IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)
I had no idea Shakespeare was a such a punk.
I mean, I’ve read Richard III before. I remembered how unnervingly charming the central character was, even in spite of (or perhaps because of) his physical and psychological deformity. I recalled how drenched in blood the narrative becomes, starting with the overthrowing of Henry VI (whose death occurs before the play even starts) and descending from there into a whirlpool of slaughter, with Richard happily carving up his family, colleagues, conspirators – and even country when it descends into a full blown civil war. But reading it again, and then watching Ian McKellan’s feisty film production, Richard III (1995), it all became so obvious:
This is the ultimate punk rock story.
Sure, Shakespeare missed the heyday of the punk period – his play was first performed four centuries before The Ramones were transformed into Hot Topic’s best selling t-shirt.* And sure, the only time that ‘music’ is mentioned it’s when Richard is gloating about how sweet the sound of two young boys being murdered will be (although those could conceivably be Misfits lyrics). But the whole play’s sensibility is so anarchic and anti-establishment that it’s hard not to picture Shakespeare in a Mohawk and sleeveless denim, shouting the plot in the face of the police officer he just tried to glass.
Shakespeare was young when he wrote Richard III. The play is said to have been penned around 1592 when he was still in his late twenties, just starting to flex his muscles in the leap from an actor to writer. And this youthful exuberance shows, in all the best ways. This feels like the work of an audacious young writer, one willing to push boundaries, upend historical record, and risk offence.
The Richard Shakespeare presents has become infamous for his delighted scheming. He stands alongside Iago from Othello and Edmund from King Lear in pantheon of charismatic Shakespeare villains, but to me he outstrips them both because (at least for the first portion of the play) he’s so utterly, irredeemably badass. Full of scene-chewing sarcasm and bile, he laughs at the snivelling halfwits that make up his family and colleagues, all of whom he knows he can dance like puppets. He uses and discards people without compunction. At the height of his power he is able to seduce the woman whose husband he killed, literally while his corpse lies beside them.
He’s a character so comfortable in his ruthlessness that he doesn’t even bother inventing a justification for his villainy. The closest that we get comes in his opening soliloquy in which he says he is just bored:
Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away my time (1.1.24-5).
The war is over, and there’s nothing else to do, so why not burn everything down for the fun of it? It’s no wonder that the play’s signature line, spouted by the ghosts of everyone Richard has murdered becomes ‘Despair, and die!’ ‘Trollin’ for the LOLS’ presumably read a little less poetic.
And Shakespeare clearly has a ball with Richard’s gleeful, unrepentant, pantomime evil. Near every line the character speaks has a wicked double meaning that throbs with evil portent if you’re in on the gag. ‘Well, your imprisonment shall not be long; / I will deliver you’ (1.1.114-5), he says to the brother whose murder he has already planned; ‘A greater gift than that I’ll give my cousin’ (3.1.115) he says to the boy he has already marked for death; ”Tis death to me to be at enmity; / I hate it, and desire all good men’s love’ (2.1.60-1), he says to a gathering of his royal family, almost the entirety of whom he is about to murder, frame, threaten or manipulate into ruin.
He blows up or hollows out every monarchic ceremony he confronts. He fakes the call to rule – pretending to be unwilling to accept the crown that he has manipulated and schemed for until his fellow countrymen beg him for it. He throws a conversational hand grenade into a scene of familial peacemaking – ‘Oh, are you guys all patching things up? Cool, because I forgot to tell you that because of all of you our brother was killed, like, five minutes ago. Nice job, bro.’ He perverts one scene of courtly romance by staging it over the corpse of his conquest’s dead ex-husband, and perverts the next trying to convince a mother to marry off her daughter to him, despite the fact that he happily killed most everyone else in their family. He slaughters prisoners. He snaps at and berates his military advisors. And as he upends each of these sacred, kingly duties, you can almost hear the voice of Sid Vicious, shouting into a beer-soaked microphone:
Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you alive.**
The full scene of Richard’s seduction of Anne alone is a fantastic expression of this punk ethos. Anne, furious, berates Richard with charges of murder, but he twists her rage into a perverse attraction, corrupting everything sacred by robbing it of meaning. If her husband Henry was such a great guy, he says, then it’s probably better off that he’s dead, because we live in a world of sin. And Richard himself, he claims, is less suited for hell, as she claims, than he is for her bed, because she’s so hot. He even claims that his attraction for her is the reason he murdered her husband, and ultimately turns ‘love’ itself into an infection by remodelling her insult (‘thous dost infect my eyes’ (1.2.148) into a come-on (‘Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine’ (1.2.147-9)). Their warped, psychosexual exchange culminates in an offering of murder as romance: when she says she wants him dead, he actually offers her a sword:
[he lays his breast open: she offers at it with the sword]
Nay, do not pause, for I did kill King Henry,
But ’twas thy beauty that provoked me.
