Thoughts on “King Richard the Third”

Continuing my reading and thoughts on the complete works of Shakespeare, the next one in the collection is “King Richard the Third”.  This is actually a continuation/sequel to “King Henry the Sixth”, which I was wondering about when I finished reading that one, as it ends with Richard — who had put into a place a number of machinations and schemes to gain power — declaring that he was going to be king and rule in place of his brother, who was in power at the end of that work.  This play is about him putting those plans into action and, as the title spoils, ultimately becoming king and, as per the previous work, quickly losing it.

The big issue in this play is that while the speeches and dialogue work really well, the overall plot and structure are lacking.  The big problem here is that Richard is not a particularly good plotter, so a play focusing on how his plots ultimately win him the throne and how he squanders that isn’t all that interesting.  For the most part, everyone knows that he’s ultimately incredibly treacherous and yet they go along with him anyway.  This leads to some of the best banter, but when one pays attention to that banter it doesn’t make sense.  For example, one early conversation is between him and the queen of the previous regime, as he’s trying to convince her to marry him because it will give him some kind of advantage (that is never really revealed).  Since he killed her previous husband, she hates him, and since he’s known to be treacherous, she doesn’t trust him.  And yet his big convincing move is to declare that he only did that for the love of her, which he had never expressed at all in the past and not before that point in the conversation, and yet by the end of the conversation she seems to be at least considering the offer, and she ultimately does marry him … at which point he quickly has her killed and tries the exact same pitch to another new widow that he was responsible for making a widow, and the results seem to be the same before he himself is toppled before he could presumably marry the new woman and kill her for advantage.

It would be a different matter if he had positioned himself such that even those who didn’t trust him felt that they need him to gain position, even if they were planning to set him aside as soon as they could, but through his machinations he managed to betray and toss them aside first.  Then he could be seen as someone who was clever enough to at least overcome a reputation for being treacherous and even use it to his advantage.  But that’s not what happens.  Everyone he enters into alliances with pretty much flat-out says that he’s not to be trusted and yet they go along with him anyway, and he invariably betrays him just as he planned all along and in general they don’t even seem to have any plans in place to prepare for his inevitable betrayal.  It makes them look stupid instead of making him look clever.

And the way he loses at the end isn’t any better.  One of the main causes of his downfall is that he promised Buckingham something for supporting him, which he ultimately doesn’t give Buckingham who then defects to his enemies.  But this comes from a conversation where Buckingham simply brings it up and Richard talks about utterly meaningless things and completely ignores him.  Normally, what someone in Richard’s position would do is put Buckingham off with it not being the right time due to instability or such, and if Buckingham’s defection was necessary Richard would grant that to someone else because that would bring him greater power now, believing that Buckingham was no longer necessary, which would make the important role Buckingham’s defection would play in his ultimate downfall ironic.  However, as noted, all he does is ignore him and refuse to talk about it at all and in fact even refuse to talk sense at that point for no real reason.  Again, it makes him look stupid as opposed to someone clever undone by his treacherous nature.

I wondered when starting this project if there might be an issue reading the plays versus seeing them performed, and in this case I think that might be true.  The dialogue and banter is in general really interesting, and I can imagine that it would be easy to be swept along by the dialogue — if properly performed — and so not stop to think about what is actually being said and what it all means.  Reading it, I had far more time to think about what was being said and so to note that it didn’t make a lot of sense, for all of its stylistic virtues.  But ultimately, considered carefully, Richard the Third not being a terribly good plotter and everyone else seeming awfully stupid for going along with him hurts the play and any tragic value it might have had.

Still, as noted, it’s fairly good stylistically and could work well if performed properly.  This is probably a play that would suffer more from Fridge Logic than while someone was actually watching it.  Again, this is not one of Shakespeare’s more famous plays and he doesn’t seem to have his antagonists down as well as he will later in Macbeth and Hamlet, but once that improves his tragedies will really start to work as tragedies.

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