Tackling Richard III may seem a daunting prospect at key stage 3, but, says Jerome Monahan, film versions of the play serve the Sats scenes well
In Looking For Richard, the 1996 documentary, Al Pacino has a stab at explaining the complex inter-relationships at King Edward IV's court - the launch pad for Richard, Duke of Gloucester's conspiracy to seize the crown.
He starts well but looses the thread when it comes to outlining the hierarchical status of Queen Elizabeth's younger children by Edward IV. "I don't know why we bother doing this at all. I'm confused," Pacino complains. The sequence ends and, bridging the cut, we hear: "but I'm going to give it a try."
It's a scene from which any teacher daunted at the prospect of tackling Richard III as this year's key stage 3 Shakespeare should take heart.
There's no denying the play's potentially bewildering back story - a tale spanning 84 years, one usurpation, four reigns and a 16-year civil war crammed with atrocities and political duplicity.
Perhaps it would be enough just to lay that catalogue before a class, and ask them what state England might be in as Richard steps on stage to indict the uneasy peace that followed the Yorkist victory over Henry VI at Tewkesbury in 1471. What are the legacies of war? What do violent men do when the days of bloodshed are at an end? What do violent men do when they feel themselves "not shap'd for sportive tricks", incapable of channelling their energies into peacetime distractions?
Another tactic might be to discuss the legacies from some of the cruelties of the war - the slaying of Richard's father, the Duke of York, at the battle of Wakefield in 1460, after he had endured a mock crowning on a molehill and the offer of a handkerchief soaked in his young son Edmund, the Duke of Rutland's blood to wipe away his tears (Henry VI Part 3, Act I, scene iv).
And to ensure balance, highlight the bloody frenzy with which Richard and his brothers, George, Duke of Clarence and Edward, stabbed Prince Edward (Henry VI's son) at Tewkesbury (Henry VI Part 3, Act V, scene v). No paragons, any of them. It is this murder and Henry VI's assassination in the Tower that cast some of the longest shadows over Richard III, informing not only Lady Anne's grief, but also the former Lancastrian Queen Margaret's Fury-like condemnations of her enemies.
Dense stuff perhaps, but not sufficient to daunt the QCA, who are to be commended for insisting on a collective dusting off for a play which, I suspect, is rarely encountered by younger pupils in secondary schools.
"When evaluating a new play for KS3," a spokesman explained, "the key criteria it must fulfil are that it is accessible and appealing in terms of its language and themes and likely to be the source for lively and imaginative teaching. It must also be capable of generating a range of meaningful and varied test activities."
Ay - there's the rub. But they do have a point - Richard III has plenty of gloriously theatrical moments likely to generate both huge contention and fun for classes on the route to answering examination questions.
There's Gloucester's bravura courting of Lady Anne even as she mourns over her the body of her father-in-law, Henry VI (changed to the body of her husband Edward in some film versions). And it's unlikely that the National Assessment Agency will ignore the murder of Clarence in the Tower - a scene that pits the victim in an appalling battle of wills with his waivering assailants. Finally, the parallel rhetoric of Richard and Richmond's pre-Bosworth battle speeches to their armies in Act V are perfect for performance and close comparison.
Meanwhile, what's on the menu this year? Helpfully, the stipulated scenes include the opening of the play, with Richard's malevolent manifesto expressed in soliloquy and the irony-packed exchanges with his brother Clarence, the latter headed for imprisonment and death. The other scene is from Act III and sees Richard at his zenith, pulling off his coup d'etat, seemingly at Buckingham's instigation and despite the decidedly lacklustre support of London's citizens.
This second scene is an ideal means of giving students a crash course in political manipulation and stage-managing. As Richard poses in an elevated position alongside "clergymen", the Duke of Buckingham exhorts the Mayor and citizens to believe an impossible catalogue of infidelity and promiscuity that renders all Richard's remaining rivals illegitimate. It's a scene as fresh and as relevant as ever in these days of photo opportunities and politicians' artful invocations of God's authority as cover for their expediency.
Richard III is frequently cited as proof positive of Shakespeare buying into contemporary propaganda discrediting the rulers during the previous century's civil war years and celebrating Elizabeth I's grandfather Henry Tudor, Duke of Richmond's victory over Richard at Bosworth as the beginning of good times again for England (the Tudor Myth). Certainly Richmond emerges as a paragon of virtue next to his devil-like adversary.
But it is the misleading of the Lord Mayor and citizens scene, and Act III Scene 6 in which a Scrivener contemplates the paperwork prepared in advance of Hastings' execution - suggesting his fate was sealed long before the meeting held to sound out his views of Richard's enthronement - that underline the generic interrogation of power and corruption that's present in the play. To modern ears and eyes, it is these lessons that have the potential to overshadow the plays' end whatever Richmond may say about the return to "smiling plenty and fair prosperous days".
l The Plantagenet Family Tree www.royal.gov.ukfilespdfplantage.pdf The Wars of the Roses www.fifteenthcentury.netbattles.html
Jerome Monahan is writing a study guide to teaching Richard III using film for Auteur Publications due out inext spring .
* Get students to create a living family tree of the House of York (plus a little offshoot to encompass the Grey family, Elizabeth Woodville's first husband). Help children appreciate the relationships between the characters and get some handle on the various Edwards that pepper the play.
Act it out
Explore Richard's opening speech using an active-Shakespeare approach, chorus-reading the speech word-by-word around a whole-class circle and indicating its contrasting pattern of wartime and peacetime images with gestures. Act out the scene, alluded to by Richard, in which he managed to convince Edward his brother that someone related to him with a name beginning with "G" is likely to prove the murderer of his heirs. In Looking for Richard, Al Pacino (above) opts to alter "G" to "C" in an effort to make it more explicit the conspiracy is aimed at his brother Clarence.
Sadly, this misses the point that "G" while hinting at George (Clarence's first name) also foretells the danger posed by Richard himself - the then Duke of Gloucester.
It's the kind of delicious irony with which both this and the later coup d'etat scene are crammed. Make the ironies explicit, by setting students the task of representing the true meaning of what Richard is saying as he deceives Clarence or warns both Buckingham and the Citizens that Richard is unworthy of the throne.
Put the three contrasting film version of Richard III to good use. All serve the first of this year's Sats scene well, though both Olivier (1955) and McKellen (1996) borrow lines from Richard's equally conspiratorial speech at the end of Henry VI (Part 3) Act III, scene ii. It will be interesting to see which of the representations of Richard seem most effective to students, particularly if they consider the play's descriptions of him before seeing him realised on screen. Looking for Richard is particularly helpful in that it takes its time explaining the world of the play and is unabashed in its use of frequent cuts to illustrate the characters referred to in key speeches.
Meanwhile, Olivier is the most faithful to the coup d'etat scene - ending it with a wonderful Quasimodo like descent down a bell rope - subverting the religiosity of what has just gone before.