The construction of Richard in Laurence Olivier’s Richard III(1955)

Richard The Third is a character of multiple interpretations and theories about his true intentions. In the text, Richard often invites the idea that he is a persecuted man who tries to win over the sympathy of the audience through his monologues, and of the other characters of the play through his interactions. At the same time, his actions such as his seduction of Anne and his astute manipulation of other characters shows him as more competent and influential then he purports himself to be. While any portrayal of Richard must show him as conniving, his actual nature as a wronged victim, a conniving prince or a hardened psychopath depends upon interpretation. From the calculated yet subtlely insincere way that Olivier delivered Richard’s first monologue, to the way he played his skilled and authoritative seduction of Anne and Richard’s manipulation of the coronation ceremony, Olivier plays Richard as the conniving, power hungry prince first. We are  left doubting whether Richard is truthful in his monologues and if his handicaps are as severe as he makes them seem. However, his passionate desire for the crown allows us to understand his motives, unlike McKellan’s Richard, who is insensitive and withered inside and out, and seems to enjoy “villainy” without any need for it.

In Richard introductory monologue, he gives his account as to why he is miserable and why he seeks power over people. His motives seem quite straight forward. Richard is handicapped, as he says he is “deformed, unfinished, sent befoe my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up, And that so lamely and unfashionably That dogs bark at me as I halt by them”(Act 1, Scene 1 line 23). He also laments his inability to find the love of a woman,” I that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majestry to strut before a wanton ambling nymph”(Act 1, Scene 1, line 16-17). Due to his loneliness and lack of occupation, he says that “To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain”(Act 1, Scene 1, Line 30). It is evident that Richard says he is power hungry due to being unloved, and because his plots and treachery will be able to sabotage peoples’ happiness that he was unable to receive himself. However, because Richard is inherently manipulative and untruthful, the authenticity of this monologue can be brought into question. Laurence Olivier alludes to this in his version of the monologue.Richard does not come across as the self-pitying outcast he purports to be in his lines. He is standing straight, his voice is quite self-assured and he delivers the lines with forcefulness and tact rather than with pain and a sense of unworthiness. The only time Richard seems manic or emotional in Olivier’s version is when he is talking about the throne. He breaks into a grin when he says “I know not how to get the crown” (see clip: Olivier, “Now is the Winter of Our Discontent”, 2:49-3:10)and he starts yelling and staggering in almost a drunken way when he states “I will torment myself to catch the English crown!”(Clip:3:20-3:25). It is also significant that Richard is not speaking to himself in the monologue but clearly speaking to the audience, so the Act is much more like a speech than like a meditation;he is aiming to manipulate the listener to support him rather than to confess or reflect to himself.

Loncraine’s Richard provides a notable contrast to Olivier’s. Richard, as played by Ian McKellan gives the same speech in a urinal, talking to himself after addressing a crowd. The scene begins with McKellen addressing what appears to be a state dinner, and giving what seems like a rousing speech that is eagerly attended to. He starts the first few lines of the monologue addressed to the Son of York in Public. The first few lines start cheerfully and seemingly admiringly “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by the son of York”(Act I, Scene 1, Line 1-2) and the transition to the private urinal is made at “He capers nimbly in a ladies chamber”.(1:1:12) Mckellen then mutters the rest of the lines about his disfigured appearance and seeking revenge while he painfully urinates and later as he fixes his moustache in the mirror(See Clip). He delivers the line “I that am not shaped for sportive tricks”(1:1:14) with a cynical sigh and defeated self loathing. He only addresses the camera at the very end, and with familiar surprise, as if he has found an old friend or an accomplice who is “in” with his plans of villainy. Evidently, this Richard is far different to Olivier’s. Olivier’s Richard was the ambitious yet dissatisfied prince eager to manipulate the invisible audience to sympathise with his goals. McKellen’s Richard is not isolated, but is seen as important and celebrated. This Richard is not the outcast prince looking for an audience because he already has an attentive audience in the movie. This Richard is genuinely world-weary and bitter, someone who utters the lines about revenge and murder to himself because he genuinely has no regard for the world. In a way, Olivier’s Richard is the more sympathizable of the two. His evil springs from a genuine isolation, he feels he deserves the throne and is trying to win the audience over to his cause. McKellen’s Richard is already powerful, already celebrated, but plots evil to himself in a jaded and hardened manner. Olivier’s Richard is angry, greedy and manipulative, but his evil springs from an identifiable cause, whereas McKellen’s Richard is decayed and impenetrable.He seems purely motivated by a hatred of life, which makes him more dangerous.

