Starting Act I of Richard III felt like starting Shakespeare for real. I know the previous plays were just as much Shakespeare as this one, and in fact, this play is capping off the story begun with the Henry VI trilogy, but there was something about reading one of the most famous lines in English at the start of the play that got me excited for this project all over again.
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York,
And all the clouds that lowered upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.Richard III, 1.1.1-4
The first line is often repeated even in modern times, but I think it’s used differently from how Billy uses it here. The play begins with Richard (Earl of Gloucester and Protector of the Realm for now) lamenting the peace his family’s triumph over the Lancaster’s has brought about. He complains that Edward has enough free time to devote himself to carnal pleasures but since Richard is physically stunted, he disdains sex and is much more interested in the pursuit of power. And as such, he tells us that he has all kinds of plans to kill off his family and seize the throne for himself.
This play feels very different from the previous ones, because rather than lean on plot and action, Bill goes all-in on building the (despicable) character of Richard. He is a villain through-and-through. Dishonest, fratricidal, vindictive, and just plain creepy, but he’s a ton of fun to watch. He appears in all but the last scene of the act and each time he appears, he seems to be the last person anyone around him wants to see. There is something charming in his gleeful villainy and I find myself liking him while hating his guts. I guess he’s the archetype of the character we love to hate.
This act is given over mostly to watching Richard plant seeds of doubt and mistrust among his “friends” so that he may make a move later and eliminate all from his path to power. He starts with his brother George, ensuring he is arrested and confined in the Tower of London. Richard also sets himself the challenge of winning over Lady Anne, the widow of Henry’s son. Even though she knows Richard killed her husband and father-in-law and she hates him for it, he seems to be successfully wooing her and I expect she will soon be Queen Anne.
The act ends with Richard’s pair of hired murderers entering the Tower of London and offing George. One of them has an attack of conscience, which will probably be important later, but the other does the deed quickly and efficiently, stuffing the body in a wine barrel.
Richard is truly the most dangerous character among this cast of powerful players for one simple reason: he doesn’t let anything like loyalty, family, or morality impede his quest for ultimate power. While everyone else finds obstacles to their own desires, he simply ignores them and moves ahead with his own wishes, regardless of the destruction caused along the way. I already love this play!