A Comparison of the Similarities in the Exploration of Ambition and Identity in King Richard III and Looking for Richard

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

‘A deeper understanding of ambition and identity emerges from pursuing the connections between King Richard III and Looking for Richard. Compare how these texts explore ambition and identity.

Al Pacino conveys Shakespeare’s central concerns of the human condition in ‘Looking for Richard’ to discover and create meaningful connections from ‘King Richard III’. The exploration of the pursuit of power and its consequent values in Richard’s character results in a deeper understanding of the very human aspects of ambition and the search for identity, by understanding the elements of theatre and translating them into elements of film Pacino has created connections between Shakespeare’s work and his own in order to establish the timelessness and relevance of Shakespeare’s craft for contemporary audiences.

The pursuit of power is the driving force of Shakespeare’s play, and later interpreted for the contemporary audience in the film, that fuels the events and subsequent examinations of human nature through its protagonist, Richard, who fascinates and horrifies as his ambition gives him fiendish qualities, cementing his claim to ‘prove a villain’.

Within the play, Richard’s driving ambition debased the Elizabethans’ deep-seated belief in the Natural Order and the Chain of Being where everyone had their own specific place in society and the universe. Richard is portrayed as man without humanity, a ‘foul minister of hell’ who is constantly referred to via demonic imagery, a device through which Shakespeare uses with great effect to demonstrate how ambition can alter how society judges an individual’s behaviour and actions. The demonic imagery serves both as political propaganda against Richard and his reign as well as a moral lesson to audiences against violating the Natural Order. Elizabethan audiences are increasingly given inhuman descriptions of Richard as ‘the diffused infection of man’ which ultimately become fitting as he orders the murders of those who trusted and aided him towards his position of power in the latter stages of the play. The most horrifying of the descriptions in Margaret’s observation that ‘from forth the kennel of thy womb…crept a hell-hellhound that doth hunt us all to death,’ these descriptions examine how humanity’s instinctual desire to improve their social standings, particularly in Richard’s case where he, a prince, should have been content with his place in society instead of having grander ideas, essentially demonises them, removing any traces of humanity from them as their ambition is seen to be repulsive and disruptive to the functioning of the all-encompassing Natural Order of Elizabethan society.

Modern society does not abide by a Natural Order or the stringent beliefs against ambition the Elizabethans shared, instead Pacino translates its imagery concerning Richard’s fiendish qualities into cinematic elements to pursue the connections of ‘King Richard III’ and expounding upon them with modern values. Pacino employs the language of film to successfully “body forth dramatically, visually, metaphorically, the corruption of [Richard’s] mind,” by effectively using lighting in scenes where Richard is plotting his schemes in full view of the audience to shroud the character in literal and metaphorical darkness. In shrouding Richard in darkness and only using spotlights to highlight his facial expressions of glee and anger, contemporary audiences recognise that Richard has been corrupted by the pursuit of power and that his body as seemingly blended into the shadows that linger throughout the court like ‘all the clouds that loured upon our house’. In the translation of theatrical dialogue into cinematic elements, the pursuit of power is further demonstrated to be a dehumanising trait that both Elizabethan and modern audiences recognise to be disruptive to society and disfiguring, physically and metaphorically, to the ambitious and their immediate environment.

In both texts, the pursuit of power is linked to duplicity as Richard uses a façade to substitute his own conscience in order to accomplish his goals with efficiency and ruthlessness. It is through the exploration of what the conscience represents that the values of the play and film lead to a deeper understanding of the complexity of the human identity.

