Saturday, August 27, 2011

Richard, King of hearts

Who was Richard III?  Was he the Machiavellian prince of York bent on ascending the throne of England at any cost?  This is what William Shakespeare would have us believe.

Here are three different actors' takes on the character from the opening soliloquy: Ron Cook, Jonathan Slinger and Ian McKellen. If you watch it from Youtube there are links to other actors' performances.

Shakespeare's Richard III Act I, Scene I  (3 versions)

But Shakespeare was not a historian.  His knowledge of the real King Richard III (1452-1495) (the last of the Plantagenet family line) was based on histories written to reinforce King Henry VII's (a Tudor) claim to the throne. If this theory is true (which many modern historians now believe) then Shakespeare's extremely unflattering portrayal of King Richard is simply a dramatic work of historical fiction based on propaganda. Could you believe a biography of one your county's previous leaders if it were written not by an impartial journalist but by his political enemies?  Goodness! One can hardly even believe all the rhetoric that goes on during political campaigns, nevermind in a biography!

Please join Ian McKellen who answers questions about  Shakespeare's play.This is an interactive site where you can choose which question Mr. McKellan will answer.

 Click here: A conversation with Sir Ian McKellen.

Shakespeare's aim was never to be factual, merely to write a compelling drama, which has captivated audiences for over four centuries, since it was believed to be written in 1591.
Richard III has had many actors portray him on stage and screen.  Here is just a small sampling

David Garrick painted  by William Hogarth
John Barrymore (1929)

Sir Laurence Olivier Richard III (1955)

Sir Alec Guinness (1953)
Alec Guinness has the distinction of being the first performer to grace the stage at Canada's Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario.  How interesting that the first play performed there was Richard III.

Open since June 2 until September 25, 2011 at the Stratford Festival, Richard III is once again being performed.  This time the lead role is being played by the actress Seana McKenna.

Here are some other unusual portrayals of this character.

Al Pacino in the docudrama Looking for Richard (1996)

He is looking very regal in this crown!
Ian McKellen

Interesting costume choice here...
Kenneth Brannagh

Surely this must be one of the quirkiest portrayals of all!  Here is Peter Sellers in a parody of Laurence Oliver's performance of RIII using the lyrics to The Beatles' song A Hard Day's Night

 This is talk show host Craig Ferguson's off the cuff impression.

None of these portrayals come close to revealing the real person behind the myth.  Is the truth lost in the mists of time?  Many historians labour to set the record straight.  The Richard III Society (both the British and the American chapter) has been sponsoring research into this question for many years.  

Besides historical essays and books there have been several popular novels which investigate this theme.  The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey was written in 1951 as part of her detective series about the Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant.    Another work of detective fiction along these lines is I, Richard written by Elizabeth George (who also writes the Inspector Lynley series). The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman is an award winning book of historical fiction.  (I read this book years ago and remember enjoying it immensely.  I have recently purchased a new copy, but haven't gotten around to a reread yet.)  Here is a great review from the blog Fly High!  

This blog post contains a very concise argument about the true character of Richard III.

Does this look like a hunchbacked, misshapen, limping multiple murderer?  
Although I don't believe you can read someone's character from observing their face (no matter what Tey's Inspector Grant believes), this portrait does not show any evidence of a deformity. 
The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III
On closer inspection you may notice that one shoulder is higher than the other.  Could this be where people got the idea he was hunchbacked? One writer claims that Richard's greater muscle mass in his arm is what makes for the difference in the size of his shoulders.  Apparently he was a very able soldier, brave in battle and a mighty wielder of the heavy battle axe. 
Dare I offer a modest opinion here?  Perhaps it was merely this artist's rather crude attempt at perspective which gives us this false impression?  This whole debate might actually boil down to "a mountain being made out of a molehill", or more likely -- a hunchback being made out of a shrug.

