by Scott Horstein, guest blogger and freelance dramaturg
Last week Philippa shared our coffee talk about Richard III, the last of the four plays in the Shakespeare Tetralogy that makes up Cal Shakes’s War of the Roses. I dramaturged Richard several years back (at Denver Theater Center), and when I talked with Philippa, it made me think of my favorite scene in the play.
In Act IV, Scene IV, three wretched queens take the stage to wail about their dead husbands and sons. Richard has outsmarted and slaughtered them all on his way to the crown. Now the play suddenly stops and risks becoming an exaggerated sobfest. Why?
Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, has lost her son (Richard’s brother). The previous queen, Richard’s sister-in-law Elizabeth of York, has lost her two young sons, heirs to the throne. And their enemy, the former queen Margaret from the House of Lancaster, has lost her husband, Henry VI, and her son. Shakespeare dramatizes the deaths as horrible, bloody affairs, the scions of powerful families brutally destroyed in the prime of youth. Margaret initially chortles at the abjection of the fallen York queens; but she comes to empathize with them, as Elizabeth keens:
Ah my poor princes! Ah, my tender babes,
My unblown flowers….
Hover about me with your airy wings
And hear your mother’s lamentation…
Elizabeth is calling out to the invisible souls of her sons, whom the audience imagines to be hovering about her. The play is set in the 1480s, a hundred years before Shakespeare wrote Richard III. By Shakespeare’s time, Elizabeth’s kind of mourning had become blasphemy.
As Philippa mentioned in her post on Everybody, Catholics believed the soul hung around after death, in Purgatory, awaiting its final destination. Loved ones wailed to God, beseeching Him on behalf of the departed. The body was openly displayed in mourning rituals, emphasizing this persistent, tangible, earthly connection to the departing soul.
But by Shakespeare’s time the official religion had become Protestantism, as decreed by Henry VIII in 1532. Protestants believed the soul was predestined at birth for either Heaven or Hell. The Protestants did away with open mourning and bodies on display. Attempting to intercede with God on behalf of the departed was “womanish” and “popish.” The Pope reference here shows how political this all was—Protestants were paranoid that Catholics, with backing from the Pope and Catholic Spain, would try to retake the English crown. Catholic mourning practices weren’t just blasphemous, they were treasonous, too.
(I’m drawing much of this from a fascinating article by Katharine Goodland called “Obseqious Laments: Mourning and Communal Memory in Richard III.”)
Back to the play! When Elizabeth calls out to the souls of her murdered sons, Shakespeare’s audience would have felt the frisson of her doing something forbidden. Forbidden in the world of the play because she’s calling out to those murdered by Richard’s regime. Forbidden in the audience’s time because she’s acting so Catholic.
This is why Shakespeare stops the play here. As Katharine Goodland points out, this is the first uninterrupted mourning rite in the whole Tetralogy. Richard III opens with a spectacularly aborted mourning ritual, the Lady Anne escorting the body of her dead husband Edward, whom Richard has killed in battle. Richard disrupts Anne’s mourning and somehow manages to seduce her. Still, mourning is such an essential social act that Shakespeare stages it again, in my favorite scene, Act IV, Scene IV. At the height of the carnage, at the darkest moment of the Tetralogy, at the point where Richard’s ascendance to the throne is complete, at the point where his monomania and paranoia have destroyed all social bonds, the example of Margaret, Elizabeth, and the Duchess offers an alternative social vision. The queens’ resistance to Richard is a kind of insurrection, and it presages Richard’s demise, which comes just a few scenes later in Act V. It is also a kind of healing. As Goodland says, “the ability to mourn as a community…is essential to the functioning and continuity of a cohesive society.” Shakespeare would pursue these themes a few years later in Hamlet, connecting the corruption of mourning rites to the corruption of the self and of the state.
Let’s be clear, Shakespeare is no more sentimental about political resistance than he is about political hegemony. The queens are still as vicious as they are elsewhere in the play when it comes to Richard, describing him as a “bottled spider” and an “elvish, rooting hog.” What Shakespeare is documenting here is how people respond to calamity, to the ebbs and flows of power, to grief.
I love watching this scene, and I’m excited to see it on stage in September.
Scott Horstein is Chair of the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance and Associate Professor of Contemporary Theatre and Dramaturgy at Sonoma State University, where he also heads the campus Arts Integration program as SSU Arts Dramaturg. He was formerly Manager of Play Development for Cornerstone Theater Company and Literary Director for the Black Dahlia Theater. Numerous freelance dramaturgy credits include Denver Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Berkeley Rep, and the Old Globe, where he dramaturged for Arthur Miller on his penultimate play Resurrection Blues. He has directed at Native Voices, East West Players, and the West Coast Ensemble, and taught at SCR, AADA, AMDA, and UCSD. MFA in Dramaturgy from UCSD and a proud member of LMDA (Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas).