Richard III, A Controversial King
Various interpretations of the life of Richard III exist, the most well-known of which is undoubtedly Shakespeare’s play of the same name. The details of an adaptation in Chinese are different as the version re-examines this historical figure.
In literary works, Richard III, the last Yorkist king of England, is described as a tyrant. Richard died in battle two years after he assumed power, leaving his deeds to the judgement of future generations. In 1591, Shakespeare wrote the play Richard III based on historical records. Richard III is depicted as an ugly and cruel ruler, who realised his ambitions by usurping the throne and killing his political enemies. However, in the end he failed and brought disgrace and ruin upon himself.
In 2012, the National Theatre of China (NTC) staged a version of the play. It featured rich Chinese flavour and was an instant success.
A King in History
In 2012, archaeologist Richard Buckley from the University of Leicester and his team unearthed a skeleton of an adult male beneath at a council car park. This was an important discovery. Scientific dating processes showed that the man died between 1455 and 1540 in a war when he was in his thirties. The parking area was the site of Greyfriars Church where Richard III was buried. Historical records and a DNA comparison with descendants of Richard III proved that the skeleton was that of Richard III, the king of England. History books describe Richard III as an ugly man with upper limb atrophy, but the skeleton lacks any sign of atrophy; it is only a little bit hunched. An antiquarian club conducted a facial reconstruction of Richard III and exhibited it at the Art Gallery of Burlington. Chairman of the Richard III Society, Phil Stone, stated, “It‘s an interesting face, younger and fuller than we have been used to seeing, less careworn, and with the hint of a smile… I think people will like it.”
On March 22, 2015, the coffin containing Richard III’S remains was delivered from the rural areas of Leicester to Bosworth, where he was defeated. A crowd watched the coffin as it passed from both sides of the road. Twenty-one salvos were fired as a salute to the royal figure. On March 26—530 years after he died in battle—richard III was buried at Leicester Cathedral. Peace was finally brought to the deceased.
Born in 1452, Richard III was the younger brother of King Edward IV of England. In 1483, Edward IV died, leaving a posthumous edict ordering Richard III to be the Lord Protector, a regent. It is said that Richard III usurped the throne and became the king of England by killing Edward V, the son of Edward IV. Despite similar statements in historical records, historical groups in Britain are deeply suspicious of this. There is no conclusion that Richard III did that. Some scholars believe that Richard III acceded to the throne at the petition of some ministers and that he was upright in character and took matters of education seriously. Richard III’S reign lasted for merely two years. He put down the revolt of the Duke of Buckingham who also advanced a claim to the throne. However, the duke was killed at the age of 32, as a result of a betrayal by his troops in a fight against Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond.
The short period of Richard III’S reign saw remarkable achievements and the exercise of his extraordinary political talents. He established a complete legal aid and bail system and initiated the principle of the presumption of innocence in the judicial domain. He won extensive esteem by aiding local universities and churches and establishing the Northern Parliament. However, Richard III is a controversial figure in British history, and his image as a tyrant is deeply rooted. Chronicles compiled by historian Thomas More were the first to depict Richard III as a tyrant. Since then, his negative image has continued to be reinforced. As Shakespeare drew much inspiration from the historian of Henry VII, the successor to Richard III, he depicted the protagonist as a crippled and hunchbacked king with an ugly face and evil mind in his play Richard III.
In 1591, Shakespeare wrote the play Richard III based on The History of Richard III by Thomas More and chronicles written by Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed, respectively. It is Shakespeare’s second longest play after Hamlet. Shakespeare made bold attempts to adapt the play according to his principles and creative needs, departing from historical records. In the play, Richard III was not an out-and-out villain as More depicted. Instead, the figure was endowed with richer connotations.
Shakespeare’s Richard III has a rigid writing style. The work represents the brief reign of the tyrant in a vivid manner. After the death of Edward IV, his brother Richard III killed Edward V, his nephew and the successor to the throne, in a cunning and sinister way and ascended the throne. Richard III resorted to extreme measures and gradually became a ruthless killer. In the end, he was betrayed by his troops
and killed by his enemies, which was the final punishment for his evil deeds.
