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October 11, 2004

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My Kingdom For a Horse...Of Course

Okay, so, this time around, Faithful Fiends, my editorial doesn't have anything to do with Pulp.  But at least it has to do with writing -- with Shakespeare, actually.  Be thankful, I was going to write an editorial about Plush Cthulhu...

I was watching a documentary called Looking for Richard, a film done by Al Pacino in which he, and some other high calibre movie stars like Wynona Ryder, Alec Baldwin and Kevin Spacey, got together to put on a performance of Shakespeare's play Richard IIILooking for Richard shows the behind the scenes stuff as they prepare for the play, mixed up with a few scenes showing the end result.

Now, I had never seen Richard III, nor had I read the script.  But like just about everybody else, I knew a few of the lines because they have become such a part of our language.  Specifically, everyone knows about the scene where King Richard runs about Bosworth Field shouting: "A horse!  A horse!  My kingdom for a horse!"  For the first time, I got to see the actual scene in its entirety -- and right away I was struck by something.

It didn't make sense.

Before I go on, here's the scene as Shakespeare wrote it.  It's short, so, read it through and I'll meet you at the other side:

Act V.
Scene IV.—Another Part of the Field.

Alarum: Excursions. Enter NORFOLK and
Forces; to him CATESBY.

Catesby: Rescue, my Lord of Norfolk! rescue,
The king enacts more wonders than a man,
paring an opposite to every danger:
His horse is slain, and all on foot he fights,
Seeking for Richmond in the throat of death.
Rescue, fair lord, or else the day is lost!

Alarum. Enter KING RICHARD.

King Richard: A horse! a horse! my kingdom for
a horse!

Catesby: Withdraw, my lord; I'll help you to
a horse.

King Richard: Slave! I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die.
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain to-day, instead of him.—
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!


Done?  Okay, so the scene is this -- this fellow Catesby sees King Richard has lost his horse and is fighting on foot.  He tells Norfolk that somebody ought to do something and right damn quick.  Enter Richard on foot, shouting his famous line, offering his crown if anyone will get him a horse already.  So far, I get it.  But then what happens?  Catesby goes to King Richard and tells him, if Richard will come with him he will lead the king to a horse.  And Richard refuses!

In fact, Richard rebuffs Catesby, calling him "slave!".  This was the first thing that struck me when I saw Al Pacino's version of the scene.  Catesby offers Richard a horse and Richard refuses it.  Remember that.

Then there was another question.  What was all this about six Richmonds of which Richard had slain five?  The basic plot of Richard III has Richard determined to be made King of England.  This Richmond guy stands in his way, which is why they are duking it out on Bosworth Field.  But there was only one Richmond.  Why does Richard say there are six on the field?

The standard explanation -- as I discovered doing a bit of reading -- is that, in those days, they dressed guys up to look like their leader, presumably to make it harder to kill him in a battle like this (kind of like Nick Fury's "life model decoys").  So there were five guys disguised to look like Richmond and Richard has killed them all and now is looking for the real Richmond.

It's certainly a plausible scenario, but I have to admit, I'm skeptical.  The whole point of a guy like Richmond riding into battle was that he was suppose to lead his soldiers.  Surely, throwing in five look-alikes would wreck the whole process, since no one would know which leader to follow!  Anyway, keep that in mind too.  We'll get back to it.

So what is the "standard interpretation" which people have hitherto given to this scene?  Strangely, I found that everyone agrees it is a brilliant scene and that the "horse" line is a brilliant line, but they all remain remarkably vague about just what it all means!

Before watching Al Pacino's Looking for Richard, I thought I knew what the point of this scene was.  If you'd asked me, I would have said it was meant to show how pathetically low Richard had fallen that he was willing to give up his crown -- the thing he had been fighting for all along -- for a horse.  And most sources I consulted did indeed take this view.  Generally they claimed Richard was willing to give up his crown for a "chance to save his life".  But even here, there were exceptions.  Some critics see the scene as more positive, showing how courageously single-minded Richard was that he was willing to give up his crown and keep fighting even when it was obvious he couldn't win.   (BTW, he dies in the very next scene.)

