Monday, October 10, 2011

Curses and Consequences

Curses and Consequences
Richard III

Welcome back, Margaret! It's nice to see you again but I'm glad I'm not in this play – I'd be afraid of your curses!
In a way, though, it would be quite exciting to be part of this gang. In fact, of all of Shakespeare's plays, this is definitely one of my favorites. It's filled with scenes of topnotch psychological drama. Reading it is like bang-bang-bang with only a few opportunities to catch one's breath. Richard is so wonderfully wicked. I just hope I never run into him.
And Margaret is so beautifully bitter. This time Julia Foster in the BBC production has got it just right. Sadly, in the other DVD versions I've see, Margaret has been deleted! How can they do that? Her curses carry the play.
So, out of everything I could have chosen, and wanted to choose, to write about in Richard III this time I am going to focus on curses, everyone's reactions to them, and their consequences.
Margaret isn't the only one who passes out curses, or has reason to. Lady Anne isn't bad at it either, although for her they all backfire. In the first minutes of her appearance in the play, she curses Richard for killing her husband and father-in-law (Henry VI, remember him?):

O cursèd be the hand that made these holes,
Cursèd the blood that let this blood from hence,
Cursèd the heart that had the heart to do it.
More direful hap betide that hated wretch
That makes us wretched by the death of thee
Than I can wish to wolves, to spiders, toads,
Or any creeping venomed thing that lives.
If ever he have child, abortive be it,
Prodigious, and untimely brought to light,
Whose ugly and unnatural aspect
May fright the hopeful mother at the view,
And that be heir to his unhappiness.
If ever he have wife, let her be made
More miserable by the death of him
Than I am made by my young lord and thee (Act 1.2)

She curses his hand, blood and heart, which turns out to be safe enough for her, but unfortunately she goes on to curse any child he might have and his future wife. She didn't have children with Richard (according to the play, but actually they had a son who died as a child) so that curse did little enough harm, but cursing his sleep - “Ill rest betide the chamber where thou liest” - was a bad move since that meant she couldn't get any sleep either, which we see the next time we run into Lady Anne in Act 4. Now married to Richard she bitterly laments the success of that curse:

For never yet one hour in his bed
Did I enjoy the golden dew of sleep
But with his timourous dreams was still awaked (Act 4.1)

Poor Anne! Be careful what you wish for...
That curses can boomerang to strike the curser is gleefully pointed out by Queen Elizabeth when, towards the the end of Margaret's list of curses in Act 1.3, she gloats “thus have you breathed your curse against yourself.” It falls flat immediately when Margaret turns on her.
I'm getting a little ahead of myself though. Let's first take a look at the characters in this dramatic scene who get cursed by Margaret. She starts by addressing them all with, “Which of you trembles not that looks on me?” and then she arrogantly swats away their reminders of earlier curses laid on her for her evil deeds as though they were just pesky flies and gets started with:

Can curses pierce the clouds and enter heaven
Why then, give way, dull clouds, to my quick curses! (Act 1.3)

Which are then:
  • Queen Elizabeth: the death of her son and loss of status to finally “after many lengthened hours of grief, Die, neither mother, wife, nor England's queen.” Just like Margaret.
  • Rivers, Dorset and Hastings, for doing nothing while her son Edward was murdered: “None of you may live his natural age.”
  • Richard: that he be unable to sleep, be tortured by nightmares and, perhaps the worst curse of all, “the worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul.”
  • Buckingham, not so much a curse as a prophecy that Richard will one day “split thy very heart with sorrow.”
        She ends with:
        Live each one of you the subjects to his hate
        And he to yours, and all of you to God's.

Exit Margaret, for now. Upon which Hasting says, “My hair doth stand on end to hear her curses.” As well it might. They all have reason to remember this moment:
  • Gray - “Now Margaret's curse is fallen upon our heads,” as he, Rivers and Vaughn are about to be executed (Act 3.3).
  • Hastings - “O Margaret, Margaret! Now thy heavy curse is lighted on poor Hasting's wretched head” (Ditto, Act 3.4).
  • Elizabeth, to son Dorset after hearing of the execution of her brothers and the imprisonment of her sons -
      Hie thee from this slaughterhouse
Lest thou increase the number of the dead,
And make me die the thrall of Margaret's curses
Nor mother, wife nor counted England's Queen (Act 4.1)

  • Richard – I'll deal with these curses below
  • Buckingham - “Thus Margaret's curse falls heavy on my neck”, on his way to his execution (Act 5.1).
An expert curser then, our Margaret. Humbled by the success of all of Margaret's curses, Elizabeth begs for instructions:

O thou well skilled in curses, stay awhile
And teach me how to curse my enemies (Act 4.4)

And so Margaret the Teacher tells her:

Forebear to sleep the nights and fast the days;
Compare dead happiness with living woe;
Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were,
And he that slew them fouler than he is.
Bett'ring thy loss makes the bad causer worse.
Revolving this will teach thee how to curse (Act 4.4).

