We all love cliffhangers. Especially when it’s a villain who has reaped chaos and destruction upon the protagonists and lives to fight another day. (I’ve got Thanos from The Avengers Infinity War coming to mind… I hope it’s not sacrilegious to draw a comparison between Shakespeare and Marvel… You know what? I probably could draw that comparison. Let’s save that for another article). In Henry the Sixth, Part Three, we get to meet one of Shakespeare’s most infamous characters: Richard Duke of Gloucester, who goes on to become King Richard the Third. In his title play, Richard tells us he is “determined to prove a villain”. And it seems he has been singing that tune for a while now.
This play, which was written a year or two before the release of Richard the Third, would have been an incredible cliff hanger for the audience. Richard tells us his plan, which we end up witnessing in his play. In true Richard Gloucester fashion, this speech takes place DURING his murder of King Henry the 6th, a meek, God fearing King who never really stood a chance against a tyrant like Richard. Just before this speech commences, Henry’s last ditch effort at wounding Richard, (Who has already killed Henry’s son) is to insult him, his birth and his deformation. He tells Richard;
Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,
To signify thou cam’st to bite the world;
Richard echoes this fact in the speech which follows. Interestingly, Richard silences Richard before he has finished speaking – an indication of Richard’s self-disgust, perhaps? Let’s have a look at the speech and see.
Richard, Duke of Gloucester:
What, will the aspiring blood of Lancaster
Sink in the ground? I thought it would have mounted.
See how my sword weeps for the poor king’s death.
O, may such purple tears be always shed
From those that wish the downfall of our house!
If any spark of life be yet remaining,
Down, down to hell; and say I sent thee thither-
(Stabs him again)
I that have neither pity, love, nor fear.
Indeed ’tis true that Henry told me of:
For I have often heard my mother say
I came into the world with my legs forward.
Had I not reason, think ye, to make haste
And seek their ruin that usurp’d our right?
The midwife wonder’d and the women cried
‘O, Jesu bless us, he is born with teeth!’
And so I was; which plainly signified
That I should snarl, and bite and play the dog.
Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crook’d my mind to answer it.
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word ‘love,’ which graybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me: I am myself alone.
Clarence, beware; thou keep’st me from the light,
But I will sort a pitchy day for thee;
For I will buzz abroad such prophecies
That Edward shall be fearful of his life;
And then, to purge his fear, I’ll be thy death.
King Henry and the prince his son are gone;
Clarence, thy turn is next, and then the rest,
Counting myself but bad till I be best.
I’ll throw thy body in another room,
And triumph, Henry, in thy day of doom.
Mounted: Raised up, ascended into the heavens. Richard considers Henry’s bloodline to be ambitious in their thievery of the throne, so ambitious that even his blood would raise up instead of sink down.
Sword weeps: The blood is dripping off his dagger.
Purple tears: Blood
Legs forward: Richard was said to have been born deformed and came into the world hideous and upside down. This was Henry’s last insult to Richard before he was stabbed.
Seek their ruin: The Lancaster family, who opposes the Yorks in the War of the Roses.
Graybeards: Old men
Clarence: Richard’s brother George Clarence
keeps me from the light: You stop me from becoming King and divine.
Pitchy day: The “pitch” was the name given to the highest point in a falcon’s flight before it dives down to catch its prey. Richard will arrange for the climax and end of Clarence’s life.
Buzz abroad: Spread rumours
What, will the Royal blood of a Lancaster
simply sink into the ground? I thought it would have ascended to the heavens.
Look, my sword is shedding tears of blood for the poor King’s death!
O may blood always be shed
Of those that wish the downfall of the Yorks.
If there’s any spark of life in you,
go down, down to hell, and say I sent you there.
(Stabs Henry again.)
I have no pity, love or fear.
It’s true what Henry just said to me:
My Mother tells me all the time
That I came into the world with my legs forward.
Don’t you think I had good reason
To quickly bring about the ruin of those who sought to usurp our right to the throne?
The midwife was in disbelief and the women screamed
“Jesus save us, he is born with teeth!’
And that I was: which clearly meant
that I should bite and growl and play the dog.
Then, since heaven has made my body deformed,
Let hell corrupt my mind to match it.
I have no brother, I am like nobody’s brother
And this word ‘love’ which old men call holy,
exists for every man except me.
I am alone.
Brother, Clarence, watch out. You keep me from sitting on the throne.
But I will sort you out soon enough:
I will spread around rumours which will make Edward the King fearful for his life
And then, to ease his fear, I’ll murder you.
King Henry and his son the Prince are gone.
Clarence, your turn is next, and then the rest
I will be bad until I am the best
Henry, I’ll get rid of your body and triumph in your day of doom.
Analysis & Notes on Performance
Talk about FOREBODING. The phrase, “This is how the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper” comes to mind. This moment is intimate. And our performance of it should reflect this. To play Richard as a one dimensional villain with nothing but evil on his mind is reductive. Richard is complex in his villainy – we as actors need to do the extra work to see what is driving him. He gives us a few clues in this speech:
I should bite and growl and play the dog.
Then, since heaven has made my body deformed,
Let hell corrupt my mind to match it.
I’m sure there is much pleasure which Richard derives from this conclusion, but this confusion has come from a lifetime of pain and torment for him. Not to go too hard on empathising with a psychopath, but I do believe it’s our responsibility as actors to approach each role with curiosity and understanding rather than judgement. Richard was born with deformity in a world which believed that the corruption of one’s soul was reflected in our external features. The belief system of Richard (and Shakespeare’s) society, MADE Richard into what he is. He tells us, in ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Richard believes he has no other option but to follow the path of destruction and tyranny. This truth impacts our performance immensely. We must steer clear of the stereotypical evil-loving and maniacal portrayal of someone like Richard, (Think: Mr Burns from the Simpsons) but instead find the many layers of his character to play.
This soliloquy is an incredibly intimate moment between Richard and the audience. It’s quiet, they are alone, the dead King may still be lying limp in Richard’s arms. It’s an uncomfortable image. The actor speaking these lines should consider Richard’s comfortability with death and violence in this moment. I wonder if this stabbing has even got his heart rate high, or is he completely calm?
It’s work experimenting with this speech, playing around with the given circumstances to find where the speech is best pitched for you. Play the scene with Richard completely calm and collected, then try him like he’s just had a massive adrenaline rush. What happens if you play the scene leaning on the pain Richard feels about other people’s disdain of him? What if his need is to be loved by others? Play the Mr Burns version (Pure, joyous villainy) to see what comes from it. Once you’ve experimented with these versions and others you feel are useful, find where each of the versions exists at one time. Like a painting, a soliloquy is best when it is made up of many colours and textures. Include as much depth to this character as possible, or risk your audience branding Richard with simplistic judgement.
Enjoy this rich indulgent speech. Richard, at this moment, is absolutely in his element. He might as well be bathing in Henry’s blood. This warmth and comfortability of horrible circumstances is fascinating for us as actors to play, but with the situation being so foreign for us we risk generalising the character. Richard accepts his fate as the villain because he believes the world around him has turned him into a villain. This belief requires a painful lived experience. Remember, this is the character we see left alone on the battlefield, crying “My kingdom for a horse!” before his death.
We can empathise with Richard by imagining him as a child, surrounded by his taller and stronger older brothers. How would they have treated him? How do we feel about Richard in this state? This speech is Richard telling the audience, “I am inevitable” and to get ready for his reappearance in a few years time. Even though these plays are centuries old for us now, there’s still joy to be found in this cliffhanger moment, and acknowledging the function of this scene as one which must build suspense can be really useful for us.