Friday, May 15, 2015

Overexpressing Richard III

As the critic Julia Fawcett has pointed out, Colley Cibber, in his 1699 rewrite of Richard III, has the villain do more than simply submit to a narrative he cannot control. Rather, Richard helps to create his own narrative, even if it is still one in which he is a villain. 

As an example, Fawcett cites these lines (about the deaths of the princes) that Cibber added to Shakespeare’s play:

Shall future ages, when these children’s tale
Is told, drop tears in pity of their hapless fate,
And read with detestation the misdeeds of Glo’ster,
The crook-back’d Tyrant, cruel, barbarous,
And bloody—Will they not say too,
That to possess the crown, nor laws divine
Nor human stopt my way?—Why let ’em say it;
They can’t but say I had the crown;
I was not fool as well as villain.

According to Fawcett, Cibber’s adaptation questions whether we define our own self-images, or are defined by them, especially in the cases of public figures like the king. While I’m not sure that the play answers this question, Fawcett has given us an interesting term to describe Richard’s attempt to shape his own destiny. She refers to this strategy as “overexpression.”

Both Cibber the actor and Richard himself (who was engaged in his own performance) overexpressed themselves, indulging in the excessive and spectacular. Fawcett posits that this strategy might have allowed Cibber the actor to distance himself from the villainous character he was portraying.

Cibber, it so happened, had reason for concern. A number of pamphlets criticized the writer and actor for his personal life. Cibber rose to the management of Drury Lane in 1709, and ultimately became poet laureate in 1730. Still, the rumors persisted. Even respected writers like Alexander Pope and Henry Fielding did not shy away from attacking Cibber’s character as well as his writing. Infamously, Pope crowned Cibber “King of the Dunces” in his 1743 mock-epic The Dunciad.

Some of Pope’s criticism was political. Cibber was a Whig supporter of Robert Walpole (generally identified as the first Prime Minister in Britain’s history) while Pope was a staunch Tory. However, the dispute was also personal. Referring to one of Cibber’s sexual indiscretions, Pope once called a woman (in print) Cibber’s “whore,” to which the actor did not take kindly. Cibber shot back, writing of Pope bringing his “little-tiny manhood” into a brothel.

This was all still in the future when Cibber penned his adaptation. Still, with such public airings commonplace, it is no wonder the actor wanted to distance himself from the villainous character he portrayed. To do this, he had to make Richard’s villainy out of proportion to anything which Cibber, a mere actor, could ever be guilty of doing. His acting might even have gone a bit overboard, as one anonymous reviewer claimed he “screamed thro’ four Acts with out Dignity or Decency.”

This over-the-top performance carried through into the script Cibber had prepared. When Richard wears the crown for the first time, Cibber has him call out:

Thou bright reward of ever-daring minds;
Oh! how thy awful glory fills my soul!
Nor can the means that got thee, dim thy luster:
For, not men’s love, fear pays thee adoration,
And fame not more survives from good than evil deeds:
Th’aspiring youth, that fir’d the Ephesian dome,
Outlives, in fame, the pious fool that raised it.

The aspiring youth in question is Herostratus, who allegedly burned the domed Temple of Artemis in Ephesus for the express purpose of achieving fame, even though he knew it would mean his death. The incident, which supposedly occurred in 356 B.C., ended with the Ephesian authorities not only executing Herostratus, but also forbidding anyone from ever again pronouncing his name. The historian Theopompus later recorded the tale, and Herostratus got his wish of going down in the history books. In fact, the term “Herostratic Fame,” which means fame at any cost, derives from the arsonist’s name.

Like Herostratus, Richard embraces his own villainy in order to achieve lasting fame. Similarly, Cibber embraced the villainy of Richard in order to achieve his own fame. Critics might mock him for his excessive performance, but they would also remember him.

Early in the play, Cibber explicitly links Richard to an actor. The deposed King Henry VI, soon to be murdered, sees Richard and asks, “What bloody scene has Roscius now to act?” The allusion to Roscius refers to the most famous tragic actor of Roman times. Cibber adapted the line from a similar one in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3, but he added the term “bloody” in yet another act of overexpression.

The ending of the play offers a further example of overexpression. Unlike Shakespeare, Cibber grants Richard a death speech, having him proclaim before he dies:

Now let the world no longer be a stage
To feed Contention in a ling’ring act;
But let one spirit of the first-born Cain
Reign in all bosoms; that each heart may set
On bloody actions, the rude scene may end,
And darkness be the burier of the dead.
Right down to his last moments on stage, Cibber has Richard absurdly exaggerated in his evil. By doing so, the actor and playwright was perhaps able to distance his own scandalous life from the life of the character he portrayed.