R3 Experiment : The Comedy Stylings of Richard III

So I’m tackling Richard III, as I mentioned, and blogging as I go.

Now, see, all I’ve ever heard about Richard III is about the villain, the monster, the deformed killer of children.  Nobody told me the man is hysterical.

I mean, seriously, is it just the Librivox audio I’m listening to, or are the opening scenes supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny?  Richard and Lady Anne give off this really dark Beatrice and Benedick vibe that I was not expecting at all.

Richard (alone) : Hmmm, I think I’ll marry Lady Anne. True, true, I did kill her husband and father, but I can work around that.

Enter Lady Anne.

Richard:  Marry me!

Lady Anne: You killed my husband and my father!

Richard: Well, yes. Marry me anyway!

Lady Anne: I’ll think about it.

Exit Lady Anne.

Richard (alone):  I can’t believe that worked!

And that’s after the whole opening with Clarence, which was equally over the top silly:

Richard (alone) : Now, see, all I need to do is slip the king a note that he has to beware of someone whose name starts with G.

Enter Clarence.

Richard:  Clarence!  Where you off to?

Clarence: The Tower!

Richard:  The Tower! Goodness, why are you being sent to the tower?

Clarence: I have no idea!  The King says it’s because my name is George, can you believe it?

Richard: That’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard!  Well, fear not, I’m sure everything will work out.

(* See, the whole “I thought your name was Clarence?” thing that KJ mentions in his comments earlier, never bothered me. I just assumed that Clarence was his title and that George was a little used first name. )

Anyway…is the whole play like this?  That’s some of the most ridiculously funny stuff I’ve seen in a while.  I’m waiting for the beheadings.

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15 thoughts on “R3 Experiment : The Comedy Stylings of Richard III

  1. It's all that funny.

    Richard walks out and says to the audience "Here's what I'm going to do, it's really horrible, but I'm badass enough to pull it off"; then everyone else walks in and he does EXACTLY what he said he was going to do; and the scene ends with Richard talking to the audience again and saying "How awesome am I?"

    He's a bastard through and through, but what makes the play so wonderful is that he has a stronger connection to the audience than any character in the canon simply by virtue of the number of lines he takes directly to the audience. My students either love to hate him or hate that they love him, but he always provokes a strong response.

  2. Yep….I love to hate Richard III. He is so tantalizingly bad and he revels in it. How could Lady Anne or anyone besides someone like Queen Margaret resist him?
    Definitely funny and awesome.

  3. Which librivox are you listening to? I mean, yeah, it's certainly a little humorous, but only because Richard lets us in on the joke. Iago, in contrast, tries to let us in on his machinations but it's not a very funny joke at all. Perhaps we laugh because the people that Richard is scheming to get rid of are actually kinda bad apples by themselves, whereas Othello and Desdemona are not.

  4. "Which librivox are you listening to?"

    If it's the same one I just listened to (internet librivox) it's more humorous that these people would even attempt to "read" Shakespeare. In a word, it's BAD–(and that's understatement) All they're doing IS reading it and attempting to color it with 'interesting' vocal variations–all phony. No wonder. It sounds like some little theatre 'stars' got together in someone's living room and divied up the parts. I've heard better cold readings. Maybe it gets better…but I can't imagine it.

    You're right Duane, it is funny–I couldn't stop laughing listening to these 'actors" 'acting'.

  5. On a more constructive note. Anonymous is right in saying that it CAN BE humorous. The problem with the recording is that it has absolutely no nuance, no rhythm, no real intent, no sculpting. These people are simply reading lines AT one another. Lacking any shape, the situations become ridiculous; exactly as you wrote them in your paraphrasing above, Duane. These scenes should also be chilling at the same time they're amusing–they're macabre in their humor. Richard is RIVETING because of this–he's not a cross between Hugh Grant and Bob Barker. And believe me, it's no fault of the play or the lines themselves that it 'reads' like a farcical Noel Coward piece.

  6. You're right, J – I was actually going to do an additional post called "No offense, Librivox…" that questioned the quality of the product.

    But then I thought, you get what you pay for. Here's a bunch of people getting together entirely voluntarily and producing something for free, that they then put into the public domain. I would not have this as a resource if they didn't do that, and for that alone they deserve some level of appreciation. If they were professionals at it, then perhaps they can go do it for a living and charge money for it. I don't think that they are, I think that they're just fans of the material who enjoy getting behind the microphone.

