This is an excerpt from Yale professor Joseph Roach’s talk for the Shakespeare Anniversary Lecture Series at the Folger Shakespeare Library in October 2016. Listen to the full recording on SoundCloud.
The most humble or even abject items of material culture—take stage properties, for instance—can speak eloquently about history, if we will only listen carefully to what they have to tell us. That is because their power to symbolize belies their apparent lack of inherent use-value or even their exchange value on any market but that of the imagination.
In my own practice as a stage director, respect for the objects of material culture continually informs the details of my productions, such as the Richard III “straight” that I directed for Yale College Theater in 2013. While we were rehearsing, the malformed skeleton of the historical Richard pushed its way up through the asphalt of a Leicester carpark, like the return of the repressed.
Theatrical tradition, backed by Shakespeare’s implied stage directions, affirms that Richard carries a small dagger constantly on his person, as seen here at the bloody denouement of Act 5. The dagger has come in handy for Richard in many ways. It is his sinister weapon of choice, metonymically standing in for his character, like Brecht’s Mack the Knife. In Act 3, Scene 1, Shakespeare himself provides the documentation when Richard says in an aside, celebrating his own duplicity and murderous intent:
Richard: Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word.
(Richard III, 3.1.83–84)
The Vice was a stock character in medieval morality plays. He entertained audiences with witty banter and shameless menace. He was never seen without his dagger. Richard toying with the dagger, a stage tradition that I respect, proudly claims Iniquity as kin, hence the intensified frisson when the young prince asks his murderous uncle to see the weapon and Richard replies with a smile,
Richard: My dagger, little cousin? With all my heart.
(Richard III, 3.1.113)
Let me point out that a number of real historians have been defeated in their efforts to rescue a kinder, gentler historical Richard from Shakespeare, who unforgettably dramatized him as evil itself. Richard’s apologists, known as the Ricardians, accuse Shakespeare of blindly following Sir Thomas More’s Tudor hatchet job. But the skeleton that came up from the carpark confounded the apologists. The bones bore the forensic evidence of many savage stab wounds made on the corpse—not on the living body, but on the corpse—new evidence that it was not only Sir Thomas More who had an ax to grind.
At the very least, no shadow of doubt remains, pace Ricardians, that Richard’s spine curved from the waist in a severe hump. Stage tradition, not flattering portraits touted by apologists, some real historians among them, carried this fact from the 15th century forward to the present as part of a living repertoire.
The metonymical property dagger, however, needs no exhumation, even though it humbly waited, dulled for safety’s sake, and scored with many blows over time, in the Yale property room weapons chest, to do its vital symbolic work. Richard not only toys with it and wields it in deadly earnest—he is the dagger.