Returning to Olivier’s Richard, a scene which strengthens Richard’s true nature as a seducer and manipulator rather than a genuine victim is his woo-ing of Lady Anne. He makes it known to the audience that he wants to wed the widow of the Prince of Wales. He initially meets her on the funeral procession of her husband, where he obnoxiously stops the procession of the casket and threatens the priests. Anne was naturally enraged but he tries to pacify her telling her that a man of her husband’s character belongs in heaven more than earth. He then says that he belongs in her bed chamber. While Anne spits at him, she responds to this absurd advance by lustily gazing at him up and down and she walks away. The absurd flirtation with Anne is continued when he meets her at her husband’s grave. He confesses that he killed her husband out of his love for her, and after making a few insincere gestures threatening to kill himself if she doesn’t accept him as her new husband, Anne yields herself to him and kisses him. The most obvious extraction from this strange courtship was voiced by Richard himself when he said “Was ever woman in this humour wooed, was ever woman in this humour won?”(Act 2, Scene 2, 222-224). While the courtship doesn’t make any sense, perhaps Olivier is endorsing the possible viewpoint by Shakespeare that a powerful and competent man can win over any woman, even a grieving, recently widowed one. The idea that a woman can be swept up by any man with the social standing and the confidence to woo her is mirrored in Hamlet, where Cladius married his brother’s wife within a month of his brothers funeral. This also supports the idea that Richard is not the neglected,unaccepted,virgin that he makes us feel he is in his monologue. Richard is brash and overconfident with women, it is unlikely that someone with a broken self-image would proposition a woman at her husband’s funeral. More so, the fact that Anne accepted him speaks volumes for his likely status. Anne was portrayed as a weak and shallow woman but even then, she probably accepted him because he was a prince and an eligible bachelor, rather than a freak. This makes us think that his monologue in the beginning about “Dogs bark at me as I halt by them” was probably a ploy for him to stoke up our sympathy rather than a genuine sense of persecution.

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The tactic of Richard as tyrant playing a victim is made evident at the scene of his coronation. At the scene where Richard is ripe for the throne, he is shown marching in a procession of priests, singing holy hymns in the robes of a monk. At this point, no-one knows that Richard intends to take the English crown, and him being seen in public as a holy man deflects any suspicion that he may be ambitious. The cloaking of Richard in Monks robes also plays on the handicapped card, as it was known that in medieval times and even today in some countries, that the disabled are often reliant on the Church. The setting is perfect for Richard to deliver rehearsed lines, fed by a co-conspirator, in order to deliver his seemingly-reluctant ascension. He makes sure his accomplice Catesby calls the whole village to hear his lament about him becoming king, as he dramatizes “Will you enforce me to a world of cares?”(Act 3, Scene 7, 222) He also once again invokes his handicap to invite sympathy ” Yet so much is my poverty of spirit, So mighty and so many my defects That I would rather hide me from my greatness”(Act 3, Scene 7, 158-159). Unique to the Olivier version is how Olivier deploys the line “call them again” as a sharp order to Catesby to rally up the villagers who had dispersed, which created the effect of rehearsed scene. The interpretive choice of the director to priestly procession complements the monologue of Richard as a master of appearances. He introduced himself to us as the outcast cripple to disarm us and he portrays himself as the humble, disabled monk to disarm the peasantry. Through these two false appearances, we infer that Olivier created Richard not only as a schemer but someone who has created the persona of a victim, and uses his disability as a tool to achieve his aims rather than have it serve as an impediment to them.

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