Stage Struck

Great vil­lains bring out the devil in us,

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - OPINION - says Peter Craw­ley

Ear­lier this week we iden­ti­fied the dead man found in a Leicester carpark. His re­mains told a story that DNA ev­i­dence later cor­rob­o­rated: a slen­der frame, a curved spine, signs that he had been beaten and mu­ti­lated. The give­away, though, was his skull, which bore eight wounds, two of them fa­tal.

Alas, poor Richard III, last Plan­ta­genet King of Eng­land, I knew him.

At least, I know Shake­speare’s most ex­tra­or­di­nary vil­lain, his Machi­avel­lian anti-hero, and the only pro­tag­o­nist to take up as much stage time as Ham­let. He is the “elvish-marked, abortive, root­ing hog”, sent into the world, he says, “de­formed” and “un­fin­ished”, or – to quote his lov­ing mother – the “poi­sonous bunch-backed toad”.

One of the more dis­turb­ing dis­cov­er­ies made by the Univer­sity of Leicester ar­chae­ol­o­gists were signs of “hu­mil­i­a­tion wounds” in­flicted af­ter his death, in­clud­ing the nasty de­tail of a sword thrust into him, “from be­hind in an up­ward move­ment”. That act screams ha­tred.

Does the sen­sa­tion­al­ism of Shake­speare’s play leave more hu­mil­i­at­ing wounds? His­tory, as they say, is writ­ten by the vic­tors, and His­tory Plays are writ­ten to amuse them. Shake­speare’s pa­tron was Queen Elizabeth, whose grand­fa­ther, Henry VII, de­feated Richard and took the throne: a fair and un­bi­ased de­pic­tion of the old regime was never on the cards.

The “Tu­dor Myth” may be crude pro­pa­ganda, but the un­com­fort­able truth is that it makes a much more grip­ping yarn. Would you rather watch an even-handed de­pic­tion of Richard III’s solid ad­min­is­tra­tive skills dur­ing his short reign, or see him se­duce a griev­ing widow over the body of her mur­dered fa­ther (whom he killed)? Never let truth or ethics get in the way of a good story.

Nowa­days we tend to think of our­selves as more so­phis­ti­cated and com­pas­sion­ate, with a firmer grasp of the ethics of de­pict­ing real peo­ple. On stage even Hitler has found dif­fer­ent sides and Richard Nixon is por­trayed as a wily, con­flicted and of­ten tragic fig­ure. To­day we’d rather avoid in­flam­ma­tion or hu­mil­i­a­tion: there’s no room for hate fig­ure.

There’s some­thing un­com­fort­able about a mon­strous vil­lain trans­formed into some­thing real: not a devil in­car­nate, but a man who suf­fered.

Look at Richard III again and you’ll feel queasy about how it re­lates dis­abil­ity to evil. (Is his de­for­mity sup­posed to be a man­i­fes­ta­tion of evil, or is he made evil by a con­temp­tu­ous so­ci­ety?) But you’ll also see some­thing more sub­ver­sive. Richard con­fides in the au­di­ence con­stantly, he gets all the best speeches, he is more fas­ci­nat­ing and mem­o­rable than all the other Richards and Hen­rys com­bined.

The real Richard III was cer­tainly de­monised, but you can have sym­pa­thy for that devil. His re­mains will now be rein­terred, but the vil­lain will never rest in peace.

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