A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Today’s villains are always flawed human beings who could have been so very different, if only.
Often, there is a suggestion that they could yet be redeemed, if only . . .
Not this boy. From the outset, we are left in no doubt at all that not only is he malevolent to the very core of his black soul, but also that he positively revels in it – and invites us, the audience, to revel in it too.
This is not Villain as Mindless Thug … Richard is sharp-witted, articulate, cunning and persuasive. He works his charms both on the other characters in the play and on the audience. No other Shakespearian character plays quite so much ‘straight to camera’. His superb monologues are our window into the workings of his mind and Shakespeare’s way of manipulating us, just as Richard manipulates those around him. Sometimes, we ARE almost seduced by him … we DO almost will him to succeed, appalling though he is. Everybody loves a bad boy, and Richard is a bad boy par excellence.
It’s ironic that his wit and eloquence – the most powerful tools in his armoury – are, in fact, about the only characteristics that Shakespeare’s Richard shares with history’s Richard. It’s doubly ironic that the man who revealed them to Shakespeare (and thus, indirectly, to us) was Sir Thomas More, whose History of King Richard III was one of the major sources of the Richard-as-Psychopath portrait.
Reading or watching Richard III is like being on an emotional roller coaster. He is so charismatic – and honest about his intentions – that it’s nearly impossible not to be impressed by him, at the very least. From that first, famous appearance, we are left in no doubt what he’s up to:
And therefore since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain …
Can’t get much more up-front than that, now can you? It’s almost endearing.
It all changes though, when Richard finally becomes king. The monologues stop. The lines of communication and bewitchment are broken. Belatedly, we see him for the monster he really is.
Only once thereafter do we feel a pang of pity for him. It’s the one moment in the play when Richard is briefly human and afraid. It’s like someone who is descending into dementia having one final, terrible, flash of clarity.
In Act V, Scene v, Richard has been visited by ghosts and is gripped by a cold, clammy fear – of himself.
It’s a blood-chilling piece of writing:
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason. Why:
Lest I revenge. Myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain.
He’s done it. He was determined to prove a villain, and he’s succeeded – which only goes to show that you should be careful what you wish for.
They just don’t write them like that any more . . .
(The superb photograph of Anthony Sher’s ‘bottled spider’ is strictly copyright of The Royal Shakespeare Company. They’re happy for their material to be used for educational, non-commercial purposes, and I think we qualify on both counts …)