Monday, October 29, 2007

Bloody and guilty, guiltily awake

{William Hogarth, "David Garrick as Richard III" (1745)}

Like a good dissertation advisor, Jenny Davidson from Light Reading noted that I left out some Shakespearean ghosts in yesterday's roundup--eleven of them, in fact, who levy curses on their murderer, Richard III, on the eve of his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. It seems appropriate that this most self-dramatizing of villains should suffer a haunting, but like everything else in the play, the ghosts remain overshadowed by the force of Richard's character: next to his evil ingenuity and ruthlessness, no one else seems quite alive--including the dead.

It should come as no surprise that Richard refuses to believe in the ghosts. After all, everyone in his eye is a tool or an obstacle; once they lose the potential to be either, why would they tarry in his sight, alive or dead? No, it must be a dream:
I did but dream.
O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Dream or not, Richard nonetheless rehearses a sort of crisis of conscience:
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Yet there's little sense that the ghosts' imprecations ("Let us be lead within thy bosom") cause him anywhere near the horrors that Banquo's silence provokes in Macbeth. Macbeth, though deeply ruing the irrevocable first step that set him on his murderous path, tells himself that he has no choice but to kill Banquo because,
For mine own good
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as to go o'er.
--which renders Banquo's silent reappearance all the more horrifying, a grotesque proof that though Macbeth may plunge ever deeper into the rivers of blood, the absolving shore will remain forever distant.

Richard, on the other hand, has no false image of a distant day beyond murder--and no lost better self to regret. His crisis of conscience is in actuality little more than a batting about of the concept of his villainy. The ghosts may curse him, but he is proof against curses because there is nothing in him to damage; they lead him to worry not about what he has done but about what others might do--
O Ratcliff, I have dream'd a fearful dream!
What think'st thou--will our friends prove all true?
. Though he claims that the ghosts
Have stuck more terror to the soul of Richard
Than can the substance of ten thousand soldiers
Armed in proof and led by shallow Richmond,
his only real worry is the failure of his designs.

This gets to the heart of why Banquo's ghost is chilling where Richard's chorus of victims is forgettable--and thus of one of the reasons that Macbeth is the far better play. As Mark Van Doren writes,
Richard is never quite human enough. . . . He is only stunning in his craft, a serpent whose movements we follow for their own sake, because in themselves they have strength and beauty.
A ghost, like a reader, needs some flaw in a character to latch on to; a perfect good or a perfect evil leave little for the reader to ponder or the ghost to prey on. If a man be a perfect villain, what levers does a ghost have? What threats are at his disposal? Is it even possible to haunt him at all?


  1. That is a favorite picture of mine, thanks for including it in this interesting post!

    Harold Bloom is rather obsessed with that "What do I fear?" soliloquy, as a sort of clunky early harbinger of miraculous-developments-in-language-of-interiority to come...

  2. I'll have to look into the Bloom, because I had what seems to be a similar thought: the soliloquy is so . . . almost. Richard is almost truly wrestling with himself, but it's never quite convincing, and it's never predicated on there being another way he might choose (or have chosen) to be.

    It reminded me distinctly of the reflections of Milton's Satan, only whereas Satan's self-torment is rooted in knowledge of what he's lost--of what was once good in him--Richard's never gets that far. He simply pinballs between self-loathing and denial, and it never fully works; similarly, the language is far less inventive and vibrant than we'd see in later Shakespeare.

    Side note: Mark van Doren's thoughts on why we watch Richard make me the pleasures of Richard III are like those of a prettty good crime novel: even if the character could be better developed, there's something delectable at the same time in the display of that much skilled villainy.

    Which leads me to a further thought: are ghosts really like con men, needing us to display a weakness before they can do their work? Is the truly content person proof against haunting, as he or she is proof against a con?)