The Imploding I
Shakespeare’s Richard III is the principal source of a figure still current in drama and cinema — the witty devil we love to hate. Fusing the role of the (aspiring) King with that of the Vice (the tempter in morality plays, who as a player of tricks and user of disguises was always more theatrically aware than his innocent victims), Shakespeare produced a role that from his first, mesmerising soliloquy, beginning the play, commands both amused and horrified attention. As witty as he is ruthless, and as witting about himself as about others, Richard dominates the stage whenever he is on it, and all his tricks come off marvellously — until they don’t.
I’ve just transcribed the Folio text of the play it calls The Tragedy of Richard the Third : with the Landing of Earle Richmond, and the Battell at Bosworth Field [...] and I was struck by how potently verse and punctuation record Richard’s force and his final implosion. Here’s that famous opening soliloquy:
Enter Richard Duke of Gloster, solus.
Now is the Winter of our Discontent,
Made glorious Summer by this Son of Yorke :
And all the clouds that lowr’d vpon our house
In the deepe bosome of the Ocean buried.
Now are our browes bound with Victorious Wreathes,
Our bruised armes hung vp for Monuments ;
Our sterne Alarums chang’d to merry Meetings ;
Our dreadfull Marches, to delightfull Measures.
Grim-visag’d Warre, hath smooth’d his wrinkled Front :
And now, in stead of mounting Barbed Steeds,
To fright the Soules of fearfull Aduersaries,
He capers nimbly in a Ladies Chamber,
To the lasciuious pleasing of a Lute.
But I, that am not shap’d for sportiue trickes,
Nor made to court an amorous Looking-glasse :
I, that am Rudely stampt, and want loues Maiesty,
To strut before a wonton ambling Nymph :
I, that am curtail’d of this faire Proportion,
Cheated of Feature by dissembling Nature,
Deform’d, vn-finish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing World, scarse halfe made vp,
And that so lamely and vnfashionable,
That dogges barke at me, as I halt by them.
Why I (in this weake piping time of Peace)
Haue no delight to passe away the time,
Vnlesse to see my Shadow in the Sunne,
And descant on mine owne Deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot proue a Louer,
To entertaine these faire well spoken dayes,
I am determined to proue a Villaine,
And hate the idle pleasures of these dayes.
Plots haue I laide, Inductions dangerous,
By drunken Prophesies, Libels, and Dreames,
To set my Brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate, the one against the other :
And if King Edward be as true and iust,
As I am Subtle, False, and Treacherous,
The day should Clarence closely be mew’d vp :
About a Prophesie, which sayes that G,
Of Edwards heyres the murtherer shall be.
Diue thoughts downe to my soule, here Clarence comes.
Everything here serves to present Richard’s complete control, and it’s an excellent example of the Ciceronian style and balance that characterises much of Shakespeare’s most fluent and speakable verse. For all its dynamism the language is exceptionally balanced and structured, bracing opposites within lines (“Our sterne Alarums chang’d to merry Meetings”, “That dogges barke at me, as I halt by them”) ; within couplets (“Now is the Winter of our Discontent, / Made glorious Summer by this Son of Yorke”, “Vnlesse to see my Shadow in the Sunne, / And descant on mine owne Deformity”) ; and within the quatrains that dominate the grammatical structure (“And now, in stead of mounting Barbed Steeds, / To fright the Soules of fearfull Aduersaries, / He capers nimbly in a Ladies Chamber, / To the lasciuious pleasing of a Lute”). The whole flows as trippingly as commandingly from the tongue, as generations of great actors have found, and the language is so strong and clear that it can bear very different styles of presentation. The two best Richards I’ve had the luck to see on stage, Anthony Sher and Ian McKellen, could not have tackled the role more differently — Sher was seriously hunched and scuttling on calipers that became weapons, feelers, probes at will ; McKellen was a restrained and clipped army officer whose only visible deformity was a hand kept always in his pocket — but both could draw equal strength and suasion from the magnificent verse Shakespeare provided.