How Game Of Thrones is like a Shakespearean Play

I love Game Of Thrones! If you’ve ever read the books or seen the series on HBO, like me you might be amazed by the scale and complexity of the world author George RR Martin created. He wove together a rich tapestry of medieval history, legends, and yes, Shakespeare. He used some of Shakespeare’s plots, commented and expanded on his themes, and adapted some of his iconic characters into a very rich and in a way, very modern story. Today I’m going to examine the components of Martin’s narrative that he embroidered off of Shakespeare’s plots, themes, and characters. If you like my take on this, or if you disagree, please leave a comment below! If you have any suggestions for other popular works adapted from Shakespeare, let me know and I’ll review them on the blog!

Part I: Story

Shakespeare wrote four plays that chronicle a series of civil wars where powerful families battled each other for the crown of England. Like Game of Thrones, the conflict was mainly between the kingdoms in the North and South:

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Shakespeare’s three parts of King Henry VI and Richard III chronicle the real struggle between the Yorkists in the north to take the crown from the Lancastrians in London in the South.

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Part II: Themes

Power corrupts, especially those who go seeking it.

The death of chivalry and honor in favor of political backstabbing.

King Henry VI has a speech where he watches a great battle while sitting on a molehill, watching the tide turn back and forth between his soldiers and the Yorkists. As with Game Of Thrones, the more blood each side has on its hands, the harder it becomes to decide whom to truly root for. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter- kingdoms are won and lost as arbitrarily as a game. All it takes is time, and a good player to win.

The silence of the Gods. Shakespeare’s King Lear is constantly making oaths to his gods and asking them to punish his enemies. Likewise, Lear’s friend the Duke Of Gloucester, places his faith in the gods to protect Lear and punish the usurpers Goneril and Regan. Nevertheless, the action of King Lear doesn’t show any kind of divine judgement- Lear is exiled, goes mad, is sent to prison, and finally dies. Gloucester loses his sight, his lands, and dies randomly right after he is re-united with his son Edgar. In both King Lear and Game Of Thrones, there is a persistent question as to the nature of the gods, or even the surety of their existence.

King Lear mourns Cordelia’s death by

James Barry, c. 1786.

No where is this more apparent than at the end of the play King Lear, when, just as it seems that the Duke of Albany is about to reward the good people and punish the wicked, King Lear arrives howling, with the dead Cordelia in his arms. “Is this the promised end?” in horror at the gods’ apparent cruelty. https://youtu.be/7acLWsal1FU

In Game Of Thrones, the good characters pray to their old gods and new, but never seem to hear from them or sense their influence. Osha, the Wildling even suggests that the gods have no power in King’s Landing, where the special God’s Wood trees have been cut down.

Part III: Characters

Below is a list of my favorite GOT characters, with my interpretation of their Shakespearean roots.

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Ned Stark- Humphrey Duke of Gloucester from Henry VI, Part II

Duke Humphrey is a Yorkist from the north of England, just as Ned is Lord of Winterfell, a powerful kingdom in the north of Westeros. King Robert makes Ned Protector Of the Realm when he dies, which makes him king in all but name, and tasked with taking care of Robert’s young son Joffrey until he comes of age.

Portrait of the historical Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester from the National Portrait Gallery, artist unknown.

In Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, King Henry the Fifth makes his brother Humphrey Lord Protector before he dies, to take care of England until his infant son Henry VI comes of age to rule. Like Ned, Humphrey is loyal, blunt, and only interested in keeping the realm at peace. In both Westminster and the Red Keep, all the lords are conniving and ambitious, and only interested in advancing themselves politically. These two lord protectors are the only ones with the good of the kingdom in mind.

Both Ned and Humphrey are betrayed and executed by those ambitious lords around them for the same reason; they stand in the way of the lords in their quest for power. In Henry VI, Part II, Henry’s ambitious queen Margaret starts a smear campaign against Humphrey’s wife, then pressures the King to force Gloucester to resign. As if that weren’t enough, Margaret also secretly conspires to murder the noble duke. Similarly, In Game of Thrones (Spoiler Alert), queen Circe puts her son on the throne and proclaims Ned a traitor. In both cases though, once the Lord Protector dies, the whole kingdom erupts in fights and arguments for the crown on all sides.

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Ned Stark also resembles the heroes of Shakespeare’s Roman plays. He is cold and stoic as Brutus, and a devoted soldier like Titus Andronicus. Ned’s dire wolf is another connection with Shakespeare’s Roman plays; the wolf 🐺 is the symbol of the Roman Empire; packs of cold hunters who depend on each other for the survival of the family.

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King Joffrey- Saturnine from Titus Andronicus– Joffrey is like the worst kind of tyrant- rash, proud, violent, and cruel. He lacks the maturity to make wise decisions and because of his privileged upbringing, he takes even the tiniest slight against him as an act of treason, and leaves a trail of heads in his wake. Worse still, he is easily manipulated by his mother Circe, who teaches him to act and feel superior to everyone else, and never care for the good of anyone but himself. In that way, he is very much like a Roman Emperor like Nero or Caligula, the real people whom Shakespeare adapted into the character of Emperor Saturnine in his play Titus Andronicus.