The play was staged for the first time on November 17, 1633, the birthday of Henrietta Maria, who watched it alongside king Charles I. Later, Colley Cibber adapted Shakespeare’s Richard III. This adapted version was performed at the Drury Lane Theatre beginning in 1700 with Cibber himself playing the title role until 1739. This adaptation was performed on stages for the next 150 years. In 1845, Shakespeare’s original play was staged at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre. In 1913, Richard III was made into a film. In 1955, Laurence Olivier directed Richard III and performed the title role in his film. In 1996, Ian Mckellen starred in the film Richard III, a story adapted from the original work set in a fascist country in modern times. In 2011, Richard III starring Kevin Spacey premiered at the English National Opera. It was also performed in China during its international tour.
Usurpation and Failure
Richard III is an important representative of Shakespeare’s historical plays. It is a distinctive work highly recommended by contemporary Shakespearean scholars.
In the five-act play, the Duke of Gloucester was envious of the power and glory of King Edward IV and determined to usurp the throne. Driven by greed and desire, Gloucester framed his elder brother Gorge, the Duke of Clarence, who stood before him in the line of succession.
After King Edward IV died of illness, his son Edward, who was the Prince of Wales, returned to London for his coronation. The sanctimonious and astute Gloucester imprisoned the prince at the Tower of London. He cheated the people, and killed those who opposed him. Finally, he ascended the throne and became Richard III. After assuming power, Richard III began to get rid of dissidents. He wooed Lady Anne, widow of Prince Edward, coaxed her into marrying him and put her to death out of suspicion. He even married Edward IV’S daughter lest she should succeed to the throne. All in all, Gloucester did a lot of evil and cruel things.
Later, Henry, who was the Earl of Richmond, launched a battle against Richard III. Prior to the battle, Richard was haunted by the ghosts of his victims, all of whom bade him “despair and die!” He was blamed and cursed, and no one pitied him. In a final duel, Richard III is killed by Henry.
In the play, Richard III is born malformed and has a fierce look. When he grew up, he was terribly hunched, and one of his arms was atrophied like a dead branch. His cheeks were unsymmetrical, and his features were unpleasant. Beneath his ugly appearance, there was an evil soul. Because of his ugliness, Richard III believed that he was not made for anything good in life. He developed hatred towards and wanted to seek revenge against everyone. He had a desire to destroy everything. In order to realise his ambition of ascending a throne which did not belong to him, Richard III was unscrupulous and resorted to evil deeds. He killed his brother, nephews and ministers; his path to the throne was covered with the blood of the innocent. German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing commented on the play, stating: “Although Richard III is a tyrant, the play delivers audiences complicated feelings of curiosity, amusement, bravery, grandeur and horror. The strength of the tragedy lies in these feelings that run throughout the play.”
In Richard III, the character of the central figures is revealed in a tightlyknit plot. Richard III is at the centre of the plot, which unfolds based on his schemes. The play begins with Richard III’S determination to do evil deeds and ends with his defeat and death on the battlefield. Richard III is the figure that connects all the fast-moving scenes with the plot. The appearance of ghosts, undeniable oracles and the incantations of ancestors to punish evil create a magnificent and mysterious atmosphere. The internal monologues reveal the inner world of the figures. Richard’s brother, the handsome Edward, ascends the throne and becomes King Edward IV. Richard grows unsatisfied with the arrangement and loses balance psychologically. Ugly as he is, Richard III “considers himself above the crowd. He is irritable, arrogant, cruel, astute and shameless. He knows how to use power and schemes. Despite his noble status, he seeks more power by all means.” His ambition is revealed in the monologue: “Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
by drunken prophecies, libels and dreams, to set my brother Clarence and the king in deadly hate the one against the other: And if King Edward be as true and just as I am subtle, false and treacherous, this day should Clarence closely be mew’d up, about a prophecy, which says that ‘G’ of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.”
Shakespeare quotes the Bible in the play, enabling audiences and readers to factor this into their judgements of the figures. The quotations enrich the connotation and strengthen the appeal of the play as well as reveal the inner world of the figures, making them more vivid and enhancing the theme of the play.
A Western Play Full of Chinese Flavour
In 2012, the National Theatre of China staged the Chinese version of Richard
III. The drama was presented by Zhou Zhiqiang, directed by Wang Xiaoying and produced by Li Jia’ou. Liu Kedong was the stage designer. Zhang Dongyu, Wu Xiaodong, Chen Qiang and She Nannan played the major roles. The drama was first performed at the World Shakespeare Festival in Britain. It was then staged at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Beijing and the National Theatre of China.