Nay, now dispatch; ’twas I that stabbed young Edward,
But ’twas thy heavenly face that set me on.
[she falls the sword] (1.2.179-82)
And when she flinches, dropping it to the ground in horror, he hands her the weapon again, upping the ante: ‘Take up the sword again, or take up me.’ (1.2.183)
Ian McKellen’s Richard III (1995) (he not only stars as the title role, but co-wrote the screenplay with the film’s director Richard Loncraine) not only understands this punk sensibility, it doubles down on it. From the opening titles – in which Richard guns a man down in cold blood, and the name of the movie is splashed in bold red across his face, one letter appearing with every blast – through to the film’s end, in which Richard, grinning, hurls himself backward off a building into a consuming ball of fire, the film continuously pushes its boundaries, testing offence. In McKellen’s version Richard mocks the children that he’s about to murder. Robert Downey Jr., while literally in the middle of having sex with a stewardess, gets (somehow) stabbed through the chest. There are hangings. People get their throats slashed in the bath. Richard sits bopping along to a big band album while happily flicking through photos of the guy that he framed and had murdered. In a fever dream, McKellen appears with his face twisted into a grotesque mutant boar.
And what else? What else…?
Oh, yeah: Richard turns England into Nazi f**king Germany.
Which is pretty wild.
IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)
Even as a way of showing how perverse Richard and his corrupted rule have become, even as a natural extension of the original play’s punk spirit, of the evoking Godwin’s rule is a bold move. Not that it doesn’t have precedent. For Shakespeare, the sitting Queen of the time, Elizabeth, was granddaughter of Henry Tudor (Richmond in the play), so there was no way he was going to make Richard, the guy who her grandfather defeated, sympathetic. Charmingly maniacal was fine, but someone to empathise with? Hell, no. So Shakespeare’s Richard became a ghoulish creature: a nasty, withered hunchback, who spent two years in the womb, and arrived sneering and chewing at the world will full grown teeth. McKellen and Loncraine can be seen to be simply continuing this demonization of Richard in their film by taking it to the next extreme: Nazis. And so, with a few cosmetic tweaks (the swastikas are swapped for boars heads), suddenly England is being policed by jackbooted thugs, war is declared, and Richard is one hunt for a religious artefact away from being punched in the face by Indiana Jones.
The element McKellen and Loncraine perhaps best capture is the seduction of the viewer. One of Shakespeare’s most ingenious moves in the crafting of his play was to make Richard alluring to his audience. When he first begins his anarchic campaign of upending of the status quo, Richard playfully invites the audience along for the ride: Watch me screw around with these idiots, he says. See me set up my dumb brother. Watch as I get away with all this crazy crap and take the throne for myself. And then, with glee, he goes ahead and does it. All of it. He weaves an elaborate web of lies that only we in the audience know is a complete load of bunk and smiles at us, sharing the joke.
‘Was ever a woman in this humour wooed? / Was ever a woman in this humour won?’ (1.2.227-8) he asks us after winning over Anne, then immediately adds that he’s going to kill her too eventually: ‘I have her; but I will not keep her long’ (1.2.229). He makes us his confidant, tempting us into laughing along as the world burns. We become, in effect, accomplices. Tickled by this schadenfreudeian thrill, we share in his murderous glee, delighting as goes about thinning the herd of the fatuous, idle rich.
