“Richard III” at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

I am fast warming to the theory that the Henry VI – Richard III sequence of plays is not a tetralogy – as it is presented in the First Folio, and in most modern editions of the Complete Works – but, rather, a trilogy. As a tetralogy, the whole thing seems cumbersome and patchy; but presented as a trilogy – that is, consisting of the plays usually known as Henry VI Part 2 and Henry VI Part 3, along with Richard III – it becomes an enthralling piece of theatre. Of course, it can do with a bit of judicious cutting, but that’s the case with many Shakespeare plays. If Part 1 is ditched, we have a magnificent extended drama about a nation tearing itself part through rebellion, and then, through civil war; and, in the final episode, a monster emerging from the chaos to tyrannise an already battered populace. The whole thing has about it a theatrical vigour, and, especially in the final part, Richard III, a demonic energy.

The problem is Part 1, of course. There are a couple of good scenes in it, but it is mainly quite tedious, and some parts – such as the rough humour that precedes the horrific burning at the stake of Joan la Pucelle (Jeanne d’Arc) – rather objectionable. One may put all this down to collaboration, or to a young dramatist still learning his trade, but I’m not sure either explanation will do. It isn’t that this sequence of plays gradually become better: rather, there is a very noticeable increase in quality as soon as Part 2 starts. This could be due to a number of possible reasons, of course, but the one I find most appealing is that Henry VI Part 2 and Henry VI Part 3 (as they’re listed in the Folio) are actually the first and second parts of a trilogy, and that the play listed as Henry VI Part 1 is merely a hurriedly cobbled work written to cash in on the popularity of the later plays. And while I appreciate this is merely wishful thinking on my part, I wouldn’t be surprised if Shakespeare didn’t have much to do with the wretched Part 1 – despite a few odd scenes that are worth saving.

Even apart from the step change in quality between Parts 2 and 3, it is possible to adduce other internal evidence to support this theory. Although there are references in Parts 2 and 3 to events that had taken place in Part 1, there is nothing we need to know about the back-story that isn’t clearly delineated; in contrast, there are many references in Richard III to past events that can only be properly understood if we had seen Parts 2 and 3 – e.g. the killing of Rutland, Clarence breaking his oath and changing sides at the Battle of Tewkesbury, and so on. There are also many strong links between Parts 2 and 3: the latter play clearly picks up from the point where the former play ends, and Shakespeare (and, presumably, his collaborators) do not bother spending much time introducing characters who had already been present in Part 2. And there are strong links also between Part 3 and Richard III: over the course of Part 3, Richard, slowly but surely, acquires greater prominence, and is given some striking monologues, quite obviously to prepare for what is still to come. Given this preparation, Part 3 ends with a sense of much unfinished business – a sense of issues that need still to be resolved.

There is some external evidence also to support the theory that this sequence of plays had been intended as a trilogy rather than as a tetralogy: the second, third and fourth plays of the tetralogy (should we choose to see it as such) had appeared in a number of Quarto editions within Shakespeare’s own lifetime; the first part appears only in the First Folio. And it is only from the First Folio that we have the rather boring titles Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, and Henry VI Part 3: in the Quarto texts, the latter two plays had been titled The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster with the Death of the Good King Humphrey, and The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York, and the Good King Henry VI. However, since such long titles aren’t to modern taste, it’s the more prosaic titles from the Folio that have stuck; and with these titles, the necessity of presenting all three Henry VI plays, since it is hard to convince an audience to see Parts 2 and 3 if Part 1 is missing.

In the current season (2022), the Royal Shakespeare Company has made the decision to ditch Part 1 altogether. This is a sensible decision, both commercially (it would be hard to persuade people to return for the later parts if they’d been bored by the first), and also artistically. The Henry VI plays had to be renamed, of course, but that’s hardly a major problem. These two Henry VI plays I had reported on in my last post on this blog; and now, it’s the final and most famous play in the series – Richard III. This is usually performed as a standalone play, but it clearly gains from being seen in the context of its predecessors. Not only are there many references to events that only really make sense if we have seen the earlier plays, it’s also important to realise, I think, that hardly any of Richard’s victims are innocent. Seen out of context, Clarence appears merely a helpless victim; true, he has that magnificent speech shortly before he is murdered, where, in narrating his dream, he reveals with a startling immediacy the agonies of a guilt-tormented mind; but nonetheless, we needed to have witnessed that guilt to take in the full import of his dream. The narration itself is unforgettable:

… then came wandering by
A shadow like an angel, with bright hair
Dabbled in blood; and he squeak’d out aloud,
‘Clarence is come; false, fleeting, perjured Clarence,
That stabb’d me in the field by Tewksbury;
Seize on him, Furies, take him to your torments!’
With that, methoughts, a legion of foul fiends
Environ’d me about, and howled in mine ears
Such hideous cries, that with the very noise
I trembling waked, and for a season after
Could not believe but that I was in hell.

Even now, after all these decades of acquaintance, I can feel a shiver run down my spine every time I encounter this passage.

As a play, Richard III has a greater dramatic power than its predecessors, mainly because, given its material, it has a powerful figure at its centre. In the previous two plays, we had been presented with a panoramic view, with a large cast of characters wandering in and out of the central spotlight. It had presented a compelling view of a nation tearing itself apart, but the focus had been spread across a range of characters. Even the impact of so potentially powerful a figure as Queen Margaret is diminished as a consequence. But in Richard III, we have one single figure dominating the play, and that figure is simply a gift for any actor with charisma and stage presence. There is a demonic energy to him, a flair and a vigour, that are utterly compelling.