Richard in the play contemplates his conscience that ‘hath a thousand several tongues’ after his dreams of his victims wishing upon him to ‘despair and die’. It is within the monologue after his dreams that Richard is at his most vulnerable and truest. Shakespeare exposes Richard as a man defeated morally by his own sins ‘crying all “guilty, guilty”’ as he realises that for all his rebellion against the Natural Order the Order will right itself in his death. In examining the search for human identity Shakespeare reflects the Elizabethan struggle of providentialism VS secularism through his once calculating and confident villain protagonist’s conscience, ‘Do I fear myself? …Is there a murderer here? Richard’s despair to reconnect with his humanity and general disorder apparent in his contrasting answers to his own rhetorical questions, ‘no…yes, I am’ raises the philosophical conflict to the audience’s attention on the topic of Richard predetermined, or determined, choice to ‘prove a villain’. Despite the internal struggle for stability and identity, Elizabethan audiences cannot define Richard’s character accurately as his struggle with his conscience leaves his nature and the philosophical struggle unresolved.

Pacino, however, does not acknowledge the conflict of providentialism VS secularism in ‘Looking for Richard’ as society today is moderately secular in its beliefs on religion and analyses the play’s complex issue from a psychological standpoint. The film presents Richard’s internal struggle through clever camera shots as a psychological conflict between the conscience and the Self where the conscience, converted into a mixture of quick cuts to Richard’s victims and vivid close-ups of Queen Elizabeth’s despair, replaces Shakespeare’s dream scene to provide an effective and efficient representation of the complexity of Richard’s conscience. Pacino further substantiates the differences between the conscience and the Self by rapidly cutting to and from clips of Pacino as Richard at the original theatre where the play was performed and Richard in his room where the scene takes place answering his own questions to create a visual and aural duality to his identity. By translating the Elizabethan conflict of religious philosophy into a psychological one, the universality of Shakespeare’s craft and thematic concerns are made accessible to modern audiences and are given more relevant importance.

The pursuit of power, as interpreted by the two differing contexts of ‘King Richard III’ and ‘Looking for Richard’, produces contrasting perspectives of Richard as a human being.

Ultimately, Shakespeare presents Richard as a villain, so unforgivable that his death begins a brand new chapter in England’s history as Richmond says in his victory speech, ‘peace lives again/That she may long live here’. During Richard’s reign Shakespeare personifies the state as a ‘scarred’ woman, ‘unlawfully made drunk with innocent blood’. These negative connotations of Richard’s control of England, as an abused and trouble woman, and its citizens only contribute to Shakespeare’s assertion that he is ‘a bloody tyrant…one raised in blood and one in blood established’. The play literally represents Richard as sin and evil with no mitigating factors as the Elizabethans believed there was only good and evil in their world, and by extension, aligns ambition with evil as it leads Richard into committing the ‘hateful deeds’ that disrupted the functioning of the Natural Order ruled by God’s providence.

Unlike the play, ‘Looking for Richard’ takes a current view towards Richard by interpreting his character to be systemically flawed rather than naturally evil. Pacino reflects modern society’s fascination with villains by dissecting the nature of Richard’s villainy and emphasising his loss of humanity, “he’s lost it” to present an ambiguous portrayal of a man who wanted to be king. In depicting Richard’s flawed villainy Pacino’s Richard dies honourably in the fight against Richmond, captured and manipulated skilfully through specific camera angles. Despite being forced to his knees in battle, the camera zooms in on the determined expression on Richard’s face while Richmond towers over him in a high angle shot and quickly cuts to his unchanging expression as Richmond deals the final blow from a low angle. The seemingly courageous and honourable death of Richard gives the character a seemingly heroic death in comparison to the celebrated death of a tyrant in the play, completing Pacino’s interpretation of Richard as a man who fought against a predetermined fate to pursue his own desire – a trait a contemporary audience, particularly an American audience, would be sympathetic to.

The two texts, ‘King Richard III’ and ‘Looking for Richard’ expound and explore the importance of ambition and identity through its villain protagonist. These texts rediscover, with Elizabethan and contemporary values, the human condition in its complexity ‘like this insubstantial pageant faded leave not a wisp behind’ as human nature continues to develop past the interpretations of Shakespeare and Pacino’s craft.

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