As Donald Seawell, the noted impresario and founder of the DCPA, pointed out to me on numerous occasions, Richard III got a bad rap from "Shake-speare." Seawell is a member of the Richard III Society, which is dedicated to clearing up some of the accusations with which history has tagged this ancient monarch. Without getting into a debate over whether Richard actually killed his nephews—and the long list of those who stood in his way to the throne—let's put the argument of Richard's supporters this way: What we perceive as excessive violence was par for the course in those days, at the end of the Middle Ages; and besides, Richard didn't do all the things that Shakespeare wove into his historical drama.
The most obvious difference between the historical Richard III and the composite stage character is that the real Richard was not a hunchback. That characteristic was an invention of the playwright, Edward de Vere, as a means of vilifying the nasty Robert Cecil, who was both his step brother and brother-in-law. Sometime during Robert's infancy, his nurse dropped him on the floor, which stunted him with a crookback and hobbled gait.
|ZZ Moor as Lady Anne and Nigel Gore as Richard III|
Everyone at court, as well as the public, would have recognized the metaphor. One local libeler wrote at the time:
"Richard (III) or Robin (Cecil), which was worse?
De Vere took other liberties as well throughout the War of the Roses cycle that he wrote for Elizabeth as a breathtaking apology for Tudor power and a timeless testament to English national pride.2 For example, the way he hyperbolized the feats of his own relatives. While it is true that the 13th Earl of Oxford helped depose the Yorkist king Richard III in the storied battle of Bosworth, in the Henry VI plays Shake-speare praises this earl as "valiant Oxford" and "brave Oxford wondrous well belov'd." In those plays, Oxford retreats from one battle only to take up arms against the Yorkists at Dorset. At the battle of Tewksbury, "sweet Ocford" determines the place where the battle will be waged. In reality, the historical 13th Earl was neither at Dorset nor at Tewksbury and was certainly not worthy of such hyperbolic praise.3
A crook't back great in state is England's curse."1
But what's a little self-aggrandizement in the bigger picture of imperial mythology? De Vere was well paid for this. On Sunday, June 26, 1586, Elizabeth affixed the seal of the Privy Council to a royal warrant for a stunning £1,000 annual salary for de Vere, comparable to $270,000 today. The total payout until de Vere's death in 1604 was the equivalent of about $5 million. This initial behest came at the same time that the Queen's Men were ramping up their performance schedule, enacting histories, some of which were prototypes, if not first drafts, of this histories that have been handed down to us. Thus the oft-puzzling non sequitor by Antipholus of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors—"I buy a thousand pounds a year! I buy a rope!"—turns out to be nothing more than a topical joke when it was first performed.4
Within one month of Elizabeth approving de Vere's £1,000 annuity, the Venetian ambassador to Spain reported that King Philip was outraged that he was being mocked on the English stage. De Vere's secretary, John Lyly, he of Euphuistic fame (and a probable co-author of Love's Labour's Lost), would later write a courtly allegory, Endymion, thanking Elizabeth for her generosity. A half century after de Vere's death, a vicar from Stratford-upon-Avon noted: "I have heard that Mr. Shakespeare ... supplied the stage with 2 plays every year and for that had an allowance so large that he spent at the rate of £1,000 a year ..." The cash estate of the Stratford man, Will Shakspere, never exceeded £350. To this day, Stratfordians continue to confuse one man's pen name with another man who spelled his name similarly, when he could spell at all.
As we know from his transcendent self-examinations, the playwright has no qualms about taking himself down a notch. In other plays from the War of the Roses series, Shake-speare makes fun of his ancestors; for example, inserting a gratuitous joke into Henry V regarding an inglorious friendly-fire incident involving the 13th Earl, which led to an embarrassing defeat at the Battle of Barnet. If the playwright were anyone other than Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, none of this would make sense, unless of course the Stratford man lived his entire life as a vicarious voyeur to the life of de Vere. But what writer of such caliber, both in the quality of his writing and in the vastness of his knowledge, would waste his time on matters so peripheral to what he himself knows?
All biographical details and historical liberties aside, Richard III, along with Henry V, remain the most popular histories, due largely to the charisma of the title characters. In the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's current production, Nigel Gore assumes this magnetic mantle with ease, moving fluidly from horrifying ruthlessness to some of the most shockingly audacious and persuasive arguments ever written, all the while peppering the audience with wry asides on human foibles. "I have neither pity, love, nor fear ... Let hell make crooked my mind."
Hugh Hanson's costumes for Richard are eclectic, with punk trappings highlighting an Elizabethan base, playing more to the king's personality than to the period. The play has always lent itself easily to high concept, like opera. In this case, Andrea Bechert's scaly castle sets the requisite ominous tone, much as a sleeping dragon that periodically rises up and belches fire on the hapless mob. When Buckingham (Gary Alan Wright) leads a pep rally for Richard's coronation, we could as easily be at one of Albert Speer's or Karl Rove's well orchestrated media events as at a medieval mind meld. The playwright's elitist distrust of easily manipulated mobs comes through bright and clear, just as it does in Julius Caesar and elsewhere.
One of the dialectics that makes Richard III such a compelling drama is the contrast between Richard's mysogyny and the strong women that populate this tale. This begins with Margaret (Bella Merlin), widow of King Henry VI (Edward IV's predecessor). Margaret is the only royal that matches Richard's linguistic command, and Merlin exudes vituperative pleasure and emphatic physicality as she delivers the former queen's condemnations of Richard and his depraved plots.
Mare Trevathan brings substantial gravitas to bear as Queen Elizabeth, who must suffer the death of her husband and her sons. ZZ Moor navigates with aplomb the near impossible task making Lady Anne's agreement to marry Richard, the murderer of her husband, believable. "Was ever a woman in this humour wooed?"
Stephen Weitz is, in turn, a thoughtful, impassioned, fearful, and weary George, Duke of Clarence. A poised Leisl Jensen makes for a gracious and optimistic young Prince Edward. Sam Sandoe's sincere, honorable, and frail Edward IV nicely sets up the ensuing bloodbath. Anne Sandoe is a regal and stately Duchess of York, mother to Edward IV, Richard III, and George, the Duke of Clarence. Benaiah Anderson brings the story to an emphatic and cathartic conclusion with a strong and righteous Earl of Richmond (Henry VII), who marries Princess Elizabeth (Kathleen Burke), uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster.
Despite some uneveness in the cast, a lack of punch to the battle scenes (my "imaginary puissance" didn't quite get me to see the horses "printing their proud hoofs 'i th' receiving earth ..."), and an overall concept that does not clarify the historical context of the story or universalize it's lessons (if your adaptation doesn't universalize it, do the original and let us draw our own conclusions), the production holds its center and presents Shake-speare's multifaceted observations and fine poetry in a worthy package.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Richard III runs in repertory with Twelfth Night, Noises Off, Treasure Island, and Women of Will through August 2nd. 303-492-0554 or www.coloradoshakes.org.
1 Mark Anderson, 'Shakespeare' by Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, p. 305.
2 For example, consider how Laurence Olivier's film version of Henry V was used to rouse the British during the German blitzkrieg.
3 Op. cit., Anderson, p. 5.
4 Op. cit., Anderson, pp. 210-11.