Monday, March 25, 2013


I recently watched the BBC Biopic on Daphne DuMarier, *Daphne* (2007), which dramatizes her bisexuality; her seemingly passionless marriage; her unrequited love for Ellen Doubleday, her publisher’s wife; and her affair with actress Gertrude Lawrence, as well as her writing career from the plagiarism trial over Rebecca to the writing of her short story “The Birds.” (
It had been a long time since I had read Rebecca (1938), so I watched the Hitchcock film to refresh my memory (1940).  According to Wikipedia, the film is fairly faithful to the novel with a couple of exceptions, namely changing the death of Rebecca from a murder by her husband to an accidental fall when he angrily confronts her and changing the character of Mrs. Danvers to make her younger, more mysterious, and more, well, lesbian. 
My own interpretation of the film version of Mrs. Danvers was that she was almost pathologically loyal to Rebecca and resentful of the second Mrs. de Winter, to the point of wanting to get rid of the second wife, almost like a child who hates her step-mother.   Mrs. Danvers is presented as unambiguously evil.  She always wears black and displays a malignant expression.  If you read her as lesbian, it could be because in those days the stereotypical lesbian was often a vampirish predator.
I don’t remember the novel well enough to speculate on whether this lesbian association could be found in the original text, but du Maurier may have seen her own same-sex attraction as evil, or at least, deviant.  In any case, her diaries reveal that she saw two sides to her own personality: the conventional wife and mother and the hidden male lover that energized her creativity. (
What if Rebecca were an expression of these two sides of her psyche?  Why is the narrator of the novel (the second Mrs. de Winter) unnamed?  Why is a crucial scene in the plot based on a costume that both Rebecca and the narrator wear?  Why does Rebecca herself have two sides to her personality: her public image as the beautiful, elegant wife of Maxim de Winter and her hidden side of sexual promiscuity, selfishness, cruelty, and deception?  Identity is clearly a prominent theme.
The unnamed second Mrs. de Winter is young, inexperienced, and na├»ve, compared to the sophisticated, worldly, and manipulative first wife, Rebecca.  The second wife could represent the conventional wife and mother identity that Daphne du Maurier presented in public, while Rebecca represents what du Maurier saw as her dark side of forbidden desire, sexual transgression, and duplicity.
So, why is the “good wife,” so to speak, unnamed?  Is that the author’s way of erasing her conventional self?  Is Rebecca’s death a way of symbolically killing off the dark side?  Does the novel express an identity conflict?  Does du Maurier unconsciously, if not consciously, reject both sides of her personality?
A Freudian or psychoanalytic critic would have no problem answering in the affirmative, and, I must say, I find that interpretation persuasive.
If Mrs. Danvers’ attachment to Rebecca, even after death, is read as lesbian, then her burning down of Manderly could perhaps represent the destructiveness that du Maurier saw, or feared, in her hidden desires.  Fire, of course, also represents the heat of passion.  Danvers’ own death in the conflagration may express du Maurier’s fear of her own self-destructive passion.  Is that why she retreated for the rest of her life into her conventional marriage after the death of Gertrude Lawrence?
On the other hand, her own words attribute her creativity to the “male lover” within.  Perhaps she was aware of the Freudian theory that repressed desire will manifest itself indirectly, often in creative work.  Perhaps it is safer to speculate, since speculation it is, that du Maurier was ambivalent about her same-sex desire, seeing it as potentially destructive if acted out and a source of energy if channeled into creative work.
I pose this interpretation tentatively and interrogatively because psychoanalytic criticism is often viewed skeptically as a form of practicing psychology without a license and pathologizing an author one has never met or interviewed.  Yet literature is a form of fantasy, and fantasy is often an expression of what has been sublimated, repressed, or denied.  I will leave it to my readers to conclude whether the parallels between du Maurier’s own autobiography and the novel are valid and significant.
Other ways of reading the novel include the gothic fear of irrationality and death and the age-old pattern of initiation, or coming-of-age, in which the “innocent” second wife comes to terms with the evil in the world, including, in her case, the knowledge that she loves, marries, and ultimately protects a murderer.  In either case, our narrator could be nameless the better to represent a universal human experience.  Neither of these readings is inconsistent with the other nor with the psychoanalytic interpretation.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Richard III as Tragedy

Shakespeare’s Richard III is categorized as a History Play (see previous post), but its official title is The Tragedy of King Richard III.  Given its deliberate distortion of historical fact and its well-established role in Tudor propaganda, perhaps it does make more sense to read the play as fictional tragedy than historical dramatization.  But how to turn a monstrous villain into a tragic hero?  This is where Shakespeare’s brilliance shows itself in this work.

