Shakespeare’s first four history plays reconstruct the political chaos of the English court under the incompetent King Henry VI. The power-hungry House of York wages war on its cousins of the ruling House of Lancaster, but once Henry and his prince have been killed, and the Yorkish Edward wears the crown, he must guard it against his own brothers, Clarence and Richard. Richard III concludes the tetralogy, charting Richard’s ruthless rise to the throne and his final downfall.
Shakespeare’s audiences would have enjoyed this dramatic history of medieval England; they also would have been conscious of its contemporary political agenda. Richard III culminates in the killing of Richard by the Earl of Richmond, a k a Henry Tudor, and this Henry was the grandfather of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare’s queen. Given the tenuousness of Henry Tudor’s original claim to kingship, and the memory of civil war a mere two generations in the past, Shakespeare follows a safe, politically correct line in demonizing his protagonist: the more horrible Richard can be made to appear, the more righteous and legitimate will seem the bloodline that has supplanted him.
The chilling production in the OSF’s Elizabethan Theatre, directed by James Bundy, presents a horrific Richard indeed. Played by Dan Donohue with minimal affect, he explains and executes his plans to kill his way to the crown. His blend of detachment and compulsiveness brings to mind those self-made videos of mass murderers which our media cannot resist airing. This Richard’s disability never translates into vulnerability: fate has stuck him with a deformed arm and leg that he’d probably hack off and throw away if he could. His engagement with us, the audience, is perfunctory. Though he confides his intentions to us and boasts their accomplishment, he doesn’t care whether we approve of them or him. Nor does he work very hard to charm his victims onstage—he delivers his outrageous deceits flat-out, which makes it all the more amazing when they succeed.
Richard’s extreme dissociation affects this production in notable ways. Without an antic, even charismatic villain inviting us to share the ironies of his situation, we notice how sharply at odds the text of the play is with the actions unfolding alongside it. Bundy preempts Richard’s well-known opening speech with a dumb show that forecasts this discrepancy: with his court gathered around him, King Edward drinks from a goblet, shows signs of bodily discomfort, surreptitiously scribbles a note and hands it to a courtier, who sneaks it to another. As this scene of intrigue, even danger, ends, Richard enters, and offers an entirely different version of things: with the wars over, he tells us, everyone at court is indulging in pleasure and love-making, all except him. Thus his monologue, which might have elicited a little initial sympathy, reeks of disinformation and bald rationalization: what can he do, an outsider ill-suited to love, but kill people instead?
The word love pops again and again from the dialogue only to emphasize its travesty. In Act One, Richard seduces the grieving Lady Anne (Kate Hurster) with suicidal double talk: “this hand which for thy love did kill thy love, shall for thy love kill a far truer love.” Her head undoubtedly spinning, she succumbs and soon is dead. Earlier, Richard tells Clarence, the brother whose death he has plotted, “I do love thee so.” Later the doomed Clarence and his murderers play toss with the word love until Clarence realizes the grim connection between it and treachery in the inverted world of the court. King Edward forces his hate-filled courtiers to swear their love to each other, a ritual so empty it’s frightening. Facing defeat in the end, Richard experiments with remorse for his acts but falters. A conscience would interfere with his ability to survive the upcoming battle, he decides, and his bottom line is “Richard loves Richard.”
Against Richard’s lack of passion, the emotionality of the other characters spirals into histrionics. When Richard interrupts Anne as she escorts the corpse of King Henry to be interred, she orders him to “blush, blush” at his “foul deeds.” In an ensuing pause, Richard looks to us with a silent, “Huh? Me?”—a response that drives her out of control. The deadpan tactic serves Richard against the anxious eloquence of Clarence (the complex Jeffrey King), and against vengeful Margaret (the powerful Francine Dorn), King Henry’s widow, whose curses Richard accepts with an ironic, shrugging, “I can’t blame her.”
Anthony Heald’s Buckingham serves as a revealing foil to this Richard. Buckingham’s integrity can be bought with the promise of land, money, pleasure. As plump as Richard is lean and vulpine, as good-humored as Richard is severe, Buckingham is simply a garden-variety corruptible man whereas Richard is a psychopath. In the end Buckingham voices orthodox repentance for his sins; Richard dies killing. In the final battle, having slain five Richmonds, he exits to find one more.
It is a nasty, brutish world Shakespeare and Bundy have wrought in this season’s Richard III; Richard is less its misfit outsider than its ultimate expression. Perhaps the darkest production of the play I’ve seen, it seems eerily appropriate to our times, when too many functional psychopaths show blatant contempt for everyone yet are permitted to accumulate wealth and power and too many non-functional ones are permitted to accumulate guns. Richard differs from Buckingham and his other victims in that his total self-absorption frees him to execute serial killings without remorse whereas theirs simply renders them ineffectual and blind. Does that say something about us?
Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the spy thriller Broken Angels (www.fuzepublishing.com)