Saturday, February 2, 2019

Richard III: Conversation (Act IV, Scenes 3-5)

I'm looking forward to your thoughts about the tragedy of the little princes in RIII.

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Today I woke up late, with cold morning peering over the blind. Yesterday's class went well enough, and I think the residency will be fine, so long as I don't end up with any horrible snow commutes.

I've got tomorrow's Longfellow Days reading to prep for, and next weekend's love poem workshop at Longfellow's house to prep for . . . so much Longfellow this month! But perhaps Maine is the last bastion of Longfellow honor. I don't think he's been stylish anywhere else for a long time.

I had to take a break from The Birth of the Modern because I was trapped in a swamp of economics and bank policy. I'm sure someone would find it fascinating, but I could not. So as relief, I reread a short Trollope novel (Dr. Wortle's School) and now I am rereading Colm Toibin's story collection Mothers and Sons.

More work keeps coming in. It's so funny how that happens all at once: workshops, a few private manuscript reviews, and now I've been tapped to proofread a well-known literary magazine.

Here's a Longfellow poem . . . a beautiful heartbreaking one.

Mezzo Cammin

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Half of my life is gone, and I have let
The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
The aspiration of my youth, to build
Some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
Of restless passions that would not be stilled,
But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,—
A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,—
And hear above me on the autumnal blast
The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.


Carlene M Gadapee said...

Wow...this Longfellow poem shot me right back to Keats' "When I Have Fears" and landed me in Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar"...thanks for the gift! I have a project blooming in my mind

David (n of 49) said...

These three scenes were less engaging. It may be just that after you’ve seen a character have a couple of kids murdered, what can be worse? A bit like a critic said long ago of Apocalypse Now: it falls apart in the second half because after the first half you’ve already seen hell. So all Richard’s manipulations now are a bit wearisome. Yes, he’s a bad man, we know that, but we’ve already seen the ninth circle.

Also wearisome was Richard getting yet another woman to sell herself out. Yes, okay, Elizabeth could be faking, but whether she is or not, it wasn’t credible—what, Richard believes they fall over, just like that? Okay, maybe we could chalk it up to his own hubris, but still. Sure, that’s my twentieth century view talking, but that’s how it all felt.

So, onward. Shakespeare’s era lacked sentimentality over children. Understood, but could there still have been some sentimental string about them pluckable in people? In so many of their discussions, characters—for example, Margaret, Elizabeth, and the Duchess of York—emphasize their parent-child relationship (through the three generations) with so many of the characters already killed. Even with Stanley, in that tiny scene end of Act 4, there’s a child in jeopardy. The scene’s whole point is to have Stanley dictate a message to Richmond that he can’t act on Richmond’s behalf because Richard is holding his child hostage. So perhaps Shakespeare rang on the killing of the princes so blatantly because he knew the murder of children would horrify his audiences in a way the other killings, horrific as they were, wouldn’t?

And why give Stanley that short little scene, to relay information that could have easily been given the audience indirectly? I took it to mean he has some important role to play coming up. We’ll see.

Where is the play going by pivoting on the princes? Well, their death seems to be the catalyst for open rebellion against Richard. Up to this point it’s been all him successfully manipulating or doing in anyone who poses a possible obstacle to his accession to power, seemingly unstoppable. Now, nobles with armies are out against him. Their rebellion is abortive for the moment, but only for the moment, because we know, as Shakespeare’s audiences would also have known, the end will be at Bosworth Field, with Richard, in surely one of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines (wittingly or otherwise), hollering for a horse. Richard has had hubris, now it’s nemesis time. There’s a sense of primal satisfaction in knowing that, for Gloucester, “winter is coming.”

Why a primal satisfaction? Reading through these three scenes I wasn’t sure what motivates Richard in his evil. Is it lust for power? So I went back to his opening soliloquy, where he lays out why he’s going to do what he’s going to do. I’d forgotten he makes it plain there it’s because his deformity makes him unattractive to women, unable to be a lover. And so, full of self-loathing (“Have no delight to pass away the time, / Unless to see my shadow in the sun / And descant on mine own deformity”), he sets out to destroy others. Which made clear one reason maybe why Shakespeare gives so much space in the play for Richard’s tauntings and mental torturings and manipulation of Elizabeth, Margaret, and the Duchess of York. It’s not just the importance of the rules of royal succession he has to subvert.