McKellen’s Richard is Effectively an Elizabethan Tyler Durden from Fight Club. He peers out of the screen at us, breaking the fourth wall and scampering across every layer of text to drag us into his cynical amorality. And the first (and most famous) speech of the play is a perfect enactment of this seduction. Here, the opening portion of the soliloquy (‘Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious by this sun of York…’ (1.1.1-2)) is delivered into a microphone, turned from an expositional aside into a beguiling toast of false flattery to a room full of the people he despises. But it is in the second portion of the speech that he gets metatextual. At first growling to himself as he uses the urinal (‘But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks…’ (1.1.14)), he eventually transitions into a direct address to the audience once he catches sight of us in the bathroom mirror. It’s a wonderfully jolting piece of staging, emblematic of his beguiling stretch beyond the boundaries of his fiction: he peers out at us through a reflection of himself, his delivery dripping with sarcastic malice.***
IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)
And from that point on, Richard is all of our focus. Indeed, if there is one criticism that could be levelled at this film it is the decision to cut almost everything from the script not featuring, nor directly about, Richard – but it is entirely the right impulse. McKellen is captivating in this film. He tears every scene up, right through until the film’s frenzied, reworked endpoint, with the country beset by civil strife of his making, the monarchy rocked with multiple murders that he arranged, and Richard plunging himself backward into a maelstrom of hellfire, chewing a delighted grin. He repurposes a line that in the play is delivered to his army: ‘Let us do it pell-mell; / If not in heaven, then hand in hand to hell’ (5.3.310-11), offering the ultimate anarchist, punk-rock end. He may as well have shouted ‘YOLO’ and flicked everyone off, with the new king, McNulty from The Wire, left to wonder why he too ever bothered to give a f**k.
IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)
Of course, by this point the viewer has long since become immune to Richard’s charms. Like the punk movement itself, Richard’s unchecked nihilism has played itself out and eventually the fun is over. Richard becomes king – he win the day; getting it over on all his stupid relatives – but he doesn’t know when to stop, and inevitably pushes his twisted campaign too far. As the play progresses he devolves from a charming schemer into a myopic, pathetic bully. He starts lashing out at his underlings. He turns on his loyal lackey Buckingham and has him killed. He has his nephews murdered, even though they are already imprisoned at his mercy. He’s not being witty or clever. He’s no longer stinking it to the man. He is the man.
McKellen’s version plays this tipping point beautifully, presenting it as the culmination of Richard’s blinding arrogance. In this version he is shown sitting in state, watching his own coronation being played on a black and white film projector as the dispirited members of his court sit idle. The camera circles him as he issues orders to Buckingham dismissively, barely turning his head, and smirking in cruel delight. All the swagger that had so energised him earlier, the crafty, energetic conniving, is now slumped into facile complacency. And it is in this moment of masturbatory self-reflection that he orders the royal heirs – his young nephews, who he has already imprisoned in the tower – dead.
Throughout the play Richard has brilliantly used his appearance to knock his accusers off guard, to make them underestimate him. Oh, so you think I’m wicked just because I look freaky, and cannot flatter you? he asks his enemies, even as we are watching him perform a master-class of flattery and wickedness. It makes people underestimate him. And by this midpoint of the play we realise that he has done the same thing to us, the viewer. We get charmed by Richard initially because he appears to be telling us the truth, taking us into his confidence in a way he seemingly never does anyone else in the play. We are his co-conspirators, and the sensation is intoxicating. But, of course, he’s not really treating us differently to anyone else. We are just seduced like his followers were – just like Anne was – at the start of the play. And we too will be ignored when we’re no longer of any use.
Richard is repeatedly shown invoking a telling imagery of horses. He declares ‘I run before my horse to market’ (1.1.160) when he is getting ahead of himself in his scheming; calls himself a ‘pack-horse’ (1.3.122); and in the lead up to war seems particularly obsessive about horses, shouting for one when he wakes from his guilty nightmare (5.3.177), commanding his soldiers to ‘Spur your proud horses hard’ (5.3.340), and repeating the word four times in twelve lines of dialogue while issuing his battle plans (5.3.289-300). And of course, after all of this, as he meets his end, abandoned on the battlefield, his famous final lines cry out to the universe for one thing:
‘A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!’ (5.4.13).