It is easy comparing Richard to Macbeth: their trajectories are, in many ways, similar. They both rise to the top through murder, and once at the top, they both try to consolidate their power with further ruthless bloodshed; and both are finally defeated by a force invading the country in order to liberate it. But that’s just the arc of the plot: Macbeth is a drama about a soul damning itself in the full knowledge that it is damning itself, and the terror comes from Macbeth’s inability to stop, even when he knows what it is he is doing. But Richard, in contrast, has no inner life at all: there is not even the slightest awareness on his part that he even so much as has a soul. He has no feelings of gentleness or of tenderness, no sense of good and evil, nor even of basic right and wrong; and he is both amused and bemused that others should feel such things. He senses, as Iago does, that he is outside some bond that binds the rest of humanity together, but unlike Iago, he does not feel the need for such belonging: Iago resents Cassio because he can sense that Cassio “hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly”, but Richard has no such sense of “daily beauty” in anything: indeed, he would have found such a concept comical. Inside Richard is an utterly vacant and unfeeling brutality. He commits evil simply because he feels no need not to.

And the horror of this play, it seems to me, resides in the fact that he can do this; that he can find helpers and confederates, people happy to help him into power, to carry out his evil orders. It is a horrific picture of a great evil that is as unstoppable as it is apparent. And there seems no reason to explain this evil: how, after all, can evil be explained anyway? Yes, Richard refers a number of times to his physically mis-shapen form, that has, he feels, placed him outside the norms of humanity, but he is never clear on why his physical deformity should make him evil: the link is highly tenuous, to say the least, and won’t do for an explanation. The fact, I think, is that Richard is evil simply because he is; it is a brute fact for which there is no point even trying to look for a cause.

In the night before the fatal battle, Richard is haunted by the ghosts of those whom he had murdered (a nightmarish scene, superbly staged in this production), and on waking, he is terrified; but even then, he cannot understand what he is terrified of. After all, the only source of fear he is aware of is himself, but how could he be afraid of his own self?

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by…

This is more, much more, than his essentially simple mind can take in.

The previous plays had been directed with tremendous theatrical vigour by Owen Horsley. They had communicated with a powerful immediacy the utter chaos into which the country had descended. For Richard III, RSC’s artistic director, Gregory Doran, takes up the directorial reins. The play opens with the war apparently at an end – the winter of our discontent seemingly turned into glorious summer – but so monstrous a trauma does not end so easily. There is a great evil lurking, waiting to assume power; and there is a fragile peace in which it is all to easy for such evil to triumph.

Richard III, more so than the previous plays, requires at its centre a commanding presence, and here it gets it from Arthur Hughes. His is not a larger-than-life performance, as those of Laurence Olivier or of Anthony Sher had been, but that really is an aspect of the horror – the idea that so seemingly ordinary and unprepossessing a character could nonetheless unleash such evil on so vast a scale. Arthur Hughes’ performance makes all this appear frighteningly credible: he speaks the verse beautifully, and conveys with terrifying intensity a sense of malice seemingly for its own sake – an evil unmotivated even by desire

And as the play progresses, he projects the character’s insecurity, and growing paranoia, until, by the end, he cowers in terror without even understanding what it is he is afraid of.

There are two scenes in particular that seem, on reading at least, difficult to render convincing. In the first, Richard woos Anne, whose husband (Prince Edward) and whose father-in-law (Henry VI) Richard had himself killed; and, even in the presence of the dead King Henry’s corpse, Richard wins her.

The second scene occurs later in the play; here, with his wife Anne disposed of (another of his victims), he convinces the widowed Queen Elizabeth, whose sons he had murdered (the notorious “Princes in the Tower”), to agree to her daughter marrying him – her own uncle.

I think in both these scenes there is a compression of time: what is presented as happening in some ten minutes or so on stage is a compression of what takes place over a much longer span. But whatever the lapse of time, what we see is shocking. How could Anne agree to marry a man who had murdered her own husband? How could Elizabeth agree to  her own daughter marrying her uncle – a man who had, moreover, murdered her two brothers? In this production, in both scenes, we get an impression of the wills of both Anne and of Elizabeth collapsing under the pressure: neither can stand up to the demonic will of the evil Richard. In the second scene especially, when Elizabeth agrees to the marriage of her daughter to her murderous brother-in-law, there were audible gasps of horror in the audience. This is as it should be: these scenes indeed are horrific, and they present in microcosm what the drama depicts on a larger scale – a pure, unmitigated evil imposing its will upon a people who seem unable to resist. There’s no point looking for reason: the horror resides in the very fact that there isn’t any. As Shakespeare knew right to the end of his artistic career – in The Winter’s Tale – there is no cause for evil: it just is.

Richard III is probably Shakespeare’s first great masterpiece, and is a worthy end to what we can now see as a magnificent trilogy. It finds here a production worthy of its greatness; the performances are irreproachable, and the central performance is one that I, for one, won’t forget in a hurry.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Marvellous review. I’m going to see this at the end of July – I can’t wait.

    When the RSC first announced they were doing the Henry VI plays, it sounded like the 3 plays would be compressed into 2 parts. When Covid hit, they did Part 1 as a kind of online rehearsal with a final live run-through – I don’t know if you saw that? It was interesting to watch even if Part 1 isn’t that great. If Covid hadn’t happened, I wonder if they would have tried to incorporate some parts of Part 1 into the two plays? If so, it seems like the productions gained by leaving out Part 1 entirely.


  2. Thank you for adding content to my void. There really is no end to the reading of books – I say with a smile.
    PS. I just got my hands on the facsimile copy of Jung’s Red Book. It is extraordinary in presentation and wonderful in content. So many archetypes that fit in easily to much of your subject matters.


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