Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Good Villain Is Hard to Find

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.

—Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Richard the Third

This week I read in a BBC news story that British archaeologists believe they may have found the remains of King Richard III. They're pretty excited about it. A member of the Richard III Society was quoted as saying, "It is such a tumult of emotions... I just feel happy and sad and excited all at the same time. It is very odd." Odd indeed. First of all, I had no idea Richard III was missing. It seems pretty careless of the English to misplace one of their kings like that. Second—

There's a Richard III Society?

I looked it up. It was founded in 1924 with the goal of setting the record straight about one of England's most misunderstood monarchs. Apparently there is no evidence whatsoever that he was the hunchbacked villain portrayed by Shakespeare, no evidence whatsoever that he systematically murdered members of his own family to get at the crown. Apparently he was just a regular guy (well, regular king) with a touch of scoliosis who was the innocent victim of a vicious slander campaign.

This is so wrong.

The world needs good villains. What good is a hero without one? What would Superman be without Lex Luthor? What would Dorothy be without the Wicked Witch? What would Luke Skywalker be without Darth Vader? (I mean, of course, apart from the obvious fact that he'd never have been born.) What would all of those Disney princesses be without their respective wicked stepmothers?

The answer, of course, is "nothing."

Come to think of it, who needs a hero? There's no hero in Shakespeare's Tragedy of Richard the Third. There is only Richard—one of the greatest villains of all time.

Every actor worth his salt wants to play Richard. Or her salt. In 2003, Loretta and I were fortunate enough to attend a historic all-female production of Richard III at Shakespeare's Globe in London. Kathryn Hunter was simply brilliant as Richard. As one reviewer put it, "Miss Hunter makes a superbly evil King with a wry sense of humour and her gender is never an issue."

That's what's made Richard so appealing to actors and audiences for nearly four hundred years—that perfect combination of superb evil and sly humor.

So please, please, please stop trying to rehabilitate my favorite villain. I'd hate to see him relegated to the status of an ordinary king. I'd much prefer to remember him as Shakespeare's "poisonous bunchback'd toad," with a sense of morality—and humor—as twisted as his spine.

What's more, I think he would prefer it, too.

"A murderous villain, and so still thou art."

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