Introduction to Richard III #

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Shakespeare introduces Richard, the duke of Gloucester, to us directly so that we share his most intimate thoughts by having him break the fourth wall and speak to the audience directly. The effect of this is multiple; it is a fundamental alienating device to simultaneously engage us and yet detach us from him. We feel close to him, admire his candour, yet ambivalently despise him for his naked aggressive machinations and treachery.

Some people will do anything to get to the top

Navigating the corridors of power is easy if you know how to take a few short cuts. Richard III tells the story of an obsessed man with twisted ambitions, who manipulates, marries and murders his way to the top. Set as a contemporary political thriller, this gripping production dissects the corruption of power in testing times; when peace is abandoned and enemies mount in the minds of the paranoid. Suave, calculating and brutal, meet one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains. An advertisement for Richard III in Melbourne.

As part of a tetralogy of Historical Plays; Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, Shakespeare presents a view of the two competing Houses, the Lancaster (Tudors) and the House of York. As the reigning Monarch, Elizabeth I is a staunch Tudor, Shakespeare appears to present them in a favourable light and denigrates the family of the House of York by portraying their dirty internecine family backroom dealings as ruthless chicanery or machinations of power games.

These were violent times and Richard III would have experienced the murder of his father and older brother in a power struggle, most of his uncles engaged in brutal manoeuvrings to have the heavy crown placed on their heads. While this does not excuse the bloody disputes of Richard, it should go some way to our understanding of this character.

It is often said that the victors write the history. Shakespeare presents a deliberately distorted or biased account writing 100 years after the events. It is patently obvious that he favours the Lancaster (Tudor) house over the House of York (Later called the Stuarts) very likely to ingratiate himself with the reigning monarch of his time. In no way does this bias detract one iota from the force of the play.

As with most of Shakespeare’s Plays, Richard III is noteworthy for the power of his dramatic technique and the force of his language. Shakespeare manages to breathe life into his characters and situations and make them memorable.

Just as Shakespeare stole his source material from others and revitalised them, contemporary composers are at liberty to take his material and reshape it to make it relevant and accessible to present day audiences. The mid 1990s saw a number of productions that transformed classical literature from literary texts to the silver screen. The two most noteworthy are Ian McKellen’s version set in the fascist 1930s and Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard. Both productions help ordinary people gain an insight into the Play by Shakespeare, Richard III.

Modern television that uses much the same formula for other anti-heroes in realpolitics like Richard III can be seen in series like, Yes, Prime Minister, The House of Cards, or Veep. (British) (American)

Power is a seductive aphrodisiac towards absolute control; “twas ever thus in the affairs of human beings and ever will it be”.