Before I even started reading this play I had a soft spot in my heart for it, simply because in the 70s movie Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfus’ character, Elliot Garfield is forced to play the lead as a frilly gay man. Unfortunately for Garfield, the play opens and promptly closes giving Dreyfus the opportunity to flex his many faceted acting muscles as he simultaneously grieves and celebrates the closure. The part in the movie where Garfield confesses that he can “play the hump off that guy” then delivers the opening lines about ‘winter of discontent’ is my favorite.
In a nutshell, Shakespeare’s (free from artistic interpretation) version compresses 14 years into roughly 14 days, and chronicles Richard’s dramatic rise and fall, picking up where Henry IV left off. The Duke of Gloucester is portrayed as a “deformed hunchback” who ruthlessly lies, murders, and manipulates his way to throne, where he becomes King Richard III. He is only king for a short while before he is killed by Richmond, the future King Henry VII who is credited with ending the Wars of the Roses and beginning the house of Tudor.
Shakespeare’s Richard tells us in his opening speech that he was born “deformed, unfinished, sent before [his] time / into this breathing world scarce half made up.” Scholars have suggested that Richard’s deformities are simply the “costume” of his character, which is used to symbolize his moral corruption. Actually, in 2012, Richard’s skeleton was exhumed, proving that while he did have a curved spine, he likely wasn’t a hunchback with a shriveled arm. He probably wasn’t even all that ambitiously evil, but thanks to The Bard’s deft hand at creating characters, when anyone thinks of Richard III, it’s Shakespeare’s portrayal they picture.
Richard also frequently confides in his audience (much like Bruce Willis in Moonlighting, frequently breaks the third wall) making us his confidants. This has the effect of drawing us in and making us complicit in his evil schemes. He literally tells us that he’s going to turn his brothers against each other, and kill them. After he woos Lady Anne, he turns to us, brags about it, and lets us know he’s just using her. At one point he vows to “set the murderous Machiavel to school.” In this he is a character who acts a lot like the kind of political leader written about by the Italian philosopher and poet Niccolò Machiavelli – sound familiar? His 1532 book The Prince is like a “how to” guide for rulers about gaining and keeping power. Machiavelli’s theory is that being a successful leader has nothing to do with being a nice person or doing the right thing, it’s about being inventive, manipulative, charismatic, crafty, and willful. He wrote that rulers should appear good to the public but shouldn’t be above doing awful things in private. Hmmm, sounds like something the current occupant of the White House (if he ever read books) would be a go-to book for him. But I digress…
Among the huge cast of characters, there is a mysterious Mistress Shore, mentioned throughout the play, but not mentioned in the cast list. References to her are such that audiences of the time would have recognized who she was, but I didn’t. A Google search easily revealed that she was actually Jane Lambert, the daughter of a rich merchant, who lived during the time of Richard’s grab for power and ascension to the throne. Jane married another rich merchant named William Shore, but her beauty and intelligence made her popular with the aristocracy. The story goes that because her husband was impotent, she had many affairs, earning her the title of Harlot. Its assumed that Richard was offended that she was not attracted to him, and so schemed and plotted to do away with the men she had affairs with.
Besides Richard, I personally didn’t find any other characters to be very interesting. He is both the Hero, and the Villain, and the other characters just end up being his victims. The brilliant character development, and writing by Shakespeare, is in my opinion, the star of this show.