Sunday, January 26, 2014

Shakespeare’s villains - Richard III

Surely William Shakespeare has created some of the most memorable villains in English literature. Those who are familiar with the Bard’s work know all his evil heavies such as Iago, Aaron the Moor, Tamora, Lady Macbeth and Edmund.

While rereading Richard III it was easy to see why the Duke of Glouster also makes the list of famous villains. Richard has some iconic lines;

Now is the winter of our discontent...

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

Off with his head!

So wise, so young, they say, do never live long.

In Richard III the title character even tells us who he is.

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

But then I sigh, and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends, stol'n out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

Richard will do anything to be king. He has his own brother and two young nephews murdered, he lies and deceives, he plans and plots

But Shakespeare knew Richard was evil before this play. Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy chronicled the politically charged War of the Roses, the struggle for the English throne between the Lancaster and York families. In Henry VI part 3 we see the three York brothers as the stage is set for Richard III. At the end of Henry VI part 3, the Duke of Glouster’s character is portrayed in language as rich as any found in Richard III.

Just prior to Richard killing him, the deposed King Henry VI says to Richard:

And thus I prophesy, that many a thousand,
Which now mistrust no parcel of my fear,
And many an old man's sigh and many a widow's,
And many an orphan's water-standing eye— 
Men for their sons, wives for their husbands,
And orphans for their parents timeless death—
Shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born.
The owl shriek'd at thy birth,—an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time; 
Dogs howl'd, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rook'd her on the chimney's top,
And chattering pies in dismal discords sung.
Thy mother felt more than a mother's pain,
And, yet brought forth less than a mother's hope,

To wit, an indigested and deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.
Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,
To signify thou camest to bite the world:

As Richard looks down at Henry's body he says:

The midwife wonder'd and the women cried
'O, Jesus bless us, he is born with teeth!'
And so I was; which plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite and play the dog. 
Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it.
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word 'love,' which graybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another 
And not in me: I am myself alone.

Somewhere along the way Richard has lost and forsaken his humanity.

I, that have neither pity, love, nor fear

This is what makes Richard III such a great villain. He is quite comfortable and adept at murder an deceit. But Richard is more than an inhuman monster. He is a political animal, a ruthless chess play. His intelligence and manipulation make Richard the Hannibal Lecter of his day. He is cold and calculating with just enough charm to fool you. Richard can mimic human traits, indeed, it is as if he has studied human nature and knows how to manipulate people, but he is not human. He is a misanthrope. He hates people for having the human qualities that he lacks. Richard fascinates us, but we should also fear him, for none of us are safe from his machinations.

Stephen Gaspar's books are available on Amazon.

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