Beijing, 5 February 2013
I was all atwitter this morning when I saw the news. The skeleton found under the car park in Leicester, England, is indeed that of Richard III, last of England’s Plantagenet kings! OK, there are some sour-puss academics raising doubts, but that’s probably because the skeleton wasn’t found under their car park.
I spent the early morning skittering around the house with one shoulder up and shouting “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” instead of getting ready for work. My wife looked on and rolled her eyes. But what Englishman has not at least heard of Shakespeare’s play Richard III? What person, who – like me – has thespian pretensions, has not dreamed of prancing about a stage as a mediaeval version of Quasimodo, murdering all and sundry with devilish glee and getting the beautiful women into the bargain? If it wasn’t for Shakespeare, who would remember King Richard III?
I did most of my acting at school. To my great regret, we never put on Richard III. But I’ve seen it a number of times, both in film as well as on the stage. I first saw it years ago with my wife, in some poky cinema on Paris’s rive gauche. That was the 1955 film version,with Laurence Olivier doing a marvelously over-the-top evil characterization of Richard.
This film stayed in some sort of medieval setting. The next version I saw, with Ian McKellen playing Richard III, was made 40 years after Olivier’s movie. It tried to be clever and set the story in some sort of 1930s fascist version of Britain where the king’s deformity was moral rather than physical.
We saw this film in Milan. As you can imagine, given Italy’s history
the fascist overtones of the film had a certain resonance there.
And then, about a year ago, through sheer serendipity – we just happened to be visiting Hong Kong when the play was running – we saw Kevin Spacey play Richard III with a manic savageness.
One of the amazing things about Shakespeare is the sheer number of quotes he has generated. Half the quotes people use, or so it seems, come from one Shakespeare play or another. Richard III has its fair share. There’s the quote which I’ve used as my title, which must be one of the most famous quotes in the English language. Then there is this quote:
“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York”
which seems to be one of those quotes that everyone knows. Then there is this quote:
“Off with his head!”
which my father was very fond of using whenever I was naughty.
Apart from these, the play has some deliciously cynical lines:
“Conscience is but a word that cowards use
Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe”
“And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”
“Why, I can smile and murder while I smile,
And cry ‘content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face for all occasions”
Yes, we never did put on Richard III at school. But we put on Shakespeare’s Richard II; the events it recounts were the original cause of the War of the Roses, whose final act was the unhorsing of Richard III on Bosworth Field outside of Leicester and his killing with several savage blows to the head as shown by that skull beneath the car park. I played the Duke of York (I should have played King Richard II, of course, but we’ll pass over that). As usual, the play has many memorable lines, but one set in particular remains with me, uttered by my elder brother John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, as he lies dying in Act I:
This other Eden, demi-paradise;
This fortress, built by nature for herself,
Against infection, and the hand of war;
This happy breed of men, this little world;
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England
I don’t go back to the UK very often, but those lines echo with me when I stand in the countryside and see how so very lovely it can be.
Ian McKellen: http://www.mckellen.com/images/r3/ban-15.jpg