One more chilling curse is uttered in the play and that is by Richard's mother, the Duchess of York.
Richard has become king and killed anyone in his way, or whom he'd perceived was in his way. Not a fun thing for a mother to face and the Duchess resolutely puts all the blame on Richard himself. We can't help wondering how the poor deformed boy would have turned out if she'd loved him. And shown it. But aside from that, the Duchess at this point outdoes Margaret, for how much more devastating is a curse from one's mother than from a crazy old queen you'd never liked anyway!
The curse:

Either thou wilt die by God's just ordinance
Ere from this war thou turn a conqueror,
Or I with grief and extreme age shall perish,
And never more behold thy face again.
Therefore take with thee my most heavy curse,
Which in the day of battle tire thee more
Than all the complete armour that thou wear'st.
My prayers on the adverse party fight,
And there the little souls of Edward's children
Whisper the spirits of thine enemies,
And promise them success and victory-
Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end;
Shame serves thy life, and doth thy death attend.

Among the strongest acting done in the versions I've seen of RIII is Ian McKellen's superbly evil, sardonic, witty face shifting upon these words from Maggie Smith, who's also perfect, into a small, scared, vulnerable and deeply hurt and rejected little son. For about two seconds. But those two seconds – though not directed by Shakespeare would certainly, in view of what's coming, be approved by him.
And what's coming are the final consequences of Anne's, Margaret's and the Duchess' curses.
  • Anne – uneasy, nightmare wracked sleep, “Ill rest betide the chamber where thy liest,” “Black night o'ershade thy day, and death thy life” (Act 1.2).
  • Margaret - “no sleep”, “tormenting dreams”, “the worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul” (Act 1.3).
  • the Duchess – see above

At this point I must sidetrack to deal with a few important, and a few incomprehensible, points of interpretations made by, in the first case, Jan Kott in Shakespeare Our Contemporary and in the second dear old Bloom in Shakespeare the Invention of the the Human. First Kott, who deals with the tricky question of why Lady Anne lets herself be seduced by Richard (a whole book could be written about that, and probably has been). Kott observes that Anne has lost her family in a world where “all moral standards are broken” and that she does not go to Richard's bed out of fear but chooses “to follow him to reach rock-bottom. To prove to herself that all the world's laws have ceased to must kill oneself...Lady Anne goes into Richard's bed to be destroyed” (pp.44-45). Yes, I agree. But I think Kott could have taken this one step further. In doing this, Lady Anne, in her curse, though it condemns her to the same fate, helps to destroy Richard.
Now Bloom. I really love this guy. He's so arrogantly and proudly wrong sometimes. So very wrong now. What he writes is this:
a) that Margaret is “ghastly”, a blemish to the play, that “Shakespeare would have been much better without the long-winded Margaret” and that he had never been able to “compose a decent line for her” (p.68);
b) that RIII is “any actress's nightmare, for none of the women's parts are playable...Declamation is all that Shakespeare allows them” (p.68);
c) that Richard's soliloquy in Act 5.5 after the visitation in dreams by his victims is, and I quote, “worse than the tedious clamour” of the Henry VI plays (?!), “dreadful”, “even worse”, “filled with “peculiar badness”, “silly” (pp. 67-68).
In all fairness, there are many things in Bloom's text on the HVI's with which I agree and I will refer to them in future analyses. But for now, in this case the mind boggles. My retorts:
a) Margaret is great, her curses shiveringly delicious.
b) The women are effectivly the ones who succeed in destroying Richard.
c) This soliloquy proves it. The language is chaotic, disjointed, out of control. It's perfect. It reveals what Richard has become. He is no longer in control, no longer the manipulator, but as Kott writes, “Now he is really he is simply himself, a man they want to murder....” (pp. 54-55).
And the curses of Anne, Margaret and the Duchess sent him there. The “worm of conscience” gnaws at him in his “ill rest” and “tormenting dreams” as one after another his victims intone, “Despair and die”, surely among the most chilling words ever spoken, again and again.
And Richard's words are, contrary to Bloom's assessment, truly tortured and desperate, spoken by a man who is facing the consequences of his evil. He's all alone in his darkness.

Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh...
...I rather hate my self
For hateful deed committed by myself.
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...
...crying all “Guilty, guilty!”
I shall despair: There is no creature loves me
And if I die no soul will pity me (Act 5.5)

Can there be an end more tragic than this? And so Richard goes to battle and is killed. The consequence of the curses hurled at him by the women who were among his victims, but who also proved to be his victors.

September 2011
October 2011

Works cited:
  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
  • Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
  • Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary, 1964.

