Richard III was one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, and possibly aside from Titus Andronicus, one of his most brutal. This violence is contrasted with Shakespeare's use of supernatural elements such as dreams and curses, because these supernatural elements grant certain characters power who would otherwise be powerless in the face of the physical violence upon which Richard and his rise to power depend (even though Richard himself shies away from violence). However, in the 1995 film adaptation of Richard III, these supernatural elements are largely removed due to the fact that the fascist Britain in which the story is set has no room for the supernatural; by definition, under fascism the state itself takes on the status of an ultimate, divine power. While this is a necessary consequence of the "transposition and cutting of entire scenes" that is required when adapting Shakespeare to film, the change actually manages to reveal the importance of certain narrative elements (Jackson 17). Specifically, within the film the power of curses remain even as notions of Christian judgment recede from view, demonstrating the utility of performative, verbal violence in a state governed almost entirely by physical violence. By examining the role of the supernatural in Richard III, one is able to see how supernatural elements like dreams and curses essentially function as dramatic interventions into the dominant power structure of the play, interventions that disrupt Richard's coercive power in the play but must find different outlets in the film.
This study's primary methodological approach is rooted in critical analysis, but as will become clear, a discussion of the changes between Richard III and its 1995 film adaptation will necessarily depend on a discussion of either text's immediate historical and political context, because these contexts end up having an important influence on the presence and function of the supernatural. In particular, the political context of story ends up determining which supernatural elements are most effective and important, because ideas of Christian judgment, retribution, and redemption have differing degrees of relevance depending on whether the setting is feudal England or a 1930s fascist Britain. Thus, while this study will not have any need for substantial biographical or secondary texts, it will be helpful if the reader keeps in mind the impact that historical and political context have on the reception and deployment of supernatural or religious ideas.
Before examining the two versions of Richard III in greater detail, it will be helpful to introduce some extant interpretations of the play's supernatural elements. To begin, one may examine the use of dreams in Richard III, because Clarence's dream in particular represents something divergent from the traditional role of dreams as simple foreshadowers (Arnold 51-52). Clarence is eventually murdered on the orders of his brother Richard, but not before Clarence is able to relate to his jailer a lengthy dream he had (1.4.10-63). As Arnold points out, dreams in Elizabethan drama were frequently and most commonly used for foreshadowing, but in the case of Clarence, this foreshadowing is only element of the dream's purpose (Arnold 51). Instead, Arnold argues that "Clarence's dream can be divided into three parts," with only the first part functioning as foreshadowing regarding Clarence's eventual murder (Arnold 52).
The distinctions between these sections of the dream are important because they allow the audience to understand the role of Christianity and religious belief in the world of the play, and in particular the degree to which Richard's fate is already circumscribed within the context of Christian redemption and retribution. By examining Clarence's dream in detail, one is able to see how it is actually about far more than Clarence's own impending doom and desire for Christian redemption. In fact, the dream ends up being as much about Richard as it is about Clarence, a fact that is easy to overlook when focusing exclusively on the dream's foreshadowing of Clarence's death.
The other portions of the dream...
Arnold suggests that Clarence's dream serves to contrast him with Richard, because by highlighting Clarence's misdeeds as well as his remorseful attitude, the play introduces notions of Christian repentance into the play, which serves to make Richard's actions appear all the more devilish (Arnold 53). This is important because the interjection of Christian authority and the idea of supernatural retribution serves to undercut the secular, violent authority and power wielded by Richard, because Christianity, and indeed any religion, by its very nature presents a power or legitimacy above and beyond what political organization happens to be in power.
That Clarence's dream is an example of a peaceful, supernatural, Christian authority being interjected into the play and thus disrupting Richard's secular, violence-based authority is supported by other examinations of the play as well. For example, Anthony Narkin notes how the first portion of Clarence's dream includes "day-residue" from his earlier interactions with Richard, and by way of psychoanalytic analysis, connects the particular way in which Clarence's unconscious mind has translated his earlier experiences with his Christian repentance (Narkin 148). Narkin's analysis is useful because it further demonstrates how the supernatural quality of Clarence's is an explicitly Christian kind of super-naturalism, because in many ways his prophetic and allegorical dream functions in precisely the same way as dreams in the Bible. Clarence's dream predicts his future fate while encouraging him to repent in the knowledge of his almost certain doom, which can be seen as a supernatural power working to undercut Richard's plots from the beginning.
One might be hesitant to consider Clarence's dream as an instance of a supernatural power intervening to hinder Richard, because the dream's prophetic power is not enough to forestall Clarence's death. However, a close examination of Clarence's dream reveals that it doomed Richard as much as it doomed Clarence, because Clarence's death in the dream is caused by Richard's own fall. Clarence says tells the jailer that:
As we pac'd along
Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,
Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in falling
Strook me (that thought to stay him) overboard into the tumbling billows of the main. (1.4.16-20)
While it is true that Richard is responsible for Clarence's fall in this tableau, it is equally true that Clarence's fall is the result of Richard himself stumbling, and, one might suggest, falling overboard himself. While one might be tempted to read this passage as Clarence misunderstanding his brother's attempt to kill him, when read in the context of the play's larger narrative, it seems safe to presume that this passage is indicating to the audience that all of Richard's activities from the start of the play do not actually represent the process of his rise to power, but are rather the downward motions of a man who was doomed from the start. This scene comes after Queen Margaret curses Richard, and even though he is only in the early stages of his plan, this portion of the dream reveals that Richard's fate has already been supernaturally determined.
Reading Clarence's dream as a foreshadow of both Clarence and Richard's doom helps make the contrast set up by Clarence's Christian faith that much more explicit, because this reading would suggest that Clarence is privy to this secret knowledge precisely because he is "a Christian faithful man," who recognizes his own misdeeds and simply asks that his guilt not carry over onto his family (1.4.4, 71-72. In this view, both Clarence and Richard are guilty and doomed to die even before the start of play, but due to the intervention of a supernatural Christian power, Clarence is at least offered the opportunity to repent. As will be seen later, the 1995 film largely excises this discussion of Christianity, because in the fascist state of the film, even the possibility of supernatural, transcendent power is ultimately enshrined in the images and organs of the state.
In addition to dreams, Richard III also makes use of curses, and it with these curses that the play's most explicit supernatural interventions are made. This is because the characters who use these curses, the Duchess of York and Queen Margaret, would have had little real power otherwise, at least in the face of the immediate physical violence upon which Richard's power is based. In many ways Richard III is a study of where power comes from, because although the central machinations of the plot depend on lines of succession and relation, Richard's actions reveal that real power ultimately stems from being willing to use violence to achieve one's ends, because there is no other social construct that can actually challenge the brute impact of physical force. Because social standards like lines of succession are ultimately made meaningless by Richard's willingness to kill anyone who might gain the throne before him, the only means of undercutting Richard's violent secular authority is through the introduction of supernatural powers that can operate outside the…
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