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Richard III: Shakespeare's Humbert
Literature is filled with characters that are designed to be lovable. For instance, Cordelia from Shakespeare's "King Lear" is the good sister: She cares not about Lear's bequest, but rather only focuses on her love and caring for her father. She is veritably sainted against the deep contrast of her mercenary sisters. Then there is Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov's lovable absent-minded and foreign professor of the novel by that name. Pnin is constantly stymied by the insensitive and impersonal nature of American society and we as readers have no choice but to love him and feel for him.
The Nabokov example is selected because of another -- much more famous -- Nabokovian character, Humbert. A pedophile and accused murderer, Humbert is -- on the surface -- on of the least likable characters in literature, and a definite questionable selection as a protagonist.
However, Nabokov wields his magic and the beauty of "Lolita" is that we as readers cannot help but root for Humbert, despite our abhorrence for the acts he has admittedly committed. Nabokov took it as a challenge to allow aesthetics to defeat common social and moral perceptions, and he won the challenge quite handily in constructing what is arguable the most aesthetically pleasing novel in history.
Shakespeare takes on a similar challenge in "Richard III." Richard himself is an extremely violent, abrasive character who uses every opportunity to further himself and his interests. However, through Shakespeare's employment of language -- and the way in which he arms Richard III with powerful monologues and dialog -- we as readers are forced to feel for Richard III's character, despite the atrocities he commits in his life as depicted in the play.
In other words, Richard's verbal skills, his intelligence, his ability to draw the everyman to his leadership, his outsider's understanding of how people's brains and motivations work, and of how the politically tinged world in which he himself operates really functions -- these, indeed, are the very qualities that-make him an attractive and dramatic protagonist, if not a figure that readers or play-going audiences can exactly like or want to emulate.
As for the actual life of Richard III, "Richard's power was immense, and upon the death of Edward IV, he positioned himself to seize the throne from the young Edward V . He feared a continuance of internal feuding should Edward V, under the influence of his mother's Woodville relatives, remain on the throne (most of this feared conflict would have undoubtedly come from Richard)." (Britannia, 2005)
The old nobility, also frightened of a strengthened Woodville clan, assembled and declared the succession of Edward V as illegal, due to poor evidence hinting that Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was bigamous, thereby rendering his sons illegitimate and ineligible as successors to the crown. Edward V and his younger brother, Richard of York, were jailed in the Tower of London, and never escaped those confines alive. Richard of Gloucester was then crowned Richard III on July 6, 1483. (Britannia, 2005)
Also, Richard's 1472 marriage to 16-year-old Anne Neville resulted in disputes with Clarence, husband of Anne's older sister Isabella Neville, over the remnants of the estates of their late father, reminiscent of Lear, of course. (Bookrags, 2005)
Richard was the last Plantagenet potentate. By the time of his last stand against the Lancastrians, he was a widower without a legitimate son as an offspring. After his son's passing, Richard III had initially named his nephew, Edward, Earl of Warwick, Clarence's young son and also the nephew of Queen Anne Neville, as his heir. After Anne's death, however, Richard named John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, as his successor instead. (Biography Channel, 2005)
In one particular speech, which occurs towards the termination of "Richard III," Richard mutters to himself, attempting to rid himself out of a nightmare and set himself for a battle which he knows will occur at dawn. It is "dead midnight" on the eve of battle, the 'witching hour,' the moment of night when "the lights burn blue," which refers to an old superstition that when ghosts or spirits abound, they play tricks on the lamps. Richard has arisen violently in a cold sweat ("Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh") with only murder on his brain.
The main (and only) image in the speech occurs in lines 194-200:
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high'st degree:
Murther, stern murther, in the dir'st degree;
All several sins, all us'd in each degree,
Throng all to the bar, crying all, 'Guilty! guilty!'
In this nightmare, Richard's suppressed knowledge of his own sins and murderous deeds has turned into a throng of shouting witnesses to his treachery and murder, gathering in a courtroom or some other place of judgment, all villifying him before the "bar," the place of judgment. Indeed, this metaphor is the same one that Nabokov uses for Humbert to address his readers -- he is actually addressing ladies and gentlemen of the jury.
In Richard III, this courtroom metaphor sounds oddly formal for a potentate in a cold sweat, shaking in the wake of a nightmare morbid enough to awaken him from sleep, but the formal judgment demonstrates just how heinous his crimes are. On a physical level, the metaphor is effective because the thundering of the "thousand several tongues" so strongly with the calmness of "dead midnight," and the "throng": this is all representative of his solitude, contrasted against the backdrop of noise. He is alone with his sins, but these same sins crowd around him.
The tenor of the speech modifies as it progresses, mirroring Richard's confusion when he first arises, and his growing awareness that awoke him was indeed a dream, and his recoiling confidence in himself. Richard's initial few lines are a string of questions that provide us with some of the flavor of the "thousand tongues" Richard felt and experienced in his dream:
What? do I fear myself? there's none else by:
Is there a murtherer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly: what! from myself? Great reason: why?
Lest I revenge. What? myself upon myself?
Alack! I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
Asking questions and then aiding to answer them in that very breath divulges Richard's confusion. Richard is not awake and he is not asleep; he is not sure if he is awake or still dreaming, and he is not certain if he is alone or surrounded by various spirits. He is protecting himself against the "thousand tongues" that are decrying him guilty. As he starts to arise, and recognize that he has been dreaming, the tenor of the monologue changes entirely:
I am a villain. Yet I lie; I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.
Now Richard is awake, and finally he recalls the nightmare. He describes it, but in reality, he is interpreting it ("My conscience hath a thousand several tongues"), assigning it its place.
It takes Richard a few moments to rid himself of the effects of the dream, even after he quickly rules out his own self-pity, his very moment of weakness (lines 201-204). When Ratcliff wakes him up, he spits out that he has had "a fearful dream," that "shadows" have scared him more than ten thousand armed soldiers could ever do. A little later, commanding Norfolk to prepare his soldiers for war, he states:
Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls
For conscience is a word that cowards use,
Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.
That "babbling dreams" is a hint that he still hears the "thousand tongues," and the reference to "conscience" two times in four lines demonstrates that he is still hearing the words of his past victims, the song of his own conscience. Still later, as Richard is addressing his soldiers before war, orating what is supposed to be a 'pep talk,' there arrives yet another echo of his nightmare:
Remember whom you are to cope withal:
A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and run-aways,
A scum of Britaines and base lackey peasants,
Whom their o'ercloyed country vomits forth
To desperate adventures and assur'd destruction.
You sleeping safe, they bring you to unrest;
There exists very little odd in the content here; Richard is making the usual "come on men and we'll drive the rabble out" pre-battle oration, but the link to "sleeping safe" and being held to "unrest" is indeed a relation of that which has transpired to him that last night.
There is one more, more critical, link to Richard's nightmare in the same scene. As Richard, just arisen, leaves with Ratcliff to spy on his allies, Shakespeare gives us Richmond rising from his bed before war, happy, well-rested, and excited to exclaim how well he has…[continue]
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