What we realise is that we were his horse for the play. We held him aloft in our delight of his scheming. But when that relationship turns sour – when we lose the sense that he is a whip-smart underdog punching upwards, and instead see him (as everyone else in the play has all along) as simply a petty, psychotic despot punching down, his charm is overthrown (to borrow a phrase) and we, his loyal horse, buck him, leaving him for dead.
And that’s where the film concludes: in Richard’s pseudo-suicide; with fire and death and fury. But the most punk thing about the original play is that it doesn’t just end here. It keeps going. The genius of Shakespeare’s play is that it doesn’t sputter out on empty nihilism; or paper over it with a superficial happy resolve. Having used Richard to denigrate the social order, belittling monarchy and embracing anarchy, Shakespeare flips the script and punks out on punk itself. The play celebrates the restoration of the monarchy that Richard tore down, now with a renewed significance.
Indeed, despite having scoffed at the idea of kingship, Richard too, in the end, proves to be just as blinded by its charms. Despite doing everything in his power to debase and undermine the position of king – himself having stripped that title of all meaning – on the day of battle he still believes that his name as England’s monarch will inspire his soldiers to fight for him. Richard – rogue, anarchist, and sociopath – reveals that even he didn’t believe his own disaffected swagger. But unsurprisingly, his men, disenchanted, fail him, despite being superior in numbers. He becomes a victim of his own cynicism.
Just as punk music gave way to New Pop, just as postmodernism subsided to allow for post-ironic embrace of sincerity, Richard III reaffirms the monarchy by first blowing it up. By undermining the whole position of king and kingship, Shakespeare fills the concept with meaning. And so this, the final play in Shakespeare’s eight-play account of the War of the Roses* ultimately asserts that the people of this world need a king – their rightful king. Shakespeare might have used the image of a ‘bottled spider’ and a ‘foul bunch-back’d toad’, McKellen might have used the Nazis and mutant boars, but both show the inherent danger of a nihilistic anarchic impulse that collapses in on itself when there is nothing else left to believe in.
* * *
AS AN ASIDE:
Briefly, I should mention that I also listened to the audio production of Richard III, directed by David Timson and starring Kenneth Branagh, but I found it a little difficult to embrace. Amidst some strong performances there are also a few moments of woeful overacting – even after you make allowances for the non-visual medium. Clarence’s performance, in particular, is so hysterical that I was a little glad when his untimely death arrived, and Branagh himself doesn’t seem to entirely have a handle on his character. His Richard spends the first half of the play fluctuating between a squirmy obsequiousness and a hiccoughy, giddy glee at how wicked he thinks he is, constantly rolling his words around in his mouth like he’s the moustache twirling villain of a telenovella. To be fair, he gets considerably better when he embraces the ugly, snarling side of Richard later in the play, berating his soldiers and snapping at underlings, but as it is the early scenes that show Richard’s blindsiding charisma, it feels like something of an opportunity missed.
* * *
* Punk was a movement in the mid seventies that rejected the excesses of mainstream rock. It presented itself as anti-establishment and railed against the perceived evils of ‘selling out’. It was about non-conformity and individual freedom of expression.
** This quote may have only been apocryphally attributed to Vicious. But misapplying quotations without academic scrutiny? That’s pretty punk.
*** The movie is also subversive in other, more subtle ways too. This play is famous for its dialogue not simply by virtue of being a Shakespeare play, but because this text in particular has one of the most iconic opening lines in history: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’ Here, however, it is 10 full minutes before a single line of dialogue is spoken, as the stage setting is done in a lush, non-verbal montage.
**** In their order of historical chronology: Richard II, Henry IV pts 1 and 2 and Henry V, Henry VI pts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III. However Richard III was written before the first four plays in this list.
IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)
Richard III by William Shakespeare, ed by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson (Cambridge University Press, 1968)
Richard III by William Shakespeare (audiobook), directed by David Timson (Naxos, 2001)