RICHARD III. may be considered as properly
a stage-play: it belongs to the theatre, rather
than to the closet. We shall therefore criticise
it chiefly with a reference to the manner in
which we have seen it performed. It is the
character in which Garrick came out: it was
the second character in which Mr. Kean appeared,
and in which he acquired his fame.
Shakespear we have always with us: actors we
have only for a few seasons; and therefore some
account of them may be acceptable, if not to
our cotemporaries, to those who come after us,
if "that rich and idle personage, Posterity,"
should deign to look into our writings.
It is possible to form a higher conception of the
character of Richard than that given by Mr. Kean:
but we cannot imagine any character represented
with greater distinctness and precision, more
perfectly articulated in every part. Perhaps indeed
there is too much of what is technically
called execution. When we first saw this celebrated
actor in the part, we thought he sometimes
failed from an exuberance of manner, and
dissipated the impression of the general character
by the variety of his resources. To be
complete, his delineation of it should have more
solidity, depth, sustained and impassioned feeling,
with somewhat less brilliancy, with fewer
glancing lights, pointed transitions, and pantomimic
The Richard of Shakespear is towering and
lofty; equally impetuous and commanding;
haughty, violent, and subtle; bold and treacherous;
confident in his strength as well as in his
cunning; raised high by his birth, and higher
by his talents and his crimes; a royal usurper, a
princely hypocrite, a tyrant and a murderer of
the house of Plantagenet.
"But I was born so high:|
Our aery buildeth in the cedar's top,
And dallies with the wind, and scorns the sun."
The idea conveyed in these lines (which are
indeed omitted in the miserable medley acted
for RICHARD III.) is never lost sight of by
Shakespear, and should not be out of the actor's
mind for a moment. The restless and sanguinary
Richard is not a man striving to be great,
but to be greater than he is; conscious of his
strength of will, his power of intellect, his daring
courage, his elevated station; and making use of
these advantages to commit unheard-of crimes,
and to shield himself from remorse and infamy.
If Mr. Kean does not entirely succeed in
concentrating all the lines of the character, as
drawn by Shakespear, he gives an animation,
vigour, and relief to the part which we have not
seen equalled. He is more refined than Cooke;
more bold, varied, and original than Kemble in
the same character. In some parts he is deficient
in dignity, and particularly in the scenes
of state business, he has by no means an air of
artificial authority. There is at times an aspiring
elevation, an enthusiastic rapture in his expectations
of attaining the crown, and at others
a gloating expression of sullen delight, as if he
already clenched the bauble, and held it in his
grasp. The courtship scene with Lady Anne is
an admirable exhibition of smooth and smiling
villainy. The progress of wily adulation, of
encroaching humility, is finely marked by his
action, voice and eye. He seems, like the first
Tempter, to approach his prey, secure of the
event, and as if success had smoothed his way
before him. The late Mr. Cooke's manner of
representing this scene was more vehement,
hurried, and full of anxious uncertainty. This,
though more natural in general, was less in
character in this particular instance. Richard
should woo less as a lover than as an actor--to
shew his mental superiority, and power of
making others the play-things of his purposes.
Mr. Kean's attitude in leaning against the side
of the stage before he comes forward to address
Lady Anne, is one of the most graceful and
striking ever witnessed on the stage. It would
do for Titian to paint. The frequent and rapid
transition of his voice from the expression of
the fiercest passion to the most familiar tones
of conversation was that which gave a peculiar
grace of novelty to his acting on his first appearance.
This has been since imitated and caricatured
by others, and he himself uses the artifice
more sparingly than he did. His bye-play is
excellent. His manner of bidding his friends
"Good night," after pausing with the point of
his sword, drawn slowly backward and forward
on the ground, as if considering the plan of the
battle next day, is a particularly happy and
natural thought. He gives to the two last acts
of the play the greatest animation and effect.
He fills every part of the stage; and makes up
for the deficiency of his person by what has
been sometimes objected to as an excess of action.
The concluding scene in which he is
killed by Richmond is the most brilliant of the
whole. He fights at last like one drunk with
wounds; and the attitude in which he stands
with his hands stretched out, after his sword
is wrested from him, has a preternatural and
terrific grandeur, as if his will could not be
disarmed, and the very phantoms of his despair
had power to kill.--Mr. Kean has since in a great
measure effaced the impression of his Richard
III. by the superior efforts of his genius in
Othello (his master-piece), in the murder-scene
in Macbeth, in Richard II. in Sir Giles Overreach,
and lastly in Oroonoko; but we still like
to look back to his first performance of this
part, both because it first assured his admirers
of his future success, and because we bore our
feeble but, at that time, not useless testimony
to the merits of this very original actor, on
which the town was considerably divided for
no other reason than because they were original.
The manner in which Shakespear's plays have
been generally altered or rather mangled by modern
mechanists, is a disgrace to the English
stage. The patch-work RICHARD III. which
is acted under the sanction of his name, and
which was manufactured by Cibber, is a striking
example of this remark.
The play itself is undoubtedly a very powerful
effusion of Shakespear's genius. The
ground-work of the character of Richard, that
mixture of intellectual vigour with moral depravity,
in which Shakespear delighted to shew
his strength--gave full scope as well as temptation
to the exercise of his imagination. The
character of his hero is almost every where predominant,
and marks its lurid track throughout.
The original play is however too long for representation,
and there are some few scenes which
might be better spared than preserved, and by
omitting which it would remain a complete
whole. The only rule, indeed, for altering
Shakespear is to retrench certain passages which
may be considered either as superfluous or obsolete,
but not to add or transpose any thing.
