Monday, December 3, 2018

Richard III: Conversation (Act III, Scenes 5 & 6)

"Whether we want it or not, the massive legacy of past literature is ours. We cannot give it away. Moreover, it increases with each generation. Inevitably, we must work from it, and often by means of it. But even if we resist paralysis and do try to work from and by means of it, the question at once arises, does the habitual (and almost always sole) nourishment of the imagination by the great literature of the past lead to the creation of more poetry of equal value?"

--from John Keats, by Walter Jackson Bate

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Perhaps the above quotation is not strictly relevant to our Richard III assignment (which addresses your thoughts about Hastings's life and death within the play, your thoughts about the meaning of liberty), but I think it does capture some of the difficulties that I at least have struggled with over the course of my entire reading life. How do I--the diffident I, the ambitious I, the fearful I--"resist paralysis" and "try to work from and by means of" this "massive legacy of past literature"? For Keats, Shakespeare was a significant element of the quandary. And here we are, two hundred years later, struggling with the same legacy . . . plus the weight of the two centuries that have passed in the interim.


Ruth said...


Was Hastings in denial about the political climate, simply naive, or truly a genuinely good soul? Which ever description is the true Hastings, he was a victim of Richard's determination to take the crown. While he believes that he is a close friend of Richard's, his loyalty is perhaps an attempt to convince himself of his secure position and to prove that the dire predictions of Queen Margaret's curse are but the ramblings of a bitter woman. Until the very end he tells others that Richard is really a misunderstood nice person!!! The fact that he was beheaded, not hanged, drawn and quartered speaks to his elevated station in life. I felt sorry for him, wanted to take him aside and speak some truths that he did not want to hear.

Carlene M Gadapee said...

Commentary on the death of Hastings

Hastings is a political man; as such, he has been involved on somewhat shady things himself. However, he was loyal to the King, and did what he could to protect the King’s honor and the young prince as well. The Queen and the boy have gone to sanctuary (though Buckingham has parsed it out that the claim to sanctuary is not founded, and thus does not apply). Because Hastings is loyal, and therefore may be a problem for Gloucester and his plans, he is sounded out by Catesby to know where his current loyalties lie. This reminds me of the scene in Julius Caesar where Cassius is sending off to know who is with him and who is not. I suspect this is a plot device that Shakespeare uses. It works well, to let the audience know what the manipulator in the narrative is thinking, and it gives the (doomed) opposition a chance to speak his piece as well.

Hastings dies because he must –Gloucester has already told Buckingham that if Hastings is not “with them,” to “chop off his head” closely followed by a rich bribe (3.1). Hastings sounds noble enough when he says to Catesby (3.2) that he will “have this crown of [his] cut from his shoulders, / Ere [he] will see the crown so foul misplaced.” And so it goes; Hastings loses his head and it is to adorn a pike on London Bridge. Hastings knows what is coming: there is a list of omens and portents in Act 3, sc. 4 that prefigures what will happen. Hastings sees his current situation as part of Margaret’s “heavy curse” and he seems to accept his fate.

Gloucester describes Hastings’ execution in terms of national security: “The peace of England and our persons’ safety/ enforced us to this execution” (3.5). Hastings is posthumously accused of treason, and thus deserved to die. And so all would-be dictators secure their position: manipulation, violence, and propaganda.

The play seems to suggest that loyalty is a costly thing. If one is to stand by one’s beliefs, it may be a fatal, if noble, position to take. Catesby calls this “a reeling world” (III.2), and it is true; the play feels almost prophetic, given our own national high-low drama that is playing out every day.

Dawn Potter said...

In a way, Hastings reminds me of people like John Kelly, Trump's current chief of staff: that is, trying to play both sides of the street; be loyal, be aware, keep the potential bad in check, be the fall guy on purpose, but also, in some way, remain willfully ignorant. So I find him exasperating, untrustworthy, naive, underhanded, and sympathetic. This is such a complex slate of characteristics . . . the sort that Shakespeare is so magnificent at creating, even in secondary players.

David (n of 49) said...

Apologies for this delayed response.

The question about what loyalty requires is first a question about loyalty or loyalties to what, and their hierarchy. What’s the higher cause, and how do you go about identifying it, knowing which one it is. As well as the problem of, once you’ve made your judgement, being certain it’s correct. As Cromwell said: “For God’s sake, think you may be wrong!” Easy to resolve to “do the right thing,” not always easy to know what that right thing is.

What struck me that way about Hastings was his commitment first to the natural order of succession, and despite it his failure to see either Richard’s real aims or understand the reality of his standing in Richard’s eyes. He isn’t a fool, just blind or oblivious to Richard’s nature and ambition. The same can be said of so many in history, in or out of dynastic or democratic politics. People misread their position, and that rulers, kings, tyrants, leaders, like nations, act in their own interests. In that way he’s a kind of Everyman, nobility version, and I could at least see it would be easy to find myself in a situation where I might act the same, and with the same blinders on.

Also striking, and instructive, was the exchange between the mayor and Richard. When the mayor seems to simply question Richard about whether Hastings really was a traitor, Richard responds with violent outrage, prompting the mayor’s acquiescence to the news. It isn’t clear whether the mayor actually believes Richard, but he accepts his story. You can read this as either a straightforward “Oh, okay then, must be true,” or, to me, the more likely bowing of someone who knows the truth is or might be otherwise, but recognizes the power inherent in a royal personage and acts according to the normal political, and human, survival instinct. That’s a point driven home immediately after by the small scene with the scrivener, who reminds that many will know the truth but won’t dare speak it. A recognition of the reality of those with a grip both on power and followers willing to use it.

And with all the above, it is hard to avoid finding parallels with the current US administration. I like the John Kelly example, but for another (one of many) that fits my paragraph immediately above, look no further than Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who must know the truth of so much but acquiesces to and publicly promulgates the “party line” all the same.

David (n of 49) said...

P.s. I don't mean to suggest that Sanders acts the way she does primarily out of fear, more likely--to me, anyway--she does so for the status and power that comes with her position. But the need to accept a fiction is the same.