Joffrey

When we first meet Saturnine, he leads an angry mob into the streets of Rome, demanding to be made emperor, and threatening all out war if he doesn’t get his way. He also turns on the loyal soldier Titus, (who helped him win a war and win his crown), just because Titus wouldn’t give Saturnine his daughter in marriage. In the clip below from the 1999 movie Titus, Emperor Saturnine (Alan Cummings) is furious just because Titus wrote some mean scrolls about him, after Saturnine killed two of Titus’ sons, and banished a third.

Baratheon Stag

King Robert Baratheon- Edward IV from Richard III.

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◦ In the first book of the Game of Thrones series, Robert is the King of the Seven Kingdoms, having won a civil war to take it away from the Mad King Araes Targaryen. Edward in the play Richard III has just won the crown of England after a civil war against the mad King Henry VI. Both men were powerful warriors and used to be strong and handsome. People loved and feared him, but now the pressures of keeping the throne has literally consumed them.

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P. 53

Next had come King Robert himself, with Lady Stark on his arm. The King was a great disappointment to Jon. His father had talked of him often: the peerless Robert Baratheon, demon of the Trident, the fiercest warrior of the realm, a giant among princes. Jon only saw a fat man, red-faced under his beard, sweating through his silks.

Jon had noticed that too. A bastard had to learn o notice things, to read the truth that people hid behind their eyes. Two seats away, the king had been drinking heavily all night. His broad face was flushed behind his black beard.

In this passage from Thomas More’s History Of Richard III, (Shakespeare’s primary source for the play), More chronicles how Edward went from a handsome young king, loved and feared by all, into a gluttonous, lecherous, sick old man, who was consumed by care.

He was a goodly personage, and very princely to behold: of heart, courageous; politic in counsel; in adversity nothing abashed; in prosperity, rather joyful than proud; in peace, just and merciful; in war, sharp and fierce; in the field, bold and hardy, and nevertheless, no further than wisdom would, adventurous. Whose wars whosoever would well consider, he shall no less commend his wisdom when he withdrew than his manhood when he vanquished. He was of visage lovely, of body mighty, strong, and clean made; however, in his latter days with over-liberal diet [1], he became somewhat corpulent and burly, and nonetheless not uncomely; he was of youth greatly given to fleshly wantonness, from which health of body in great prosperity and fortune, without a special grace, hardly refrains. This fault not greatly grieved the people, for one man’s pleasure could not stretch and extend to the displeasure of very many, and the fault was without violence, and besides that, in his latter days, it lessened and well left.

-Thomas More, History Of Richard III, c. 1513

There are also similarities in how the characters died. King Robert was killed by a wild boar, while King Edward was killed by his brother Richard, whose sign was a white boar. As a bonus, the stag that is the sigil of House Baratheon, is also the seal of King Richard II, the king who, in the Shakespearean tragedy that bears his name, started the civil war when he was murdered in the Tower Of London. Below is a picture of the famous Wilton Diptych, (Richard the Second’s private alter piece), which depicts the king and all the angels in heaven wearing a badge with a white stag on it.

wilton diptych

I’m not actually the first person to mention this connection between Robert Baratheon and Edward IV. In the British newspaper, The Guardian, the author compares several characters from Game Of Thrones, to historical English events: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/0/game-of-thrones-vs-history-which-real-characters-and-events-insp/robert-baratheon-and-edward-iv/

littlefinger

Little Finger -Lucio from Measure For Measure, Iachimo from Cymbeline, Bawd from Pericles, etc. Shakespeare has a host of character like this lord of Westeros, the Master of Coin. He is cowardly and cynical, but he is also very clever and understands people’s weaknesses, especially sex. Like Bawd from Pericles, Little Finger has grown rich off brothels, and like many real life governments, he turns his prostitutes into spies. This gives him not only cash, but dirt on every lord in the 7 kingdoms. He only worries about Ned Stark, (who can’t be bought), and Vares the eunuch, who can’t be seduced. Little Finger is basically an oily politician and exploits the power of lust in the men of King’s Landing.

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Jon Snow– Edgar and Edmund in King Lear Philip the Bastard in King John.

◦ Snow is the illegitimate son of Ned Stark. He’s aware of what he is, so he joins thieves and rapers as a knight of the Night Watch to make a life for himself, just as Edgar becomes a mad beggar in King Lear once he is accused of attempted murder. He has few illusions and like all the base-born children in Shakespeare:

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He was who he was, Jon Snow, bastard oath breaker motherless, friendless, and damned. For the rest of his life, however long that might be- he would be condemned to be an outsider, the silent man standing in the shadows who dares not speak his true name.”

◦ Shakespeare wrote several characters born out of wedlock such as Phillip Falconbridge in King John, and Edmund from King Lear.

