Welcome, Destruction, Blood and Massacre

Richard III, Act II

Richard III is the longest play in Shakespeare’s repertoire – and we feel it. For not only must we read the lines and make sense of a sprawling cast of characters, but also be familiar with a vast backstory that exerts a tremendous influence upon the actions within the play.

Shakespeare wrote Richard III early in his career, yet that somehow doesn’t prevent it from being a sequel. Indeed, his history plays seem all-too familiar in a Hollywood landscape obsessed by prequels and sequels. To know Richard well, we have to rent Henry VI from our nearest Redbox. But to make sense of that, we’ll want to seek out the complete Henry series (IV, Parts I-III, V, VIII) in addition to Richard II.

That’s a lot of work.

Clearly Shakespeare found a rich bed of source material from which to draw his twisted plots — all of which seem to involve dubious lines of succession and scheming for the throne. Granted, I haven’t read much of the other histories. But methinks I spy a pattern here. More on that to come.

Rather than recount the exhausting narrative, I’d rather focus on two prominent features thus far that capture my attention: 1) the use of CURSES as a means of foreshadowing and 2) the odd “Meanwhile…” dialogue among ordinary citizens in Act II, Scene 3.

Curses have been issued in two notable instances: 1) when Anne unwittingly dooms herself by cursing the future wife of her husband and son’s killer and 2) the deposed Queen Margaret (widow of the dead Henry IV for those keeping score at home) who lowers the boom on just about everyone in Act I, Scene 3.

Why is Shakespeare doing this?

Without resorting to experts, I can only surmise that he sought to recreate the fateful atmosphere of ancient Greek dramas dominated by the forebodings of a chorus in the source material from which he derived his tragedic model. Yet it remains unclear to me whether Shakespeare intends to imply that the curses have anything whatsoever to do with the events that thereby unfold.

In fact, he has Buckingham dispel Margaret’s tirade by saying:

BUCKINGHAM: …curses never pass
The lips of those that breathe them in the air.

What forces then conspire against the characters? If not by the curses, can we say that tragedy results wholly from treacherous actions taken by individuals out of revenge, greed and villainy? Does the devil play a hand, or is it the private lusts and evil intentions lurking within men and women who seek their own fortune at whatever cost?

Are they decoration then, invoked like dry ice to create a setting? Establish a mood?  Cast a pallor? Cause viewers to meditate upon their own senses of fate and destiny?

As for the “common man” scene, why is that here? Does it serve the plot in any way, or advance the characters? Do we gain a further understanding of the regal drama by viewing it from the cheap seats (as it were) of the public at large? What is Shakespeare suggesting by this? What does the presence of CITIZENS 1,2 and 3 reveal?

At the minimum, it reminds us that Shakespeare views his plays from a full 360 degrees. Even when they don’t factor into the action proper, the townspeople and citizens of England – the majority of whom would be audience members at the play – occupy his thinking at all times. He is not removed from them, nor they from the story, simply because the plot concerns the machinations of the king. Unlike Las Vegas, what happens at court does not stay at court.

Here we get to see how actions taken above impact the lives of ordinary subjects below. Nobody is exempt. And therefore, by implication, are we as well.

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