The Method Actor
‘Since I cannot prove a lover,’ Richard says in the classic opening soliloquy, ‘I am determined to prove a villain.’ This after having described himself as ‘rudely stamped’, curtailed of this fair proportion’, ‘cheated of feature’, so deformed ‘that dogs bark’ at him – in other words ugly and unlovable.
He pulls at our heartstrings immediately. How can we not pity this wretched man? We are drawn into his mind at once and there we stay. We are Richard as he convinces Clarence of his brotherly love even as he plots Clarence’s murder. Clarence believes him, we believe him though we know better. Because Richard is the ultimate method actor.
From Clarence to Anne. Richard has just told us that although he has killed her husband and father he will marry her, and although she hates him, naturally, and calls him, ‘thou lump of foul deformity,’ she marries him. How is it possible? Because in this, her time of grief and utter vulnerability, Richard tells her that it was her beauty and his love for her that caused him to commit murder. He begs her to kill him if she will not have him. When he ends by saying about Henry VI whom he has also murdered, ‘this noble king, I will wet his grave with my repentant tears’ (Act 1.2) she is on her way to succumbing. Because as the method actor that he is, not only does Anne believe him, he at the moment believes it himself.
He continues to act the part of loving brother, friend, uncle. And people believe him.
But not his mother, the Duchess of York. A formidable woman. Again, we must pity the man, and we begin to see where his ‘I cannot be loved so I will be a villain’ persona comes from. In Act 2.2 he asks his mother for her blessing and grudgingly she says:
God bless thee, and put meekness in thy breast,
Love, charity, obedience and true duty. (Act 2.2)
Hardly a loving personal blessing and Richard feels the sting of its meaning. Says he to Buckingham:
…And make me die a good old man.
That is the butt-end of a mother’s blessing;
I marvel that her grace did leave it out. (Act 2.2)
He does not fool his mum but the mayor and citizens fall for his humility. When they have been urged by Buckingham and Catesby to appeal to Richard to become king Richard says:
Alas, why would you heap this care on me?
I am unfit for state and majesty.
I do beseech you, take it not amiss:
I cannot nor I will not yield to you.
…Will you enforce me to a world of cares? (Act 3.7)
This time with prayer book in hand Richard plays the part of pious recluse, believing it himself just long enough for them to accept him as king. That’s long enough for his purposes.
And maybe he knew that what he had murdered to achieve really was a ‘world of cares’ because once he is king things start falling apart. His continued viciousness doesn’t stop the process and when the ensuing war is about to break out, his mother the Duchess of York confronts him and this time there is no blessing, grudging or otherwise. She tells him she wishes she had strangled him in her ‘accursèd womb’ and goes on:
Thou toad, thou toad…
Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my hell…
What comfortable hour canst thou name,
That ever graced me with thy company?
…take with thee my most grievous curse,
Which in the day of battle tire thee more
Than all the complete armour that thou wear’st!
…Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end:
Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend. (Act 4.4)
A death curse from his own mother. Even the best method actor cannot pretend that this doesn’t hurt but Richard turns immediately to his sister-in-law, Elizabeth, Edward’s widow, and offers his hand in marriage to her daughter, also Elizabeth. He’s just had her two sons murdered so even less than Anne could Queen Elizabeth possibly agree to this preposterous proposal.
The method actor takes over once again. In a long exchange he wears her down. Or seems to. ‘Shall I be tempted of the devil thus?’ Elizabeth asks then says:
…Write to me very shortly,
And you shall understand from me her mind. (Act 4.4)
Richard believes he has convinced her: ‘Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!’ (Act 4.4) What he doesn’t know is that Elizabeth consents to the marriage between her daughter and Richard’s mortal enemy Richmond, soon-to-be Henry VII.
There remains only one role for Richard to play. He realises this when he awakens from his dream in which his victims one after the other have come to him with the damning words, ‘Despair and die!’
That role is the role of the tragic villain.
I am a villain…
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain…
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me.
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself? (Act 5.3)
Richard, the method actor, finally converges with Richard, the man who was not loved so he made himself the man who was hated and feared. Richard the villain.
And so he dies. King Richard, the crown achieved through method acting that fooled almost everyone. Himself included.
But not for long. Acting, even the best method acting, is after all just acting.
The great playwright knew that. And gave us Richard III.
- William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
Films seen this time:
- Olivier version.
- McKellen version.
Seen on stage: Not since seeing the brilliant Jonas Karlsson at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in March, 2014. See further in Shakespeare Calling – the book http://www.amazon.com/Shakespeare-Calling-book-Ruby-Jand/dp/9163782626?ie=UTF8&keywords=ruby%20jand&qid=1464585465&ref_=sr_1_3&s=books&sr=1-3