BOOK (circa 1591)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am


Richard III
by William Shakespeare

'Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York,' begins the opening soliloquy of William Shakespeare's Richard III.

The play, one of the Bard's early histories, is set in a period of calm during the Wars of the Roses in England. That war, which took place from 1455 to 1485, set the House of York against the House of Lancaster in a battle for the English throne. The Yorkist Edward IV had beaten the Lancastrians at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, and established York as the ruling dynasty. The 'winter of our discontent' of the speech refers to the war, the 'glorious summer' to Edward IV's reign.

Shakespeare's play has its roots in history, but its focus is the warped psychology of Edward IV's brother, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester. The Machiavellian Richard schemed and murdered his way to the crown. His rhetorical skills, physical deformities and amoral nature have made him a favourite with actors through the centuries. Sir Laurence Olivier essayed Richard in a tremendously powerful film adaptation in 1955. Al Pacino made a film about rehearsing the play called Looking for Richard, in which he admits he is fascinated with his psychology. Kevin Spacey recently brought the character to Hong Kong in a modern stage version.

Shakespeare's skill is to make the audience complicit in Richard's evil actions. In his 'winter' soliloquy Richard boldfacedly tells the audience of his murderous plans. And he immediately informs them of the reasons for his wickedness. He says he is so ugly that 'dogs bark at me as I halt by them'. He is driven to hate by his deformities, and his rejection becomes a spur to evil: 'And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/ To entertain these fair well-spoken days/ I am determined to prove a villain.'

Richard's most heinous act is thought to be the murder of two princes in the Tower of London. But, as American scholar Harold Bloom points out, Richard might actually not have committed this crime. Bloom also thinks it is easy to determine that Richard's character is from an early Shakespeare work. The scholar feels he is 'a master of persuasive language rather than a profound psychologist or a criminal visionary'. Othello's Iago is a more complex Machiavellian creation, Bloom argues.

Al Pacino would disagree. In Looking for Richard, the US actor judges Richard as a conflicted individual, a true tragic hero. He is fascinated by his qualities of persuasion and seduction, and finds his sadistic drive and motivations worthy of endless investigation. Which is the way that audiences usually respond to the wilfully diabolic king-to-be.