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The Masque


Theatre and Performance Studies


Of Richard III

When Will Shakespeare peeked through the curtain at the audience gathered to watch his plays, his eyes fixed upon a sight quite unlike what Mr. Macleod would see tonight. Standing before the stage would be a motley-looking crowd of groundlings busily engaged with smoking, talking, laughing, eating, and card playing. Vendors would be working their way through the crowd, selling peanuts and oranges, while pick-pockets would be worming themselves about with quite a different objective. The place where this amusing congregation of coarse individuals gathered was called, appropriately, the pit.

The galleries would contain a fair proportion of women, some not too respectable. In the boxes were a few gentlemen from the Inns of Court, Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron, with a group of extravagantly dressed gentlemen of fashion.

If the presence of nobles and groundlings in the same Globe Theater seems incongruous, or if the gathering of a coarse crowd of bumpkins assembled to hear the poetry of Shakespeare's plays seems incongruous to the modern audience, it was only typical of Elizabethan England. During the seventy year tenure of the popular theatre in Elizabethan England there flourished, side by side, ignorance and wit, Humanism and Savagery, squalor and lavishness, philistinism and poetry.

The doors of most London houses opened on the narrow streets where the bustle of shopping, marketing, bargaining, visiting and begging were carried on in public thoroughfares and market places. On the streets of London small boys noisily played ball while others scurried through the streets, running and jumping. One could daily watch military drills, archery and fencing exhibitions, puppet shows, acrobatics, or wandering minstrel shows. For the price of admission, generally a penny, and with a bit of surplus coin for wagering, one could observe cockfights, bull baiting, bear baiting and dog fights, or they could see bears and dogs fight when the usual fare was not variegated enough for their unprejudiced tastes. We have preserved today a record of the valor of "Old Hunks," a blind bear who, while chained to a wall, tried to attack men who lashed him with whips. The sport of the ritual was that the men had to come within the length of his chain in order to beat him.

Scattered throughout London at that time were enough churches to have the city tagged "The City of Churches." Church pageantry, at that time was as much in evidence as the pageantry of the court. Other edifices, however, were not so reputable. On the bankside, near the theatre district, were the "stews," houses of ill fame; all about the city were taverns.

Society's view of actors, and of the theaters, has not been a favorable one until relatively recent times. In Shakespeare's day the theatre was opposed by the puritans and the city fathers on the grounds that it increased the danger of fire , rioting, " wantonness," and the plague. Indeed during the reigns of James and Charles it was decreed that if there were more than 40 deaths from the plague in one week the play performances must be discontinued . We have no record of how many plague-riddled corpses were tucked out of society's courts with the view that the "show must go on."

Shakespeare, appearing at the high-water mark of the Renaissance, undoubtedly noticed all of the amazing contrasts of his people and his city. The thousand or more characters that took form under his quill have preserved for posterity the bustling excitement of "merry aide England.''

If "sweet Prince Hal," of Shakespeare's Henry V, represents the ideal Renaissance prince, then Richard III represents the ideal of the stereotyped Machiavellian tradition. Not only is Richard III made horrible by his actions but the very imagery of the place depicts him as a butcher and a hypocrite. He is called, at various times, "hell's black intelligencer," "that foul defacer of God's handiwork," and "that bottl'd spider, that foul bunch-back'd toad ." Strong language in any era.

Surprisingly enough, Richard III did not succeed Richard II to the throne. Richard II was followed by Henrys IV, V, and VI, and by Edwards IV and V. Through a series of machinations against his own family Richard Ill capitalized on the War of the Roses, between the houses of Lancaster and York, to gain his own ambitious end. Whatever gains he made, however, were quite short-lived as we shall ·see in our play this evening.

If a criterion of footlight success is longevity, then sit back, relax, and enjoy William Shakespeare's "Richard III,"which has been played since 1593.

Hugh A. Gilmore

Rights Statement

Richard the Third