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Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  Oil Paintings on Shakespearean Themes

# 115 "THE TRAGEDY OF RICHARD III"
Description of Painting - Oil on canvas 26" x 36"
by Hannah Tompkins

 

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"A Plea for Pity and Compassion"
This was Shakespeare's first tragedy written in 1592 at age 28.

First of all, the title character, as portrayed, has little resemblance to the historical figure. The dramatic personality and the play should be considered as pure fiction.

It shows a man in pursuit of power and unfolds his methods of achieving it.
The fascination with Shakespeare's works is that he tells not only the "what" but also the "why" of human behavior. He calls this work a "tragedy".
TRAGEDY: "The irrevocable sadness on the death or destruction of something that should have been better but never realized its potential, and in its fall destroys all that is near it."
Richard is tragic. His ambition and destructive energies are generated from frustration and rejection. His pursuit of power through violence is a sort of revenge on life for the loss of love. He confesses:
"I, that have neither pity, love nor fear...
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word 'love' which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me: I am myself alone."
     (King Henry VI.Pt.3 V.vi.)
He can suppress but not erase his dependency on human love and pity. Worst of all is the agonizing rejection from his own mother. In her last words to him before he leaves for the final battle encounter at Bosworth, she says:
"Thou camest on earth to make the earth my hell.
A grievous burthen was thy birth to me..."
She then wishes him death in battle so she may never look upon his face again, and concludes with"
"Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end;
Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend."      IV.iv.
The night before the battle he wakes from a dream hallucination and pleads:
"Give me another horse: bind up my wounds; Have mercy Jesu--"
The horse is an ancient symbol of the running stream of unconsciousness on which the consciousness rides. Sometimes it was equated with the soul, hence the double meaning in Richard's
" A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse."
He makes a long soul-searching speech, lacerated by his conscience, he sums up his past deeds:
"All several sins, all used in each degree
Throng to the bar, crying all 'Guilty, guilty';
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me; And if I die, no soul will pity me ..."      V. iii.
Thus he is shown in the painting, pleading with outstretched hand, rising out of a huge egg, set precariously on a cliff's edge; symbolizing maternal rejection; that he was "hatched" and not born.

On the lower left are the murky waters of Acheron and Cocytus, the rivers of woe and lamentation in Hades.

Suspended above them are the many doors of human bonding and fraternity that were closed to him.

The massive disproportionate crown signifies the futility of power pursuit. It encloses three suns, mentioned by Richard in Henry VI (Pt.3 II.i.)
"Three glorious suns*, each one a perfect sun;..
Now they are but one lamp, one light, one sun."
It is this one light that halos his head, in a final spiritual redemption.

*Note: This is the written form of the word in the text but in the spoken form it comes off as a play on words or "three glorious sons.." , for of the eight sons born to the Duke of York, only three were living at the time of the play's setting. They were Edward, the eldest, Clarence, and Richard, the last and youngest, who bore his father's name.

FIN


Copyright © 1990 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved.

 

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