Shakespeare’s tragedies grew out of the history plays, and it was not impossible for a tragic hero to have villainous qualities.  Consider Othello, who murders his wife, or Macbeth, who sinks deeper and deeper in blood as the play unfolds.  But the essence of tragedy involves a hero for whom the audience can feel some sympathy.  Othello is cruelly manipulated and urged on by Iago, as Macbeth is by Lady Macbeth.  The classical tragic hero is a larger than life character with great potential, whose tragic flaw leads to his (or her) downfall.  In the case of Othello, it’s jealousy and in the case of MacBeth, “vaulting ambition.” 

In some ways Richard III could be seen as a trial run for Macbeth, since ambition and lust for power are Richard’s downfalls, but no one eggs him on.  He is a larger than life character who simply chooses to get rid of anyone who stands in his way to the throne.  The classical tragic hero evokes “pity and fear,” pity for the hero and fear that, as human beings with our own flaws, we could fall as they do.  How to create sympathy for a purposeful villain like Richard?  How to make him a character that the audience can identify with?  And how to do so, and at the same time curry favor with your Tudor monarch by perpetuating the myth of Richard as a complete monster?

Shakespeare solved this problem by subtly psychologizing Richard as an unloved and unlovable man whose desperate desire for love twists him into a criminal.  His deformed body is merely an outward sign of a misshapen psyche, which becomes what it most hates.  And, tragically, Richard is fully conscious of his own depravity.

This theme is introduced in Richard’s opening speech: 

“But I…that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty/To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;/I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,/Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,/Deform’d, unfinish’d…/And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/…I am determined to prove a villain…”

The idea of “dissembling nature” that has cheated him of a normal life continually recurs.  Margaret, widow of the lately dead King Henry VI, attacks Richard as a “slave of nature” and “son of hell.”  She goes on, “Thou slander of thy heavy mother’s womb!/And loathed issue of thy father’s loins!”  Richard’s own mother refers to her “accursed womb, the bed of death!” and refers to Richard as a “cockatrice” that she has “hatch’d to the world.”  Later she gives him her “most grievous curse.”  Richard is literally denied a mother’s love. 

And in the end, Richard struggles with his own self-loathing:  “Richard loves Richard…/O no! Alas, I rather hate myself…/I shall despair; there is no creature loves me,/And if I die no soul will pity me.”  Ironically, however, it is hard not to pity this man, alone in the end, facing the defeat he has brought on himself, having been deprived of a normal body, a mother’s love, and a healthy life.

Of all the murders Richard is accused of in the play, the worst is that of the two sons of his brother Edward IV, the young princes in line for the throne after Edward’s death.  The rumor was that Richard had had them smothered in their beds while they were supposedly housed in the Tower of London for their own protection. 

Shakespeare takes this image of innocent nature being suffocated and creates a powerful motif that applies to the smothering of Richard’s innocence, as well as to his victims. 

During the War of the Roses (according to Henry VI, Part 3) Richard’s own twelve-year-old brother, Rutland, had been murdered by a supporter of Margaret and Henry VI.  When Margaret confronts Richard with the murder of her husband and son, Richard reminds her of “the faultless blood of pretty Rutland.”  Later, children appear on stage, the son and daughter of Richard’s brother Clarence, grieving their father’s death, and then the two young sons of Edward IV, heirs to the throne before their murder.  A young Page is called on by Richard to name someone who would kill the young princes for money.  Thus are innocence and violence repeatedly linked.

At one point there is a reference to Richard growing so fast “That he could gnaw a crust at two hours old,” as if young Richard had outpaced his innocence and grown into maturity too soon. 

And when the murder of the young princes is described, the smothering of innocent nature is explicitly invoked:

“…thus…lay the gentle babes/…girdling one another/Within their alabaster innocent arms./Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,/…a book of prayers on their pillow lay…/…We smothered/The most replenished sweet work of Nature/That from the prime creation e’er she framed.”

Richard’s own childhood innocence, the text implies, had been stolen from him by his deformity from birth and the blood of family history, all of which culminates in a twisted psyche that substitutes the brutal pursuit of power for the love he has been denied and that ends as the victim of its own self-loathing.

Richard III is not only a tragedy of love and innocence, but also a tragedy of conscience.  When Richard’s innocence was smothered, his conscience was also suffocated. 

Early on Margaret curses Richard: “The worm of conscience shall begnaw thy soul!”  Later his mother and Elizabeth, mother of the young princes, seek to “smother” him with “the breath of bitter words.”  The ghost of Prince Edward, son of Henry VI, speaks to Richard using the same image of suffocation: “Let me sit heavy on thy soul…”  When the ghosts of all his victims appear, and speak, and disturb his sleep, Richard is temporarily stricken with the pangs of conscience:  “My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,/…And every tale condemns me for a villain.”  Yet, even while conscious of his own guilt, he resists:  “Conscience is but a word that cowards use.”

Shakespeare’s texts are saturated with the theme of love and death, and in Richard III, we see lust transformed into the desire to destroy.  Scenes of courtship alternate with scenes of murder, just as Richard’s longing for love is perverted by his sense of being unloved and unlovable.  He mocks the value of love because he feels he cannot have it.