His opening lines made me think of Milton’s Satan, planning to make “a hell of heaven.” Except Milton’s Satan has that famous weird nobility of the anti-hero. There’s nothing of that offered up in Richard. Nothing in the play, so far anyway, to make you pity him, even after the soliloquy. Whatever his motivation, he inflicts evil, calculatedly, deviously, deliberately, without sympathy or compassion. Which is why, in the end, I can’t conjure in myself any of those last two for him—he’d have to have some humanity, and he doesn’t.

I just want him done. “Winter is coming.” Let it come for him, soon.

David (n of 49) said...

p.s. Apologies for the length of the above. And thanks for the poem--wonderful, wouldn't have known it was Longfellow!

Carlene M Gadapee said...

After reading David's really cogent discussion, I would like to focus for a moment on this idea of what kind of monster has children murdered? It reminds me of the scene in Henry V, when the cowardly French murder all the "boys in the luggage"--it's expressly against the rules of war. Killing noncombatants is beyond the pale. Richard sees himself (rightly) in a battle for the crown, one which he feels he is going to win because he's killed (or had killed) so damned many people (his recap reads like a resume in scene 3). I am just as appalled (maybe more so) about this whole idea of begetting children on his niece. I'm not sure if QEliz. is really going along with his disgusting plan (and his rationale--o, being a grandma is just as good as a mom...) as we only hear she has consented through the words of another male, not her character. When last we saw her, she was pretty open about how she felt. What strikes me most, though, is the complete disposability of human life: everyone has lost someone, most through "a Richard" (that "top this if you can" conversation among Q. Marg., Q. Eliz. and the Duchess). Women have no agency, no allowed outlet for outrage, no means of exacting revenge. The Duchess wishes her son dead, and even tells him so, but she can't do anything about it. She tells him she has something to say, and he flatly says that she may speak, but he won't hear. Richard can muck about, killing people left and right, bedding women, plotting to bed blood family members, and the women can only stand and wish that they could do something. It's frustrating, and feels all too familiar in some ways.

Related: I'm reading Tyrant (which Kate Y. recommended) and it's really remarkable. I just finished reading a passage about Richard today. He truly is despicable.

Ruth said...

I'm feeling way off base here; however, these are my ramblings.
Like puppies or kittens clinging to each other in a High Kill shelter awaiting adoption, a stay of sentence, or death, the young Princes "girdling one another within their alabaster innocent arms, their lips were four red roses on a stalk, in their summer beauty kissed each other." have no stay of execution.

When even the assassins hesitate, "melted with mild tenderness and compassion, wept like children in their death's sad story, the deed is far too dastardly. yet we get a glimpse of humanness in even the basest of villains. "Which once,” quoth Forrest, “almost changed my mind.".

The assassinations in this grim story, all happen off stage. To show them as would perhaps a modern playwright, lessens the descent into madness. The imagination constructs the horror and the hell far more terrifyingly than the printed word or the acted scene. Yet all these murders are the yarn knitting together the intrigue, conspiracies, plots, threats, and curses.

Dawn Potter said...

I'm intrigued by the way both David and Carlene centered their remarks around questions. You posit answers, yet the questions continue to hang in the air . . . unanswerable, as Richard is unanswerable. He is monstrous, and everyone around him knows it. And yet they continue to capitulate to him. Their helplessness, too, is monstrous.

Ruth's suggestion that staging the assassinations offstage might heighten "the descent into madness" is shrewd, I think. In all of your remarks, you note these scenes as both pivotal and deflating. It's a strange way to structure a plot, but weirdly effective, unsettling, irritating, maddening.

Sometimes I think Shakespeare is the king of strangeness.

Ruth said...

and pershap that IS the mark of genius