Friday, February 22, 2013

My Kingdom for a Horse: The Bones of Richard the Third

Gloucester always makes the syllabus.  I really can’t imagine a Shakespeare Course not examining Richard III.  Of course, I always start with As You Like It, something about Orlando in the forest of Arden tacking love poems onto trees and the mere fact that Will’s mother was Jane Arden (I mean, if you were to ever marry a woman based solely on her name…?) There’s also an Arden Forest next to his home in Stratford.  It’s all too much for the romantic in me.
Second we move to Lear.  (I’m a father of three daughters after all), but it’s Kurosawa’s RAN that spices up that third week of class.  Then it’s off to the last Plantagenet King of England, the Villain of the House of York.
I’ll present you with three reasons:  #1:  Shakespeare portrays Richard as a power crazed evil hunchback who murders his rivals to seize the throne!  How awesome is that?  I mean, you had me at Evil Hunchback!  The only thing cooler would be if Richard were an Oompa-Loompa or a secret Sasquatch. 
Reason #2:  The Speeches.  (It is a Shakespeare course after all), but everything from, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” to “The lights burn blue.  It is now dead midnight.”  From “Where eagles dare,” to “My horse, my horse…”  Richard’s ruthless, blood thirsty cries and whispers are relished.  My favorite being, “Since I cannot prove a lover, I am determined to prove a villain,” which to me sheds early light two-hundred and fifty years later on 19th century literature’s premiere villain: Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov who ponders, in an unjust society, the only true form of survival is to become a criminal.
Reason #3:  All the great actors have portrayed him.  There’s Lawrence Olivier, who's ashes are buried in Westminster across from the Shakespeare statue in Poet’s Corner, to modern day Kenneth Branagh.  But it’s the latest addition, the World War II Nazi motif Richard III starring Ian McKellan.  That movie is a powerhouse!  It blows kid’s minds.  The jazz music and the costumes and tanks rolling through walls.  Certainly, it makes the story come alive again.
But I also have students perform Shakespeare parodies, which this blog has outlined numerous times.  Still, I’ve yet to do a Richard III.  I suppose, the right student just hasn’t come along yet to play him.  Here in Asia that's not easy.  I forced Macbeth on the most popular kid in class because I wanted him to see he could be more than just a dumb jock.  But he turned out to be a worthless twit, cursing me and sabotaging our production.  I forced Caesar on another, a thoughtful boy who wanted desperately to win the Spelling Bee and the Speech Contest, but he threw a fit before the show and I basically had to dress him and push his sullen, tantrum throwing butt on stage. 
So I’m taking my time with Richard.  It’s hard to believe in students, especially in Asia.  You tell a kid, I see something in you, something no one else sees.  I want to build this whole play around you and give you a chance to shine on stage and let everyone see how amazing you are…. And the Asian kid just looks at you and goes, “My homeroom teacher says I need to memorize the math answers for the quiz this afternoon.  She yells at me if I get any wrong.”
At that point, it’s bye bye, William Shakespeare.
A couple of years back, Al Pacino did this documentary called: Looking for Richard.  I love how real actors seek Shakespeare out.  They go to locations, feel the stones where the people of history actually walked, and hope the DNA rubs off on their performance.
It’s like this furniture maker in London, name of Ibsen, who confirmed the DNA match last week of the monumental historic discovery of the bones of Richard III recently dug up under a car port in Leicester.   (He’s a direct descendent of Anne of York, Richard’s sister) I love how someone can carry around the markings of incredibly famous or infamous people in their blood.  Travel is like that, how you can walk in the footsteps of history’s most notorious people and places. 
It rubs off on you as well.  You carry it forever.
Funny thing about these bones being found, is that it proves the fact that Shakespeare’s Richard was nothing like the actual man, but more a House of Tudor propaganda weapon.  Richard’s spine was not crooked, but in fact, showed high levels of a protein diet, and there is no actual record of him killing his two nephews in London Tower.  In fact, by all accounts, King Richard was an enlightened man. 
Makes you question what other accepted truths are really just bunk.  The bones were found two feet underground… what else is lurking just under the surface for us to scratch up and find.  What, if any, could change the world?
Well, that’s just conjecture, isn’t it?  Richard III is really a play about power.  All of our life is a struggle for power.  From overbearing parents who control what we eat and watch and play, to teachers who gives us grades for effort and precision, to schoolmates who make us feel worthless and popular,  to lovers who sway our emotions with petty jealousies and trivial asides, to bosses who dump useless tasks in our laps, to spouses who tighten our throats with guilt and manipulation, to corporations who tell us what to buy and when, to governments that mandate rules and regulations without any accountability… why not rise up and fight?  Why not become Richard III?
It’s the kind of question classrooms were designed for, safe and perfect, let’s discuss.  Shakespeare knew it as such, and Richard knew it too, for at the end, his lines, “My horse, my kingdom for a horse,” says it all.  I too, want to fly away, before it all crashes down on my head.

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