Portrait from the collection at Windsor Castle
 I was very excited to recognise this as the actual portrait I saw in the Queen's appartments at Windsor Castle last summer.  The more commonly found portrait is a later copy of this one. I knew something wasn't right about the other portrait I used in this post. But notice here, it is the opposite shoulder that is higher.  Make up your minds, you portrait artists!  What! Does he have a mobile hump?  Perhaps he just put it on for portrait purposes, just to confuse the masses!  What a practical joker that Richard III must have been! :)  Imagine, here we are 500 years on, still not getting the joke.  He must be rolling in his grave!

 Richard Armitage, who was born on August 22 (the same date as Richard III fell at Bosworth Field) has always wished to play a more true to life characterization of his namesake.

Was he a cocky jokester?

A troubled, brooding romantic hero?

Or was he just misunderstood and in search of himself?

We hope he gets his wish to bring a better version of the life of Richard III to light.  See this website to add your name to the petition, if you would like to help.

Whatever you believe about Richard III, fans of Richard Armitage know he is our King of Hearts!


Fabo/Musa said...

So interesting that a woman is playing Richard III, great performance just from the clip.

Love the different moods of Richard The Armitage as RIII.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! Loved the Peter Sellers clip. And thanks for the clip of Seana McKenna. I was wondering what this version was like when I saw it would be interpreted by a woman this year at Stratford. You certainly did a lot of research - finding that educational tool by Sir Ian McKellen. Too bad he's only looking at it from the Shakespeare perspective rather than historical fact. But interesting nonetheless.

CDoart said...

What a wonderful collection and overview of Richard III interpretations and the moving hump! I am not yet through with watching the videos and must continue. I absolutely love your "King of Hearts" and RA-images !!!

Summer said...

Very Interesting post! Thank You!

mulubinba said...

Great post! I'm fascinated by the shoulders. One dropped shoulder may just mean that he was sitting crookedly for the artist. Not enough evidence for a hunchback imo. Dropped shoulder may mean scoliosis but not kyphosis and if he had a kyphoscoliosis, it would be more obvious in the portraits.
So it seems that not only has his character been misinterpreted but so have his physical characteristics.

Anonymous said...

Another possibility for a more pronounced shoulder MIGHT be to do with the muscle of the sword arm. Just floating the idea...Mulubinba? Those broadswords were awfully heavy. And perhaps one of the artists distinguished between the reverse view effect and got the right arm, and the other didn't?


Phylly3 said...

@PoliCBA + @Summer -- Thanks for stopping by and for your comments! :)
@Musa -- I just read your post and I realize I used the same video clip of Peter Sellers as you did. Sorry! I was trying to check that I didn't duplicate anything from other people's posts, but it is hard sometimes to find a different take on the same subject. Especially when "great minds think alike" as they say.
@Calexora -- Thanks, it was a bit of a project, but I do enjoy research like this. Most of my work besides finding interesting tidbits, was checking everybody elses' blogs to try not to duplicate anything. As it was I failed at that! :) A female actress as Richard III is quite a stretch, isn't it? Why not, I guess. The character is so "out there" anyway! But what actor (or actress) wouldn't want to utter such stirring words!

Phylly3 said...

@CDoart -- Thank you! I am so glad you like the post. You were so good to initiate it. What a wonderful project. I certainly hope the petition gets many more signatures!
@mulubinba -- LOL, of course you would notice that shoulder business! :)
There were some quotes from a few people of his time that did not refer to any deformity. As a battle hardened soldier he could not be physically disabled in any way. I have heard of scoliosis but not those other two terms. ... off to Google now!
@Fitzg -- Yes, the sword arm being more muscled was definitely mentioned as a possibility for the difference in size of the shoulders. Also the one picture is definitely a mirror of the other. Copies of copies, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post—very thorough and engaging.

How great that you got to see the actual portrait! Your RA graphics made me smile.

Phylly3 said...

@darlingdarling -- Why thank you *blushes*. Always happy to bring a smile. :)

Traxy said...

From what I've heard, R3 was vilified by Shakespeare because he was trying to impress Queen Liz, whose grandfather or whatever it was defeated him in battle. So it was in his best interest to big up her relative, so to speak. Or if Liz was the one who paid Shakespeare. Something like that.

Phylly3 said...

@Traxy - Thanks for the comment. What men will do to impress a woman! Sheesh! :)