Here are two discussion papers I've written for my on-line Shakespeare class. I'd be interested in hearing what any of you think about these two plays.
Sympathy for the Devil – Shakespeare’s Seductive Villain, Richard III
It would only take a very few changes in dialogue to change Shakespeare’s Richard III from a tragedy to a comedy. Never before – and so rarely since – have treachery, betrayal, hypocrisy and plain, old villainy been so fun. When Richard, Duke of Gloucester, first steps, as one imagines, far down to the front of the stage, dead in the center, and looks unflinchingly into the audience, there is an electric authority in his words. He begins with a sardonically mocking tribute to his elder brother, who has – offstage – just been crowned Edward IV of England. He then mocks his own bitterness at his physical inferiority. Then, without warning, he declares that he will “prove the villain and hate the idle pleasure [of these ‘summer’] days [of York’s ascension]” (I.i.30-31). All of a sudden, the audience itself is in too deep – an unwitting group of conspirators who are the only ones privy to his dastardly plans. As Phyllis Rackin wrote in her essay, “A Modern Perspective,” that was included with the Folger Shakespeare Library’s edition of Richard III, “Confiding in the audience, flaunting his witty wickedness, and gloating at the weakness and ignorance of the other characters, [Richard] draws the playgoers into complicity with his wicked schemes” (p.343). Why does Shakespeare take a historical figure thought utterly reprehensible in Tudor England, and give him such a commanding presence on the stage – making him charismatic, seductive and, even, lovable?
First of all, it makes for good theater. For a title character to carry a play, he must be captivating. Otherwise, the groundlings will start chucking their oranges at him. Shakespeare had so many areas of genius, but one of his greatest surely must have been in establishing character. Right from the first soliloquy, the audience is clued in that Richard is no good, rather vain about his conniving capabilities, and will take them on a wild ride to the throne of England, whether they are willing or no. With a wink and a nod, he betrays his brother (I.iii.365-376), makes an inexplicable play for Anne Neville (I.ii.72-244), condemns Rivers, Grey and Vaughn (II.i.184-188), frames Hastings (III.iv.75-80), and commits many more foul deeds with a self-possessed air. Playgoers in Tudor England would not have been surprised that Richard was such a vile character (after all, the Tudors had had their historians hard at work to paint him that way), but they may have been surprised by how much they liked him despite his myriad depravities.
Secondly, Shakespeare may have been “over plumming the pudding” for a merrily subversive take on the end of the War of the Roses. He certainly does not “over egg” his concoction, for the outcome is never ruinous, but he throws plum after juicy plum into it, until the onlooker is left in euphoric disbelief. “Oh no,” the viewer or reader might say in his mind, “He is not really going to go there, is he? Oh goodness, yes, yes! He went there!” Whether it is the highly comedic accusation against Hastings’s mistress of witchcraft (III.iv.77), or the unconscionable callousness with which he kills off his beleaguered wife Anne (IV.ii.53-62), or the mock religious humility with which he rebuffs the offer of the crown (III.vii.96-249), Richard always gives his complicit audience a reason to intake their breath sharply. With every soliloquy given after each heinous rung in his climb to power, Richard gives more and more evidence that he is the most calculating of fiends. Actions this evil are usually, in the real world, clouded by blinders of idealism – the perpetrator truly believes that his deeds serve some greater good. Such self-delusion is never practiced by Shakespeare’s Richard, who never mentions the good of England or the wrongs of his enemies with anything other than hypocrisy.
In a time without any ability to record history objectively, and where a theater could be shut down by censorship, Shakespeare found a way to make received ideas about the Tudors’ claims to the monarchy a sly joke. Truly a tyrant like King Richard III, as portrayed on the Globe’s stage, deserved to be dethroned. But, can such devilry really have existed? By making a character so over-the-top, Shakespeare seems to question the accepted doctrine of the last Plantagenet’s fall. From his constant cries of “Off with his head” (III.ii.196, III.iv.77, V.iv.366), to his seduction of both Anne Neville and Queen Elizabeth (to woo her daughter on his behalf) in spite of their entirely justified reasons for hating him, to his staged reluctance to accept the crown, Richard oozes with cartoonish rage, smarminess and affectation. Is this possibly how a historic king might have behaved? Shakespeare leaves that question open for the audience to decide. Though he is vanquished in the end, the wicked Richard outshines the valiant Henry (Earl of Richmond) to the last, and Richmond’s speech at the end is a dull conclusion to an exciting romp in an amoral universe. In creating the prototype of the lovable, despicable rogue, Shakespeare, perhaps, poked a little fun at how history can be twisted by the victors and how implausible many historical perceptions can seem when taken to their logical extremes in a dramatic presentation. It is easy to become quite fond of that homicidal megalomaniac. Maybe the greatest tragedy of Richard III is that its anti-hero meets his death in the end and lives on in no future plays.
“Vaulting Ambition:” The Reluctant Rise and Dark Descent of Macbeth
Shakespeare’s Richard III and Macbeth share some striking features. Both are highly prejudicial dramatizations of historical figures and events. Both are almost bewilderingly bloody, as the body count rises with each scene played out. Both culminate in the eponymous characters’ defeats in battles against rebel forces. Both are called tragedies in their complete titles. And both are about over-arching ambition.