The World Shakespeare Festival is an authoritative Shakespeare festival in Britain. In 2012, the festival invited dramatic artists from 37 countries to perform 37 plays by Shakespeare in 37 languages as a tie in with the London Olympics. Richard III, directed by Wang Xiaoying, was one of the 37 works and received high praise.
In Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard is ugly and crippled. However, in the Chinese version, the protagonist stands erect and is handsome. Actor Zhang Dongyu had to focus more on presenting the inner struggles of Richard III. He explained: “In all plays, interpreting the characters well should come first. Richard III is a typical character. As we have changed his appearance, we should make more efforts to externalise the vices that lie beneath it.” The play has been a huge success in theatrical circles in China and abroad.
The Chinese version of Richard
III borrows from Chinese theatrical arts and also incorporates modern elements in its character modelling, costumes, performances, stage art, props and music. There are props bearing symbols of Sanxingdui culture (a Bronze Age culture in what is now Sichuan Province), costumes based on Han Chinese clothing that are infused with modern design, and various sounds produced by drums and other Chinese percussion instruments. Artist Xu Bing designed some Chinese characters with strokes resembling English letters. They embody both traditional Chinese culture and modern features, representing an ingenious combination of Chinese elements and Western influence. Wang Xiaoying stated: “Richard III in Chinese is not a simple enumeration of traditional Chinese cultural elements. Instead, it tells Shakespeare’s story against an ancient Chinese background and also has modern artistic features.”
Wang boldly transposed the play from its original British historical setting to a traditional Chinese context. In a cold Chinese palace, characters wearing traditional Chinese attire appear on the stage. Wielding weapons and reciting Shakespeare’s verses in Chinese, they engage in fierce confrontations in an attempt to realise their ambitions and seize power. Wang explained why the classic work was rendered in such a distinctive way: “Richard III in our drama is not exactly the one in British history. Rather, the figure is an image closely linked with life today. We cast aside the historical background, for we only want to show how a man develops his ambition, how he is driven and how he is finally destroyed by the formidable, selfdestructive power of his ambition.”
Many elements from Peking Opera can also be found in this drama. Zhang Xin, an excellent young actress from the National Peking Opera Company, played the part of Lady Anne, who waved her long sleeves and expressed her sorrows by speaking and singing in the style of a qingyi (a female role) character from Peking Opera. Xu Mengke, a well-trained actor who has often played clowns in Peking Opera, portrayed an assassin. He was inspired by the Peking Opera Sanchakou (lit. Crossroad) and created a gloomy, dark, horrible atmosphere. Wang Xiaoying also employed some techniques that are rooted in Chinese opera. Every time a character dies, two performers (bit players who are assassins or subordinates) cover the head of the victim with a piece of black crape. This person then goes offstage by themself. This is similar to the practice of ghosts wearing black crape in traditional Chinese opera.
Since its premiere in Britain in 2012, the Chinese version of Richard III has been performed in the United States, Denmark, Romania and many other countries. It has won great acclaim from audiences. When the troupe returned to China and performed at the Beijing Capital Theatre, Neil Constable, the chief executive of Shakespeare’s Globe, watched the show. When it was over, Constable mounted the stage and praised the show as one of the best productions, saying: “People in the UK often think Shakespeare belongs to them, but I think Shakespeare belongs to the world. And today, Shakespeare belongs to China!”
The NTC’S Richard III was selected into the Sino-korean exchange repertoire of 2016 on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. At the invitation of the National Theater of Korea, the play was performed three times at the Myeong-dong Art Theatre in Seoul. A Korean audience member expressed: “The performance is amazing. The Chinese opera elements are unique, and the rhythm of the Chinese language lends more aesthetic feeling to the show. The audience members kept their eyes fixed on the stage throughout the performance and were totally immersed in the Chinese opera elements. I very much admire the actors and actresses of the National Theatre of China, and I am so proud of Chinese opera!”
The NTC’S Richard III transcends time and space and connects Eastern and Western culture. Shakespeare’s Richard III in portrayed in a Chinese style of performance, offers audiences a distinctive King of England and enables them to enjoy oriental flavour to their heart’s content.
Richardiii, staged by the National Theatre of China