Admire him, don't admire him -- which is it?  Well, I think, reading the script, it's pretty obvious, Richard does intend to keep fighting, whether he gets a horse or not.  So, the idea that he wants to save his life is just plain wrong.  What he wants to do is KILL RICHMOND!  Whether that is admirable or not is really up to us.

But the one thing that everyone does agree on is that, whatever he wants to do with it, Richard really does want a horse to replace the one he lost.  And that, boys and ghouls, is where I would propose that everyone is wrong and has been wrong for the last four hundred years since Shakespeare first wrote the damn thing!

Look at what Richard says when Catesby offers him a horse.  Richard refuses the horse in no uncertain terms, then says "I will stand the hazard of the die".  Normally, this is interpreted to mean, I will take whatever Fate has in store for me.  But Shakespeare was a big one for puns.  He just loved them to death.  Well, in the horse scene, I think Shakespeare was making a pun.  Richard says "I will stand the hazard of the die", meaning he will "(with)stand" the hazard of the die -- he will accept his fate.  But he also means he will take whatever fate has in store for him while standing on his own two feet.  "Stand" thus has two meanings.  In other words, in no uncertain terms he is telling Catesby that he doesn't need a horse -- he means to keep fighting on foot, while standing.

But, if that is the case, why does he repeat his cry, "A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!" even after he has already told Catesby to bugger off?

To finally answer that question we have to recall that, in the time period in which the play is set, horses were very, very expensive.  They were expensive to buy, to feed and to keep housed in a stable.  They required hiring a groom to look after them and expensive armour to protect them in battle.  They were an investment.  As a result, only the rich knights rode horses into battle.  The army itself was made up of common foot soldiers.  Bearing this in mind, I think Shakespeare was once again using wordplay.  Richard wasn't calling for a horse to replace the one he had lost in battle -- he was looking for a horse because he was looking for a man on a horse.  In other words, a knight.  In other words, Richmond.

Catesby makes the obvious mistake of thinking Richard wants a horse to ride and offers to lead him to one.  But Richard spurns the offer, with the pun "I will stand the hazard of the die" -- meaning, he doesn't want a horse, he will fight standing.  Then he calls for a horse again because he is still looking for Richmond who he knows will be on a horse.

Get it?

This interpretation even explains the business about there being six Richmonds on the field, of which Richard has killed five.  With all the mud and dust, Richard is having a tough time picking out Richmond from the other knights on horseback, and he is simply killing one mounted knight after another, knowing he has to reach Richmond eventually.

This sort of wordplay is called a "synecdoche" (pronounced "sin-EK-doh-kee") where a part of something is used to stand for the whole.  Like calling a car "wheels".  Here, when Richard refers to a horse he means a man on a horse.

Now, I could be completely off base about this.  It's just my theory.  But just think what it means if I'm right.  Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare wrote this clever bit of wordplay thinking the meaning was obvious enough.  Feeling quite proud of himself, on opening night he was elated when the audience obviously really liked the scene.  Only then he realized that no one had actually understood it!  But of course he couldn't very well tell people: "I'm glad you thought it was brilliant, but actually you completely missed the point."  So he smiled modestly and kept his mouth shut -- and took the secret to his grave.  And so, all these centuries, the wordplay has gone unrecognized, hidden there, and we, dear Fiends, are the very first people on the planet to figure it out.  Don't you think that's kind of cool?  (Of course, as my co-editor, "Drooling" D.K., has suggested -- maybe the original audiences did understand the scene, but the meaning was lost in the years since.)

So, you may be asking, what's my point?  No point.  I just thought I'd run it up the flagpole and see who salutes it -- as the man said.  But here's what I wanted to ask you, my dear and faithful followers.  Do me a favour.  If any of you are taking an English course, ask your professor what he or she thinks of this idea.  (Be sure to use the word synecdoche.  It'll really impress them.)  Then email me.  I'd like to know what they said.

Anyway, I guess that's all I've got to say about that.  I know it wasn't about Pulp, but, like another man said, it's better than a kick in the pants.

Next time...Plush Cthulhu!

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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