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PlayingPolitics Richard I in Recent Performance James NorrisLoehlin IN THE PAST THIRTY YEARS, political criticism and revisionist production have aroused new interest in Shakespeare's history plays. Yet one play, RichardIII,has remained curiously unresponsive to this treatment. While the most popular and frequently staged of the histories, it has not received the kind of sophisticated political rereadings that directors and critics have lavished on the second tetralogy (RichardII-Henry V) or even the earlier Henry VI plays. In the British theatre at least, productions have either tended to remain in the star-centered hero-villain mode of Garrick, Kean, and Olivier, or to apply simplistic and inaccurate parallels from twentieth-century tyranny. The prominent recent productions starring Antony Sher and Ian McKellen fit these types, while Sam Mendes's striking new version with Simon Russell Beale avoids their pitfalls and points the way to a more interesting and political approach to Shakespeare. One of the difficulties with RichardIII, in terms of revisionist political production, is that it is so completely focused on the title character. Not only does this go against a Marxian analysis of historical forces rather than great individuals, but it effectively means that performances stand or fall on the audience's response to the protagonist. The other characters are important but are sketchily defined; to an audience unfamiliar with the historical background or the other plays of the tetralogy, they are just heads for Richard to chop off. Seen on his own, Richard must be either an engaging Vice-figure, gleefully dispatching his victims before meeting his deserved comeuppance, or a totalitarian monster carrying out a ruthless program of evil. Both these aspects of the protagonist can be derived 80 from Shakespeare's text, but the play incorporates them into a wider depiction of the collapse of feudalism. Richard III is the final play of a historical tetralogy detailing the long and bloody civil wars of the fifteenth century, wars that effectively broke the dominance of the landed aristocracy , killed off the rival claimants for the throne, and ended the Middle Ages. Shakespeare's history plays exhibit a broad political understanding ofthese transformations, but RichardIl's insistent focus on its protagonist tends to pull productions away from this wider view. RichardIII has always been a favorite star vehicle for actors, from the days of Garrick and Colley Cibber, whose version was cut and expanded to make Richard even more central. More than any of Shakespeare's other histories, and arguably more than any of Shakespeare's other plays, it is dominated by its protagonist. That protagonist's most important relationship is not with any of the other characters, but with the audience. As critics like Bernard Spivack and Robert Weimann have noted, Richard's special relationship with the audience is an inheritance from medieval morality plays: Richard is related to the Vice, the representative of evil who jokes with the audience between attempts to lead the hero astray. In his humor, his wordplay, his use of conspiratorial asides and soliloquies, and his stage-managing of the events of the play, Richard shares the qualities of the medieval Vice. The dominant production tradition of Richard III has centered on the charming but evil qualities of the hero-villain. The political tendency of these productions is conservative, corresponding to E. M. W Tillyard's thesis of a providential "Tudor Myth." Tillyard argued that Richard III is the culmination of a political myth propagated by Shakespeare throughout the history plays, of an England cursed by the murder of Richard II and only freed by the accession of the Tudor monarch Henry VII. In this view Richard III is the final link in the chain of sin binding England: a fury carrying the ancestral curse to completion, while at the same time entertaining the audience with his diabolism. Having whittled down the dramatispersonaeand filled out the play's moral lesson, Richard is dispatched to Hell, leaving the stage and the throne to the benevolent Henry Tudor. Attempts to contravene this tradition in recent years have usually stripped Richard of his likable qualities by associating him with the contemporary tyranny of Hitler and Stalin. Polish critic Jan Kott argues that the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1537-9477
Print ISSN
1520-281X
Pages
pp. 80-94
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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