Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Now is the winter of our discontent...

Richard the Third is one of Shakespeare's most enduring plays.
Richard himself goes down in history as one of fictions' most iconic "baddies". We say "fiction" because there is considerable debate about whether his portrayal in the play is deserved. Was Richard a avaricious, child-murdering monster? This question burns anew with the alleged discovery of Richard's grave in England, long considered lost.

In a way, we must put this historical question aside, and examine what we are presented in the play for its own merit.

But what does Shakespeare present us? And how has this, in turn be interpreted and re-interpreted by actors?

This article will recap some themes we will touch on in class and point you to some good resources we will use to explore just one small fragment of Richard III, the opening speech, of which the first and most famous line is "Now is the winter of our discontent..."

Different adaptations.
We will discover that adaptations made at different times take certain liberties with Shakespeare's original text, perhaps omitting some lines, or transplanting lines from other parts of the play.

This is a BBC production from the 1980s. It remains reasonably faithful to the original, but is fairly bland.

This is the 1995 production starring Sir Ian McKellen (and in my opinion, the best adaptation). The opening speech contains lines from elsewhere in the play, and is cut a little short. Further, the play has been re-set into a kind of "alternate reality", a 1930's fascist England. These kinds of re-interpretations are common. Have you seen Baz Luhrman's "Romeo and Juliet" re-set in a modern gangster Los Angeles?

More information about this particular adaptation can be found on Ian McKellen's website.

This is the famous 1955 production starring Laurence Olivier. In this version, what is supposed to be the opening lines of the play occur over 8 minutes into the play and after some other dialog.

Also, try this (audio only) version of Shakespearean actor, Sir Kenneth Branagh, delivering the speech

Questions: Is our interpretation of the play changed by these alterations? Would you be a "purist" or be OK with these changes if it made the play more accessible to an audience? Can we help but interpret a play through the lens of our own time? What factors would have contributed to the way the play was understood in Shakespeare's own time (hint, who was on the throne at the time and how could it be interpreted that there might be a 'political message' in the way a previous dynasty is portrayed? Compare Henry V and Richard III. What dynasties did they represent, and what was Elizabeth the First's dynasty?)

 Here is an excellent resource we will devote an entire lesson to, where Sir Ian McKellen walks us through the opening speech line by line and helps us understand it.

Click this link for the video at the Stagework website.

Here is a 2004 documentary hosted by Tony Robinson (Time Team, Black Adder) titled "Richard III: Fact or Fiction"

Lastly, just for fun, here is an impressionist giving one of the other speeches from the play (Clarence's prison speech) in a range of celebrity voices.

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