Ultimately, Richard’s tragedy reaches beyond himself.  Frequent references in the play evoke dark depths of history, time, events, and human psychology beyond the control of even such a larger-than-life character as Richard.

The opening lines suggest a tempest temporarily over, a stormy sea, and ocean depths.  Clarence’s dream takes place at sea, expresses his fear of drowning in “the tumbling billows of the main,” and calls up images of secrets in the deep.  As Hastings is taken to his own beheading, he bewails the “fatal bowels of the deep.”  Elsewhere, there are references to the “mighty sea” and the “swallowing gulf/Of dark forgetfulness and deep oblivion.”  Despite Richard’s dominance in the action of the play, there is that pervading sense that he too is caught in the roiling sea of life and in the ocean depths of his own unconscious urges.

Thus does Shakespeare turn this play, not only into Tudor propaganda that paints Richard III as a monster of history, but also into the transcendent tragedy of a character trapped in a catastrophe of his own making and in a universal human dilemma beyond his own making.

So what does Richard III tell us about the criminal mind?  It seems to suggest that destructive acts (both physical and verbal), assault, aggression, and abuse grow out of a deep-seated, unhealed wound.  Those who harm others have themselves been deeply hurt.*

*For the bulk of this commentary I am heavily indebted to my graduate school Shakespeare professor Dr. Gerald Chapman.  (Gerald Chapman, Professor of English Emeritus, University of Denver, scholar of Renaissance and 18th-century English studies, Department Chair for twelve years, has also taught at Northwestern, Harvard, and the University of Texas.)

Richard III as History

One need look no further than the Academy Award nominations of 2013 to note the controversy that often surrounds dramatizations of historical events and personages. I’ve seen Argo, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, even Lincoln questioned and debated as representations of history. 

In our postmodern world, we recognize that not even professional historians are completely neutral and objective in their accounts.  Why would we expect that of artists, playwrights, and film-makers?  Indeed, perhaps the value of historical dramatizations lies in their stimulation of interest and conversations about what we think we know about the past.

Similarly, real life events can spark interest in art.  I was fascinated by the recent unearthing of Richard III’s skeleton, which had lain undiscovered since 1485, not only by the archeological dig itself and the process of identifying the remains, but also by the efforts of the Richard III Society to rehabilitate his reputation after the damage done to it by previous historians and especially by William Shakespeare.  The news sent me back to the play, which I had studied in my graduate Shakespeare course, as well as to my undergraduate English history text and lecture notes.

I realized that, having both read the play and seen it in production, I had had my image of Richard shaped more by art and drama than by the historical record.  It was only when I reviewed my notes that I remembered my undergraduate history professor making the case that it was Henry VII, not Richard III, who had had the young princes murdered in the Tower.

Not only did I reread the play, but I reviewed the historical accounts.  Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, Vol. II, is particularly valuable since it compares the plot of Shakespeare’s play to what is known about the historical facts.  Shakespeare was clearly more interested in dramatic effect and the approval of the Tudor monarchy that ruled when he wrote the play than he was in historical truth.   Asimov makes a persuasive case that Richard probably did have the young princes murdered.  However, it’s clear from the historical record that it was Edward IV, not Richard, who had their brother, Clarence, murdered.  Asimov also argues that Richard’s ruthless acts to acquire and keep the kingship could be attributed as much to his desire to end the bloody civil wars that had been raging for decades as to his personal ambition.

In any case, while the newly discovered skeleton of Richard III confirms Shakespeare’s representation of him as a “hunchback” (he had curvature of the spine) there is no evidence that he had a withered arm or any other “deformities.”  Likewise, while the historical record shows Richard acting brutally, he was no more a “monster” than other contenders for the throne during the Wars of the Roses or other periods of British or other national histories.  There is also ample evidence that Henry VII, who succeeded Richard, and his Tudor descendants went to great lengths to create the legend of Richard as a brutal monster, both in his appearance and his deeds, who had grand ambition and little to no conscience.

Shakespeare contributed to this legend and added to Richard’s villainous image the traits of wit, irony, and “larger than life” character that marks most Shakespearean “heroes.”   What is fascinating is the way Shakespeare psychologizes the motivation of Richard’s character, such that the play becomes the study of a “criminal mind,” if you will, and of the steady decline deeper and deeper into corruption and blood, until his own treachery backfires and he himself becomes the victim of treason and violence.  (See next post.)

The examination of Richard’s skeleton showed that he had suffered wounds of humiliation after death, such as a thrust through the right buttock and missing feet.  Thus the Tudors and their followers demeaned his corpse as well as his reputation.

Whatever injustices art may inflict on history, at the very least it can engage and challenge us, not only in the drama but ultimately in the quest for truth.  We should never take any account, whether factual or fictional, at face value, but, rather, as the genesis of conversation, debate, and inquiry.  If art does not always represent the truth of history, it does energize us to seek that truth.