Admittedly I’m not as well-read in Shakespeare as I want to be. I’ve read/experienced pitifully few of his plays, and I’m trying to rectify that as I read by choosing Shakespeare more often than I have in the past. Of what I had read, I was a Hamlet girl. 100%. I was fascinated by the depth of Hamlet himself and the tragedy of his situation and how it played out. How his youth and his grief resulted in what it did. I still feel that way, but Richard III sort of sneaked in and grabbed me unexpectedly.
Is it actually a better play than Hamlet? No. It’s not as tightly written. The characters rather than being a pastiche of grayness are desperately black and white, which is not nearly as interesting to read. Some of the character motivations, especially Anne, my God, are baffling. As a historical piece it doesn’t work at all, because we know now that Richard III is propaganda as written by a man trying to appease the winners of the War of the Roses.
What about it works then? What grabbed me so hard? Richard. No, this is not an accurate portrayal of the man as a historical figure, but as someone who has gone on to inspire a plethora of villains and disabled characters unjustly viewed as villains (Tyrion Lannister, for example), this Richard is a legend.
I fully understand, by the way, the dangerous implications of Richard being disabled and also horrifically evil. This play was written at a time when disabilities were considered “God’s curse”, and in that we get into a lot of uncomfortable and hurtful territory. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not being able to stomach it on that level. For my part, and apparently for the part of many who adapt the play, it’s a lot easier to see that what turned Richard was hearing that for his entire life. Being treated differently. In a way, it’s still a valid play that we can constantly turn back to in an imperfect world.
Which brings me to the recent BBC adaptation of Richard III via The Hollow Crown, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the lead role. He does play the character as someone who, being viewed as he was simply because of his appearance, has carried not only his disability but the pain others have heaped on him. It comes through beautifully, and I highly recommend this one as an adaptation to watch if you’re even halfway interested. His corruption by choice starts to become a whirlwind by the halfway point wherein Richard seems unhinged, losing his grip on reality, and the tragedy rings throughout it. They manage to balance Richard’s villainy with pathos and deepen the character substantially.
But what about a version where he’s gleefully evil? Ian McKellan is your man here. The film adaptation he starred in is titled simply Richard III, but it stands out uniquely. It’s set in England in the 1930s and takes on a World War II aesthetic. With Richard as an obvious figure. I say obvious, but it’s not a bad thing really. Richard lacks a bit of nuance because of it, but Sir Ian looking us dead in the eye and smirking over his wicked deeds is too good. It raises the level of heavy-handedness to incredible heights. Another I recommend.
I’m actually on a quest to watch more adaptations. I’d like to check out Laurence Olivier, of course. I’ve seen some clips, but I’d like to see the full film. Martin Freeman, Kevin Spacey… This play is so tempting for actors, and it attracts the very talented because of the opportunity to play Richard on so many levels, with both glee and regret. A clever, winking villain seems to be an actor’s playground.
Now to the real core of it all. The play itself. What makes these adaptations work, I’m surprised to say, is that they cut out a lot of unnecessary trifles. A lot of people die in Richard III. Spoilers, though non-specific ones. It’s a war for the crown. People will die, if we’ve learned nothing else from George R.R. Martin. Shakespeare was bad to introduce a character, seal their fate, and then give them a monologue about how sad it all is. It’s not very compelling to read. Apparently it’s not very compelling to film either, because I’ve yet to see anyone really use those moments without cutting them to shreds. Necessary shreds, I want to emphasize.
What the play needed more of, all of, was Richard. His lines sing. His banter with Elizabeth and Anne is quick and potent. Focusing in on him, perhaps to the exclusion of some other characters, works. It seems to be universally accepted that this is how you make this play great, by zeroing in on Richard. Because with all the excess, the fat that needs to be trimmed, it’s slow. You find yourself wondering when Richard will pop up to grin at you again.
This was one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays. He was still learning, still honing his skills. No writer, not even him, could achieve perfection right out of the gate. But he hit on something. A thing he’d continue to explore throughout his work. Why does an “evil person” do evil things? What motive do they have? Would they ever doubt themselves? How can they love themselves and do evil? In Richard he created a devil, someone who should seem entirely irredeemable, and made them tempting, fun, and even miserably tragic and sympathetic. For an early work, that’s very good.
I say again, as an overall play it’s not better than Hamlet. Yet Richard as a character fired my imagination and has clearly done so for others. For that alone, it’s taken a special place in my hierarchy.
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