So I reach the end of the first block of Shakespeare plays, the quartet covering the reigns of Henry VI, Edwards IV and V and of course Richard III. This is definitely the best of the four plays. Like the previous three, it is the story arc of a single character, in this case Richard himself; the first act sees him knock off his brother Clarence, the second act has his other brother die of dissipation, the third act has Richard dispossess his nephews and seize the throne, the fourth act has the young princes and various others, mostly former allies, slaughtered, and the fifth act has Richard himself overthrown and killed by the Duke of Richmond, who becomes Henry VII.
Richard is a fascinating character - as I commented with regard to the previous play, his taking the audience into his confidence is a strong part of his charm, and although we see him deceive and seduce the other characters, we don't ever feel he is deceiving us. Richard gets the two best-known lines of the play - the opening "Now is the winter of our discontent" speech, and his despairing final "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" - and if a scene doesn't have him in it you feel there is something missing (certainly the other characters are always talking about him).
Richard's mistake of leadership is quite different from Henry VI and Edward IV, both of whom prove in different ways too lightweight for the burdens of office. He is less subtle than his father, who held back in Ireland and let his rivals for power and his proxies eliminate each other. His mistake is that once he has achieved his originally quite limited agenda - to get rid of Henry, Edward, Clarence and the princes - and reached the throne, he just can't stop killing people. His public and hypocritical piety contrasts nicely with Richmond's more modest and circumspect approach. His gradual disintegration into a haunted wreck of a man is chilling, and reminded me of Bruno Ganz in Der Untergang. David Troughton does a good job of it in the Arkangel production I've been listening to, but I'm sure any actor would love to play this.
The other character whose role is particularly interesting is Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI's widow and the only living character in all four plays (Henry himself gets a few lines as a ghost haunting Richard at Bosworth field). She haunts a couple of scenes as a vengeful visitor from the past - if I was staging this I think I'd present her as a ghost, rather than a live person (indeed, historically, she was dead by the time Richard took over). Apparently some productions drop her completely because it takes too long to explain who she is. I think that is a real shame - she is an Awful Warning to Richard, and to us, of what happens when you claw your way to the top by violence; yet she seems to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
It's a play with more women in general. (Again, I had a thought that if I were staging it, I'd make the Citizens of Act 3 Scene 3 women.) A couple of them are rather surprisingly taken in by Richard's charms after he has killed their close relatives, and also it is never quite explained who the unseen Mrs Shore is. But their presence is part of a more general sense that dynastic conflict is something that happens to real people, rather than to names in history books (the first two parts of Henry VI were a bit too much in the other direction). Fails the Bechdel test, I'm afraid; although there are plenty of scenes with women talking to each other, it is usually about Richard or his (male) victims. The on-stage death count is noticeable lower than in the previous three plays, which actually works rather better.
There are several remarkable scenes. The killings in the Tower, of Clarence and the Princes, stand out as points of no return in Richard's rise and fall respectively. (I note for future use that this play was probably first performed in 1592, the year my ancestor Sir Nicholas Whyte also snuffed it in the tower, though as far as we know he died of relatively natural causes.) The Bosworth field hauntings and subsequent battle are a great climax to the play.
The most intriguing scene for me, however, was Act 4 Scene 4, which starts with Queen Margaret getting a decent soliloquy ("So, now prosperity begins to mellow, / And drop into the rotten mouth of death"); she then confronts Queen Elizabeth (Edward IV's widow) and the Duchess of York (Edward IV and Richard III's mother); she buggers off to France, but the other two women get a chance to confront Richard; his mother leaves, and he astonishingly persuades Queen Elizabeth to let him marry her daughter (his own niece, after having murdered her father and his own first wife); and then a series of nobles and messengers come with confusing news of Richmond's arrival and rebellions around the land. I'd find this scene particularly difficult to stage and would be tempted to split it up a bit if I were directing. It does, however, show Richard still capable of his old persuasive powers yet vulnerable to meltdown.
I found this really compelling - the Henry VI/Richard III quartet improve as they go on, and I found myself wondering what was going to happen next to Richard (even though of course I knew perfectly well). Also, unlike the other three plays of the cycle, I frequently found myself thinking how I would stage it if I ever had the chance. Shakespeare's first really good play, I suppose.
Anyway, it's rather lighter stuff next, with A Comedy of Errors which I must say will be rather a relief after all this historical mayhem.
Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love's Labour's Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night's Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All's Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter's Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)