Cover image for William Shakespeare's Richard III : a screenplay
William Shakespeare's Richard III : a screenplay
McKellen, Ian.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
Woodstock, N.Y. : Overlook Press, 1996.
Physical Description:
299 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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Item Holds
PN1997.R5383 M35 1996 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Author Notes

Sir Ian McKellen is among the most highly acclaimed actors in the English-speaking world. His appearances on stage, on screen, and on television have been numerous. He recently starred as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and recieved an Academy Award® nomination for his performance in The Fellowship of the Ring .

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Library Journal Review

Thanks to the recent film version, Richard is again a hot property. This Dover Thrift edition is the most economical way to stock extra copies. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



0553213040|excerpt Shakespeare: RICHARD III introduction A The fascinating evil ruler for whom Richard III is named has already made his appearance in the third part of Henry VI, in the four-play sequence that makes up Shakespeare's first foray into English history. In the final installment in this tetralogy, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, stands fully revealed as the evil genius of England's prolonged crisis of civil war. With a bold stroke, Shakespeare opens Richard III with his arresting soliloquy; Richard takes over the stage in a way that has held audiences spellbound ever since Richard Burbage first performed the role. Richard announces his determination to "prove a villain," both defying and fulfilling Nature, which made his body deformed. In fact, he has already begun his treacherous course, and we see at once how his plot against Clarence, founded on something so trivial as the letter G, has manipulated the King and has ensnared Clarence. Then, with outrageous hypocrisy, he "comforts" Clarence. Within less than a hundred lines, Shakespeare makes us feel how brilliant, cynical, charming, and dangerous Richard of Gloucester is. Richard proceeds to dominate the other characters--and the whole play--to an extraordinary degree. By organizing this play firmly around Richard, Shakespeare solved the problems of giving form to his drama and of concluding the series of plays about the dynastic rivalry of York and Lancaster. Richard III begins and ends with a peace, yet the recent peace of the Yorkist King Edward is scorned and sabotaged by Richard as soon as it is introduced. It is vulnerable to factions at court and is bitterly denounced by that living embodiment of the cruel and violent past, Queen Margaret. There can be no peace in England while Richard lives to undermine it. Still, as the plot moves through Richard's exhilarating rise to the throne and the events of his tragic fall--when his conscience, the spirits of those he murdered, and the Earl of Richmond punish and defeat him--we see that his career is part of a larger order, a seemingly providential plan of retribution for wickedness and injustice and for reconciling England's divisions. For all its specific reminders of past warfare and atrocity on both Yorkist and Lancastrian sides, Richard III dramatizes an archetypal struggle between good and evil, personified in Richard the villain-hero and Richmond his opponent, who plays the role of the righteous agent of divine and poetic justice. Dramatically, Richmond, like Queen Margaret, is more a symbol than a fully developed character. It is Richard who is the exciting figure as he deceives and manipulates others and finally faces the chillingly isolated condition into which he has brought himself by being so truly a villain. He climbs to power by deceit, and so he is constantly acting a part. Richard's ability as an actor is seemingly limitless. He has already boasted, in 3 Henry VI, that he can deceive more slyly than Ulysses, Sinon, or Machiavelli and can put on more false shapes than Proteus. To us as audience, he is cynically candid and boastful, setting us up in advance to watch his unbelievable performances. In an instant, before our eyes, he is the concerned younger brother of Clarence, sharing a hatred of Queen Elizabeth and her kindred; he is the jocular uncle of the little princes; or he is the pious recluse studying divinity with his clerical teachers, reluctant to accept the responsibilities of state that are thrust upon him by his importunate subjects (i.e., by Catesby and Buckingham, who are also actors in this staged scene). None of these bravura performances, however, matches the wooing of Lady Anne. Richard himself sees it as the great test of his powers and is suitably impressed by his victory. The wooing scene, to some critics, challenges credibility. One key to credibility must lie in superb acting. The actor who plays Richard must transform himself from the gloating villain we know in soliloquy to the grief-stricken lover. Richard's argument is, after all, speciously plausible: that he has killed Anne's husband and father-in-law out of desperate love for her. The argument appeals to vanity, that most fatal of human weaknesses. What power Anne suddenly appears to have over Richard! She can kill him or spare his life. Richard shrewdly judges her as one who is not able to kill, and so he risks offering her his sword. As stage manager, he has altered her role from that of sincere mourner to the stereotype