R3: A Play-World Female Richard? Why This Could Work

When I left off a couple of weeks ago, I had grown from talking about the casting decision of a female Richard and started thinking too hard about the play-world implications. Then my brain stopped, and I had to think for a very long time.

Today's post will not be about the effect a female Richard has on an audience. Instead, I'm going to talk about the amount of awareness that people sharing Richard's stage have of such a casting. The difference is that this post is not specific to the actor of Richard's gender; the concepts I wish to present are the same if there is a woman playing Gloucester as a woman or a man playing Gloucester as a woman. I hope this differentiation is pronounced.

Why am I delving into some rather impractical theory regarding the play-world?

Because it's my blog dammit.

The most difficult part of this subject is trying to figure out how much awareness characters have of their surroundings, much less the actors playing them. It's a bit of a conundrum, particularly in a piece that bends the fourth wall as much as Richard III. One cannot give the characters too much awareness, or they would become complicit in Richard's conversations with the audience, and that would be problematic.

With this in mind, one could argue immediately that if Richard is played by a woman, then the other characters cannot be aware of any gender deviance. Any claim Gloucester has to the throne is null and void if he is a woman, and obviously his marriage to Lady Anne would be even more so.

But for the sake of this blog post and its longevity, I'm going to posit what happens if Richard is played by a woman, and awareness of the actor's gender carries over to the play-world.

The first and most obvious question would be why nobody draws attention to this deficiency of maleness. Part of the omission of this fact would be, I think, due to the secretive and repressed society portrayed within the play; The people around Richard are simply unable to speak their minds and stand up for what's right. Even something as sacrosanct as the succession of the throne is pushed to the side in favour of self-preservation.

Could such a strong survival instinct transcend even the importance of marriage between woman and man in a time where that was perceived as one of the most sacred bonds to be made? Perhaps. Probably not. I don't claim to be an expert.

Of course, the historical content of Richard III is more and more likely to be jettisoned in favour of other more modern, even hypothetical settings. In that case, the play-world attitude to two women being married in a church may vary widely, depending on the production. Because of the fluid nature of this subject, I don't think I ought to discuss it in more detail than I already have.

Let's talk instead about the possible changes of Richard's character that come with a change in play-world character. That's what I really wanted to get to.

Comparisons are often made between Gloucester and Lady Macbeth. This seems as good a starting point as any when it comes to this massive topic.

Their ambition seems the first thing that makes them similar. Both Richard and Lady M have an obsession with power, and both begin to play someone they aren't in order to satisfy this obsession. In both cases, it's clear that the strain of being something they are not starts to destabilize them. Both have guilt-ridden nightmares as a consequence of their ruthless actions.

It's interesting that Lady Macbeth should 'unsex' herself to achieve her ambitions while Richard has already been unsexed by the people surrounding him, who refer to him in bestial and gender-neutral terms. To Lady Macbeth, female gender roles are an encumbrance to her cause, but she does not consciously adapt any of the characteristics allotted to men. Richard, barren of both male and female characteristics in the eyes of his peers, is completely unimpeded and does as he likes. So they are both liberated by dismissing any and all gender traits.

Impotence and imagery of barrenness seem to figure in both of these sexless characters. It is strongly implied that Lady M is not enjoying a sexually active marriage with the titular character of Macbeth, and Richard is fixated on the sex he can't have. Lady Macbeth has given birth to stillborn babies in a previous marriage; Richard has no children, and maybe orders the death of the Princes in the Tower as a result.

Apart from these similarities, however, there are overwhelming differences between the two characters. Whereas Lady Macbeth becomes more withdrawn and introspective as the violence onstage escalates, Richard grows more and more confident. Lady Macbeth's nightmares are realistic and natural; Richard's come out of nowhere.

Harold Bloom chalked the fake nature of Richard's nightmares to some kind of residual crutch in the Marlovian style on Shakespeare's part; I personally think it is the person underneath the elaborate fabrication that is Richard Gloucester, and this person is trying to get sympathy from the audience before the last bow.

And here is the fundamental difference between he and Lady Macbeth; one is totally comfortable within the analogue of a sexless, heartless murderer, while the other is not.

But if Lady Macbeth cannot inhabit the same plane of unrepentant falsity as Richard can, then how is it a female Richard can?

I believe it has to do with the nature of each of their unsexings; whereas Lady Macbeth declares herself unsexed, it is Richard who has been treated as a lump of filth for perhaps his entire life. Lady Macbeth remains a social creature, but Richard has forsaken society for something darker and richer.

Whatever Richard does is within the bounds of the thing he has been made into, and his ambition is borne out of revenge against everyone. Lady Macbeth seeks social advancement, and at some point realizes that she cannot enjoy the fruits of her labour while she has the evidence of her uncivil practice on her hands. She has sacrificed social constructs for society's sake, and it is a paradox she can't consolidate.

Richard thus remains in control because his goals are just as extreme as his means. A female Richard, who would have already flouted several conventions of her gender by this point, is even more in control because of it.

And we'll talk about Richard as a sociopath next week. If exams don't kill me first.

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