Friday, July 25, 2014

The Megrim of King Richard the Third

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
— Act One, Scene One The Life and Death of Richard the Third
by William Shakespeare

"The winter of our discontent" is an ornament of Shakespeare's language that has perhaps slipped into a cliché, since it is also a label for an incident in modern British history. (Public sector strikes, inclement weather, and annoyance with the Labour government in 1978 and early 1979, which may — in their sum — have gifted us with Margaret Thatcher.)*

In itself, it is an apt label when 'everything' — public matters, private life, or anything similar — is in a difficult frame of affairs.

N.B.: Laurence Olivier's recitation of the lines is well worth finding on YouTube.


DICKENS argued that there was an intense duality in the era twenty years before the French Revolution** — the times uplifted one attribute and afflicted the interlinked other, like the heat of a fire against a bimetallic strip. The feelings of Shakespeare's king are ambivalent, as well. To the temperament of Richard III, of course, the winter of war had — to take a mixture of metaphors — held for him a heavy silver lining. He finds the lull in intrigue, slaughter, and rise of influence as unlike his natural element as a fruit bat might find the light of day. The entertainment of court life, largely of the uxorious variety, is not for him, due to the isolation caused by his hunchback and to his determination to dare all and do all, winning the throne in preference to any other pursuit.


The evil Richard III of many similar works is likely a misguided depiction if he is lined up alongside the long-dead inspiration; and the dramatic time in the play is adrift in its author's artistic license and there are remaining flaws that might arise from the Elizabethan-era historical understanding. As Richard III enters the stage of his titular play, at any rate, his king is his own brother, Edward IV. This brother had dethroned and imprisoned Henry VI of the Lancastrians.

That taking of the throne transpired in 1461, though Edward was returned to the throne in 1471 after an interregnum. His kinsman — the Duke of Clarence — is in a fatal trap, fingered as a 'traitor,' as the tale of Richard III begins. This might mean that the date of the play's beginning is 1478, if it weren't for the funeral of Henry VI, who had perished in 1471; so we must assume that the entire reigns of Edward IV and Richard III have been telescoped together. The general setting, of course, is the Wars of the Roses.

In his film adaptation (1955), the preamble ***written by Laurence Olivier excuses the fictions that have entered into Richard III; "The history of the world, like letters without poetry, flowers without perfume, or thought without imagination, would be a dry matter indeed without its legends, and many of these, though scorned by proof a hundred times, seem worth preserving for their own familiar sakes." But is an evil figure like 'Richard III' really a figure to immortalize alongside others like King Arthur or leprechauns, who are far less likely to be slanderous creations and far more inspiring in the spiritual vein? — In any case, evil as a foil for virtue is instrumental in many, or all, legendary tales; so legendary heroes might not exist without imaginary villains, or — as John Milton may have found — legends of villains are enjoyable in themselves, too.


* Winter of Discontent (Wikipedia)
** "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," A Tale of Two Cities. [Wikisource]
*** presumably

The Life and Death of Richard the Third (MIT)
Further Sources: "Richard III." Encyclopaedia Britannica (1991)
"George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence" (Wikipedia)
"Richard III (1955 film)" (Wikipedia)

There is a line-by-line reading with Ian McKellen at .
(N.B.: The interactive format is a little tricky. Here is a synopsis; please excuse any errors that I have perpetrated.)
In his treatment, 'sun of York' is a pun on the sun* and on 'son' = member of the house of York. "All the clouds," etc. = that the weather that had been inundating England with rain has flown away from the land.

'Wreaths' = laurels; 'arms hung up for monuments' =  wartime arms** hung over the fireplace, etc., in warless times; alarums*** = the fanfare of trumpets/etc. in war, and 'merry meetings' = cheerful talk. 'Delightful measures' = dancing****.

*Wikipedia offers that the 'sun in splendour' was also in Edward IV's emblem. 
** (Also, guns etc., by the time of the Wars of the Roses. Richard III himself was killed, apparently, with a poleaxe. ["Wars of the Roses," Wikipedia])
*** The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, eds. 5th Ed. Oxford, 1964.:
"[ME f. OF alarme f. It. allarme (all' arme! to arms)"
**** Ibid., "10. poetical rhythm, metre; time of piece of music; (mus.) bar; (arch.) dance, as tread a ~."

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