Unlike Jon Snow, Edmund in King Lear uses deceitful and cruel cunning in order to advance his position in life. Snow doesn’t try to change the rules, but both of them know that no one is going to give them anything. Early in book one, Jon learns to accept the cruelty of the world, and to accept what he is:

Let me give you some council, bastard, never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.

Song Of Ice And Fire, p. 57.

🦁 Tyrian Lannister –

Obviously he shares some parallels with Richard III, with his small size and the fact that he is the most hated member of a powerful family. In fact, Peter Dinklage who plays Tyrion played Richard the Third back in 2004.

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In terms of his personality however, Tyrion has neither the cruelty, nor the bitterness of Richard. For this reason, I would argue that Tyrion more closely resembles Sir John Falstaff.

Tyrion

◦ Like Falstaff, Tyrion laughs at his physical form as a way of disarming his enemies.

◦ Both Characters are famous for talking their way out of anything.

◦ Both characters are down on their luck for most of the books

Both characters are, ahem, fond of drink. Falstaff even has a beer named after him:

◦ Most Of all, Tyrion and Falstaff are survivors – they will do anything to stay alive, good or bad. They are also unapologetic about acting cowardly and deceitfully to avoid death. In Falstaff’s famous ‘Catechism speech,’ he mocks the concept of honor and how it frequently gets men killed.

FALSTAFF

‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

Now observe this passage where Tyrion reacts to the death of a noble knight who was foolish enough to wear armor while crossing a river on a raft.

“Good my lord,” the messenger said. “Lord Brax was clad in plate-and-mail when his raft overturned. He was so gallant.” “He was a fool,” Tyrion thought, willing his cup and staring down into the wind depths. Crossing a river at night on a crude raft, wearing armor, with an enemy waiting on the other side–if that was gallantry, he would take cowardice every time. Song of Ice and Fire, 765.

My favorite part of the books is the way Martin writes the female characters. All the female characters are dealing with the fact that women have very little power or say in their society and they all use Shakespearean means or methods to get what they want.

🦁 Circe- Tamara and Lady Macbeth

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Circe

Just as her son Joffrey has the arrogance and sadistic cruelty of a Roman emperor, Circe is a mirror image of the cruel empress Tamara, Queen Of Goths in Titus Andronicus. Both women are attracted to power and motivated by revenge. Tamara wants revenge against General Titus, who executed her son in the war. After seducing and marrying the emperor, she uses her influence to execute two of Titus’ sons. She then uses her lover Aaron the Moor (with Whom she secretly has a child), to concoct a plot to rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter. And if that weren’t enough, she tries to drive him mad by appearing at his home dressed as the Roman goddess Revenge. In short, Tamara is a classic femme fatale, who raises above the social oppression of her sex by seducing powerful men, and stabbing them in the back.

Circe is also a femme fatale, though Martin gives her more time to explain her motivations than Shakespeare gives Tamara. Like the Queen Of Goths, Circe marries King Robert Baratheon, while secretly having a taboo affair, this time with her brother Jamie. The difference is that Circe kills not strictly for vengeance, but mainly to conceal the fact that her son Joffrey is actually the product of her incest in order to protect him and eventually make him king. This is why Circe kills Ned Stark, Jon Aron, and consents to the murder of all or Robert Baratheon’s true born sons.

Circe does desire revenge, but not against anyone in particular. Instead, she wants to repay the patriarchy that keeps her down simply because she is a woman. Quote about Circe when she talks about how jealous she is of Jamie. In that chapter we get a great sense of who Circe really is. Because she’s a twin, she compares herself to her brother, observing how Jamie was given on her glory and respect when he became a knight and a member of the King’s Guard, while she was sold off to king Robert at the age of twelve like a slave or a common whore. Why, Circe asks, if she looks so much like him and acts so much like him, is she treated so differently just because she’s a woman? In a perverse sort of way, her incest might be a misguided attempt to claim part of Jamie’s honor and power through sexual conquest. Both Tamara and Circe show how an oppressive patriarchy can plant truly destructive thorns in the hearts of women, and these two queens reap that bitter harvest by cutting down the men in power one by one.

like camera Circe is driven by her love for her children and her desire and her pride and desire for vengeance. She spends the first half of the place seducing the emperor to gain his favor and then when she is made empress she uses her power to systematically destroy Titus and his family. Similarly, Circe marries king Robert and then when he dies she makes her son she then kills Ned Stark guy in prisons his daughter tries to kill the second of and

Catelyn-

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Hermione From The Winters Tale ❄️ 🐺

◦ Pious

◦ Kindness and mercy are her weapons as well as her will and devotion to her friends and family. Even Tyrion is impressed by her integrity.

🐺 Aria- Imogen from Cymbeline

◦ If it’s a mans world, pretend you are one! She learns to use a sword ⚔️ and uses her small size and gender to sneak away from her enemies.

🐉 Daenerys Targaryen- Cleopatra!

