What to Do about Ghosts, and I and I?

In Act Five, Scene Three of Richard the Third, Shakespeare presents us with parallel views of two men going in opposite directions: the ascending Richmond, and the falling King Richard III.  Both appear on stage, raise their respective tents, and sleep, only to be visited by the ghosts of Richard’s victims.

How do you stage this?

in a film, it’s much easier… it can be more “realistic”… but on stage?

In a proscenium arch theater, you’d have to do them at opposite sides of the stage, one at the right, the other at the left.  In a thrust setting, you might be able to put one upstage, the other downstage.  It’s conceivable that you could put one on the floor of the stage, the other on a raised platform (think balcony for Romeo and Juliet), but in this case, you’ve just made it more difficult for the ghosts to visit both dreamers.

So what to do with those ghosts?  Well, you could cut their communication with Richmond, and have them gang up to attack Richard.  That would allow for the multi-level staging.  But still… How to present them?  Are they portrayed by the actors on stage?  In white?  Like zombies?  Bloodied?

how else could we do this?  ideas?

They could be projected on a screen behind the action, or even a scrim in front of the action (in a proscenium setting).  The projection could be pre-taped or live from back-stage.

Once those ghosts have said what needs to be said and have departed, Richard wakes from the vision, and his speech is packed with performance and directorial goodies.

First of all, it’s a soliloquy.  His first since his one line insult of Elizabeth at the end of their wooing scene in Act Four, Scene Four.  This is his last soliloquy of the play.  More importantly, I’d put forth the proposition that this speech, while earlier soliloquies have been directed at us (or could be played partially to us), is purely to himself.

It begins with three short, half-line sentences: “Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds! // Have mercy, Jesu — ” (V.iii.178-179).  These foreshadow the battle in the day to come; and the first is a direct prophecy to what will happen in the next scene.  He sees himself wounded.  But more interestingly, he cries for mercy.  Is it from the dream warriors from the battle nightmare?  Or is it from the ghosts of the past?  Fantasy or reality?  I would argue the former, the dream, because he admits he “did but dream” (V.iii.179).

He then complains that “coward conscience … dost inflict (him)” (V.iii.180).  But what is this conscience? [definitions from Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0)]

  • Inward knowledge, consciousness; inmost thought, mind.
  • Internal or mental recognition or acknowledgement of something.
  • Knowledge, feeling, sense.
  • Consciousness of right and wrong; moral sense.
  • Good conscience: an approving conscience; a consciousness that one’s acts, or one’s moral state, are right; also formerly, a well-regulated or sound conscience, one which judges correctly (obs.). bad, evil conscience: an accusing or condemning conscience; a consciousness of having done wrong, or of being in a wrong moral state.
  • Practice of, or conformity to, what is right, equity; regard to the dictates of conscience; conscientiousness.

It’s not thinking of what’s right or wrong that “afflict(s)” Richard, it’s simple self-knowledge.  He knows what he’s done (but more on that in a minute).

What time is it?  “It’s now dead midnight” (V.iii.181), he tells us.  Why is this important?  Because it is the beginning AND the end of the day… and the continuation of his oppositional logic.  At this moment, he recognizes his own fears: “What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by” (V.iii.183).  He initially concludes that the must fear himself because there’s no one else there.

There are no ghosts.  There is no audience.  We are not there for him to talk to.  He’s talking only to himself.  But he comes to the initial conclusion that he cannot fear himself because “Richard loves Richard” (V.iii.184).  And then comes probably the most important half-line of the speech (if not this final scene):

"that is, I and I" (V.iii.184)

This reading of the line comes from the Quarto edition.  Some critics and editors prefer the Second Quarto’s “I am I”… and while this supports the self-love proclamation of the first half of the line, it doesn’t address Richard’s mental separation of himself FROM himself.  More importantly, I think it misses the point for the remainder of the speech, which is a jumble of confusion, conflicting statements of self-doubt, self-loathing, and self-pity:

Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain. Yet I lie: I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well.  Fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree,
Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree,
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, "Guilty! guilty!"
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me.
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Methought the souls of all that I had murdered
Came to my tent; and every one did threat
Tomorrow's vengeance on the head of Richard.