    I'm not kidding myself, I'm not going to dig deep into a particular characterization anymore than I do when I watched teenagers perform Macbeth earlier this year at my local library. I think of the Librivox stuff as an audio read-along to the script. It gives me focus. Everybody's different on this one. Others have already said that they can't do audio as their primary input. But I don't have the attention span to sit and read the play straight through. I do it the other way – somebody reads it to me, and maybe I don't process every word when I do that, but I get through multiple scenes in one sitting. Then, having done that, I can go read the text and it's like there's already a memory of those words, that I'm now enforcing. Hard to explain.

    In future posts in the great R3 experiment I'll make sure to emphasize that I'm trying to focus on questions about the text, and not about the specific version I'm using. At least, until I get to the movie versions, then individual choices are very much the name of the game.

  7. As far as getting what you pay for–
    I became a professional actor at 23. By "professional", I mean I moved to NY, took classes, and eventually was accepted into the union, having auditioned and auditioned–and auditioned–it's kind of like getting struck by lightning; right place right time. The droves of people who never get hit by the lightning bolt are legion. The tough part is that you have to go to open calls and by the time they do the "required open audition" for non-union people, the play has usually long been cast through "who you knows" and agents. It's mere exercise for the auditors.
    Needless to say, I was pretty proud of the standards upheld and touted by my NOW fellow professionals. I had "met the standard" and was now one of the elite, a member of THE Club so to speak.
    Then I was cast in a production out of NY for something in Washington DC. During the rehearsal period a bunch of us went to see a production of "Cabaret" at a dinner theatre just on the outskirts of the city. I didn't expect much, this being dinner theatre and a non-union cast of "amateurs". As it turns out, it was one of, if not THE, best musical production I'd ever seen. And the 'actors'?–they were 'multi-talented'–they waited tables at intermission.
    Since then, I've worked with actors who can't get arrested, never mind cast on Broadway; actors who can wipe the stage with some of the other "professionals" I've seen working on the big stage.
    Good is good and bad is bad. That dinner theatre production made me honest. Since then, and I know it may seem harsh sometimes, but I'm compelled to call 'em like I see 'em– no offense intended. Just the truth of what I feel about what I've seen and, more importantly, what I've heard.

    Nobody–professional, amateur, the second graders I recently worked with– gets better without the truth. As a "professional", I owe it to those I see, hear, and to myself. It's the best teacher of all.

    I get what you're saying but, a word to the wise–
    With Shakespeare,the ear is more important than the eye.And as you've said before,quite rightly and astutely, first impressions can be formative.

  8. Couple of thoughts, J.

    Re: "compelled" to do anything? You're not Simon Cowell, and these folks aren't auditioning. If you want to review them, or offer encouraging (or discouraging) words of wisdom, there's plenty of content to be had doing that. Likewise if one of them came out and said "Hey I just put up a recording of R3 on Librivox, tell me what you think!" then the invitation is open. But it seems a trifle unfair to pick out their volunteer efforts and say "Hey! You stink!" If you can't say something nice, and all that.

    Second thought, why not show em how it's done? Public domain audio is a valuable resource. Why not grab a microphone and a copy of Audacity, the text of some of your favorite monologues, and make a contribution? Show the young'uns how it should sound? I'm sure they would welcome the contribution.

  9. They're offering it as representative of Richard III. After hearing it, I'm "compelled" to say that it's not even close. "Unfair", to say that? Tell that to those who listen to it and get the wrong impression and/or get turned off to his work.

  10. PS Duane, I don't regard myself as some kind of Simon Cowell. What he does is cheap and tawdry, for effects sake only–that and his bank account. Such is American taste.

    I have said above that there are some amateurs who can outshine professionals.The ones who can are usually aware of their ability to do so. This comes from being able to conduct an honest assessment of their own abilities. They have no need to do it for the sake of doing it. They do it because they can. Others may have other reasons for putting themselves out there. In that event, they do so at risk–their own and Shakespeare's.

    There are plenty of really good examples out there. I have no need to do a 'glory tape'. And if I did, I'd expect to be paid for it. Call that what you will. 🙂

  11. I'm with you about the humor in this play. I also think King Lear is immensely funny at parts.

    Edgar: Some villain hath done me wrong.

    Edmund: That's my fear.

    That always cracks me up.

