after Henry VI, I’m glad I placed it on the heels of Othello and Titus instead.  Having already encountered Iago and Aaron puts me on familiar territory when I meet Richard.  In fact, I found myself saying “here we go again,” when he reveals his diabolical plans to the audience in an early aside.

What’s different here, though, is Richard’s motivations.  I don’t exactly feel sorry for him, but I do at least understand when he relates that his deformities have prevented him from having a normal life like other people.  He can’t (or doesn’t think he can) go a-wooing like more handsome men.  And since he can’t share in their joviality, he believes he has few options than to be what he was made and to revel in the darkness.

Once we learn the breadth and scope of Richard’s intentions, we can’t justify his subsequent behavior.  But like with his crafting of Iago and Aaron, Shakespeare has a way of bestowing his villains with such audacity that they can’t help but become the most compelling characters on the stage.

Certainly the “wooing” scene from the first act is one of the most startling courtships ever concocted.  I can only marvel how my adolescent brain missed Shakespeare’s pluck at having Richard set his sights on the woman whose father and husband he has murdered.  What am I to make of this?  Which is more troublesome, Richard’s seduction or Anne’s capacity to bend?

She certainly starts out appropriately contemptuous.  Her eyes are wide open to Richard’s guilt.  In fact, he confesses – out of sheer audacity – that he has killed the two men she loved most in the world.  How could she even think to allow such a man close to her heart?

The implausibility is not lost on Richard himself who – thoroughly shocked at even his modest success – professes:

Was ever woman in this humor wooed?

Was ever woman in this humor won?

I’ll have her, but I won’t keep her long.

What, I that killed her husband and his father,

To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,

With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,

The bleeding witness of my hatred by,

Having God, her conscious, and these bars against me,

And I no friends to back my suit at all,

But the plain devil and disembling looks?

And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!

Ha!

Richard can’t believe it himself.  It’s like he’s pursuing her to test the limits of his own dark perversity, to prove to himself that he could pull off such a drastic, dastardly deed.  His success startles him to such a degree that he can only assume that he must not be as loathsome as he knows himself to be.

From where does Shakespeare draw this level of abject wretchedness?  And what am I to supposed make of Anne that she could allow this beast anywhere near her, knowing what she knows about what he has done?

Once again, Shakespeare opens the can of worms about human nature, forcing us to look at who we are and what we are capable of becoming.  He doesn’t just write horror and tragedy as mere spectacle, to wow us for its graphic entertainment values alone.  He seizes these opportunities to make us turn within ourselves and to probe our human frailties, capacities and limitations.

You might say that this is just a play exploiting its sensationalism for a box-office draw. If that were the case, we might easily dismiss it as we do the Friday night features that plead for our $12 by offering a shockfest forgotten by Saturday morning if not as soon as we exit the theater.

Shakespeare mines a field much deeper and closer to home.  His characters are scarier because we can’t dismiss them.  They hold up funhouse mirrors to our self-conceptions, distorting casual assumptions about everyday social relations and hidden personal motivations.  We are forced to ask hard individual questions about our potential for evil.

Richard does not go away.  He festers in a literary cast alongside other infamous scoundrels and villains such as Ahab and Roskolnikov, practitioners of evil so embedded in our collective psyches that they assume the role of cultural metaphors.

And we haven’t even begun to address the beastly murder of Clarence, Richard’s brother.  Egad!

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