I mean, he was one, wasn’t he? The Reformation had not yet taken place. He’s already suffered various indignities – Shakespeare’s Tudor propaganda, stigmatized for scoliosis, then having his skull split open with an ax. He now has to be buried in a church he didn’t belong to? Maybe the parking lot wasn’t so bad, after all.
I have a bias here. I still think of many of the great cathedrals in Britain as essentially stolen from my church (and their own rich, English Catholic history) in an act of monarchical larceny. And Dick 3.0 is simply one of my favorite Shakespearean monarchs, even through the slant. His wooing of Lady Anne is one of the most amazing scenes in world drama – the sight of pure evil seducing the weakness and naivete of good – in which you simply cannot help but admire the sheer charm of pure wickedness. And laugh and laugh. This is a tragedy, but also, at so many points, an uproarious comedy. You realize just how deeply Shakespeare had read his Machiavelli.
I learned that opening monologue above by heart – as well as Clarence’s astonishing speech later. Shakespeare shows us the tyrant’s mesmerizing charisma on the surface, and the pain and resentment within that fuel it. To intuit the psychic impact of the stigma that the disabled once always lived with is another of Shakespeare’s human, almost super-human, achievements. But Shakespeare wasn’t trying to get the audience to empathize – killing two innocent children in cold blood will tend to put a stop to that. He was trying to show how glittering and alluring sociopaths can be. And he had a huge amount of fun with it. As Philip Hensher once observed,
Shakespeare’s delight in creating a Richard III is unmistakable. Richard is ingenious in his evil, plotting several steps ahead. He is, oddly, rather sexy – the scenes with Anne have a touch of Benedick’s banter with Beatrice. He is, above all, extremely funny.
In short, Richard has charisma. The great villains of literature draw us in with their charm, their intelligence, their wit, and their sheer sexual magnetism. Who has not thought that Jane Austen’s Emma is really much less fun – less sexy, more strait-laced, more boring all round – than dear old Mrs Elton, slagging off all her neighbours? Which would be more fun – dinner with Saruman in his tower, served by orcs in white tie, or horrid warm beer and folk songs with those Bagginses in their burrow?
Blake, observing the magnetism, eloquence and charm of Milton’s Satan, said that Milton was a “true poet, and of the devil’s party without knowing it”. The very best villains all share this quality of charm – even, alluringly, of comedy. I’ve seen a production of The Jew of Malta brought to a standstill by Barabas’s comment, after mass-poisoning a convent, “How sweet the bells ring, now the nuns are dead.”
I love the fact that McKellen, eschewing the usual ham-acting of the opening scene, actually pisses into a urinal while his interior monologue continues and the truth emerges, like urine from his bladder. But no performance in my life matched that of Anthony Sher, who somehow managed to turn Richard’s disability into a riveting ability – using his crutches as a spider uses its legs, sprinting fast across the stage, and lethally. He was half-man, half insect. It was one of those performances that never ever leave you, one that reminds you that live theater is simply indispensable sometimes in conveying the rawest truth of our twisted, crooked but also hilarious human nature.