The arrangement and developement of the
story, and the mutual contrast and combination
of the dramatis personae, are in general as finely
managed as the developement of the characters
or the expression of the passions.
This rule has not been adhered to in the
present instance. Some of the most important
and striking passages in the principal character
have been omitted, to make room for idle and
misplaced extracts from other plays; the only
intention of which seems to have been to make
the character of Richard as odious and disgusting
as possible. It is apparently for no other
purpose than to make Gloucester stab King
Henry on the stage, that the fine abrupt introduction
of the character in the opening of the
play is lost in the tedious whining morality of
the uxorious king (taken from another play);--we
say tedious, because it interrupts the business
of the scene, and loses its beauty and effect
by having no intelligible connection with the
previous character of the mild, well-meaning
monarch. The passages which the unfortunate
Henry has to recite are beautiful and pathetic
in themselves, but they have nothing to do
with the world that Richard has to "bustle
in." In the same spirit of vulgar caricature
is the scene between Richard and Lady Anne
(when his wife) interpolated without any authority,
merely to gratify this favourite propensity
to disgust and loathing. With the same
perverse consistency, Richard, after his last fatal
struggle, is raised up by some Galvanic process,
to utter the imprecation, without any motive
but pure malignity, which Shakespear has so
properly put into the mouth of Northumberland
on hearing of Percy's death. To make room
for these worse than needless additions, many
of the most striking passages in the real play
have been omitted by the foppery and ignorance
of the prompt-book critics. We do not mean
to insist merely on passages which are fine as
poetry and to the reader, such as Clarence's
dream, &c. but on those which are important to
the understanding of the character, and peculiarly
adapted for stage-effect. We will give
the following as instances among several others.
The first is the scene where Richard enters
abruptly to the queen and her friends to defend
"Gloucester. They do me wrong, and I will not endure it.|
Who are they that complain unto the king,
That I forsooth am stern, and love them not?
By holy Paul, they love his grace but lightly,
That fill his ears with such dissentious rumours:
Because I cannot flatter and look fair;
Smile in men's faces, smooth, deceive, and cog,
Duck with French nods, and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancourous enemy.
Cannot a plain man live, and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abus'd
With silken, sly, insinuating Jacks?
Gray. To whom in all this presence speaks your grace?
Gloucester. To thee, that hast nor honesty nor grace;
When have I injur'd thee, when done thee wrong?
Or thee? or thee? or any of your faction?
A plague upon you all!"
Nothing can be more characteristic than the
turbulent pretensions to meekness and simplicity
in this address. Again, the versatility and
adroitness of Richard is admirably described in
the following ironical conversation with Brakenbury:--
"Brakenbury. I beseech your graces both to pardon me.|
His majesty hath straitly given in charge,
That no man shall have private conference,
Of what degree soever, with your brother.
Gloucester. E'en so, and please your worship, Brakenbury,
You may partake of any thing we say:
We speak no treason, man--we say the king
Is wise and virtuous, and his noble queen
Well strook in years, fair, and not jealous.
We say that Shore's wife hath a pretty foot,
A cherry lip, a passing pleasing tongue;
That the queen's kindred are made gentlefolks.
How say you, sir? Can you deny all this?
Brakenbury. With this, my lord, myself have nought to do.
Gloucester. What, fellow, naught to do with mistress Shore?
I tell you, sir, he that doth naught with her,
Excepting one, were best to do it secretly alone.
Brakenbury. What one, my lord?
Gloucester. Her husband, knave--would'st thou betray me?"
The feigned reconciliation of Gloucester with
the queen's kinsmen is also a master-piece.
One of the finest strokes in the play, and which
serves to shew as much as any thing the deep,
plausible manners of Richard, is the unsuspecting
security of Hastings, at the very time when
the former is plotting his death, and when that
very appearance of cordiality and good-humour
on which Hastings builds his confidence arises
from Richard's consciousness of having betrayed
him to his ruin. This, with the whole character
of Hastings, is omitted.
Perhaps the two most beautiful passages in
the original play are the farewel apostrophe of
the queen to the Tower, where her children are
shut up from her, and Tyrrel's description of
their death. We will finish our quotations with them.
"Queen. Stay, yet look back with me unto the Tower;|
Pity, you ancient stones, those tender babes,
Whom envy hath immured within your walls
Rough cradle for such little pretty ones,
Rude, rugged nurse, old sullen play-fellow,
For tender princes!"
The other passage is the account of their death by Tyrrel:--
"Dighton and Forrest, whom I did suborn|
To do this piece of ruthless butchery,
Albeit they were flesh'd villains, bloody dogs,
Wept like to children in their death's sad story:
O thus! quoth Dighton, lay the gentle babes;
Thus, thus, quoth Forrest, girdling one another
Within their innocent alabaster arms;
Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,
And in that summer beauty kissed each other;
A book of prayers on their pillow lay,
Which once, quoth Forrest, almost changed my mind:
But oh the devil!--there the villain stopped;
When Dighton thus told on--we smothered
The most replenished sweet work of nature,
That from the prime creation ere she framed."
These are some of those wonderful bursts
of feeling, done to the life, to the very height
of fancy and nature, which our Shakespear
alone could give. We do not insist on the
repetition of these last passages as proper for
the stage: we should indeed be loth to trust
them in the mouth of almost any actor: but we
should wish them to be retained in preference at
least to the fantoccini exhibition of the young
princes, Edward and York, bandying childish
wit with their uncle.