Essay: Shakespeare’s King Richard III and Al Pachino’s Looking for Richard

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  • Subject area(s): English literature essays
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  • Published on: July 15, 2019
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  • Shakespeare’s King Richard III and Al Pachino's Looking for Richard
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Through the study of two distinct texts composed centuries apart, it is evident that an exploration of context and intertextual connections provide a deepened understanding of the shared human struggle as individuals search for their identity and a meaningful purpose in life. Subsequently, human frailty is illuminated through one’s misguided pursuit of power, and unwillingness to change one’s perspective of themselves, others and the world around them. William Shakespeare’s historical tragedy King Richard III (1592) warns of the dire consequences of a disruption to the divine order through the titular character’s struggle for power. As a result of a shift in social and cultural context, Al Pacino’s meta-documentary Looking for Richard (1996) reshapes Richard’s struggle for power to ultimately portray the fragile human condition and invite reflection through the questioning of what dictates a meaningful existence. Hence, both texts together deepen our understanding of the complexities of human nature as individuals face the challenge of finding their purpose in life whilst retaining a sense of compassion and humanity.

The search for one’s identity is underpinned by frailty and vulnerability, especially when individuals exceed the boundaries of their own morality in order to fulfil that search. Shakespeare’s King Richard III depicts Richard’s struggle to attain his desired identity, which results in his duplicitous acts to usurp the throne. Comparatively, the challenge to realise one’s identity is reshaped in Looking for Richard where Pacino’s deconstruction of Richard’s nuanced character is implied by the title itself in “looking”. In the opening soliloquy, Shakespeare’s characterisation of Richard as “deformed, unfinished, sent before [his] time” encompasses Richard’s dissatisfaction with his identity so he is “determined to prove a villain” in order to gain what he deems a meaningful existence. In doing so, Shakespeare allows Richard to embody the tension that existed between providentialism and emerging Renaissance humanism that suggested individuals could shape their own destiny. Further, the duplicitous nature of those pursuing power is exemplified in Act 1 Scene 2 through the stichomythia between Richard and Lady Anne. Here, Shakespeare’s construction of Richard’s sardonic humour through the ironic dialogue “your beauty did haunt me…to undertake the death of the world” encapsulates his ability to manipulate her insults to gain her affection. Similarly, Pacino’s re-enactment of Act 3 Scene 4 reinforces the mainstream portrayal of Richard’s two faced nature and skill in obfuscation through the use of chiaroscuro lighting with the shadows obscuring a part of Richard’s face. In addition, an individual’s acceptance of their identity as a villain makes one vulnerable to the continuance of unscrupulous acts, epitomised through Richard’s order for the murder of his nephews, whereby Shakespeare’s portrayal of Tyrell’s guilt towards “the tyrannous and bloody act” is juxtaposed with Richard’s ignorance and disregard of morality. Thus, a yearning for purpose in one’s life can prompt the execution of psychological manipulations for personal gain, highlighting one’s frailty in the failure to realise that they have sacrificed their integrity and decency. In contrast, the structure of the docudrama incorporates rehearsal scenes where the actors converse through modern vernacular with idioms such as “rubber stamp” and “losing side” so that modern audiences can better engage with the poignant representation of the corrupt nature of power, stripping individuals of their own morality. Moreover, the confluence between Pacino’s persona as actor and director of the film is established through cuts of Pacino in modern attire andshots of him as Richard. By inducing the resonance of Richard’s character within all people, Pacino depicts that humans are inherently flawed; rife with self doubt so people struggle to discover their identity whilst retaining their humanity, reflective of modern existential ideologies. Thus, the desire for a purposeful life influencing one’s decision to perform immoral acts, deepens our awareness of the shared human struggle and one’s inherent vulnerability in the search for identity.

In order to escape the fragile human condition and achieve a meaningful existence, one must recognise the need for compassion and humanity. Shakespeare’s play explores the dehumanising effects of an individual’s complacency when on the path of evil; the unavoidable condition that man suffers as a result of sinful actions reflects the invocations of providence. Additionally, the dire consequences of an unbridled pursuit of power are encapsulated in the lack of humanity endowed in Richard’s culpable character through the metaphor in his soliloquy: “I am so far in blood, that sin pluck on sin” as Richard disregards any sense of decency in order to obtain a misguided sense of purpose. Likewise, the futility of life when an individual no longer sees the need for compassion is elucidated in Looking for Richard as Pacino crystallises Richard’s moral bankruptcy through the comment “he does not have his own humanity. He has lost it.” Also, Shakespeare’s evocation of Richard’s nightmare in which the ghosts of all his wrongs visit him reflects the 16th century belief that dreams were a source of revelation and prediction. However, in Looking for Richard, the burdens on Richard’s conscience are recontextualised through the fluid cuts of Richard being tormented by his nightmares, and an oppressive soundtrack that assaults the viewer, accentuating the heinous reality of a world void of humanity to highlight the need for compassion and decency. Whilst the restoration of the divine order, reflective of the Elizabethan belief in the Great Chain of Being, is expounded through Richmond’s final soliloquy, Pacino recrafts the final scene, utilising requiem music to accompany Richard’s ironic exclamation: “My horse! My horse! My kingdom for a horse!” to underscore his downfall due to his misguidance. Influenced by modern day consciousness and the desire to understand the human psyche, Richard’s enigmatic demeanour and tragic decline inevitably conjures sympathy in the contemporary audience. It is the evocation of such intense human empathy that allows Pacino, through the microcosmic world of Richard III, to highlight the power of Shakespeare to restore compassion and humanity; serving as a reminder of “how to feel”. Thus Looking for Richard is a quest for the Richard within all people; the Richard who accepts his fate and fails to look beyond the present for a meaningful identity. Moreover, the intertextual connections made to Prospero’s soliloquy describing “life [as] an insubstantial pageant” in the first and final moments of the documentary forms the framework of the film and accompanied by the final black shot that evokes reflection, crystallises the idea that life is ephemeral and in order to make it ‘substantial’, it is the role of individuals to place meaning into their lives. Therefore, the recognition of the importance of compassion and humanity allows an individual to change their perspective of themselves, others and the world around them, performing actions that help to achieve an enriching existence.

Ultimately, King Richard III and Looking for Richard together encapsulate the idea that context and intertextual connections provide an illuminated understanding of human frailty as individuals sacrifice their integrity in search of their identity and purpose. In order to escape the fragile human condition and achieve a meaningful existence, one must value compassion and humanity.

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