Ian McKellen’s Now is the winter of our discontent

I admire unexpected, imaginative stagings of Shakespeare that are not stunts but that reveal meanings in the original text. There are many such moments in Ian McKellen’s film version of Richard III (1995). He has cut and edited Shakespeare’s text heavily, but his reading is powerful and illuminating.

This clip shows the first 8 minutes, including Richard’s famous opening soliloquy, “Now is the winter of our discontent …” The movie actually begins with a preceding, wordless scene in which Richard murders Edward, Prince of Wales and Henry VI to put Edward IV (“the son of York”) on the throne. That scene vividly conveys that we are in England around 1930. There has been a fascist takeover, involving the military officer corps and the aristocracy, with the royal family as at least titular rulers. And there has been a bloody split among royal factions. The analogy to the Wars of the Roses five centuries earlier is provocative.

The clip opens with quick shots of several buildings that will serve as scenes and symbols in the film. Among others, these include St. Pancras Station, a great Victorian building (transported in the film to Westminster), which is Edward’s seat of government, and St. Cuthbert’s church in London, a fantastic example of late-Victorian Arts and Crafts style architecture, where a “merry meeting” will occur. These buildings stand for the old world (pre- World War I) that is Edward’s. Richard will govern from the fascist-looking, quasi-modernist Senate House building of the University of London. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is a big band rendition of Marlowe’s “Come Live with Me and By My Love,” which nicely marries the music of the 1930s with the language of the 1600s.

Before anyone speaks, we are quickly introduced to all the major characters. To name just a few, the loving Queen Elizabeth is shown playing and dancing with her innocent young son, later to be murdered in the Tower. The King is shown as a sick and aging Edwardian. The Duke of Buckingham is a cigar-puffing magnate, conspiring with the uniformed Richard like a Weimar industrialist with Hitler. Earl Rivers is the dissolute fellow leaving a tryst with a cabin attendant on a Pan Am flight.

Richard’s opening lines are presented as a public speech, not a soliloquy. From “Now is the winter …” to “… fright the souls of fearful adversaries,” he is addressing the court with a toast. (See 5:39 to 6:44 on the video.) These sentences are usually presented as sarcastic–delivered privately by a venomous, hunchbacked villain to himself or the audience. But they are literally words of praise, and in this rendition, Richard addresses them smilingly to the Yorkists.

But then, with “He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber” (line 22), Richard is alone, standing before a urinal and then a men’s room mirror. These are the kinds of private places where we rue our own deformities of body and of spirit. Richard then catches our eye in the mirror, turns directly to the camera, and tells us the truth: that he is “determined to prove a villain.” Throughout the movie, Richard will almost always dissemble to other characters but speak truthfully into the camera. Finally, around line 32, the scene moves to the Thames Bankside where Clarence is being transported to prison, and Richard becomes a narrator of events happening in real time.

McKellen has shrewdly divided the 35-line soliloquy into four rhetorical sections, delineating them with changes of settings and perspective, and thus revealing what I think is the real structure of the speech. The whole film is rich with such insights and recovers some of the original shock value of Shakespeare’s over-quoted but under-appreciated early play.

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