of the proud woman worshiped by her groveling servant in love. With superb irony, Richard has inverted the appearance and the reality of control in this struggle between man and woman, winning mastery by flattering Anne that she has such power over his emotions and his life. From his amazing success, Richard concludes that ordinary men and women can be made to believe anything and to betray their own instincts by "the plain devil and dissembling looks" (1.2.239). Richard is indeed devil-like; his role as actor stems in part from that of the Vice in the morality play, brilliantly comic and sinister. Yet even the devil can prevail over his victims only when they acquiesce in evil. The devil can deceive the senses, but acceptance of evil is still an act of the perverted will. Anne is guilty, however much we can appreciate the mesmerizing power of Richard's personality. By the end of the scene, she has violated everything she holds sacred. The image of Richard as devil or Vice raises questions of motivation and of symbolic meaning, and suggests two seemingly disparate ways of reading the play, one psychological and the other providential. Is Richard a human character, propelled toward the throne by his insatiable ambition, like Macbeth? Is there a clue to his behavior in his ugliness and misanthropy? One might argue that he compensates for his ugliness and unlovability by resolving to domineer. Feeling unwanted, he despises all humans and undertakes to prove them weak and corrupt in order to affirm himself. He expresses a universal human penchant for cruelty and senseless domination. Yet the proposition that Richard is evil because he was born ugly logically can be reversed as well: he was born ugly because he is evil. In providential terms, Richard can be seen as the result of a divine plan in which evil ironically has a place in a larger scheme of things that is ultimately benign. This latter concept, owing much to Renaissance notions of platonic correspondence between outer appearances and inner qualities, is grounded on the idea of a vast struggle in the cosmos between the forces of absolute good and the forces of absolute evil, one in which every event in human life has divine meaning and cause. Richard's birth is, according to this theory, a physical manifestation of that divine meaning. Providential destiny, having determined the need for a genius of evil at this point in English history, decrees that Richard shall be born. The teeth and hunched back merely give evidence of what is already predetermined. In the apt words of the choric Queen Margaret, Richard was "sealed in thy nativity / The slave of nature and the son of hell" (1.3.229-30). Though he devotes himself to selfish ambition and evil-doing, Richard ultimately serves the righteous purpose of divine Providence in human affairs. He functions, in this interpretation, as a scourge of God, whose tyrannous plotting is permitted in order to bring just retribution upon offenders of the moral law. He is fundamentally unlike Shakespeare's more human villains, such as Macbeth or Claudius, but belongs, instead, to a special group of villains, including Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear. Like them, Richard is driven both by human motivation and by his pre-existent evil genius; he displays the "motiveless malignity" ascribed by Coleridge to Iago. Such a reading is only one approach to an understanding of Richard's character and function; he is also a human being involved in a struggle for power, motivated by ambition and hatred. The two readings, one psychological and the other providential, are complementary and need not contradict each other. The psychological reading seems more intelligible to us today, based as it is on character and motivation. The providential reading, more traditional in its ideology, helps explain not only Richard's delight in evil but also the necessity for so much evil and suffering in England's civil wars. This theory of history owes much to Edward Hall's Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1542), Shakespeare's chief source, along with Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1578), for his Henry VI plays. Shakespeare's treatment of Richard is ultimately indebted to Polydore Vergil's Anglica Historia (1534) and especially to The History of King Richard the Third, attributed to Sir Thomas More (published 1557). This latter work, adopted in turn by Edward Hall, Richard Grafton, and Raphael Holinshed, purposefully blackens Richard's character. He becomes a study in the nature of tyranny, an object lesson to future rulers and their subjects. He is, moreover, a result of the curse placed by God on the English people for their sinful disobedience. Richmond, in this Tudor explanation, becomes God's minister, chosen to destroy the scourge and thereafter to fulfill a new and happy covenant between God and humanity as King Henry VII. Thus, the play hardly touches on the sensitive matter of his somewhat remote Lancastrian claim to the crown. His victory at Bosworth is not one more turn of Fortune's wheel raising or deposing Lancastrian or Yorkist kings, but the end of a long cycle of unnatural violence, and his marriage to the Yorkist Princess Elizabeth is the restoration and the symbol of unity and peace in England's fair land. Although modern historians more impartially regard the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485 as a political overthrow not unlike Henry IV's overthrow of Richard II, and stress that Richard III was a talented administrator guilty of no worse political crimes than those of his more fortunate successor, Elizabethan audiences (under the constant promptings of the Tudor state) could not have found sufficient meaning in such a neutral interpretation. They were taught to see history as revealing God's intention and to view Henry VII's accession not as a parallel to the deposing of Richard II by Henry IV but, instead, as a divinely sanctioned deliverance of the English nation, to which Elizabeth's subjects were the happy heirs. Accordingly, the Tudor myth stressed the tyrannical nature of Richard III's seizure of power and conversely minimized the political and Machiavellian elements in Henry VII's takeover. Bosworth Field was seen as an act of God, a rising up of some irresistible force, and under no circumstances as a precedent for future rebellion. In the Henry VI plays, Shakespeare puts considerable distance between himself and the Tudor orthodox reading of history, allowing the grim realities of civil war to speak for themselves. In Richard III, however, the pattern shown in the chronicles provides Shakespeare with an essential structural device. Viewing the civil wars in retrospect, Richard III potentially manifests a cohesive sense in which England's suffering has fulfilled a necessary plan of fall from innocence, leading through sin and penitence to regeneration. Evil is seen at last as something through which good triumphs, in English history, as in the story of humankind's fall and a restoration by divine grace. This providential scheme imposes a double irony on Richard III. In the short run, Richard appears to be complete master over his victims. "Your imprisonment shall not be long," Richard assures his brother Clarence. "I will deliver you, or else lie for you" (1.1.114-15). The audience, already let in on the secret, can shiver at the grisly humor of these double entendres. Clarence will indeed soon be delivered--to his death. Richard's henchmen are fond of such jokes, too. When Lord Hastings is on his way to the Tower, where he plans to stay for midday dinner, Buckingham observes aside, "And supper too, although thou know'st it not" (3.2.122). Buckingham, knowing that Hastings is about to be arrested in the Tower and executed for treason, chillingly suggests that Hastings will soon be a feast for worms. Shortly before, Catesby has assured Hastings of Richard's and Buckingham's favor: "The princes both make high account of you-- / [Aside] For they account his head upon the Bridge" (3.2.69-70). That is to say, Hastings's severed head will soon be raised on a pole on London Bridge as a grim warning to those who run afoul of the new regime. Richard has a phrase for such wit: "Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity, / I moralize two meanings in one word" (3.1.82-3). The point of such ironies is always the same: the scheming villain is cleverer than his victims, deceiving them through equivocation and triumphing in their spiritual blindness. The delayed irony of the play, however, ultimately offers another possible explanation for the seemingly nihilistic conclusions of the early scenes; that is, there may be a larger plan at work, of which Richard is unconscious and in which he plays a role quite unlike the one he creates for himself. In this interpretive view, Shakespeare's Richard fulfills a plan of which he is unaware, as in the chronicles of Edward Hall and others, even in the process of what he gloatingly regards as his own self-aggrandizement. Providential plans are always complex, inscrutable to the minds of mortals, and understood least by those who unwittingly execute them. In attempting to prove his own contention that human nature is bestial and that a Machiavellian man of utter self-confidence can force his way to the top, flouting all conventions of morality, Richard succeeds in demonstrating the opposite. From the moment he takes the throne, he feels it insecure beneath him; opposition and betrayal spring up from every quarter, and, in his last moments, a mere horse is worth his whole kingdom. With sardonic comedy and poetic justice, Richard becomes the proverbial beguiler who is beguiled. Even if this is not the only way to interpret Richard's character, the play does offer for our consideration a theory of divine causality in which virtually all of Richard's victims deserve their fate because they have offended God. Prophecies and dreams give structure to the sequence of retributive actions and keep grim score. As the choric Margaret observes, a York must pay for a Lancastrian, an eye for an eye: Edward IV for Henry VI, young Edward V for Henry VI's son Edward. Thus, the Yorkist princes, though guiltless, die for their family's sins. The Yorkist Queen Elizabeth, like the Lancastrian Margaret, must outlive her husband into impotent old age, bewailing her children's cruel deaths. Clarence sees his death as punishment for breaking his oath at the battle of Tewkesbury and for his part in murdering Henry VI's son, Prince Edward. The Queen's kindred have been guilty of ambition, and Lord Hastings, in turn, is vulnerable because he has been willing to plot with Richard against the Queen's kindred. Margaret's curses serve both to warn the characters of their fates (a warning they blindly ignore) and to invite each person to curse himself or herself unwittingly but with ironic appropriateness. Lady Anne wishes unhappiness on any woman so insane as to marry Richard. Buckingham protests in a most sacred oath that whenever he turns again on the Queen's kindred, he will deserve to be punished by the treachery of his dearest friend (i.e., Richard). Dreams serve the same purpose of divine warning, giving Clarence a grotesque intimation of his death by drowning (in a butt of malmsey wine) and warning Hastings (through Stanley's dream) that the boar, Richard, will cut off his head. Thus, the English court punishes itself through Richard. He is the essence of the courtiers' factionalism, able to succeed as he does only because they forswear their most holy vows and conspire to destroy one another. They deserve to be outwitted at their own dismal game. Yet their falls are curative as well; Richard's victims acknowledge the justice of their undoings and penitently implore divine forgiveness. Richard contrastingly finds conscience a torment, rather than a voice of comfort and wisdom. Richard III is not without its ironies and historical anxieties. Richard's own successful career of evil through much of the play demonstrates how rhetoric and theater can be used to dupe and to corrupt. The political process seems endlessly prone to cynical manipulation, and triumph comes chiefly to those who know how to use rhetoric to calculated effect. The Lord Mayor and his London associates are as pliable as the aristocracy. For all the belated assurances of providential meaning in Richard's rise to power and overthrow, we are allowed to speculate un- comfortably about the pragmatic action of history and its seeming ability to thrust forward into prominence an evil king or a good one, as individual temperament happens to dictate. Finally, there is the question of how Richard is supplanted. Whatever the reasons for Richard's baleful emergence, the process of his overthrow requires human agency and a rebellion against established (even if tyrannical) royal authority. To thoughtful observers in the sixteenth century, including Queen Elizabeth, any such rebellion, no matter how seemingly necessary, established a disturbing precedent and a threat to Tudor monarchical stability. If Richard III finds reassuring answers in the victory of Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, it does so in the face of pressing and troublesome circumstances. The pattern of reciprocity and retaliation is much more than a way of demonstrating an ultimate divine purpose in human affairs; it is also a theatrically effective way of structuring a drama so as to make it coherent and entertaining. Shakespeare strikes us as above all a man of the theater, an artist and entertainer who senses what his audiences want. The shape of Richard III, as it moves through the anxieties of Richard's seemingly unstoppable rise to power to an eventual affirmation that brings closure not only to this play but to the entire four-play cycle of the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, is immensely satisfying as theatrical experience. Modern audiences, with no ideological commitment to the propagandistic view that God chose Henry VII as the savior of England, can respond warmly to the play's artistic and theatrical depiction of coherence and pattern. That pattern allows us to enjoy Richard's villainies as theatrical performance while perceiving that those villainies are contained and disarmed by a larger structure. Good eventually triumphs over evil in Richard III, if only because some Englishmen have the patience and common sense to endure a presumably deserved punishment and wait for deliverance. As in 3 Henry VI, the common people have little to do with the action of the play. They are choric spokesmen and bystanders, virtuous in their attitude (except for the two suborned murderers of Clarence). In their plain folk wisdom, they see the folly and evil their betters ignore: "Oh, full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester, /And the Queen's sons and brothers haught and proud" (2.3.28-9). And, although they accept Richard as ruler, they do so most reluctantly; Bucking- ham's first attempt to persuade the people to this course meets with apathy and silence. Their wisdom is to "leave it all to God" (2.3.46). In the fullness of time, this faith in goodness brings its just reward. Richard III compresses historical time. It begins where 3 Henry VI has left off, with the return of Edward IV to the throne in 1471, and ends with the defeat of Richard III, the last Yorkist king, at the battle of Bosworth (1485). Because of its close relation in subject to passages in 3 Henry VI and its similar Senecan style, the play appears to have been written soon after its predecessors, sometime between 1591 and 1594. It greatly condenses events of fourteen years, particularly at the beginning, when King Henry VI's funeral rites (1471), Richard's courtship of Lady Anne (1472), Clarence's murder in the Tower (1478), and Edward's death (1483) are made to take place in rapid succession. Similarly, Buckingham's rebellion (1483), Richmond's thwarted sailing (1483), and his landing at Milford Haven (1485) are also compressed. Queen Margaret's role is a nonhistorical addition to the play, for the widowed Queen never left France after her ransom in 1475 by Louis XI. Richard III is irresistible in performance. However much Richard reveals himself to be a conscienceless villain, his versatility as a performer and his taking us into his confidence invite a kind of complicity between actor and audience that is the stuff of dramatic excitement. See the essays on the play on stage and on screen, following, for detailed histories and analysis. Excerpted from Richard III by William Shakespeare All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.