Monday, January 31, 2011

King Richard III by William Shakespeare

(Book Review)

Before I get into the actual review, first: A brief summary of my relationship with Shakespeare. (Because if you can’t be self-indulgent on your own blog, then where can you be self-indulgent?)

Ever since the 1950s (or before?), Shakespeare has had a reputation for boring schoolchildren.

And yet, there’s a certain type of child (bookish, introverted, un-athletic, quiet, geeky) that is fascinated by stories, and is curious about the classics from a young age, even if they lack the ability to read them for themselves.

And that was me. I wasn’t a gifted youngster in terms of reading ability, but I was always fascinated by good stories, and from a young age I was aware that there were lots of good stories locked away in classic literature, and I was eager to get at them.

As a pre-adolescent, I became especially interested in Shakespeare. I discovered we had a number of similar interests: Greek mythology, Ancient Rome, history, and, of course, blood and violence.

Why the adolescent male mind is attracted to violent stories is a question I’ll have to leave for psychiatrists. But we are.
Like many a child before me (and probably many afterwards) I discovered that there was much more blood and violence in classic literature than in the R rated movies I wasn’t allowed to watch. Hence began my fascination with books like the Iliad, and the Odyssey.

And Shakespeare fit into this scheme as well. Shakespeare wasn’t as action packed as Homer, but he could be frighteningly gruesome. For example, when I stumbled upon “Titus Andronicus” (which I had mail ordered simply because of my interest in Roman history, not being aware what kind of story it was) I was, like any boy would be, both repelled by it and fascinated by it.
It was certainly more horrific than any of the horror movies I wasn’t allowed to watch at the time. (And if you don’t believe me, go and find a detailed plot summary of this play, and then ask yourself if this isn’t much more gruesome than anything “Friday the 13th” or “Nightmare on Elmstreet” can dish up.)
I remember gleefully recounting the details of the play to my mother in the car one afternoon, knowing that she might stop me from watching horror movies, but that she couldn’t really forbid me from reading Shakespeare.

However since I was a child of limited literary abilities, all of my fascination with Shakespeare was based purely on the stories. I had no interest in or patience with his word play, similes, puns, poetry, or iambic pentameter. I just wanted to find out what the story was.
Similarly, all of the symbolism, themes, character foils, and the like usually went right over my head unless they were explicitly pointed out by someone (a teacher, or the text notes.)

As you would expect given this, I rarely had the patience to actually sit through and read a Shakespeare play from beginning to end. Instead I would specifically look for editions of Shakespeare which were rich with long introductions, explanatory notes, and with plot summaries and analyses for each scene. I would read all of these instead, and only just skim the actually play itself.
For plays I was specifically interested in, like "Trolius and Cressida" (because of my interest in the Trojan War), or Titus Andronicus, (because of my fascination with the macabre, mentioned above) I tried several times to sit down and read them from cover to cover, but always gave up within the first few pages.

The only times I ever actually found the will power to sit down and read a Shakespeare play was when I had to, because someone else was testing me on it.

With this level of external motivation, I found I could quite happily read through “Julius Caesar” (10th grade English) and not only get through the whole thing, but more or less understand it.
The same with “Macbeth” (12th grade English). And King Henry IV Part 1 (British Literature class at Calvin College), followed by King Henry IV Part 2.
And then the Shakespeare class I took at Calvin. (Hamlet, King Lear, 12th Night, Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Tempest, Othello, Measure for Measure, Much Ado about Nothing). All of these I read because a teacher or professor made me read them. And all of them I ended up enjoying.
And yet I still never went on to read any plays on my own initiative.

…But I’ve always meant to.

This past year, I’ve found a new excuse.
I’ve given myself a bit of a crash course on British History. (For most of the year, until I recently found the audio book section in my local library, I’ve spent the entire year with just “This Sceptred Isle” (A), and “Monarchy” by David Starkey as the only selections on my ipod. And I listened to them over, and over, and over again. And now I finally know who all these medieval kings of England actually are.
Since I now had the historical background which I thought would help me appreciate Shakespeare’s history plays more, it seemed the perfect time to pick up Shakespeare again.

Short Disclaimer
A Japanese friend, who never really understood the appeal of Shakespeare, once cynically quoted to me the following line (apparently from a Japanese academic talking on Japanese TV): “There are so many books written about Shakespeare, that you could spend your whole life reading books of Shakespeare criticism, and never actually get around to reading Shakespeare himself.”
The scary part is—he wasn’t lying.

