Say what you will about Tybalt or Iago, Edmund (the bastard!) or Lady Macbeth. For my money, the greatest Shakespearean villain is Richard. He opens Richard III as the Duke of Gloucester and ends it as the King of England. He is, by his own hand or through his devices, a serial killer of prolific pedigree. He doesn’t hesitate to assassinate friends, relatives and even children. He is a master manipulator whose exploits could, quite possibly, form the etymological basis for the phrase “being a dick.”
Though Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies get the lion’s share of productions and praise, his histories still have a loyal, if smaller, following. Of the histories, Richard III is probably the most popular. The reason for this is the nature of Richard himself. Though he is a power-hungry, murdering sociopath, he is also exceedingly clever and delightfully droll. He winks at the audience — even during some of his most disturbing moments — and despite itself the audience winks back.
The plot of Richard III is the picture of simplicity. Richard (Nigel Gore) wants to be king. Really, that’s it. He plans to achieve that goal by any means necessary. Before the play has even begun, Richard has killed numerous rivals for the throne, in some cases even killing father and son together. From his first soliloquy, the famous, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” he makes plain his plan and begins to build his bridge to those of us in the crowd.
In order to succeed in his machinations, Richard must unseat King Edward IV (Sam Sandoe) who also happens to be his brother. Getting rid of Edward won’t secure Richard the throne, however. Complicated Plantagenet genealogical issues mean that Richard must also do away with any number of other would-be successors standing between him and ascendency. Just when you thought it was safe to get back into the gene pool, right?
So Richard conspires, mostly with the Duke of Buckingham (Gary Alan Wright), to do away with his other brother, George, The Duke of Clarence (Stephen Weitz), by planting the idea in King Edward’s head that his reign will end at the hands of someone whose name begins with the letter “G.”
With George (or Clarence, as he is confusingly referred to throughout this appellation-challenged play) out of the way, Richard moves on to imprison, execute, exile and marry his way to the top.
Until the end, when Richard is finally opposed in open combat, the only characters who see him for what he is and urge others to stop him are the women of the dishonored dead. An excellent Mare Trevathan plays Queen Elizabeth, Edward IV’s wife. Her scenes opposite Richard as she, half mad with grief and fear, tries to reason with him are some of the best in the play.
Similarly, the deliciously named Bella Merlin appears early on as the widow Queen Margaret to warn the rest of the women-folk of Richard’s treacheries, both past and future. Ms. Merlin captivated the audience each and every time she took the stage with her raving yet laser-focused Margaret.
Many critics and commentators over the years have deconstructed Richard III and the character of Richard himself. Reams of paper have been devoted to Richard’s physical deformities and their effect on him as a person. Still more study has been leveled at how he manages not to alienate the audience entirely despite his horrific actions.
I think the answer to the riddle of Richard is simple. Shakespeare was an amazing writer, and he crafted both play and person so masterfully that viewers are helpless in his thrall.
As per usual, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival honors Shakespeare’s vision with an outstanding iteration of the play. More than that, Nigel Gore is a revelation as Richard. He wrings every ounce of comedy from this dark, twisted character. His performance made me more eager than ever to see CSF’s Women of Will, in which he also stars.
If you’re a fan of Richard III you simply must see the CSF version this year.