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Why we love Richard III

Left to right: Raphe Makarewicz, Cameron Davis and Andrew Borba, who plays the title character, will star in Shakespeare Festival St. Louis' production of Richard III in Forest Park. 2008 300 pxls
Provided by Shakespeare Festival | St. Louis Beacon archives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 19, 2008: He's terrible, really. A horror. He's as twisted on the outside as he is on the inside. Born a younger son to an ambitious politician, he hacks his way into power using the joint weapons of deception and fear. He aligns himself with clever but amoral men who do his bidding. He undermines the state. He is a nightmare.

But we love him, Richard III. He's "Dick the Bad" in the childhood rhyme of the monarchs of England, even though that depiction of him is almost entirely fabricated Tudor propaganda. But we'd never trade in Shakespeare's grotesque creation, "hell's black intelligencer," for the earthly reality historians offer.

Because as repellent as Shakespeare's Richard is, we can't take our eyes off of him.

Why do we love him so much?

Some hint can be found in the history of the play in performance. After all, its theatrical appeal was immediate and hasn't waned in the succeeding 400 years.

Richard as alluring Seducer

There's an amusing story -- apocryphal, surely? -- recorded in John Manningham's diary in 1602, a decade after "Richard III" was written, about an audience member who had become enamored with the actor Richard Burbage after seeing him as Richard III. She arranged a tryst but requested that he visit in character.

Shakespeare, the story goes, overheard them, called on the lady himself and was "at his game" with her when Burbage arrived. Manningham delivers the punchline: "Then message being brought that Richard the Third was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third."

So the appeal of the play is, primarily, the appeal of the character and of the actor taking on the role. "Richard III" is one of Shakespeare's longest plays, and it has no subplot: It's all Richard, all the time. He's onstage for most of the play.

That's part of why we love him: He demands and holds our attention. And as the Manningham story suggests, he does so with a magnetic power that's surprisingly sexual.

Part of the thrill of the play is that this sexual presence can be so very bizarre. Richard is not "shaped for sportive tricks," he reminds us, so that he has to woo people with his words, by the sheer power of his personality and intellect.

This is why, when Kathryn Hunter played Richard in an all-female cast in London a few years ago, she was as convincing a seducer as any leading man. It is not a traditionally sexy role, as such.

Consider that three of the most successful, influential and appealing productions of the last 25 years featured openly gay leading men (Anthony Sher, Ian McKellen, Simon Russell Beale); and of the others, the actors tend to be more known for comic, character turns than romantic leads (David Troughton, Jonathan Slinger). His allure may be strange, but it is seductive nonetheless.

Richard as timely political comment

People sometimes refer to Shakespeare as "timeless." But what they really mean, I suspect, is that he is "timely." Plays like "Richard III" only seem to be timeless because they are adaptable enough to be approached by generation after generation on their own terms.

Take, for example, the Interregnum in England, when the country was a commonwealth and public theaters were shut down. Those in power had deemed it so: Public morality, they said, demanded it. Following the restoration of the monarchy, "Richard III" was resurrected, as well, only now it was given a new prologue explaining, in no uncertain terms, that the play was about recent events. Direct experience with war and tyranny made "Richard III" timely then.

So for hundreds of years, "Richard III" has been loved not only for the fireworks of a "great actor in a great role" but also for the frisson of political immediacy.

But for much of its stage history, Richard III's glittering personality has outweighed its gritty politics because in the late 17th century, actor-playwright Colley Cibber adapted the play into a melodrama. Although its detractors were vocal, Cibber's melodrama spoke to its time. Using only a fraction of Shakespeare's lines and adding many of his own, he cut subordinate roles, tightened the action and focused even more closely on Richard.

Sir Laurence Olivier plays Richard III in 1955 300 pxls
Credit Provided by Criterion | St. Louis Beacon archive
Sir Laurence Olivier plays Richard III in 1955.

Only in the late 19th century did actors return to Shakespeare's texts. But the echoes of Cibber's text are still heard. Even the famous Laurence Olivier film of 1955 retains many of Cibber's cuts and ironically contains Cibber's line, "Richard's himself again."

Still, the return to Shakespeare's texts in the 20th century meant that the sense of political immediacy flourishes again.

A fascinating case in point happened in 1937 Germany, when in a move of astounding bravery Werner Krauss presented a Richard based on the club-footed Joseph Goebbels. Because German productions were based on the superlative translations of Friedrich Schiller, they were not influenced by Cibber's melodrama; correspondingly, their political edges were sharper.

Back in England, however, another Richard was in the works, and he is still -- 60 years later -- our dominant image of the man: Olivier's Richard III, appearing on stage in 1944 and on film in 1955, was not an impersonation of Hitler the way that Krauss' was of Goebbels. It was, instead, more emblematic: Specifically, it was the Big Bad Wolf; both Olivier and the Disney animator based their great villains on the despised American stage director Jed Harris. What Olivier offered in Richard was a portrait of a twisted man exercising sinister power over others.

Richard as an Antihero

Maybe this makes Richard a play Americans feel particularly drawn toward. We love antiheroes, even psychologically damaged ones. American narratives from Gatsby to "The Godfather" idolize the cruelty of the ambitious. As a nation born by standing against tyranny, we love to explore what power does to a man, what tyranny means. 

The political intrigue of the Cold War, for example, proved pliable material for politically relevant theatre, including the production of Richard III that helped establish the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s. Peter Hall presented a cycle of Shakespeare's history plays called "The Wars of the Roses," in which Ian Holm's calculating and waspish Richard finally gained the stage after hours of bloody warfare, illustrating that the only thing more fearsome than anarchy is the despotism that can fill a power vacuum.

The political stripes that resonated in both Olivier's and Holm's portrayals were made even more explicit in Ian McKellen's 1990 performance (and the subsequent 1995 film), which set the entire play in a Nazi-like 1930s England.

Not all productions of Richard III highlight the play's politics, of course. Most productions still choose to focus on the psychology of Richard and not his machinations: These ask "who" and "why" more than "how" and "so what."

In these productions, we find the most grotesquely deformed Richards, like Anthony Sher's 1984 "bottled spider" Richard, which was positively monstrous-looking: with his huge central hump, crutches, spindly arms and legs, and dangling sleeves, he looked and moved like a spider.

But Richard is, ultimately, a protean part in an equally malleable play: Is he a psychopath in a psychodrama? A blackly comic actor in a black comedy? A villainous antihero in a tragedy? In the best productions, we needn't choose. He can be anything from repulsive to compelling, from absolutely inhuman to disturbingly recognizable. In fact, he might be any of these at any time.

That is why we go to the theater, and that is why the theater is so much better than a movie. It's not merely a cliche to talk of the "living" theater. It's absolutely true. And no play highlights that better than Richard III, whatever shape he may take.

Perhaps that is why we love him.

Anita Hagerman is an instructor and Ph.D. candidate at Washington University. She is currently completing her dissertation on the politics of Shakespeare in performance.

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