The advantages of being Proteus : five filmed versions of Richard III

UNCW Author/Contributor (non-UNCW co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Bernadette F. Hart (Creator)
The University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW )
Web Site:
John Walker

Abstract: William Shakespeare, through his unique literary voice, tried to make sense of the Renaissance world for his Elizabethan audiences. Since that time, many have been seeking, through adaptation, to make their own cultural sense of his plays. A handful of plays has attracted a great deal of attention in this regard. Richard III, with its plot about the rise and fall of a corrupt King, is the last of Shakespeare’s cycle of history plays about the Wars of the Roses. Because it chronicles the closing of an era, the play might be assigned a place of stable significance. Its title The Tragedy of King Richard III links it with the medieval tradition and encourages attempts to regard it as conventionally and generically finished. Richard has his roots in the tradition of the morality plays’ Vice figure, still followed by many in Shakespeare’s time, and the play fits the pattern of tragedy as defined by Chaucer in The Monk’s Tale. It is a play that, despite the many reasons to settle its meaning, has inspired various actors and directors in the twentieth century. For one thing, Shakespeare endows his characters, especially Richard, with unruly qualities that call for modern adaptation. For another, the provocative “loose ends” that he incorporates into his handling of the historical account keep evoking treatments that, by emphasizing one or another of the ambiguities, escape the neat pattern that fits the play into the historical ending of an era. Richard III was the first film made of a Shakespeare play in the United States. Produced for the screen as a silent movie in 1908, it was a Vitagraph one-reel film lasting ten minutes produced under the general supervision of J. Stuart Blackton, but probably directed by the Shakespearean actor William Ranous. The fact that an American company chose this play as its first experiment in Shakespeare on film emphasizes that, though its subject matter seems to be about a distant period in British History, its themes are nevertheless relevant to quite different eras. Even at this early stage of film making, there seems a compulsion to grab the loose ends of the play and make them the American filmmaker’s own. Richard III was also one of the first plays to be filmed in other countries at the beginning of the twentieth century; those countries include France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. The play has continued to intrigue the film and television world ever since. The power of Richard III to “spin off ” various “special angle” adaptations has been especially evident in the film versions of the second half of the twentieth century. This paper will be an extended, exploratory study focusing on five filmed versions of the play from the second half of the twentieth century. By applying certain theoretical ideas, especially those derived from new historicism, it will attempt to situate the film versions in their cultural contexts. After the introduction, there will be five chapters about each of the films: Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1955); Herbert Ross’s The Goodbye Girl (1977); Jane Howell’s The Tragedy of Richard III (1983); Ian McKellan and Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (1996); and Al Pacino’s documentary Looking for Richard (1996). These films display a number of controversial themes that are raised by the play relating to class, fascism, gender, and war that are especially relevant to the second half of the twentieth century. The paper concludes by discussing what has been discovered about the cultural contexts.

Additional Information

A Thesis Submitted to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in Partial Fulfillment Of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
Language: English
Date: 2009
Looking for Richard (Motion picture), Richard III (Motion picture: 1955), Richard III (Motion picture: 1996), Shakespeare William 1564-1616--Film and video adaptations, Shakespeare William 1564-1616, Richard III--Dramatic production, The Goodbye Girl (Motion picture), The Tragedy of Richard III (Motion picture)
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Richard III -- Dramatic production
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 -- Film and video adaptations
Richard III (Motion picture : 1955)
The Goodbye Girl (Motion picture)
The Tragedy of Richard III (Motion picture)
Looking for Richard (Motion picture)
Richard III (Motion picture : 1996)

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