Disposing and Deposing:  The Killing of King Richard III
Written by Elizabeth Brunner, 1997, 
for English 431 at Cal Poly under Professor Steven Marx

All the passions of the irascible rise from the passions of the concupiscible appetite and terminate in them. For instance, anger rises from sadness, and, having wrought vengeance, terminates in joy.
--  St. Thomas Aquinas
       The ultimate insult from my high school career proved to be neither the egg that Keith Frantz cracked over my head nor the half-dissected cat that some fiend staked to my locker.  No, my lasting shame resulted from election as "Most Studious" by the Class of 1981.  I cried to my best friend, "How could they vote me Queen Nerd?" and recited a long list of my naughtiest adolescent moments as proof of teenage rebellion. I forged a hall pass; I stole a library book; I snuck away for slurpees during the lunch break.  How desperately I wanted to be the bad girl rather than the teacher's pet.  Ah, evil lurks in the heart of all -- and those of us who behave properly perhaps long for vicarious evil most intensely. 
       In Richard III, Shakespeare creates evil personified.  The wicked protagonist conspires against kin, plots political takeovers, woos widows, sets assassins against children, and relishes each nefarious act.  We watch Richard's bravado with wicked glee and delight in each boasting comment sent our direction.  Once the bad guy becomes seductive, even amusing, in his blatant cruelty, the playwright must intervene to counterbalance his own brilliant wit.  But how can this devil Richard be brought to his knees with the appropriate high style demanded by the script's momentum?  Shakespeare leaves us the briefest of stage direction: "Alarum. Enter Richard and Richmond; they fight; Richard is slain" (V.v.).  Once "the bloody dog is dead," Richmond prays for "smooth-faced peace" (V.v.2,33).  So soon after Richard's tormented dream of accusing ghosts, this closing scene enforces a mood described by Robert Ornstein as "one of somber reflection, not of joyous celebration" (263).  However, the interpretive liberties taken by three twentieth-century filmmakers establish elaborated messages about the horrors of bloodshed, the inevitability of power struggles, and the mythmaking of villains. 
       The 1982 BBC production takes the audience through a series of reactions: the bloodthirst for revenge, the prayer for redemption, and the vision of hellish destruction.  We watch Richard circled by soldiers, baited like a bear as swords close in.  We hear grunts of rage, brutish and coarse.  Richard drops to his knees and claws forward, lost in private agonies.  The camera focuses on his face; we observe the hard swallowing of a final mouthful of air.  Richmond fails to glory immediately in his victory but rather responds with distaste, with a slight gagging in revulsion, before declaring the battle's end and praying for peace.  If the film ended here, the audience might leave confident that order could be restored and that a new regime could surpass the old.  Yet in a final surreal scene, the camera twists upward through a mountain of bloodied corpses.  Wild-haired Margaret cackles -- part horror and part triumph -- from atop the flesh pile, clutching Richard's body.  Director Jane Howell emphasizes the body count and the tragic sacrifice of so many young men to civil strife.  But the extremism of crazed laughter juxtaposed with contorted victims challenges more than warlord policies: Where is God when human-devils control the political scene? Why does divinity create a flawed offspring and then abandon humanity to the race of Cain?  Richard becomes just one more body and violent revenge seems inadequate.  Evil leaks off the screen, stains our hands, and offers no release.  Facing the death mound as an audience, we condemn both our private failure to intervene in history and God's failure to model adequate alternatives for earthly rule. 
      In contrast, the crown, as a symbol of changing political fortunes within the human sphere, dominates the final scene of the 1955 Laurence Olivier film.  After fierce battle, Richard's horse is stabbed from underneath, toppling both stead and rider.  The camera tracks the crown, rolling under the pounding hooves of nearby horses and landing under what Mark Eccles characterizes as a "thorn bush" (274).  Richard ends up on the ground, recognizable without his face shield and trapped in combat with the common infantry. Suddenly surrounded in a field with blood dripping down his face, Richard looks stunned by his approaching mortality.  The soundtrack by Sir William Walton momentarily pauses, forcing the audience to hear Richard's labored breath.  The villain appears old, exhausted, human, even vulnerable -- before launching into his last hopeless attack.  The enemy crushes forward.  One soldier slits Richard's throat and then, from overhead, the camera witnesses repeated stabbing en masse by the encircling soldiers.  As the crowd pulls back, Richard suffers a series of death spasms, raises his sword aloft for a last grasp at dignity, and collapses face down.  Slung in humiliation across horseback, his body is slowly led away.  Against a technicolor blue sky, the retrieved crown is lifted upward in victory as the concluding shot while credits begin.  Although I suspect patriotic optimism in Olivier's intentions, the skepticism of a audience forty years later foresees only ongoing political dissent.  Mob rule ends Richard's life, not the orderly blow of a single replacement.  That group thirst for vengeance springs from the same primal emotions of jealousy, bitterness, alienation, and self-loathing as Richard's own fierce drive for the golden crown. 
        In comparison to the death scenes in the two earlier films, Sir Ian McKellen's 1996 version shocks us by allowing Richard to leave the world in glory.  Set in the fascist Thirties and begging comparisons to the reign of Adolph Hitler, Richard becomes the consummate predator.  McKellen transports Act Five to a world of gutted buildings, fireballs, machine guns, tanks, and Nazi imagery.  Commanding his forces to stop shooting, Richmond follows Richard up through the bowels of an abandoned steel-frame industrial site.  Pounding music builds to a crescendo over the sound of automatic gunfire and clanging metal.  Richard hesitates before slithering along a steel girder high above the battle scene.  In lines never penned by Shakespeare, Richard beckons to his rival, "Let's do it pell-mell; if not in heaven, then hand-in-hand to hell."  Before Richmond can shoot, Richard smirks, lifts one gloved hand in farewell, and gracefully free-falls backwards to his chosen death.  Slowly floating down, Richard grins back at the camera before being swallowed by red flames.  In these final seconds, the soundtrack swings into the happy lyrics of "I'm Sitting on Top of the World."  The absurd dissonance between music and image destroys any hope of retribution.  Richard dies with panache, with style, with self-assertion.  Of the three directorial choices, McKellen's option leaves the viewer the most disturbed and unsettled.  This Richard regrets nothings and must be destined for the fame allotted to serial slayers in endless low-budget horror films.  Richard wins by electing to fall hell-bound with glee, while the audience loses both the catharsis of revenge and the certainty that evil has been punished.  Whereas in Howell's PBS production we cry out for God to intervene, this scene offers no possibility that God exists at all.  No doubt Richard will physically burn as fire consumes his body, but what of his soul?  The lack of remorse -- of even suffering -- as death approaches leaves the audience empty.  Richard preserves sordid elegance.  We might giggle, but we cannot mourn.  We mourn neither the death of a hunchback king nor the death of young men on the battlefield.  McKellen closes with evil still alive, an evil enmeshed in the human condition and in our own hearts. 
      At best, the expression on Richard's face haunts us.  Like a medieval gargoyle, the diabolical one leers and taunts.  Just as the twisted stone faces of gargoyles ape human nature from atop Gothic cathedrals, Shakespeare's Richard III represents our mutual darkside.  Charlotte Spivack explains that these sculptures "remind the entering Christian that even while his soul seeks salvation within this structure, his body will pull him downward with the mocking demands of its physical being" (35).  Structurally, the gargoyles often function as gutter drains, spewing forth waste water to protect the aesthetics of the church.  Similarly, Richard epitomizes our hatreds and cruelties, reminding us of the evil inside; whether he cleanses our sins through his death depends on the director's approach to redemption and transference. 
Works Cited
Eccles, Mark.  "Richard III on Stage and Screen." Richard III.  New York: Signet Classic, 1988.  265-78.
Hallett, Charles A. and Elaine S. Hallett.  The Revenger's Madness.  Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1980.  (Epigraph)
Ornstein, Richard.  "Richard III."  Richard III.  New York: Signet Classic, 1988.  239-264.
Spivack, Charlotte.  The Comedy of Evil on Shakespeare's Stage.  London: Associated UPs, 1978.

 
Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner
Email: liz@grantproposal.com
Main Web Site: www.calpoly.edu/~ebrunner