Our next Gospel According to Shakespeare class is tonight -- and we're doing Richard III. So, I'm putting down a few thoughts and themes that I hope to discuss with the group -- your feedback and thoughts are welcome as well (as an aside, you might also check you my Squidoo Lens on Shakespeare and Christian themes -- if you come across good resources, I'll be glad to add them to the lens).
That said, let's look at some thoughts on Richard III
Appearance of Godliness
Richard is one of Shakespeare's most seductive villans -- he takes many of his characteristics (such as playing to the audience, openly admitting his villany to the audience, seduction, subtlety, and a love of destruction) from the Medieval stock characters of Vice, Avarice, the Devil -- all from the morality plays. Shakespeare's genius is in taking the flat stock characters and breathing life into them -- and here he does it in spades with Richard.
One aspect of Richard's vice is his duplicity -- his ability to be one thing and seem entirely another. This is best seen in Act III scenes 6 and 7 where he is courting the officials of London. Buckingham the conspirator is prepping the Mayor of London, saying that Richard is
...on his knees at meditation;
Not dallying with a brace of courtesans,
But meditating with two deep divines;
Not sleeping, to engross his idle body,
But praying, to enrich his watchful soul.
Richard then emerges flanked by two clergymen, begging pardon for having been at prayer so long. It is the classic picture of religiosity used cynically to advance the causes of power. One thinks of Saul in I Samuel 15 -- after Samuel announces God's rejection of Saul as king, Saul begs that Samuel come back and bring honor to him before men. He wants the holy man to bless him before the people. I also think of Matthew 23 -- Jesus' pronouncements of woe upon the Pharisees and teachers of the law -- see verse 27 "You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean." Or perhaps John 10, when Jesus talks about being the good shepherd of the flock -- he contrasts with the theif who comes to kill and destroy and the wolf that comes to devour the sheep.
Richard's duplicity and relentless God-talk remind us that evil often masquerades in the church.
Psychology of Evil
Richard's opening speech lays out his intent. Now that war has ceased and peace has arrived, it is the time for love, merry making, and rebuilding. Richard says that he is not cut out for such things (though in the rest of the play he shows himself adept at seduction, play-acting, and vanity of his physical appearance -- quite simply he lies here saying he's not cut out for these things):
I am determined to prove a villan
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
No other explanation than this. No psychologizing here -- no wrongs done in the past. Richard destroys for the sheer delight of sowing mischeif and chaos and destruction. This becomes clear again in Act V as he urges his men on to fight:
Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls.
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!
March on, join bravely, let us to it pell-mell,
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.
Evil here is blind and bent on destruction -- it carries the distillation of how Paul describes wrath in Romans 1:28ff or perhaps Peter's description of false teachers in II Peter 2 (particularly v12 "But these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish.")
Justice and Conscience
Shakespeare has this very interesting scene the night before the climactic battle where the stage is split between Richmond's camp and Richard's camp. Both are asleep and the Ghosts of Richards victims all parade onstage, taking time to curse Richard and to bless Richmond. Then Richard awakens and gives the only indication that he has a conscience -- he is a man haunted. His villany has taken a toll on his soul. Not unlike Jesus revealing the sins of the woman's accuser's in the sand, the ghosts have revealed the truth of Richard's sin.
Later, Richmond will pray for victory -- with a prayer not unlike that of David before going to meet Goliath.
Like I said, these are preliminary thoughts -- we'll be hashing through them tonight. Look forward to your comments as well.
Soli Deo Gloria