Is this Shakespeare’s most incredible scene?

Shakespeare’s Richard III  is one of those “have you been paying attention” plays.

Trouble is you need to have been paying attention throughout the entire chronicle known as the history plays, often performed as the Hollow Crown. 

It begins with Richard II where King Richard is deposed by Henry Bolingbroke. The reasons are complex (you need to read the play). But it does help to remember what happens from here on is really like a rather murderous Christmas Day with a lot of rellies who really hate each other fighting it out to the death over the neat 30 odd years.

Now, deposing a king is pretty serious stuff, Kings being appointed by God and all that. To say nothing of wounded family pride as result of the kids being cut out of the family inheritance.

So what happens is that after Bolingbroke, who was pretty good king as Henry IV, you had his son who was also a pretty good king as Henry V. But after him, Henry VI wasn’t much good and the Wars of the Roses start.

When the dust settles, the House of York has defeated the House of Lancaster and Richard’s elder brother Edward is on the throne.

It has been pretty clear from the previous plays that both of Richard’s two older brothers Edward and Clarence are not much chop. But they’re both older than Richard and when the war is over, it is Edward who becomes King and Clarence who is next in line.  And Richard is far from gruntled by this particular arrangement.

You may remember

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

By the end of the first Scene, it is clear that Richard has pretty much stitched poor old Clarence up.  He is in the Tower and his ailing brother, King Edward, all suspects he’s plotting against him.

And then Richard says

 For then I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter.
What though I kill’d her husband and her father?

The lady of whom he speaks is the exceptionally beautiful Lady Anne Neville – widow of Edward of Westminster, who was also the Prince of Wales and son of King Henry VI.

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Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Anne

 What follows is an extraordinary scene where Richard convinces a woman, who is grieving the death of her husband (whom Richard has killed) and who is escorting the corpse of her father-in-law (whom Richard has also killed), to marry him.

And so

Enter Lady Anne, with the corpse of her father-in-law the late King Henry VI.  She is pretty upset, particularly with Richard.

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Anne: Cursed be the hand that made these fatal holes!
Cursed be the heart that had the heart to do it!
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence!

Richard comes on stage and the corpse begins to bleed again

Anne: Blush, Blush, thou lump of foul deformity;
For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty veins, where no blood dwells;
Thy deed, inhuman and unnatural,
Provokes this deluge most unnatural.
O God, which this blood madest, revenge his death!
O earth, which this blood drink’st revenge his death!

Villain, thou know’st no law of God nor man:
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.

But slowly and surely and incredibly Richard begins to persuade her.

Richard: More wonderful, when angels are so angry.
Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman,
Of these supposed-evils, to give me leave,
By circumstance, but to acquit myself.

Fairer than tongue can name thee, let me have
Some patient leisure to excuse myself.

And then Richard takes the first step in the seduction of Anne

Richard: I did not kill your husband.

Anne: In thy foul throat thou liest: Queen Margaret saw
Thy murderous falchion smoking in his blood;
The which thou once didst bend against her breast,
But that thy brothers beat aside the point.

Richard: I was provoked by her slanderous tongue,
which laid their guilt upon my guiltless shoulders.

Anne: Didst thou not kill this king? 

Richard: I grant ye.

Richard knows that he has won a concession from Anne. He has got her to accept  the possibility that his brother Edward may have killed husband. It’s the thin end of the wedge.

Then comes a dazzling exchange that typifies Richard’s cynical black humour

Anne: O, he was gentle, mild, and virtuous!

Richard: The fitter for the King of heaven, that hath him.

Anne: He is in heaven, where thou shalt never come.

Richard: Let him thank me, that holp to send him thither;
For he was fitter for that place than earth.

Anne: And thou unfit for any place but hell.

Richard: Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.

Anne: Some dungeon.

Richard: Your bed-chamber.

Anne: I’ll rest betide the chamber where thou liest!

Richard: So will it, madam till I lie with you.

Anne: I hope so.

Richard knows that he is winning. Anne is listening, she is arguing and she is losing. And then comes a pivotal point of the argument.

Richard: Is not the causer of the timeless deaths
Of these Plantagenets, Henry and Edward,
As blameful as the executioner? 

Your beauty was the cause of that effect;
Your beauty: which did haunt me in my sleep
To undertake the death of all the world,
So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.

But then, Anne seems to be slipping away and becoming interested in revenge for the death of her husband. Richard stakes all on a last roll of the dice. He hands Anne his sword and offers to let her stab him. It is not without its dangers.

If thy revengeful heart cannot forgive,
Lo, here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword;
Which if thou please to hide in this true bosom.
And let the soul forth that adoreth thee,
I lay it naked to the deadly stroke,
And humbly beg the death upon my knee.

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When Anne says

Arise, dissembler: though I wish thy death,
I will not be the executioner.

Richard knows he has won.  And he proceeds to take control of the domestic and funeral arrangements.

Vouchsafe to wear this ring.
Look, how this ring encompasseth finger.
Even so thy breast encloseth my poor heart;

But beg one favour at thy gracious hand,
Thou dost confirm his happiness for ever.

That it would please thee leave these sad designs
To him that hath more cause to be a mourner,
And presently repair to Crosby Place;

Richard is fairly dancing with glee after Anne has left the stage.

Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.

Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
Myself to be a marvellous proper man.
I’ll be at charges for a looking-glass,
And entertain some score or two of tailors,
To study fashions to adorn my body:
Since I am crept in favour with myself,
Will maintain it with some little cost.

This last part of Richard’s final speech highlights the difficulty and the challenges for both the actors and the director.

The scene needs to be played with considerable sexual tension between Richard and Anne otherwise it is simply not going to work.  Yet there needs to be credibility in Anne’s grief for the death of her husband and father-in-law.

So Richard needs to be relatively attractive. During the scene, Anne refers to him as a hedgehog and as a toad, figuratively speaking of course but hardly terms of sexual endearment, so the actor playing Anne needs to tread a very fine line. It scenes like this make Richard III one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.

Antony Sher’s portrayal must have made this particularly difficult. He is probably the least attractive Richard in recent memory.  I think I saw this version live in the Royal Shakespeare came to Melbourne. I don’t remember this particular scene but have always been fascinated by its improbability on one hand and the fact that it works on the other.

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But that’s Shakespeare.

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