◦ Crafty and beautiful

◦ Uses her sexuality to gain a powerful man’s protection

◦ Her dragons 🐉 make her a goddess, elevating her beyond a woman and even a queen. In a society that opposed and ignored women, female monarchs needed to practically deify themselves in order to get the same respect as their male counterparts.

Just as the real Cleopatra claimed to be a descendant of the goddess Isis and Elizabeth I was part of the cult of the virgin queen, The Mother Of Dragons has a mythic power that commands fear and adoration.

Spoiler Alert

In the final chapter of book one, Daenerys tries to simultaneously say goodbye to her warrior husband Khal Drogo, and to get her few remaining soldiers to swear loyalty to her. She dresses him, she braids his hair, she puts him atop a pyre, and waits for a star to pass overhead to give his funeral a cosmic significance:

“This is a wedding too.”

The pyre shifted and the logs exploded as the fire touched their secret hearts. She could hear the screams of frighten horses and the voices of the Dothraki. “No,” she wanted to shout to him, “No my good knight, do not fear for me. The fire is mine. I am Daenerys Stormborn, daughter of dragons, bride of Dragons, Mother Of Dragons.”

This mirrors how, once Cleopatra loses Antony and knows that the Romans are coming to capture her, she says goodbye to Antony, and asserts herself as queen.

CLEOPATRA

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life.

Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall?
If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still?
If thus thou vanishest, thou tell’st the world
It is not worth leave-taking. Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene ii.

Dany does the same thing. She lights the pyre to help her husband ascend to the heavens, taking his place among the stars. Then, she sits on top of the pyre along with her three dragon eggs. Miraculously, she survives the fire and the dragons hatch, thus establishing her as the true heir of House Targarean and the Mother Of Dragons.

After witnessing the queen embracing her serpentine children, the blood riders that swore oaths to defend her husband swear again to defend her, promising to help her win the Iron Throne. Her power to command loyalty can win her the throne, and unlike Robert, keep it!

There are enough comparisons between Shakespeare and GOt that one playwright even adapted Shakespeare to resemble a Game Of Thrones story. Below is a poster of

Play Of Thrones, an adaption Of The Henry VI plays that, as I’ve mentioned, are full of characters and scenes similar to Game Of Thrones:

http://philwillmott.org/play-of-thrones-shakespeare-that-inspired-game-of-thrones.html

In conclusion, these two works prove that Shakespeare has a timeless appeal that has inspired countless writers to adapt his stories and characters.

Shakespeare on Ghosts

Since Halloween is right around the corner, and since this is a huge topic in Shakespeare, I would like to talk a little bit about Shakespeare’s treatment of the living impaired, specters, spirits, in a word GHOSTS.

Ghosts appear in five Shakespearean plays: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Richard the Third, Macbeth and Cymbeline. In all but one of these plays, and in many other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas, a ghost is a murdered person who needs someone to avenge their deaths. Their function is to warn the hero of the play to revenge their deaths, and/ or to torment their murderers.

Ghosts have been part of western drama almost as long as there have been ghost stories. After all, the Greek and Roman plays that Shakespeare emulated often mention ghosts as warnings from above and below the world is in some kind of chaos. Most of the time, the kind of play in which you see a ghost is a Revenge Tragedy, plays like The Spanish Tragedy, Locrine, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and even the Disney movie of The Lion King.


The most potent example of a Shakespearean ghost is definitely the ghost of Hamlet’s father. I actually played this role and, rumor has it, so did Shakespeare himself! Hamlet’s father appears as a ghost two months after his death, and soon after his brother Claudius marries his widow Gertrude. The ghost’s purpose in the play is to get his son’s attention so that he can correct the terrible regicide that Claudius committed, allowing the Ghost to Rest In Peace.

Shakespeare describes the ghost as a pale, sorrowful figure, dressed in full armor. The ghost only speaks to his son in the play, and he begins with a strange and terrifying description of the afterlife:

Ghost: I am thy father’s spirit,

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purg’d away. But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,

Thy knotted and combined locks to part,

And each particular hair to stand on end

Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.

But this eternal blazon must not be

To ears of flesh and blood Hamlet Act I, Scene v.

Many scholars believe that the tormenting realm of fire that the ghost describes is actually Purgatory, an old Catholic concept that explains where the souls of the dead go if they are neither evil enough for Hell, or good enough for Heaven. It’s also the place where people go who didn’t confess their sins before death, which was the ghost’s fate since Claudius poisoned him while sleeping.

Though neither Hamlet nor his father explicitly say it, there is a strong implication that Hamlet must avenge his father by killing Claudius, which will presumably release the Ghost from Purgatory allowing it to ascend to Heaven.

Some suggest that the ghost is a manifestation of Hamlet’s superego:

Ernest Jones in his book Hamlet And Oedipusbelieved Hamlet had an unresolved Oedipus complex and couldn’t bring himself to revenge because Claudius had achieved the very goals Hamlet himself secretly desires to kill his father and marry his mother

Faced with his guilt and lack of moral integrity Hamlet could have created a supernatural superego to spur him to revenge. As Freud describes it, the superego

The superego is the ethical component of the personality and provides the moral standards by which the ego operates. The superego’s criticisms, prohibitions, and inhibitions form a person’s conscience, and its positive aspirations and ideals represent one’s idealized self-image, or “ego ideal.”

In essence, since (in Jones’ view), Hamlet is too morally corrupt to be an effective avenger for his father, Hamlet imagines the ghost to help justify his revenge to himself. This is of course, only one way of interpreting the ghost and Hamlet as a whole. There is no right or wrong interpretation for any of Shakespeare’s characters, but it is a testament to Shakespeare’s genius that, 400 years after his own death, his ghostly writings helped inspire one the architects of modern psychology.

Ghosts Of Torment

The ghost of Banquo in Macbeth and the ghosts that plague Richard the Third the night before his battle help quicken the murderous kings’ his downward spiral. Macbeth becomes more and more paranoid, and therefore easier for his foes to defeat.

When Julius Caesar’s Ghost appears to Brutus, he does so the night before his final battle- the battle of Philippi, where Brutus was defeated and committed suicide.

When Richard III sees the ghosts of all the people he murdered, it not only terrifies him, it splits his soul in half! According to Sir Thomas More, Richard couldn’t sleep the night before his final battle at Bosworth Field. Shakespeare gives Richard a strange soliloquy where the ghosts awaken his conscience and awaken him from a fearful dream:

[The Ghosts vanish]

[KING RICHARD III starts out of his dream]

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester). Give me another horse: bind up my wounds.

Have mercy, Jesu!—Soft! I did but dream.

O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.

Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.

What do I fear? myself? there’s none else by:

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.

Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:

Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:

Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?

Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good

That I myself have done unto myself?

O, no! alas, I rather hate myself

For hateful deeds committed by myself!

I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.

Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain.

Perjury, perjury, in the high’st degree

Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;

I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;

And if I die, no soul shall pity me:

Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself

Find in myself no pity to myself? Richard III, Act V, Scene iii.

In these plays, the ghosts are a form of spectral punishment; the punishment of a guilty Conscience.

Shakespearean Friendly Ghosts

The only friendly Shakespearean ghosts appear in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline and these ghosts are the that appear before the God Jupiter to plead for their descendant, Posthumous Leonidas. They beg Jupiter, the most powerful Roman god to end Posthumous’ suffering.

Like the witches in Macbeth, ghosts in Shakespeare are mysterious and sometimes frightening – they are sort of a mirror for how we see ourselves, our lives, and our hopes to be remembered after death; the final words Hamlet’s father utters before disappearing into the morning mist are: “Adieu, adieu, remember me.”

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please consider signing up for my Outschool class: “Macbeth: An Immersive Horror Experience.” I perform live as the ghost of William Shakespeare and tell the story of Macbeth in an entertaining and spooky way.

For More Information:

https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/ghosts-in-shakespeare

https://www.bard.org/study-guides/ghosts-witches-and-shakespeare

Animated Richard III, 20:00 the ghosts appear:

References:

Greenblatt, Steven Hamlet In Purgatory 2001. Princeton University Press. Link: file:///Users/jrycik/Downloads/Hamlet-in-Purgatory-Princeton-Classics.pdf

Jones, Earnest, Hamlet and Oedipus.

https://people.ucsc.edu/~vktonay/migrated/psyc179d/HamletOedipus.pdf

Open Source Shakespeare, Cymbeline:

https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/play_view.php?WorkID=cymbeline&Act=5&Scene=4&Scope=scene&LineHighlight=3243#3243

http://www.markedbyteachers.com/gcse/english/which-version-of-the-hamlet-ghost-scene-act-1-scene-5-was-the-most-effective-and-why.html

Pearlman, E. Hamlet: Critical Essays: The Invention Of the Ghost. https://books.google.com/books?id=jdfWAQAAQBAJ&pg=PA71&lpg=PA71&dq=ghost+that+shrieked+hamlet+revenge&source=bl&ots=KY68gIrh2V&sig=MjEr2NxLQ7T4c2xW1QscrmdeMkc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiR5o6M4I_XAhUK0oMKHQIJBeAQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=ghost%20that%20shrieked%20hamlet%20revenge&f=false

https://www.shmoop.com/hamlet/ghost.html

https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/456606.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A3f62aed88fb9e9b9a8f8e462186ff95c

Creating A Character: Richard III

In 2011, I wrote a graduate thesis about some of the challenges of playing Shakespeare’s Richard III, specifically those related to playing his deformity. What follows in this post is an adaptation of the presentation I gave at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse, in Staunton Virginia. I gave this presentation with the help of my actors, Matt Carter, Jemma Levy, Amanda Noel Allen, and David Santangello. I also interviewed live onstage, one of the ASC’s greatest actors John Harrell and his director Thadd McQuade, about a unique production of Richard that he performed for the company back in 2002. What follows is the script I wrote for the presentation, as well as the video and Powepoint slides I projected for the audience, to help you see my work in performance. You can also consult a website I designed for the ASC’s production of Henry VI, Part III, where Richard was played by actor Ben Curns.