— V.iii.185-207

Compare this speech with the opening soliloquy, where the sentences build and flow; now Richard is reduced to short, choppy sentences–some less than a line, some even monosyllabic.

Is there a murderer in his tent?  No.  Yes, because he’s there.  If there is a murderer, he should flee.  But from himself?  Yes, because he might revenge himself (suicide?).  No, that can’t happen: he reiterates his love for himself.  But then asks why he should love himself… for any good he has done to himself?  No.  Instead, he hates himself for the hateful deeds he’s committed.  He admits that he is a villain.

well, that WAS his goal from line 30 of this entire play, now wasn’t it? … hang a banner: Mission Accomplished

He then backtracks: he’s not a villain, and he should not say such things.  On the other hand, he should not flatter himself, either.  Not when his conscience (again, conscience: inner thought, self-knowledge) has a thousand separate and distinct (“several”) tongues, and each of those voices can give a separate and distinct testimony, and each testimony condemns him as that villain that he has just denied.

if we, as an audience, were once the inner-knowledge with which he conversed, then are we his conscience?  the thousands of us gathered in the theater would all have a different testimony on his villainous actions…

I use the term “testimony” here purposefully, because in the next four lines–lines in which there is none that is perfectly iambic pentameter–this legal metaphor comes to fruition:

 /  ~ /   /  ~ /  /   ~   /  ~    ~  /
Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree,
/  ~     ~    /  ~   /   ~   =/==   ~  /
Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree,
~   / =~=   /     ~   /   ~   /    ~   /
All several sins, all used in each degree,
/    ~  ~   /     / ~   ~     /   ~   /   ~
Throng to the bar, crying all, "Guilty! guilty!"

Jumbled rhythms (almost sing-songy in that first line), swallowed syllables, feminine endings, all point to emotional conflict.  Even as there are thousands of voices of conscience condemning him in his own head, his crimes in the external world, too–the murders and perjuries–rush to the court (“the bar”), all with the verdict of guilty.

He has no choice, then, but to despair.  No creature (not humans, nor the dogs who bark at him) loves him, and because of this, he knows that when he dies no soul will pity him.  He realizes that there is no reason for him to be pitied by others when he cannot find himself able to pity himself.  And there the speech seemingly ends, with his admission that he “thought” he saw ghosts in the night… now a mere afterthought to the real thinking: his self-condemnation.

It’s interesting how this speech calls back to some of his speeches with his three main female verbal sparring partners:

  • “Fool, do not flatter” (V.iii.193) calls back to Anne telling Richard, “Since you teach me how to flatter you…” (I.ii.223)
  • “Find in myself no pity to myself” (V.iii.207) calls back to Anne telling Richard, “No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity” … with Richard responding that he “know(s) none” (I.ii.71, 72)
  • “Tomorrow” (V.iii.207) calls back to Elizabeth’s refutation of Richard’s attempt to swear by “the time to come” (IV.iv.387)
  • “For any good // That I myself have done unto myself? // O, no, alas, I rather hate myself” (V.iii.188-190) calls back to Elizabeth’s response to Richard, “Thyself is self-misused” (IV.iv.374)
  • Richard’s decantation of “conscience” and his allusion to the “souls of all that (he) had murdered” (V.iii.194, 205) call back to Margaret’s curse on Richard that the “worm of conscience still begnaw (Richard’s) soul… while some tormenting dream // Affright thee with a hell of ugly devils” (I.iii.221, 226-227)

By speech’s end, Richard is reduced to a man who is so divorced from himself that he can objectively discuss the vengeance to befall the man he once was.

The old Richard is dead… long live (not so much) the new Richard.

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