I went into the theater last night feeling excited, but a bit apprehensive. I’d only finished reading Richard III a few days before, and while I was looking forward to seeing it play out on stage, it was one of the bloodiest and most disturbing Shakespeare plays I’d ever encountered. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be entranced by the gruesome events unfolding or simply disgusted. I left the theater a few hours later, literally speechless and breathless. It was like a horrible train wreck that you just can’t look away from, and I mean that in the best way possible. I loved it!
This was my second night at the Texas Shakespeare Festival, and seeing Richard III was a very different experience from Much Ado About Nothing, which is a light, humorous romantic comedy. Richard III had me gasping in horror, biting back screams, and waiting on the edge of my seat as the doomed members of the House of York plotted against each other. I’ve never been a fan of horror movies, but I’d imagine it’s much the same effect: what’s happening in front of you is just so horrible it leaves you gasping for breath as if you’d just come close to drowning.
Only Richard III isn’t a horror movie. It’s Shakespeare, and it’s – at least in part – history. Elizabethan propaganda, historically inaccurate, yes, but still. The sides may not have been as black-and-white as Shakespeare would have us believe, but the War of the Roses was still an incredibly bloody and violent time, and history is filled with dictators and tyrants as horrible as Shakespeare’s villain.
Shakespeare’s work often speaks to universal themes. Romeo and Juliet is about love and hatred – irrational hatred and irrational love. Hamlet is about the inevitability of death. Othello is about jealousy and distrust. King Lear is about false flattery and backstabbing and the unfortunate fact that the honest often suffer while the dishonest profit. Many of the comedies deal with some of the same themes, coming to happier resolutions. Richard III, likewise, paints a blunt and unvarnished picture of the evil in the world and the ways in which ordinary people allow it: by trying to profit from it, underestimating the dangers, or simply being too afraid to speak up. There’s something about the play, as is the case with so many of Shakespeare’s works, which transcends time and continues to feel relevant today.