PRESENTATION SCRIPT

MATT CARTER:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them.

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity: Applause, he sits on one of the gallant stools.

Section 1: Introduction

Slide01

PAUL:

Many of you recognize those famous lines from the opening soliloquy of Richard III, ably delivered by Matt Carter. Did you notice the ways Matt was moving and the qualities of his voice? Tonight, my actors and I will show you some of the choices actors have made in playing the deformity of Richard III. Deformity and Richard are so closely linked that I would argue that it is the central driving force of the character. The different performances we will discuss show changes in views on deformity, as well as changing theories on the actor’s craft.

Every actor is interested in the human body, every actor is interested in how the mind and body work together, and most importantly, how to present the mind and body of a character to an audience in a clear and articulate way. No matter how the actor decides to represent it, Richard’s deformity of mind and body are essential to the understanding of the character. In his first soliloquy, in the play Henry the Sixth, Part III, he expresses a deep pain, sorrow and bitterness at being denied a normal body. As Jemma delivers this speech, ask yourself- do you pity him? Does this man have a reason to be angry?

JEMMA LEVY:

Why, love forswore me in my mother’s womb:
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither’d shrub;
To make an enviousmountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
And am I then a man to be beloved?
O monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought!

Henry VI, Part III, Act III, Scene i.

PAUL:

In this speech, like the previous one, Richard expresses the belief that his deformity was a curse, laid on by his mother. During the Renaissance, people believed that deformity was a mark of evil and a sign of being cursed by God. Like the Mark of Cain in the Bible, Richard’s deformity signifies that he was “determined,” (presumably by God), to prove a villain.” The deformity also gives Richard psychological motivation. Lacking a normal body, Richard is hungry for revenge, and in search of something to elevate himself above more fortunate people- power.

Section 2: Burbage

PAUL: The first Richard was almost certainly Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s star actor. Burbage was associated with the role long after his death.

DAVID SANTAGELLO:

A funerall Elegy on the death of the famous Actor Richard Burbage:

Who died on Saturday in Lent, the 13th of March 1618′

No more young Hamlet though but scant of breath

Shall cry revenge for his dear father’s death:

Edward shall lack a representative,

And Crookback, as befits, shall cease to live.”

PAUL:

Unfortunately, we have no information on how Burbage played the deformity, but we have one clue as to how his performance might have been received, in the form of an apocryphal story from the diary of law student John Manningham, on 13 March 1602:

AMANDA:

Upon a time when [Richard] Burbage played Richard III,

There was a citizen grew so far in liking with him that before she went from the play,

She appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard III.

Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came.

The message being brought that Richard III was at the door,

Shakespeare caused return to be made that ‘William the Conqueror was before Richard III.’

Slide02

PAUL:

Although this story is apocryphal, it does hit upon other features of Richard’s deformity- his supreme confidence, and his beast-like sexuality. Scholars have pointed out that Richard’s lack of scruples, (the result of being born deformed), makes him completely focused and confident. Likewise, his non-conformity to traditional standards of beauty could also be seen as a rebellion against societal norms, and thus, a strange aphrodisiac. This dark creature, without a recognizable human shape, manages to exert a dark pull on the audience.

Section 3: Cibber

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Surprisingly, for nearly 300 years, portrayals of Richard III have been heavily influenced by an obscure author who was not even Shakespeare’s contemporary

During the Restoration of theater in the 17th century Shakespeare’s plays were largely out of fashion, condemned by critics as “too vulgar for this refined age,” and playwrights began to rewrite and adapt them. The most successful adaptation of Richard the Third, came from poet-laureate Colley Cibber in 1671. Cibber’s text interpreted the story as one man’s evil rise to the crown, not the culminating story of the Wars of The Roses. Cibber cut most of the history involved. He condensed scenes, omitted others, and gave Richard 10% more of the dialogue, then Shakespeare. Cibber’s text also re-emphasizes the importance of deformity to Richard’s character- adding 8 more uses of the words “deformed,” or “ugly.” To further the point, Cibber inserted text from other Shakespeare plays that speak about Richard’s deformity, such as the Henry VI speech spoken earlier. Cibber freely cut-and pasted from Shakespeare’s histories, which can be demonstrated in this speech where the Lady Anne mourns for the death of Henry the Sixth, using lines written by Shakespeare for the funeral of King Henry the Fifth:

AMANDA:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your firey tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry’s death!

O be accursed, the hand that shed his blood

Accursed the head that had the heart to do it!
If ever he have wife, let her be made
More miserable by the life of him
As I am made by Edward’s death and thine!

PAUL:

Cibber also wrote his own speeches for Richard, such as this one where Richard resolves to woo Lady Anne in spite of his deformity:

JOHN HARRELL:

But see! My love appears. Look where she shines

Through her dark veil of rainy sorrows

Tis true, my form perhaps may little move her;

But I’ve a tongue shall wheedle with the devil.