  12. Sorry to jump in late here, but I have to say I think of all the ways to approach one of Shakespeare's plays for the first time, I cannot imagine a worse way to do it than an audio version. You get neither the advantage of seeing the play performed, nor re-reading the words, nor getting any editorial assistance.
    I always prefer to read first, and then seek out a performance.

    But R3!!! This is a play to read first, hate it for its absurd, impossibilities, then see it performed, still hate it, then see it again, and again (because it is SO famous), until FINALLY, you see that performance that makes you LOVE the play because the actors make the absurd natural, the impossible believable, the play an incredible powerhouse.

    I never liked R3, especially because of the scene with Lady Anne. I just could not believe the change she goes through in the course of the scene. UNTIL I say a production last year at Shakespeare & Co. The Richard and Anne were incredible together. Much of what made the scene believable was the stage business, with Richard almost running himself through with his sword, and amazing, body language throughout that somehow showed the connection between Anne's hatred and her sensuality. The words alone could not convey what went on on the stage. Richard's parting lines were an exhausted, triumphant, egomaniacal-yet-matter-of-fact statement of his virtually superhuman power. THAT is what good directing and acting is about. THAT is what an editor just CANNOT do.

    This is not funny stuff. It is vicious and deadly, from beginning to end. Read it , watch it, and read it and watch it until you find it. It's there.

    I'm sorry, was I ranting?


  13. Carl: Yeah, just a little bit.

    I think your dogmatism does a great disservice to the play. There's no ONE correct way to experience a play–you seem to be suggesting that anyone who likes "Richard III" the first time, or who finds the black comedy that Shakespeare inarguably included in the play, is doing it wrong.

    That said, the production you saw sounds fantastic. But for those of us not fortunate enough to see it, surely we can be allowed to experience and interpret the play differently from you?

    As a final point, I think the connection between Anne's hatred and her sensuality is right there in the language. It's definitely clearer when you put the play on its feet, but the extremity of the language and the incredible back-and-forth dialogue are the perfect vehicle for sexual tension.

  14. Alexi-
    Dogmatism unintended, only enthusiasm.
    I really was on a rant about the need to both read and see performances and the enormous advantage of both over a bare audio experience.
    Obviously, to some extent what the director and actors portrayed in the performance I saw must have been in the words–they saw it there and interpreted it. I was trying to express the fact that even though I had read the play several times, with the input of editorial comment, I (personally) was unable to see its full potential until I found a production that showed it to me. And that includes the film versions, which did not get that very crucial Richard/Anne scene to work for me.
    Do you really think there is a different way to read R3 other than "vicious and deadly, from beginning to end"? I did not write that with the thought that it might be controversial, but am certainly open to other opinions. That was the way the production I saw was played and it was (pardon the pun)"killer."
    BTW, always enjoy your input, Alexi.

  15. Carl, thanks for the kind words. I'm always happy to debate and discuss the plays I care deeply about.

    I think you're probably right that reading and seeing a play is ideal. I'm not sure an audio version is completely invalid — but then again, I've never used one. I've had several very enjoyable play-readings with friends, but the big difference there is that I'm actually speaking the text myself.

    I think that it is possible to read Richard as more than just a play-length look at murderousness. There are moments of sublimely black comedy. It's all very Marlovian, of course, but nobody pastiches Marlowe better than Shaekspeare. What could elicit a rueful chuckle more than Richard's sanguine hypocrisy in lines like, "Call them again. I am not made of stone"?

    It's helpful to compare the play to the two modern film genres it shares most with, the gangster film and the monster movie. Like in these films, there's something of both pathos and comedy in the sheer grotesqueness of the character. Both genres operate in an essentially moral universe that is temporarily turned on its head, so that we can root for the criminal or feel sympathy for the monster. Like Frankenstein, Richard is frightening because we recognize a common humanity with him despite his monstrousness. Like so many mobsters and monsters, Richard wants to be loved but settles for being feared instead. All he says and does, however brilliantly he does it, is pure id — a lust for power, domination, and bloodshed. By making us his confidants, Richard also makes us his accomplices, and he acts out our worst desires. When he is defeated by an upstanding, shiny, predictably-Messianic Richmond, the community has been purged and order restored.

    Shakespeare's later villain protagonists, Iago and Macbeth, are inarguably more complex, more disturbing, and more serious. But none of them are having as much fun.

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