In his famous opening soliloquy, Richard III remarks on his physical deformity and arrives at what seems like a forgone conclusion: "Since I cannot prove a lover I am determined to prove a villain." This is about as close as Richard -- one of Shakespeare's most opaque villains -- comes to revealing a motive for his deeds. From this speech, one might conclude that he murders everyone in his path because he can't get the girl.
In the very next scene, he proves himself wrong by wooing, and winning, the beautiful Lady Anne. Not only does this fail to end his killing spree, but for Anne, the relationship proves to be a fatal attraction. Which raises the question: Is love really the cure-all that seemingly all of Western culture, including Shakespeare's romantic comedies, would have people believe? For the unfortunate characters in Shakespearean tragedies, the answer is clearly no.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the two dramas presented this summer by The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane. In Richard III, which stars Gavin Mahlie as Richard and Lara Grice as Lady Anne, the sincerity of both parties' feelings might be questioned. But in Macbeth, the company's second production of the season, the intensity of the murderous couple's love is as obvious as its inability to prevent their demise.
In pursuing Lady Anne, Richard is up against more than his ungainly appearance. He has recently killed both her father-in-law, King Henry VI (whom she is mourning when Richard comes courting), and her husband. Not surprisingly, she hurls insults at him -- "hedgehog" is Grice's favorite -- and actually spits at him. Richard cunningly plays on the devout Anne's Christian charity by imploring her to turn the other cheek and forgive him. But what really gets to her is when he blames her for her husband's death: "Your beauty was the cause of that effect: your beauty that did haunt me in my sleep to undertake the death of all the world, so I might live one hour in your sweet bosom."
Besides playing on Anne's vanity, Grice says, Richard's tactic confuses her. "She doesn't see it coming and she doesn't know how to respond. He senses that, and he just keeps going in for the kill." The scene, she says, is a play within a play. "There's a whole arc. There's a catharsis. It starts in one place and ends up somewhere completely different." It's a taxing scene to play, and Grice says she understands why the character is essentially written out of the script afterwards. "The boy who played the role in Shakespeare's day probably said, 'Will, I'll be at the pub. I need a drink.'"
By capitulating to Richard, Anne is saving herself politically. Richard's family has won the War of the Roses, her family has lost, and as Grice says, "her options are few." But Grice holds that Anne is genuinely seduced by Richard's charisma and verbal prowess, as well as his political power. "People are sexy when they tell you you're sexy," she says. As for Mahlie's Richard, he may be slightly moved, but his interest in her is ultimately insincere. "She affects him in the sense that it's a challenge, as in she's not biting on this one so I'd better try something else," Mahlie says, but in the end, "He's just being a good actor."
If Richard III's relationship with Lady Anne might not qualify as love, Macbeth, says director Aimée K. Michel, "is desperately in love with his wife." Why else would a warrior of his stature give in to her demand that he kill the king and usurp the throne, when he himself is clearly ambivalent? Clare Moncrief, who will play Lady Macbeth, concurs: "They are very tight. They have a very physical relationship. Were that not there, he wouldn't listen to her as he does."
Macbeth's career as a Scottish feudal lord is going well. Their marriage is successful. So what sends this couple on a bloody spree that leads them to insanity and ultimately death? Moncrief points to a kind of extreme mid-life crisis. "Some people are bitter about the things they didn't accomplish," she says. "They aren't where they expected to be."
The key factor in those unfulfilled dreams seems to be the couple's inability to produce a male heir. There are clues that Lady Macbeth may have recently lost a child, and this helps give sense to her desperation to be queen. "What's going on," Michel says, "is an attempt to deal with the pain." Macbeth's murderous actions are, in Michel's interpretation, "a desire to please and soothe her at any cost. He needs to do something for this woman that he loves so much."
Theatergoers craving a happy ending might look not to the plays, but to the players. Although Moncrief and Danny Bowen, who will portray Macbeth, have been married for 20 years, they have rarely been onstage together. "I can't wait," Bowen says of the chance to act opposite Moncrief. "Being able to do Shakespeare with talented people -- that's what it's all about. "Especially," he adds, "when one of them is your wife."
- Tricky Dick: Richard III (Gavin Mahlie) says all the right (and wrong) things in wooing Lady Anne (Lara Grice) in The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane's production of Richard III.