PAUL: Cibber’s text was extremely popular with actors because it raised Richard’s importance to a star role. Actors such as David Garrick made their debut as Cibber’s Richard, and some of Cibber’s editorital choices still survive in the two movie versions of Richard by Ian McKellen and Laurence Olivier.

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IanMcKellen

Section 4: Olivier

Olivier, in the 20th century was considered the definitive Richard. In his film version he emphasizes Richard’s evil and deceptive nature. He uses the character’s physical disabilities (as well as various cinematic techniques) to reveal his moral depravity.

Slide04

  • The Crown of England- the tremolos and the large crown that appears in the beginning, middle, and end of the film. Homage to Cibber.
  • CINEMATIC USE OF DEFORMITY
  • Long camera angles as he limps away, exposing hump and limp
  • Shadowy silhouette
  • In this shot, Richard slinks away from the camera, leaving his bizarre silhouette to unfurl like a snakeSlide06
  • In this shot, Richard bends over to whisper evil thoughts into the king’s ear.
  • Finally, in this shot, we see the shadow of Richard’s head, as he stares into the cell of his brother Clarence, as he plans his murder. We see through this shot, Richard looms as a great evil presence.

Section 5: Sher

Slide07

After Olivier, actors abandoned the approach of making Richard into a monster, and favored a more human, natural approach.

The role of Richard III however, presents unique challenges for actors attempting to do this; they are attempting to do something un-natural by playing a deformity that they do not actually have. Thus they are attempting to play something “un-natural” within the precepts of naturalistic acting.. Antony Sher’s massive preparation for the role, using Method acting techniques, included both a thorough research into the physical effects of real disability, and a deep examination of its psychological effects.

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  • Used Method acting techniques to create the role:
    • Real-life experience- Crutches came from his own real injury.
    • Research into physical deformity.
    • Textual Research
    • Image Research. He used Margaret’s text to create a visual design for his character, a bottled spider.
    • Psychoanalysis- brought Shakespeare’s text to a real psychiatrist to “put Richard on the couch.”
  • Sher’s technique led him to go into a deep, psychological probing of Richard’s mind. He viewed the deformity as a source of deep pain, through which we can identify with Richard as a human being.
  • Listen to how David, applying Method-inspired text analysis, conveys Richard’s human emotions.

DAVID:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;

PAUL: Sher’s massive preparation for the role represent the limits that an able bodied actor could go to portray a disability he himself did not have.

Section 6: From Sher to Harrell

Slide09

  • Sher’s Richard created an unexpected backlash from disabled community.
  • One response to this: a number of Richards played by disabled actors.
  • Henry Holden in 2007. Like Sher, on crutches, only he needed them.
  • Peter Dinklage played the role with none of the traditional deformities.
  • His size was a kind of disability, as it literally hindered him from taking the crown
    • He was tangled in his robes,
    • Couldn’t reach the throne.
  • Critics writing about the performance claimed watching him was more real. You weren’t watching a performance, you watched a real man, with a real struggle.
  • Another response is approaching the deformity from a more stylized perspective.
  • This was the approach favored by Thadd McQuade.Slide11
  • The essence of this performance was watching a man struggle through life trying to overcome obstacles and find a place for himself in the world, a struggle that is the essence of all tragedy.

Section 7: 10 minute interview with Thadd and John.

Slide12

Both– Explain the way you chose to represent deformity (bowling ball) and why.

  • John- I got an email from actor JP Schiedler, (who was in the production) who said “ As I recall John was very interested in working inside of some form of restriction which forced his body to adapt, struggle and physically change how he could deal with the world around him which the ball did.” If this is true, I’d like you to talk about this idea- why was it important for you to have something that restricted you? I want to get an idea of how you saw the physicality of Richard and how it is important to the character.
  • Thadd, when I interviewed you, you mentioned that doing the play naturalistically can actually be off-putting because an able-bodied actor will never completely pull off the deformity. I want you to repeat some of that to explain the virtues of a more presentational Richard.
  • Both- How did your techniques contribute to a better understanding of the play for the audience?

Conclusion: Richard’s deformities and disabilities are both physical and psychological. They are the driving force in his life. Portraying Richard’s deformity is a microcosm of the challenges that face all actors: making choices of how to explore the mind and body of a character. Watching an actor take on the challenge of portraying this man’s struggles. This struggle is the essence of tragedy and watching an actor take on the challenge of creates powerful and poignant theatre.

The Elephant In the Room: The Real Richard III

Before we continue our exploration of Shakespeare’s “Richard the Third,” I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a little time talking a little about the real Richard   Plantagenet, Duke Of Gloucester and king of England from 1483-1485. I have to get this out of the way first and foremost: although “Richard III” is classified as a history play, most of the facts in it are untrue, or severely exaggerated. In this post I will try to separate the character from the man to try and make clear what Shakespeare changed from history and why.