This makes it a bit intimidating to try and write anything new on the subject. But, since I’ve committed myself to this book review project, I’ve got to jot down at least a few thoughts.
As always, I’ll just write down what struck me about this book going through it as an average reader, and not worry if what I have to say is new or particularly insightful.
(For this reason, I have deliberately avoided consulting the critics, and have just written up my off-the-cuff impressions on the play.)

The Actual Review
This is the final play of a 4 part series detailing the Wars of the Roses. It is preceded by Henry VI part 1, Henry VI part 2, and Henry VI part 3. It is my understanding that many of the characters in this play make their first appearances in the earlier plays. And yet this is an independent work in its own right. Which is why I started with this play instead of the earlier ones. (Although now that I’ve finished this, I find myself interested in going back and reading the earlier plays.)
If you do jump directly into this play, it probably helps to know a little bit of the historical background behind the Wars of the Roses in order to understand who everyone is. But it’s probably nothing that some text notes or a good annotated version of the play can’t fix.
Having recently acquired some British history (see above) I felt like I understood pretty well what the historical background was, and who everyone was in this play. (At least as far as the main royal family anyway. I wasn’t so familiar with the some of various nobles and side players, but Shakespeare gets you up to speed pretty quickly.)

I was also able to catch a couple points were Shakespeare takes some liberties with history. (Historically there’s no proof that Richard, and not Edward, gave the order for Clarence’s death.)
[And actually, while I’m on the subject the last time I walked into my local bookstore there were about 4 or 5 revisionist histories of Richard III, all claiming he wasn’t such a bad guy after all and probably didn’t commit a lot of the murders attributed to him. But I’ll leave that aside.]

As with any historical novel (or historical play, or historical movie), a lot of the pleasure comes from seeing history come alive. Historical characters are fleshed out, made into people you care about, and get you emotionally involved in the story.

For example, it’s one thing to know the dry fact that Clarence was killed in the tower drowned in a tub of butt of marmsey. It’s a whole different level of emotional involvement to read him pleading with his murderer’s for his life.

Since this play takes place directly after the Yorkist victory in the War of the Roses, it’s interesting the way Shakespeare sets the play up as first two different factions (the Yorkists united against the one remaining Lancastrian, Margaret) and then later explores the Yorkist faction falling out among themselves.

The play also seems to have elements of the horror genre in it. Like many horror stories about ancient curses, Margaret (the last Lancastrian) pronounces curses on all the victorious Yorkists at the beginning of the play. At first they all laugh her off, but one by one, everyone she curses meets an untimely death. The inevitability of it makes it horrific. You can try and laugh off the curse, you can try and avoid it, you can try and repent of your evil ways, you can even try and run away, but sooner or later that curse will hunt you down and kill you.
The deaths are the result of Richard, of course, but it makes you wonder if Richard is actually doing the killing, or if he is just being used as the instrument of the curse.

The character of Richard, as Shakespeare, portrays him, is extremely good at lying. He always says one thing in private, and then swears up and down in public that his intention is just the opposite. It’s impossible to read this play and not think of modern politicians, which is perhaps why this play has remained so popular over the years.
That being said, given this plays reputation I was hoping for more of a psychological exploration about what makes a tyrant. And that we don’t get. Richard is evil just for the sake of being evil. (Supposedly he’s bitter at the whole world because of his physical deformity, but that level of motivation doesn’t rise much above a typical comic-book villain.)

Perhaps because of the fact that Richard was more of a plot device than an actual character, the ending of the play and his eventual defeat left me a feeling a little bit underwhelmed. I’m not sure exactly what kind of emotional conclusion I was hoping for from the play, but whatever it was I didn’t get it.

As far as readability: I thought it was pretty interesting. It’s got a high body count (which satisfies the macabre inside all of us), but because it has a high body count there are a lot of death speeches right before a character dies, and mourning speeches after a character is killed (which slows down the pace of the play a bit.)
And at the risk of sounding like my old English teacher, the verbal sparring between the characters is pretty interesting. Theirs a lot of wit on display in the antagonistic scenes as characters trade verbal barbs back and forth.

Anyways, for whatever it’s worth, those are my two cents on the most scrutinized playwright in English history.

Link of the Day
Chomsky in Lebanon

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