There the similarities stop. The characterizations of Richard and Macbeth could not be more different. In Richard III, the Duke of Gloucester swaggers (despite a proclaimed deformity) onto the stage and takes command of all the action proceeding thence. He charms and beguiles his friends and enemies alike; and, perhaps most importantly, he completely seduces the audience and makes them complicit in his evil schemes. His ambition is, to his captivated conspirators, a flagrant and flamboyant triumph of cunning over dullness and sheer guts over banal morality. Prophecies and curses abound, and Richard heeds them not. He carries off his power grab with panache; and he loses neither heart nor spirit, even unto the last battle scene.
Macbeth, on the other hand, opens not with a charismatic soliloquy from the title character drawing the audience into his plans and gaining their sympathies, but with the dark, mysterious powers of prophecy, witchcraft, and fate in the form of three unnerving hags. They converse briefly and end the scene with the telling phrase, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair, hover through the fog and the filthy air” (I.i.12-13). The fog and the filth never seem to lift throughout the play, putting 11th Century Scotland in a perpetual mist of turmoil, blood, and betrayal, and the character of Macbeth himself in a downward spiral of ambition satisfied, but at the cost of his soul and, eventually, his life.
In her essay, “Macbeth: A Modern Perspective,” Susan Snyder writes helpfully of the history upon which this play was based. It appears that Shakespeare used as a reference Holinshed’s Chronicles of Scotland[i]. In preparing the dramatization, though, Shakespeare trimmed away some of the moral ambiguities to leave a clearer cut sense of black and white. This editing led to a greater illustration of ambition’s corrupting influence. With Duncan’s goodness and Macbeth’s complete acknowledgement of that goodness, Macbeth can think of no other reason to commit regicide than his own “vaulting ambition” (I.vii.27). But, unlike the amoral Richard, Macbeth seems to possess an ambition not wholly his own.
Not only do the three witches accost him and burden him with predictions of future sovereignty, when Macbeth mentions their eerie proclamations in a letter to his wife, Lady Macbeth immediately seizes the prophecy and begins to concoct a means of bringing it to fruition (I.v.1-33). She, too, calls upon dark powers to steel her resolve and “unsex” (I.v.48) her so that she may compel her husband to his fated position. Moments later, when Macbeth enters the room, his wife begins at once to coax him to regicide. In Macbeth’s demure, there is little of ambition and much discomfort. This man, despite the choices he will soon make, is no sociopath. He has a moral compass.
Lady Macbeth’s manipulation of Macbeth in Act I, Scene 7, when the thane has decided against murdering Duncan (at least for that night), is terrifying to witness. She questions his manhood, his constancy, and his valor, and she speaks such a brutal metaphor of how her resolve would never waver in such a situation (I.vii.62-67), that it is astonishing to turn back and read their previous interchange (I.v.63-86), and discover anew that Macbeth promised no more to his wife than that they should discuss further this noxious plan. He is carried along on her traitorous stream, a passive vessel receding into moral ambiguity.
Duncan’s murder nearly destroys Macbeth (II.ii.47-81). Banquo’s subsequent assassination further plunges his sanity (III.iv.59-141). His troubled soul seeks reassurance that he is, indeed, in line with his fate, so he returns to the Weird Sisters (IV.i.48-151). The apparitions that the witches summon, with their seemingly impossible predictions and exhortations (other than that Macbeth should “Beware Macduff”) build up a false sense of security for the precarious king, but also serve to remove the last vestiges of fear (hence, morality) from him. He returns from that sojourn emboldened, bloodthirsty, and dehumanized.
In the end, neither Richard nor Macbeth can escape his fate. Richard, who was told by a “bard of Ireland” that “[he] would not live long after [he] saw Richmond” (Richard III: IV.ii.109-110), who was plagued the night before battle with visitations of his vengeful victims (Richard III: V.iii.124-183), and who lastly notes that the sun, despite the calendar, refuses to shine on his battle to retain the throne, blithely notes that “the selfsame heaven that frowns on me looks sadly upon [Richmond]” (Richard III:V.iii.303-304), and cheerfully charges off toward his death. Macbeth, who was told to “beware Macduff” ((IV.i.82), was assured that “none of a woman born shall harm [him]” (IV.i.91-92), and had been promised that he would not be vanquished until the Great Birnam Wood would march up Dunsinane Hill – a fanciful, improbable, and, therefore, highly reassuring pronouncement (IV.i.105-110), still stands to meet Macduff and the rebel forces when they come up Dunsinane Hill under the guise of Birnam Wood’s branches. Even, when Macduff declares that, instead of being born, he was “from [his] mother’s womb untimely ripped,” (V.viii.19-20) Macbeth overcomes his initial reluctance to run from the fight, and submits to fate and his destruction. Ambition so over-reaching that it blinds and deafens the conscience seems always to end, at least in Shakespeare’s plays, in devastation.
These two plays present a fascinating study in human nature of what all-consuming ambition can do to two very different men. Whether flowing from the wellspring of an amoral perspective, as was Richard’s, or bursting through the dam of morality by chiseled cracks of persuasion, manipulation, and fatalistic machinations, as was the unfortunate Macbeth’s, the outcome is drowning. And, while Richard’s ambition is presented in such a way as to make it almost a parody of the corrupting nature of power and a comedy of sorts, Macbeth’s is real enough to keep it firmly ensconced in the genre of tragedy. Not even the Porter of Act 2, Scene 3 can alleviate the gravity surrounding the Thane of Glamis’s decision, and even Nature herself turns black with despair (II.iv.8-12) as the winds howl their pity (I.vii.21-22) and the invisible steeds of heaven blow the horrid deed in every eye (I.vii.24).
[i] “Macbeth: A Modern Perspective,” Susan Snyder, in Folger Shakespeare Library: The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (New York: Washington Square Press, 1992), p. 198.