First, a video bio I created:

The facts are these:

-He was a real English monarch who  reigned 1483-1485.

– Richard was the younger brother of King Edward IV, and helped his brother take the crown away from King Henry VI, in a series of battles known as The Wars Of the Roses.

– The battles got their name because Richard’s family (the House Of York), used a white rose as its symbol, while King Henry’s faction used a red rose.

– Like Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, Richard was the undesputed “Warden Of the North,” in charge of crushing a potential Scottish invasion.

– In April of 1483, Richard’s brother King Edward IV died. As Lord Protector of England, Richard was entrusted to take care of the country, and Edward’s two sons (the new heirs to the throne). In late May, Richard arrested three lords on suspicion of treason while he guided the two princes to London. Within one month, the two princes were publicly declared illegitimate by the Archbishop, thus making Richard the new king.

– Sometime during Richard’s two year reign, Edward’s sons disappeared.  Many believe they were murdered and Shakespeare’s sources named James Tyrrell and Michael Forrest as the murderers, acting under King  Richard’s orders. In 1674, the skeletons of two boys believed to be the princes were discovered in the Tower Of London. The remains were interred by King Charles II. So far, nobody has confirmed if the remains belong to the princes or what happened to the young boys.

-Richard was defeated and murdered by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond at the Battle Of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. His successor founded the House Of Tudor which included Henry VIII, Mary I, Edward VI, and Queen Elizabeth I.

-in 2015, historian Phillipa Langley discovered King Richard’s remains in a parking lot in Leicester

Few contemporary sources survive from Richard’s day, so it’s unknown whether Richard did kill the princes. Even more mysterious, although he did work to depose a king, oppress the Scots, and take the throne from Edward’s kids, some sources claim Richard was actually a just and good king. In the lack of facts, Richard’s legend continues to grow

Reality check

-After finding his skeleton, scientists discovered that Richard was not deformed, although he did have scoliosis. Thomas Moore added the hump, while Shakespeare added the withered arm.

– There is no physical evidence that Richard killed the two princes, and many others wanted them dead, including Henry Tudor himself!

-Richard also probably was a good king according to some contemporary accounts, as you can see in this video with Monty Python’s Terry Jones:

Why were the facts twisted?


– Remember, Richard was defeated by Henry Tudor, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, so there was no way Shakespeare or anyone else in Elizabethan England could get away with portraying him as a good king.

– Shakespeare’s main source was a history by Sir Thomas More, who was 12 at the time of Richard’s reign. More was Henry VIII’s royal chancellor, so he couldn’t afford to be nice to Richard either. More’s history set the groundwork for Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard as a deformed monster.

The point is, people have known for centuries that Shakespeare’s Richard is no more true than the myth of Robin Hood. Even Laurence Olivier admits before his film even starts that this story has been “scorned in proof thousands of times.” Nevertheless, like Robin Hood, this story is part of the fabric of English society, and it still has value as a cautionary tale about corrupt governments, and how one man may lose his soul (and a horse) in pursuit of power and revenge.

Even today, people continue to gain power by manipulating fear, hatred, and religion, which is why we as a society need Shakespeare’s Richard. The play is so universal it was re interpreted in 2007 as “Richard III: an Arab tragedy.” Shakespeare’s Richard is so close to today’s dirty politicians that we have TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic inspired by him, (more on that later). And Richard himself is so compelling a character that centuries of great actors, cartoon characters, and even occasional rock stars have wanted to emulate him.
The lesson of the story is that a single demagogue can gain control of a corrupt system if we let him. Hitler, Saddam, Trump. It’s no accident that Olivier chose to play Richard right as the war was ending in Europe, and his popularity in that role rose exponentially after post war Britain saw the parallels between the “honey words” of Richard, which captivated England, to Hitler’s fiery rhetoric, which nearly destroyed it. The larger point through all four plays of Shakespeare’s history cycle, (not just “Richard III,”) is that greed and cruelty within one family can lead to chaos on a large scale, especially when it’s the royal family.

For more information:

Books:

  • The Daughter Of Time by Josephine Tey, 1951: This is the most famous book that sets down the case that Richard’s reign was maligned by history. In addition to having excellent research, it is also a compelling novel.
  • Shakespeare’s English Kings by Peter Saccio. To help students of Shakespeare separate fact from fiction, and get a sense of the lives of the men whose lives shaped Shakespeare’s history plays, Professor Saccio of Dartmouth College created a short, easy to read biography of all 10 of Shakespeare’s monarchs.

Websites:

The Richard III SocietyOfficial website of the society dedicated to preserving the memory of Richard III.

 Historic UK: Short biographies of English Monarchs

Leicester Cathedral’s Richard III Page: http://kingrichardinleicester.com See pictures and read about Richard’s final resting place, and how his remains were found, and re-interred.

Westminster Abbey- The tomb of most English kings and queens for over 1,000 years:

http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/royals?start_rank=1