Films seen:
  • BBC, 1983. Director: Jane Howell. Cast: Richard – Ron Cook; Margaret – Julia Foster; Lady Anne – Zoe Wannamaker; Duchess of York – Annette Crosbie; Queen Eizabeth – Rowena Cooper. A well done production. Foster and Wannamaker are excellent. Crosbie is good. Cook has some strong moments.
  • The Good-bye Girl”, 1977. Director: Herbert Ross. Cast: Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason. The connection to RIII is strong enough to include the movie here. Dreyfuss plays an actor who gets a big break when offered the role as RIII in an off-Broadway production. Unfortunately for him, it's a gay version (quite radical in the 70's) and after much agony he does the part the way the director wants him to. And the play flops.
  • The Lawrence Olivier version, 1955. Director: Laurence Olivier. Cast: Olivier, also John Gielgud and Clair Bloom. I have a love-hate relationship to this version. Olivier is once in a while quite brilliant but more often than not hammy and oh so aware of himself-as-a-star. Bloom is a sighing weepy oh-woe-is-me young thing turned on by His Royal Evilness. But the production is a visual masterpiece. The colors alone make the film worth watching. And it's quite faithful to the original text. No Margaret though.
  • The Trial of Richard” - a documentary released with the DVD version of Olivier's RIII. Filmed in the 80's it's a pretend trial, with real-life professional judge, prosecutor, and defender, as well as witnesses and a jury. On trial is Richard for the murder of the two boys. It's really quite enjoyable and they're obviously having fun. The defense line is that Richard had no reason to kill the kids and generally he was considered a pretty decent guy and it was probably Buckingham all along. Richard is actually found not guilty.
  • The Ian McKellan version, 1995. Director: Richard Loncraine. Cast: Richard – Ian McKellen; Lady Anne – Kristin Scott Thomas; Duchess of York – Maggie Smith; Queen Elizabeth – Annette Bening. Set in a fascist state of the 1930's, this is really a brilliant production in spite of its flaws. There's no Margaret, Bening doesn't quite pull it off as the queen, there's too much romance between Henry and the princess (shouldn't be there at all). But Maggie Smith is perfect as always, Kristin Scott Thomas does a very good drugged out Anne, The settings and décor are really gripping and Ian McKellen is absolutely superb. This is one of the films Hal and I watched in the beginning of our getting-hooked-on-Shakespeare period and it was definitely instrumental in getting us hooked!
  • Looking for Richard”, 1996. Director: Al Pacino. Participants: Winona Rider, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Estelle Parsons etc etc etc. I love this movie. I could watch it once a week. Al Pacino is fantastic and the idea is perfect. Why oh why has Pacino not filmed the actual play?

Book read: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, 1951. Inspector Grant is laid up in the hospital and passes the time by trying to solve the mystery of the murder of the two princes in the Tower. He's convinced by a portrait of RIII that he's innocent because of his kind eyes and goes about getting documents with the help of his eager gofer that prove Richard's innocence, putting the blame this time on Henry VII. I must say, I was quite convinced, but as Bloom points out, it's hard to argue with Shakespeare. So I guess we'll have to live with two Richards: Shakespeare's and the real one.
Audio versions listened to: Naxos CD. Performed by: Kenneth Branagh (Richard); Stella Gonet (Lady Anne); Celia Imrie (Queen Elizabeth); Geraldine McEwan (Margaret); Auriol Smith (Duchess of York). This is the first time we've listened to a CD version. We made the mistake of reading along. Next time we'll just listen. Still it's always a great pleasure listening to Kenneth Branagh!

Seen on stage: no.


  1. Beautifully written, Ruby, as always. A very clever touch to concentrate on the usually badly neglected Margaret. I also have a sort of soft spot for her. Though a bit long-winded, her curses do indeed provide the play with a compelling leitmotiv. One might almost say that Shakespeare positively anticipated Wagner's music dramas - nearly three centuries in advance.

    "Richard III" is the only fairly early, pre-R&J, play of Shakespeare I have read so far. I am rather awed at its excellence and power. Unlike many commentators (like Mr Bloom, very amusing these thoughts of his) I consider it a genuine tragedy, not just a melodrama, and not so terribly inferior to the "Big Four" from the mature years.

    I haven't seen the BBC production, but of the three more or less well-known versions (Olivier, McKellen, Pacino) I don't have special favourites. They are so different that somehow complement each other really nicely.

    Thanks for bringing to my attention the audio version with Kenneth; had never heard about it. Audio books are normally not my cup of tea at all (it's either a movie version, or the whole production is inside my head and there I am the ultimate director/producer/costume designer/whatever) but for this one I have made an exception. A very interesting recording, well produced and pleasantly naturalistic, quite complete as far as I can tell from memory. I am not bowled over by Kenneth's Richard as I don't think his voice is expressive enough for the purpose. But I do wish he would make a movie out of it; this might well be tremendous.

    Last and least, one comment about Olivier that should be in the comments section below "Henry V". But since for some obscure reason I don't have access to this article, I post it here.

    As regards to your milder attitude in "As You Like It", please don't hesitate to demolish Olivier as roundly as you like, certainly not on my account. I am looking forward to your devastating demolition of his Hamlet, Lear and Othello. In fact, about the last one I can all but back you up. Though I have qualms with all of Olivier's Shakespearean interpretations, his Othello is the one case which I consider more of a character assassination than characterization. Technically stupendous, of course, but artistically... not my Othello at all.

  2. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. I agree with you about Branagh’s CD version. In fact I hardly recognized his voice at the beginning, it was so subdued. So a movie version would be greatly appreciated. Re Henry V, there seems to be technical problems with that posting. I will try to repair it today .