By Michael Flachmann
During his 1483 coronation ceremony, Richard III invited a group of actors to perform in the church to commemorate his investiture. This tantalizing detail, willed to us by history, speaks volumes about the motives and persona of Shakespeare’s most celebrated monarch. Theatricality is at the heart of all Richard’s actions in the play, extending from his initial soliloquy vowing to seize the throne, to his systematic manipulation and murder of most of the central characters, to his highly stylized dramatic monologues, and finally to the various convincing roles he adopts in the play—particularly his impersonation of the dying martyr-king whose title is usurped by Richmond at Bosworth Field. A meta-theatrical chameleon, Richard becomes Shakespeare’s most “loved villain,” an oxymoronic actor whose wit, charm, ambition, and immense courage turn this controversial play into an episodic historical narrative about the insidious mixture of politics and religion. Filled with breathless energy, the script compresses nearly ten years of “real” time into three hours of stage time, thereby chronicling its pseudo-factual events with all the subtlety of a runaway freight train.
To emphasize Richard’s theatricality, 2003 director J. R. Sullivan has wisely set this season’s Utah Shakespeare Festival production in a gothic cathedral, which brilliantly establishes the scene for Lady Anne’s funeral procession, the search for sanctuary by Elizabeth and the princes, and, of course, the coronation itself. The triptych arrangement of the stage likewise implies a debt to the holy trinity in its division of the playing area into three visual panels or “sedes.” This sacred locale also echoes Shakespeare’s artistic debt to the morality play, which originated in medieval churches in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, giving devout parishioners their first taste of the fascinating Vice characters whose theatrical descendants included not only Richard III, but also such premiere Shakespearean villains such as Iago in Othello, Edmund in King Lear, and Don John in Much Ado About Nothing. Through the immense ritualistic power of the morality motif, the characters in Richard III undergo a “psychomachia” or “soul struggle” in which the forces of good and evil contend for moral and ethical control of an entire nation.
In this sense, Richard III is a modern historical morality play cunningly narrated by its central character. Like the medieval Vice, Richard draws the audience into his machinations, making us complicit in his murderous plots. Knowing far too much about Richard’s cruelty to remain innocent, we receive a voyeuristic thrill in seeing his victims get their just desserts, just as we applaud the artistry with which he choreographs the demise of each. This “knave in a nave” leaches energy from the other characters like a dramatic vampire, rising in power as his opponents fall. Since this historical parable is told in a church, however, we are simultaneously intrigued and edified by the dramatic progress of the play. Richard is both villain and savior, devil and priest in his strange but deeply moving religious parable about the sin of ambition and the limits of political power. As he demonstrates the deceitful actions that ultimately bring about his downfall, he concurrently attracts us toward and repels us from behaving in a similar fashion. If we are intrigued by his manipulation of evil, we are also repulsed by our own fascination with his diabolical charms. Everywhere we look, Richard sets up a mirror in which we can see our own flaws writ large upon the stage before us.
Although Richard is the titular “hero” of the play, the sinner whose sufferings are at last absolved is England itself—the woeful nation fated to undergo torment at the hands of an unjust ruler. According to the doctrine of the divine right of kings, English monarchs were anointed and inspired by God. They ruled by celestial authority, which could never be challenged. Subjects beset by an evil king were required to endure him through “passive obedience” under the assumption that God, in His infinite wisdom, was punishing them for manifest past crimes or purifying them in preparation for some future blessing. When Richmond defeats Richard at the conclusion of this play, therefore, not only is England cleansed historically of a terrible tyrant, but the soul of this great nation is likewise purified and regenerated through God’s blessed mercy.
That this mystic and hallowed event happens in a church set within a theatre is ironically appropriate. Richard III offers many joys to attentive audiences, not the least of which is the opportunity for a spiritual conversion in which the faith of the spectators is strengthened by the very theatricality of evil. As we are seduced by Richard’s obscene lust for power, so too are we edified by his fall from grace. In the end, God’s heavenly wisdom embraces us all, enclosing everything that lives in that great flood of time streaming from the Garden of Eden through our own unique chronological moment. Great theatre is the conduit, the medium, the divine spark that helps us understand our place in the historical continuum spanning the gulf between Shakespeare’s age and our own.