RICHARD III by William Shakespeare

One thing that REALLY needs to be understood better is that this is the last play in a series. Three rather long plays, Henry VI, parts 1-3 precede it. While Richard III can be enjoyed on its own (and I feel it is the best of the series) it will be easier to grasp if the audience member or reader at least knows the play’s original context.
There is plenty to dislike in Richard III. Still relatively early in his career, Shakespeare’s dramatic structure is often quite crude. The set piece speeches feel exactly like set piece speeches and some scenes just declare their ideological purpose outright. Sometimes that “show, don’t tell” rule can become a meaningless cliche but it has a good point and you wish some of it had been followed here at times. Speaking of ideology, it’s all over the place in Richard III.  Leaving aside the matter of whether Richard is himself unfairly maligned (my bet is he was no saint, just like nearly all monarchs of the time) there is the matter of his nemesis, the Earl of Richmond/King Henry VII. He is portrayed as some kind of cross between Jesus Christ and Superman. Even if you know nothing about Henry VII, the depiction of him in this play is apt to come off as pretty risible. If you DO know something about that ruthless, Machiavellian king, it is downright ridiculous. Of course, with Henry’s granddaughter ruling England at the time, Shakespeare was unlikely to have said anything critical. In later years, however, Shakespeare would figure out subtler ways to please monarchs without damaging his art.
That’s a lot of negatives, I know but this is still a masterpiece. A rough one, to be sure, but also a powerful and perceptive one. The key comes from a line Richard says shortly after taking the throne: “But shall we wear these glories for a day or shall they live and we rejoice in them?” Utter brutality and tyranny might win power. In fact, they probably will quite often. However, can they keep power? “Win it and wear it” was a popular proverb in Shakespeare’s day. Richard wins but, ultimately, he cannot wear. We see this so much in current events and throughout history. It’s not always true and it rarely goes as quickly as events do in this play. All the same, the bloodier tyrants don’t often die comfortably in their beds. Even when they do, the system they created rarely outlasts them. There is usually some thaw. Richard III is a striking distillation of the risks inherent when anyone decides to use cruelty to claw their way to the top. The goddess Fortuna isn’t very attractive by the end of this play. She does have that wheel after all… 


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