The Search for the True Identity of Richard III in a Play
Looking for the resonances and dissonances between texts allows audiences to understand a textual conversation, which acts as a vehicle through which we evaluate changes in contexts, values and interpretations of texts. The resonances between William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Richard III (1592) and Al Pacino’s docudrama adaptation thereof in Looking for Richard (1996) are manifested in their shared exploration of universal concerns such as the dichotomy between appearance and reality, and the perpetual yearning for power. However, Pacino’s adaptation inevitably engenders dissonances between itself and the original text, revealing the new values and perspectives brought about by the changed contexts. Nonetheless, the textual conversation enables a more multi-dimensional understanding of how the film reflects the play’s ideas, through emphasising diverging perspectives in the Elizabethan context and the postmodern sociocultural context.
Both King Richard III and Looking for Richard affirm the tightly intertwined relation between appearance and reality as a universal human condition. Shakespeare explores Richard’s characterisation as an embodiment of Machiavellian amorality, which is immediately communicated in the anti-hero’s opening soliloquy wherein he bitterly acknowledges his own inferiority in the tricolon: ‘deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world’. Condemned by his society as such, Richard manipulates others solely for the purpose of gaining political power and exacting revenge, although Richard’s assumption of individual agency is interpreted by Elizabethan audiences as an overt rebellion against the ‘Divine Right of Kings’. Richard’s soliloquies and asides throughout the play demonstrate a jarring segregation between his outward appearance and inward reality, as he asserts in high modality language to ‘prove a villain, and to set my brother Clarence and the king in deadly hate’. This deadly imperative stand in stark contrast to his feigned virtue, seen from his flattery of the Queen as having ‘a cherry lip, a bonny eye, a passing pleasing tongue’. As such, Richard’s manipulation of those around him creates dramatic irony, which highlights his acute self-awareness of his own perception and also his evil. Acting as different personas in different situations, ultimately leads to the collapse of Richard’s façade after the repetition his condemnation of death on the battlefield by the ghosts of those he has killed, where each one chants ‘Despair and die’, as Shakespeare goes further to present Richard’s dichotomy as truth and deceit.
Whilst Shakespeare employs Richard to communicate the gap between who he appears to be and who he truly is, Pacino moves away from Shakespeare’s theistic castigation of deceit to instead honour Richard’s manipulative plots in a postmodern context. Pacino states that ‘It’s always been a dream of mine to communicate how I feel about Shakespeare to other people.’ in the beginning of the docudrama, expressing an underlying tone of his difference in perception in Shakespeare’s view on Richard with other audiences. Pacino sociocultural context was mainly derived from the archetypal postmodern notion, where it relatively denies grand narratives and expresses that reality is malleable and constantly changing. Hence, Pacino celebrates Richard’s manipulative characteristics, yielding insight into a new sympathetic perspective into Richard’s demise. With Pacino’s unique implementation of the cinema verite form, combined with the fluid shifts between the different rehearsal, re-enactments, and documentary montages blur the appearance and truth of Pacino and Richard to an extent. The blurring of Pacino’s real identity and appearance is demonstrated through the transition of ‘I wanna be the king already’ where audiences are left perplexed upon whether Pacino is manifesting a Machiavellian embodiment or acting as the role of a director. Through the befogging of personas and cinematic form, Pacino can be said to be challenging Shakespeare’s condemnation of Richard’s manipulation of appearance and reality, depriving truth from human experiences. Furthermore, Pacino bookends his docudrama with intertextual references to ‘The Tempest’ when he states, ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep’, underpinning his perspective upon humanity as flexible and ultimately multifaceted.
Additionally, both King Richard III and Looking for Richard explore man’s perennial pursuit of power. Shakespeare posits Richard’s preoccupation with power as both his motivation in committing crimes, and the reason for his downfall. In the beginning of the play, Richard addresses his own disempowerment the moment he is introduced into the scene: ‘I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion, cheated of feature by dissembling nature.’, followed by ‘plots I have laid, inductions dangerous, by drunken prophecies, libels and dreams’. This provokes the audience to conceptualise Richard as an ostracised member of society due to his disfigured physicality, and to rationalise his lust for power as an ambition to break free from the predetermined social hierarchy of 16th century society. Richard’s pursuit of power thus becomes an oppositional force to the providential ideologies of the Elizabethan era, that any disruption to God’s plan would lead directly to social chaos and upheaval. There is also a strong condemning undertone with regards to Richard’s theocentric idea of unethical power as a moral injustice. Shakespeare employs both diabolical imageries such as ‘with old odd end stolen out of holy writ; and seem a saint, when most I play the devil.’ and biblical references such as ‘In God’s name, cheerly on, courageous friends’ and ‘Then, in God’s name, march.’, the contrast of which sheds light upon Richard’s Machiavellian nature. The anaphora of ‘in God’s name’ is particularly indicative, as Richmond is portrayed as sent from God to overpower the Machiavellian immorality. The symbolic use of angels and devils further affirms the prevailing ideology at the time that power should not be sought out, but rather be bestowed by God, who is also at liberty to take power away from man. Applying the ideology to Richard, it foreshadows an impending doom in Richard’s futile pursuit of power.
Contrastingly, Pacino’s docu-drama adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Richard III offers a different perspective upon the moral dimension of power, a shift from Shakespeare’s theocentric exploration to a secularist view of the postmodern era. Looking for Richard entertains the idea of how there is a diminished influence of God in the postmodern everyday society, and frames ‘power’ with a political nature instead of a divine one. Most noticeably, Pacino noticeably disregards Richmond’s final sermon of how ‘All this divided York and Lancaster, divided, in their dire division.’, reducing the theocentric idea of how the pursuit of power leads to moral corruption. Hence, through the mournful mise en scene of Richard’s Death where Richard can be seen calling for ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!’ paralleling Kimble’s voice-over of the docudrama during the montage, Richard can be seen alienated from his own identity, reinforced by both characters’ isolation as a consequence of pursuing power. Furthermore, through Pacino’s Vox Populi interviews, ‘I’m actually reading Richard III and I can’t get on with it’, which speaks to the audience in an informal tone, exemplifies the change in how power is represented in a social and political value contrasting to Shakespeare’s religious view.
Whilst King Richard III and Looking for Richard explores resonating ramifications and concerns of the dichotomy of appearance and reality, and man’s perpetual yearning of power, the difference in context and time period during both works were conceptualised has resulted in some inevitable dissonances between them. While Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard’s appearance and deception is amplified in Pacino’s adaptation, Richard is illustrated as an anti-hero in both works, implying that such deception is not ideal. On the other hand, despite the fact that power has shifted from having a divine value to a more political nature, both writers agree on how man’s inherent need for control remains. In conclusion, through the comparison of resonances and dissonances between texts, it provides a richer understanding of textual conversation.
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